Irritable bowel Syndrome. Is bacterial overgrowth the missing link for treatment?

Irritable bowel syndrome is the most common chronic digestive problem. Characterized by abdominal pain, gas, bloating and irregular bowel habits, for many it can be debilitating leading to anxiety and social isolation at its extreme. Up to 20 percent of the population suffers from IBS. Despite its prevalence, there remains a poor understanding of the causes. Treatment is often ineffective leading to frustration from both the patient and doctor. Because IBS can be worsened by emotional factors, there remains a stereotype that it is mainly a psychological problem. Recently there has been a growing body of research indicating that bacterial overgrowth in the small intestine may be an underlying cause for many with IBS.

Bacteria is abundant in your colon and has many important health-promoting properties. For example, gut bacteria aid in digestion and provide many essential nutrients such as vitamin K. Problems begin to arise when bacteria migrate up into the small intestine, which is not supposed to have high levels of bacteria. Most of your nutrients are absorbed in the small intestine so when bacteria from the colon find their way into the small intestine they begin to feed and overgrow producing an abundance of gas and accompanying gut disturbance.

Because the small intestine is the site of absorption of nutrients, gas produced by bacterial overgrowth is absorbed into the bloodstream. This can lead to many systemic symptoms such as brain fog, aches and pains, and fatigue. The gas from bacterial overgrowth can be detected in your breath.

Some clues that your IBS symptoms may due to bacterial overgrowth include:

  • Bloating and gas. Flatus and/or belching.

  • Gas and bloating after certain foods high in sugar or wheat

  • Bloating after certain probiotics

  • IBS symptoms that seem to get better with antibiotics

  • Malabsorption problems causing nutrient deficiencies. Chronic anemia, B12 and folate deficiencies.

  • Fibromyalgia

  • Brain fog and memory problems

  • Heartburn and indigestion

  • Chronically low ferritin

Some causes of bacterial overgrowth in the small intestine include:

  • Antibiotics

  • GERD or heartburn

  • Use of heartburn medications

  • People with low stomach acid are at risk because acid in the stomach kills off bacteria in the small intestine.

A simple breath test, along with a full medical evaluation, is used to identify bacterial overgrowth in the small intestine. In patients identified with bacterial overgrowth, treatment can lead to a dramatic reduction and often elimination of IBS symptoms. If you suffer from IBS and have not responded to any treatment, bacterial overgrowth should be explored. Testing can be done at Perceptive Health, Naturopathic Medical Clinic.

By Nathan Jeffery, BSc, ND.

Adapted from Dr. Jeffery's orriginal editorial in the Campbell River Mirror