One Common Cause of IBS (Irritable Bowel Syndrome)
Most people have experienced an upset stomach at least once in their lifetime, perhaps after eating too much ice cream or rapidly consuming a heavy meal. The symtoms are predictable: bloating, gas, abdominal pain or discomfort, diarrhea or loose stool, and even nausea or vomiting. For most people, these symptoms are short lived and self limiting. For others, they are a constant issue that interfere significantly with their quality of life. A few of these people will seek medical advice, and will likely be worked up with blood tests, breath tests, and other imaging of the gastrointestinal tract. Diagnoses like lactose intolerance, celiac disease, crohn disease, and infections will be examined for [and ruled out]. The vast majority will have no postitive findings, and be given the diagnosis of Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS).
Several treatments by various health care providers may be suggested, including everything from mindfulness meditation, liver “detox”, probiotic supplements, digestive enzymes, or even food “sensitivity’’ testing. While some of these may provide temporary relief, or no relief at all, none are adressing the cause of the symptoms of a majority of patients with IBS.
It is important to note that IBS is still largely a diagnosis of exclusion, which means it is a label used to describe symptoms which have no known underlying cause. That is until recently, as researchers are beginning to discover a potential mechanism for explaining a large percentage of cases of chronic digestive disorders like IBS.
It all comes down to gut bacteria, of which there are as many cells in and on our bodies as our own human cells. We are hopelessly dependant on these microscopic creatures who inhabit our intestines, and cover our skin for numerous bodily processes including digestion, the absorption of nutrients, the production of vitamins, and the regulation of our immune system. All of this means that these tiny bacteria are an essential part of a healthy balance that allows us human beings to thrive in our environments.
However, like most things in life, a delicate balance must be achieved for optimal health and function. When certain species of bacteria are out of balance with other species, or grow in the wrong part of the digestive tract, this causes problems. This is precisely what research is showing with regard to functional gastrointestinal (GI) disorders like IBS. Bacteria seem to be overpopulating certain areas of the digestive tract where they should not be, thus causing symptoms. Often times this takes place in the small intestine, where we normally have relatively low concentrations of bacteria. When bacteria overgrow, they continue to carry out their normal digestive functions, only in a location that is not ideal for digestion. The fermentation initiated by bacteria in these “foreign” locations causes symptoms of abdominal discomfort, gas, bloating, and changes in bowel patterns. Researchers have discovered this by examining the concentrations of different bacterial species throughout the digestive tract, and found a significant degree of correlation between higher levels of bacteria in the small intestine in those with IBS. For the first time researchers have provided a solid theory by which symptoms of IBS are caused, and it all comes back to our lovely, friendly, and also sometimes pesky bacteria.
Fortunately for patients and clinicians, relative levels of bacteria throughout the GI tract can be assessed easily by means of a simple, non invasive breath test. Furthermore, studies show a significant decrease in symptoms when treated effecively with evidence based dietary adjustments and anti-microbial compounds that directly affect bacterial balance. By restoring the balance of bacterial growth, the cause of the symptoms are addressed directly. Often times, foods that were once intolerable are no longer so, or may be consumed in moderation. Patients often experience significant relief relatively quickly, which further confirms the diagnosis of bacterial overgrowth. Finally, long term relief is achieved by dietary monitoring and emphasizing lifestyle practices which promote a healthy gastrointestinal tract with healthy happy gut bacteria!
Dr. Sheldon Bjorgaard, BSc., ND, is a licensed Naturopathic physician in British Columbia. He practices out of Selkirk Naturopathic Clinic in Maple Ridge and Arc Integrative Medicine in Delta, where he focuses on using evidence based naturopathic medicine to resolve functional gastrointestinal disorders like IBS.