What is SIBO? SIBO stands for small intestinal bacterial overgrowth. It’s the cause of many different health problems including irritable bowel syndrome (IBS). Learn more about what SIBO is, the symptoms of SIBO, and how to test for SIBO in this post.
Have you heard of SIBO? Don’t worry if you haven’t. Many doctors still aren’t familiar with it either. SIBO stands for small intestinal bacterial overgrowth. And it’s being increasingly recognized as the cause of many different health problems. Especially gut problems.
Why do I care so much about SIBO? Because it affected my life and compromised my health for years before I realized it was the cause of my symptoms. 13 years to be exact. I suffered from chronic diarrhea, abdominal pain and bloating for years, saw multiple specialists, had numerous tests, spent thousands of dollars on extra testing and no one could give me answers. I eventually gave up on trying to find a cause and was able to manage many of my symptoms by eating a paleo diet (hence why I am so passionate about this diet). However, when I got a gut infection called C.diff a little over a year ago my poor gastrointestinal (GI) tract just couldn’t handle it any more. After being sick with C.diff for almost 4 months, doing 4 rounds of antibiotics and eventually getting a fecal transplant I was finally able to cure my C.diff. Unfortunately my diarrhea and abdominal pain continued on worse than ever. I spent another year with severe symptoms and again had multiple tests that didn’t yield any answers. Until I finally got tested for SIBO. And I finally found my answer. Now, treating my SIBO was another fun adventure which I won’t get into today, but if I can, I want to save you the years of suffering that I went through by sharing more information about SIBO.
SIBO (Small Intestinal Bacterial Overgrowth)
The intestinal tract is made up of many different parts. It starts with the mouth which connects to the esophagus which feeds into the stomach, then moves into the small intestine and finally the large intestine and the rectum.
The small intestine, which connects the stomach to the large intestine is approximately 20 feet long. The small bowel plays an important role in digesting food and absorbing nutrients. It also plays an important role in your body’s immune system. It contains many different lymphoid cells that help fight infections and regulate your immune system.
Your small intestine and large intestine are also filled with bacteria. A lot of bacteria! There are normally less bacteria in the small intestine compared to the large intestine (less than 10,000 bacteria per milliliter of fluid in the small intestine compared to at least 1,000,000,000 bacteria per milliliter of fluid in the large intestine). Typically the small intestine is mainly filled with what are known as aerobic bacteria, while the large intestine is mainly filled with anaerobic bacteria. These bacteria are important for normal bowel function and are part of a healthy gastrointestinal (GI) tract. They help your body absorb nutrients, help protect against harmful bacteria and other organisms such as yeast, and also produce nutrients (including short chain fatty acids, vitamin K and folate) and also help maintain the normal muscular contractions of the small intestine, which help move the contents in the small bowel forward to the large intestine.
What is SIBO?
SIBO stands for small intestinal bacterial overgrowth. This is a condition where bacteria from the large intestine are present in excess amounts in the small intestine (where they don’t belong).
Normally, there are few bacteria present in the stomach and the proximal small intestine compared to the large intestine. This is mainly due to the acidity of the stomach and the action of peristalsis (the series of wave-like muscle contractions that moves food through the digestive tract). SIBO is defined as a bacterial population in the small intestine exceeding 103 organisms/mL in patients with the appropriate symptoms. In other words, it is when too many bacteria are found in the small intestine. It can also be due to the changes in the type of bacteria found in the small intestine. It often occurs when the small intestine gets overwhelmed with the anaerobic type of bacteria that is typically more prevalent in the large intestine rather than the small intestine. In most cases, SIBO is not caused by a single strain of bacteria, but is usually due to an overgrowth of the many different strains normally found in the large intestine.
What are the symptoms of SIBO?
Since SIBO affects the GI tract, it makes sense that the most common symptoms are GI symptoms. However, SIBO can also lead to many other symptoms. Like Hippocrates said “all health starts in the gut”, so it fits that an unhealthy GI tract can lead to problems elsewhere in the body.
The GI symptoms of SIBO can include:
- Bloating and abdominal distension
- Abdominal pain, cramping or discomfort
- Alternating bowel habits (periods of diarrhea alternating with periods of constipation)
- Gas or burping/ belching
- Vitamin and mineral deficiencies
- Weight loss
- Fat malabsorption
- Carbohydrate malabsorption
Other symptoms of SIBO include:
- Other skin rashes
- Brain fog
- Memory issues
- Mood issues (depression and anxiety)
- Hormone imbalances
- Histamine intolerance
- Joint and muscle or soft tissue pain
As you can see, SIBO doesn’t just impact your GI tract. It can impact many other systems in your body. I personally developed acne and keratosis pilaris (another type of skin rash which I’ve written about previously here and here) related to my SIBO and I have seen other people struggle with many other systemic symptoms related to their SIBO as well.
Other posts you might like:
- How to heal keratosis pilaris with diet
- How I healed my keratosis pilaris naturally
- The low FODMAP diet: is it right for you?
- How I healed my acne naturally
- Deodorant health risks
How do you test for SIBO?
There are a few different tests available for SIBO but the most commonly used tests are breath tests. This is because they are easy to do and non-invasive. The gold standard test for SIBO is considered to be a jejunal aspirate (where they take a fluid sample from your small intestine and culture the fluid) but even this test is not very reliable. Plus it’s invasive and costly, hence why breath tests are more frequently used, as there are even kits you can get to do the test at home.
There are two different types of breath tests available for SIBO: Either a lactulose or a glucose breath test. Now, there is controversy as to what the best test is as both have their limitations and neither of these tests are completely accurate. Unfortunately none of the tests available for SIBO are perfect. All have their limitations. However, whichever test you and your practitioner choose to do, make sure that it’s a 3 hour breath test, and not a one hour test that you choose. Also be sure that they check for both hydrogen and methane gases on the results. You will want to work with a practitioner familiar with SIBO to help properly interpret your results and get you on an appropriate treatment plan. Treating SIBO can be very challenging and relapses are common so finding someone with an expertise in this area is crucial.
I hope this gives you a better understanding of what SIBO is and how it can impact many different aspects of your health. I will be posting more about SIBO as this is an area I am quite interested in. I am even writing a SIBO ebook! You can learn more about that below.
Another SIBO resource you might find helpful:
Pin this post for later:
- Hydrogen and Methane-Based Breath Testing in Gastrointestinal Disorders: The North American Consensus
- Current Understanding of Gut Microbiota in Mood Disorders: An Update of Human Studies
- The Gut Microbiome as a Major Regulator of the Gut-Skin Axis
- Prevalence and predictors of small intestinal bacterial overgrowth in irritable bowel syndrome: a systematic review and meta-analysis
- Small Intestinal Bacterial Overgrowth in Rosacea: Clinical Effectiveness of Its Eradication
- Small Intestinal Bacterial Overgrowth and Irritable Bowel Syndrome: A Bridge between Functional Organic Dichotomy