We each have 1000-2000 trillion organisms living inside our bodies- thats 10-20 times the number of mammalian cells in the human body! We need these microflora for the development of our immune system, the absorption and synthesis of nutrients, and for protection against pathogenic microorganisms. In the gastrointestinal tract, the microflora is lowest in the stomach and gradually increases toward the colon. Overgrowth of these usually helpful bacteria however, can cause a host of symptoms but the main symptoms are those of Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS) including:
- Gas and bloating (belching, flatulence)
- Abdominal pain
- Constipation, Diarrhea, or both
What is SIBO?
SIBO stands for Small Intestinal Bacterial Overgrowth. Simply put, it is a chronic bacterial infection of the small intestine of bacteria that normally live in the gastrointestinal tract but have abnormally overgrown.
This overgrowth creates a vicious cycle:
- Damage to the small intestinal lining from the overgrowth of bacteria decreases the amount of nutrients (food) absorbed through the small intestinal lining, which you may have heard of as “Leaky Gut Syndrome”. Due to poor absorption of food and fats, deficiencies in nutrients like iron, B12, vitamin A and vitamin D develop.
- As the bacteria consumes the food unable to be absorbed, they produce gas, which causes abdominal pain, bloating, constipation, and diarrhea.
- Through the damaged lining, larger food particles not able to be fully digested are able to enter the body and cause immune system reactions.
- The overgrown bacteria consumes the unabsorbed food, which creates more bacterial overgrowth, and more damage to the intestinal lining.
Breath testing is available to measure the hydrogen and methane gas produced by bacteria in the small intestine. Both hydrogen and methane are only produced by bacteria, not humans. Abnormally high levels of these gases indicate bacterial overgrowth.
The main goal of any treatment plan for SIBO is to reduce the number of bacteria, repair the damaged gut, and prevent relapse. Strategies for this usually include antibiotics, herbal antibiotics, and dietary modification. The damaged small intestine lining heals on it’s own when the bacteria population is reduced, and is enhanced by diet and additional nutritional supplements.
Some keys to preventing SIBO are having good food hygiene (eating when calm, chewing well, etc.), having adequate stomach acid, removing proton pump inhibitors and antacids (which reduce stomach acid and promote SIBO), and enhance the parasympathetic “rest and digest” nervous system.
Schedule an appointment with your Naturopathic Physician to identify if overgrowth of normal bacteria in your gut is the cause of your gastrointestinal distress. For help finding a doctor in your area who specializes in SIBO, I recommend contacting the manufacturer of the Breath Test Machine, Quin Tron, and ask for the names of physicians that order SIBO tests from them.
Bacteria at Birth
When we’re born, we’re born microbiotically sterile. During birth, the baby becomes “infected” with normal flora. During a normal vaginal birth, lactobacillus, particularly lactobacillus acidophilus, dominates the vaginal canal and as a result is the first flora to populate the newborn. In a cesarian section, the baby doesn’t acquire the same microflora. Instead of the normal vaginal flora the baby acquires the flora dominating the hospital setting, including staph and enterococci. These infants have a significantly higher risk of developing childhood allergies. The following two days of life, other organisms including rectal flora like E. coli, streptococcus, and klebsiella populate the baby.
Breastfeed vs. Formula
Following the first two days, microflora depends on breast feeding versus formula feeding. In breastfed babies there is a rapid increase in the bifidobacter bacteria, making up approximately 95% of fecal flora during this time. Breast milk contains oligosaccharides that stimulate the growth of bifidobacteria in the lower GI tract an lactobacilli in the upper GI tract. If the baby is formula fed, only 22% of fecal flora is bifodobacter and the other 70% of bacteria observed in the fecal flora are enterobacteria, flora that are considered to be much less desirable.
Why give probiotics to a baby?
The immune system of the newborn baby is immature and biased toward forming an allergic reaction (this includes eczema, hay fever, allergic rhinitis, and asthma). The internal bacterial flora train the immune system away from developing an allergic response. If the baby doesn’t get access to sufficient flora, the re-balancing of the immune system doesn’t take place. There is almost undeniable evidence and potential benefit by the use of probiotics for a period of 6 months on a daily basis. Probiotics have the potential to lower the risk of the baby developing allergies. Even though breastfed babies have higher numbers of bifidobacteria, the actual total numbers of bifidobacteria are lower than they were decades ago, so even breastfed babies can benefit from supplementation. Using probiotics in newborns can prevent allergies from developing in 25% of cases by supporting the immune system. We all experience the same environmental antigens, but it is the functioning of our immune systems that determine who develops allergies and who does not.
Talk with your naturopathic physician about developing a protocol that is right for you and your baby to prevent allergies from forming in the first place. Prevention is always easier than cure. If you are an adult with allergies, I advise asking your physician about starting an individualized probiotic protocol to strengthen your immune system. Keep in mind, it can take 1-3 months to see benefit, so hang in there and stick with the plan. Not all probiotics are created equal, in fact some over the counter formulas may contain no actual live bacteria at all. Make sure you use a company recommended by your health care practitioner to ensure you are taking a quality, third party tested product.