As many as 1 in 5 of us have digestive issues – abdominal pain, gas, bloating, irregular bowel habits, collectively known as irritable bowel syndrome – IBS.
I am a firm believer in understanding the root cause of a problem in order to treat it effectively. This helps to ensure you choose the right approach. It also helps because when you know why you’re doing something, you’re more likely to stick to the treatment plan when things get tough.
And that can come in very handy when we’re talking about major lifestyle and habit change – which are often required when tackling IBS.
This post is a quick primer on IBS, laying out ‘the basics’.
Caveat: This post is about IBS. IBS should not be confused with inflammatory bowel disease (IBD, including ulcerative colitis and Crohns) or Coeliac disease. These are quite different and need a specific approach. I do not cover those disorders here.
You should always consult a medical professional before embarking on any lifestyle change.
Both the upper gut and lower gut (colon or large intestine) are important for ensuring we humans get the full benefit from the nutrients in the food we eat.
After our food is broken down by our digestive enzymes, we absorb macro- and micro-nutrients into our system through the lining of the small intestine.
Later, the microbes of the colon work on what we can’t digest, and produce an array of substances that are incredibly beneficial to our health (more on this later).
Very broadly speaking, digestive issues (Crohns, UC, Coeliac and bowel cancer aside) tend to be either upper gut (often small intestinal bacterial overgrowth – SIBO) or lower gut (often dysbiosis, or an imbalance of the microbial populations that inhabit this part of the digestive system).
I provide a brief outline of these two conditions below. But the take home message is:
Both SIBO and dysbiosis can result in chronic inflammation and affect nutrient absorption and therefore have a detrimental effect on our health.
Digestive issues: SIBO 101
A healthy small intestine is virtually free of microbes. SIBO is a condition where microbes start to accumulate in this part of the digestive tract – sometimes in patches, but can be along the whole length of the small intestine.
It becomes like a busy rail station when it should be quiet and peaceful.
But the small intestine lining is not designed to cope with a high bacterial load, and starts to become inflamed and dysfunctional.
The result of this inflammation is a reduced ability to absorb nutrients. In areas of microbial overgrowth, there is likely to be damage and/or dysfunction to the delicate gut lining. This can also lead to so-called ‘leaky gut’.
The cells lining our small intestine are like bricks and mortar, where the bricks are the epithelial cells which have a mortar like seal around them that stops partially digested food particles from crossing into the gut tissue.
The inflammation associated with SIBO is thought to make holes in this mortar [technically called ‘tight junctions’], meaning that partially digested food particles can cross out of the gut into our tissues and trigger inflammation.
What can we do about it? See my post on optimising nutrient absorption when you have IBS.
Digestive issues: Dysbiosis 101
In a healthy gut, our large intestines are chock full of wonderful, healthy, beneficial microbes. These critters chomp on soluble fibre (which our human digestive systems can’t do anything with) and release substances like short chain fatty acids (such as butyrate). These substances actually function as fuel for the cells that line our large intestine and keep it healthy!
What an amazing example of humans co-evolving with our gut microbes!
A healthy colon has a wide diversity and balance of microbes, and a diet that supplies plenty of soluble fibre for the microbes to munch on.
Poor diet (especially one that is low in fibre), a course of antibiotics or a tummy bug can throw the balance off (i.e. create dysbiosis), leaving us with pain, cramping, gas and irregular bowel habits.
Hypersensitivity – a super-sensitive gut lining
The inflammation of the intestinal lining (‘mucosa’) can throw off balance the delicate control of motility (movement of food through the digestive tract). This means that certain foods, especially ones that feed the SIBO microbes, can trigger bloating, pain and altered bowel habits.
Dialing down this sensitivity – by choosing foods wisely (e.g. low FODMAP) and cooking carefully (generally, ‘overcooked’ means easier to digest for those of us with IBS). Using supplements like Saccharomyces boulardii and L-glutamine can also help. See my other posts for more information on this.
Parasites – more common than you think!
Your gut microbiome can also be unbalanced by parasite infections. With global travel so common in the pre-covid era, pesky parasites have been able to spread around easily.
Parasite infections can result in severe, debilitating digestive issues.
If your gut issues are severe and are not responding to a low FODMAP diet or good probiotics, then you it is a good idea to go to a professional. You could get in touch with your local medical practitioner, functional medicine doc, naturopath or nutritional therapist and get a full stool analysis done.
They will also be able to recommend a treatment protocol to help you clear your parasite. In many cases, lasting gut healing isn’t possible until the parasite is cleared.
My own private parasite
My own personal parasite story involves a tiny but tricky critter called Blastocystis hominis, which went undiagnosed for decades. I cleared it with wormwood and black walnut tinctures and grapefruit seed extract – oh, and Saccharomyces boulardii. One can never be sure which of this combination did the trick – but I am now parasite free!
I should add that the parasite had wreaked havoc on my gut function and clearing it [many years ago now] was the start of my gut health journey, not the end… Read more here.
Please check out my other posts for how to manage IBS and begin the journey to optimal gut health.
If you have gut issues and are struggling to get organized, perhaps the Zenith Method can help. Currently in development, this will be a 6 week personalized program that supports and directs you in practical actionable ways to improve your diet and lifestyle in ways that specifically benefit your digestion. Drop me a line (see Contact Us form below) if you’d like to be part of the pre-launch trial.
Only when you feel great can you reach your personal Zenith