Small Intestinal Bacteria Overgrowth: What is it and How to Spot it
There are so many important factors that play into gut health. From overwhelming stress to a poorly balanced diet, not taking gut health into consideration can lead to a multitude of other issues. In fact, one of the first places you can notice an issue with your gut health is on your skin. If you're noticing certain skin symptoms, you can trace the source to one part of your gut: a small intestinal bacteria overgrowth
- Small intestinal bacteria overgrowth (SIBO) is caused when there is an unusual increase in bacteria that are normally present in the large intestine starting to grow in the small intestine.
- SIBO may occur for a variety of reasons that slow down the overall movement of food and waste in the gastrointestinal tract; symptoms include nausea, bloating, and sudden weight loss.
- SIBO can be diagnosed through two testing options: a breath test or a sample fluid test.
With plenty of different gastro-intestinal issues out there, it can be hard to know what exactly is wrong if you’re experiencing bloating, nausea, pain, or other common symptoms. For instance, one of those issues could be that you have small intestinal bacteria overgrowth, or SIBO.
If you’re not familiar with small intestinal bacteria overgrowth (SIBO), it can be easily confused with other gastrointestinal diseases such as irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) or acid reflux. Let’s break down the facts so you can distinguish small intestinal bacteria overgrowth symptoms and get it treated early.
What is small intestinal bacteria overgrowth? (SIBO)
Small intestinal bacteria overgrowth (SIBO) is caused when there is an unusual increase in bacteria that are normally present in the large intestine starting to grow in the small intestine. This may occur for a variety of reasons that slow down the overall movement of food and waste in the gastrointestinal tract which creates a breeding ground for bacteria (1).
Not only that, but the bacteria may also produce toxins in the gut and interfere with the absorption of vital nutrients and proteins for the body to cause deficiencies. It’s not entirely clear why some people develop small intestinal bacteria overgrowth and others don’t, but there are a few things that can raise your risk of the condition such as:
- Decreased gut acid from the use of acid-reducing medications
- Having complications from gastrointestinal surgery including gastric bypass or gastrectomy
- Parkinson’s disease
- Structural problems in and around the small intestine or small intestine injury
Signs and symptoms of SIBO
SIBO has a lot of overlapping symptoms with IBS, and one study estimates that anywhere from 4 to 78 percent of IBS patients also have SIBO (2). SIBO symptoms, like IBS, mainly affect the gut, which is why they get confused so often. They may include:
- pain in the stomach (especially after eating)
- uncomfortable feeling of being full after eating
- sudden or unintentional weight loss
Causes of SIBO
While small intestinal bacteria overgrowth is not fully understood by doctors, they have concluded from research that SIBO can occur for a handful of reasons in addition to the causes mentioned above, including pH changes in your small bowel and a poorly working immune system. Other than IBS, SIBO is associated with various gastrointestinal diseases, such as celiac disease, Crohn’s disease, and cirrhosis (3).
Catching and treating SIBO
SIBO is treatable, but it may come back. This can lead to dehydration and malnutrition when left untreated. If you are experiencing symptoms of SIBO, there are a few ways that a doctor can help diagnose you:
1. Breath test
A breath test is a common test for diagnosing SIBO and is helpful for doctors to use to help distinguish between SIBO and IBS. So, what does the breath test entail? Basically, excess bacteria in the small intestine can lead to the release of hydrogen and methane, which can be identified through the breath test. You’ll need to fast overnight before having a breath test, but during the test, you’ll breathe into a tube after you drink a mixture of glucose (a.k.a. sugar) and water. If you have a rapid increase in exhaled hydrogen or methane, it can suggest that you have small intestinal bacteria overgrowth (4).
Unlike the breath test which is noninvasive, there is a more invasive option for testing that is considered the next step if the breath test isn’t conclusive or SIBO treatments aren’t working. This test requires a doctor to pass a long, flexible tube down your throat and through your upper digestive tract to your small intestine. There, they’ll take a sample of your intestinal fluid and test it in a lab for bacterial overgrowth.
In terms of treatment, SIBO can be treated with a combination of antibiotics and diet changes. To get the overgrowth of bacteria under control, doctors usually prescribe antibiotics to decrease the amount of bacteria in the small intestine. In addition, you may also need intravenous (IV) therapy for more nutrients and fluids if the SIBO has caused malnutrition or dehydration. If your doctor determines the SIBO has been caused by an underlying condition, you will also start treatment for that condition (5).
Besides antibiotics, making dietary changes may also help, as many people with SIBO have reported finding relief after following a new and improved diet at the advice of their doctor. These dietary changes include eating a balanced diet full of nutrients, eating smaller meals more frequently to avoid food sitting in the gut, or avoiding certain products and foods that may irritate the stomach or aggravate gastrointestinal issues. This could be sugary foods, excess carbohydrates that convert to sugar in the body, or alcohol as the bacteria overgrowth would feed off of sugar.
Plus, if you are experiencing symptoms of SIBO, probiotics can actually help you rather than hurt you as they replace bad bacteria with good bacteria and can help return the bacteria in your gut to normal. In fact, people with SIBO who took probiotics have been found to have a significantly higher rate of recovering from the condition than those who didn’t take probiotics (6).
Written by Selena Ponton