10 Signs You Have Small Intestinal Bacterial Overgrowth (SIBO)

September 26th, 2013

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Have you ever eaten something and within a few hours realized that your stomach is so bloated that you can’t button your pants? It’s not uncommon for my patients to tell me that they wake up with a flat belly and by the end of the day they look six months pregnant.

Even if you haven’t experienced abdominal swelling to such an extreme, any amount of bloating is not normal; it’s a sign of intestinal inflammation. If you’re having gas and/or bloating regularly, you could have food sensitivities and/or a gut infection, such as SIBO.

What is SIBO?

Small intestinal bacterial overgrowth occurs when the bacteria in our gut get out of balance and overgrow. I often say, “Too much of a good thing can be a bad thing.” How do we get too much of some bacteria over others? This can manifest in several different ways, and often occurs in those eating a diet high in sugar, alcohol and refined carbohydrates. Certain strains of bacteria feed off of refined carbohydrates and break them down into short-chain fatty acids, creating gas and causing bloating.

Another strain of bacteria can break down bile salts before your body has a chance to use them. Bile salts are crucial for the breakdown of fats; without them, the end result is fat malabsorption or diarrhea.

Finally, a third type of bacteria can produce toxins that damage the lining of the small intestine. This prevents your body from absorbing the nutrients you need, much like what we see with a leaky gut.

What causes the bacterial overgrowth?

Our gut relies on nerves, muscles, enzymes, and neurotransmitters to properly digest food. While enzymes mainly break down our food, the nerves, muscles and neurotransmitters physically move the food through our digestive tract from the stomach to the small intestine and to the colon. When this happens in a healthy gut, bacteria gets passed through the digestive tract along with the food to its final destination in the colon. Problems arise when something interferes with this process.

Damage to the nerves or muscles in the gut can result in leftover bacteria in the small intestine, increasing your risk for SIBO. For example, diabetes mellitus and scleroderma can both affect the muscles in the gut, leaving room for SIBO to develop.

Physical obstructions in the gut, like scarring from surgeries or Crohn’s disease, can also cause an abnormal buildup of bacteria in the small intestine. Diverticuli, which are tiny pouches that can form in the wall of the small intestine, can also collect bacteria instead of passing it on to the colon, where it belongs.

There are also medications that influence or disrupt the normal gut flora, such as antibiotics, acid-blocking drugs, and steroids. And of course, as I mentioned above, the most common cause I see in my functional medicine clinic is from a diet high in sugar, refined carbohydrates and alcohol.

10 Signs You Have Small Intestinal Bacterial Overgrowth (SIBO)

1. Gas, bloating, and diarrhea
2. Abdominal pain or cramping
3. Constipation (much less common than diarrhea)
4. Diagnosis of irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) or inflammatory bowel disease (IBD)
5. Food intolerances such as gluten, casein, lactose, fructose and particularly histamine intolerance
6. Chronic illnesses such as fibromyalgia, chronic fatigue syndrome, diabetes, neuromuscular disorders and autoimmune diseases.
7. Vitamin and mineral deficiency, specifically B12 deficiency
8. Fat malabsorption (signified by pale, bulky, and malodorous stools)
9. Rosacea and other skin rashes
10. Leaky gut

How to test for SIBO

Breath Test: This is the gold standard, however it’s quite cumbersome. Individuals must fast for 12 hours, breathe into a small balloon, ingest a precise amount of sugar, and repeat breath samples every 15 minutes for 3 or more hours. Abnormal breath tests can also signify pancreatic insufficiency and celiac disease.

Organix Dysbiosis Test: This functional medicine lab test the urine for by-products of yeast or bacteria in the small intestine. If your small intestine is housing a yeast or bacterial overgrowth, byproducts will appear in your urine, indicating their presence. This test is much easier for patients and only requires one single urine specimen. This is the test I use most often in my clinic.

Comprehensive Stool Test: This is also a functional medicine lab test looking at the flora of the large intestines. If I see all elevated levels of good bacteria, I suspect SIBO.

History: By listening to the patient’s history and symptoms, I’m often able to make a diagnosis.

How to treat SIBO

Treating SIBO is a 3-step approach. The first step is to remove the foods that feed it, including sugar, alcohol, and carbohydrates. Similar to Candida overgrowth, those who are susceptible to SIBO may have recurrence after treatment. For this reason, it is advised to adopt a long-term diet that is low in carbohydrates and especially refined carbohydrates.

Second, you want to attack the bad bacteria. The primary antibiotics used for treating SIBO are Xifaxan and Neomycin, depending on the type of gas being produced by your gut organisms (methane or hydrogen). As a natural alternative to antibiotics, I recommend Microb Clear™, which is a blend of  magnesium caprylate, berberine, and extracts from tribulus, sweet wormwood, grapefruit, barberry, bearberry, and black walnut.

Third, you want to restore the good bacteria with probiotics. The best probiotics for SIBO are soil-based probiotics, as lactic acid-based probiotics are not well-tolerated in those with SIBO and may actually be adding fuel to the fire. The one I use with all my patients is Primal Earth™.

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  • JF

    I was tested via the breath test for SIBO but the results were negative. I have many of the symptoms of SIBO. Are false negatives a possibility with this test? My doctor suggested I take the Xifaxan anyway, but I am unsure about doing so given my history with candida. Is there no harm in taking the Xifaxan or should I not take it unless lab results indicate otherwise?

    • I cannot offer any medical advice over the internet. You are welcome to call my office 512-383-5343 and set up a phone consultation.

  • KJM

    I was diagnosed with SIBO in 2012 (through breathalyzer test) and took many rounds of Xifaxin and Mycelex. My main complaint was diarreah and IBS symptoms. The diarreah went away and I assumed the Xifaxin took care of my SIBO problems. A month ago I was diagnosed with Intense vaginal bacterial overgrowth and I am on antibiotics inserted vaginally. Wondering if I never got rid of or just have intense bacteria continually growing in my body. I’m going gluten free, dairy free and take heavy doses of probiotics. I was given Amy Myers site and will switch to her suggestions and products online.

  • Melba Walton

    I have a virulent list of Sjogren’s syndrome. I am really suffering from this little known syndrome. It is hitting me as hard or harder that my RA did in the 60’s. Have you written anything re Sjogren’s? Will you write about it please?

  • Lauren Siegal

    Hi there! I am curious about the dosing you suggest for Xifaxan. Thx!

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  • June Champion

    I suspect SIBO. I have developed skin problems on my eyelids, and around my ears. The Doctor says it is dermatitis. Then I developed a rash around my neck, and the Doctor said it was a sign of a yeast infection in my gut. This made sense as I have been under severe stress, and did have a lot of stomach symptoms. I was not prescribed anything except to cut out dairy, yeast, sugar, even fruit, and cut down on grains, too. I was given a time frame of 2 months. I have done that, and found some relief. However, I have introduced some things back into my diet and the symptoms have returned. I am happy to go back to the strict way of eating, and I understand it is better if I do this long term. I am wondering if I would also benefit from some help with this. Thank you.

  • June Champion

    Does anyone ever get a reply to these messages?