Can A Semi-Elemental Diet Help You Beat Stubborn SIBO?
Small intestinal bacterial overgrowth (SIBO) is an increasingly common gut condition. I get questions about it all the time!
SIBO occurs when the bacteria in your gut get out of balance and overgrow. This can cause a whole range of digestive issues, including food sensitivities and difficulty absorbing nutrients. Recovery requires following a strict diet and avoiding certain foods completely.
Yet even the SIBO diet I developed for my clinical patients was sometimes not enough for the most extreme cases. That’s where alternative treatments and eating protocols can be very helpful in overcoming stubborn SIBO.
One option is the semi-elemental diet. In this article, I’ll explain what this diet is and how it differs from an elemental diet, I’ll also cover why it helps severe cases of SIBO, and the pros and cons of a semi-elemental diet.
I’ll also cover key ways you can support your gut health while getting your SIBO under control with supplements including Paleo Protein Powder and collagen protein. Let’s dive in!
What is SIBO?
As I mentioned earlier, SIBO is a condition in which the bacteria in your gut get out of balance and overgrow. This can happen in two ways. Either the gut bacteria meant to reside in your large intestine and colon escape into your small intestine. Or, the small amount of bacteria that occurs naturally in your small intestine grows out of control.
This overgrowth can be caused by:
- High-carb diets
- Nerve and muscle damage from diabetes, scleroderma, or other conditions
- Physical obstructions such as diverticuli, and scarring from surgeries or Crohn’s disease
- Medications such as antibiotics, acid-blocking drugs, and steroids
Once in your small intestine, even “good” bacteria can cause all sorts of digestive drama as they feed on and ferment undigested food — particularly sugar, carbohydrates, starches, and alcohol. This fermentation process produces hydrogen, methane, or both as a byproduct. This is why bloating is the #1 symptom of SIBO.
Symptoms of SIBO
- Gas and bloating
- Abdominal pain or cramping
- Diarrhea or constipation (less common than diarrhea)
- Diagnosis of irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) or inflammatory bowel disease (IBD)
- Food intolerances, particularly histamine intolerance
- Chronic illnesses such as fibromyalgia, chronic fatigue syndrome, diabetes, neuromuscular disorders, and autoimmune diseases
- Vitamin and mineral deficiencies, including vitamins A, B12, D, and E
- Fat malabsorption (signified by pale, bulky, and malodorous stools)
- Rosacea and other skin rashes
- Leaky gut
Think you might have SIBO? Take my quiz to find out!
What is a Semi-Elemental Diet vs. an Elemental Diet?
A typical SIBO diet eliminates foods that feed the bacteria in your small intestine, including sugar, alcohol, and carbohydrates (even complex carbs such as whole grains and legumes).
A SIBO diet minimizes fruit intake and includes plenty of non-starchy vegetables, leafy greens, lean proteins, and healthy fats.
To understand what a semi-elemental diet is, let’s first look at what an elemental diet is.
What is an Elemental Diet?
A full elemental diet is a completely liquid diet made up of nutrient-dense smoothies and plenty of water. Sometimes plain, unsweetened herbal teas may be added.
The macronutrients in the smoothies are already broken down which eases the burden on your digestive system, allowing your GI tract to rest.1 Elemental diet “foods” are very low in fat and provide protein in the form of individual amino acids. This makes it ideal for patients with severe motility, absorption, or digestion issues. It is typically followed for 14 to 21 days.
What is a Semi-Elemental Diet?
A semi-elemental diet also relies on liquid nutrition. The main difference between an elemental diet and a semi-elemental diet is in the protein structure. The semi-elemental diet provides protein that is hydrolyzed into peptides (short chains of amino acids), which are thought to be more readily absorbed than individual amino acids or whole proteins.
Semi-elemental diets also contain fats in the form of medium-chain triglycerides (MCTs). These MCTs are more easily digestible than other types of fats because of their shorter length.2 A semi-elemental diet is often used for digestive disorders such as SIBO and Crohn’s disease.3 A semi-elemental diet can be supplemented with solid foods if you can tolerate them.
How Can the Semi-Elemental Diet Help Reverse Damage from SIBO
When amino acids “piggyback” on di- or tripeptides, they may help patients gain or maintain a healthy weight and improve nutrition status.4 Protein is the building block of every cell in your body and is essential for repairing your gut and strengthening your immune system — two key steps in overcoming and treating SIBO.
Studies show that a semi-elemental diet offers health benefits for the entire digestive process in patients with Crohn’s, pancreatitis, and autoimmune disorders. It can help speed up metabolism, reduce gastrointestinal symptoms, aid nutrient absorption, and improve overall clinical outcomes.5,6,7,8
Is the Semi-Elemental Diet Radical?
You may be wondering whether it is radical to follow a semi-elemental diet. I’d actually argue that a semi-elemental diet is much less extreme than “fad” cleanses.
The semi-elemental diet is strictly for those with SIBO and other digestive issues which prevent full recovery on a solid diet. Plus, the semi-elemental diet is only for 2-3 weeks, while the patient repairs their gut. A semi-elemental diet is a temporary solution, not a lifestyle.
The Basics of the Semi-Elemental Diet
If you’re wondering if this diet is right for you, I want to equip you with all the tools you need to safely follow a semi-elemental diet and restore your health naturally.
What to Drink and Eat on a Semi-Elemental Diet
Depending on how you define a semi-elemental diet, your food and drink choices might vary slightly. The following options each have their own pros and cons:
- Premade Formulas: You can buy specially made semi-elemental diet formulas. The benefit of choosing premade elemental formulas is that they take the guesswork out of knowing what to drink or eat. There are even specifically designed semi-elemental diet formulas for people with diabetes, autoimmune disease, liver or kidney disorders, and other special cases.
However, these formulas can be expensive, with some costing upwards of $400.9 They are also commonly made with whey protein, and dairy products that are highly inflammatory.10
- The Myers Way® Protein Powder: My paleo protein powders are made with hydrolyzed beef protein sourced from non-GMO, hormone- and antibiotic-free, grass-fed beef. The Myers Way® Paleo Protein comes in four delicious flavors and is 100% soy-free, gluten-free, dairy-free, and egg-free, making it one of the least allergenic protein powders on the market. It is also a good source of MCTs, which can support a healthy microbiome by fighting bacterial overgrowth and repairing a leaky gut.11,12
- Solid Foods: If you can tolerate solid foods, incorporate small amounts in your diet. They will keep you feeling satisfied and well-nourished. Focus on steamed non-starchy veggies, soups, and bone broth, and, of course–smoothies!
How Long Should You Follow a Semi-Elemental Diet?
I recommend following a semi-elemental diet for 2 to 3 weeks, and seeing how you feel.13 You can stop when you no longer experience symptoms of SIBO. A good sign that you’ve overcome SIBO is that you don’t experience extreme bloating after eating a meal. You can also track your improvements using my symptoms quiz again, and compare your new results to your old.
Potential Side Effects
While potential side effects are few, there are some important ones to consider:
- Nutrient deficiencies: If you do not emphasize nutrient-dense liquids, you could risk nutrient deficiency and weight loss. Make sure you’re taking in plenty of vitamins and minerals in their most bioavailable form.
I recommend everyone take a multivitamin. This is especially important during a semi-elemental diet, or while recovering from an illness.
- GI issues: Switching to an elemental or semi-elemental diet may cause some initial gut distress including diarrhea or abdominal pain.14 To avoid this, go slow. Increase the liquids in your diet gradually over a few days.
- Falling off track: Depending on the diet formula, it might not be palatable or financially sustainable. If you are not able to strictly adhere to your diet, your recovery could be delayed.
Pros and Cons of the Semi-Elemental Diet for SIBO
The following pros and cons can help you decide whether you might thrive on a semi-elemental diet:
- Formulas take the guesswork out of meal planning
- Easy to digest; lets your gut rest and recover
- Nutrients are more easily absorbed than in an elemental diet
- Helps maintain a healthy weight
- Many premade formulas are allergenic or inflammatory
- Poorly planned diets can lead to malnutrition and GI issues
- Strict nature of diet may be difficult to follow
- Can be expensive
Gut-Repairing Supplements to Consider
There are a number of supplements I recommend to support a semi-elemental diet without the use of pricey formulations. This will help you get optimal nutrition while repairing your gut.
The Myers Way® Paleo Protein will be your go-to meal replacement on a semi-elemental diet. It provides the most highly absorbable form of protein and amino acids and gut-friendly MCTs.
Whether or not you try a semi-elemental diet, I highly recommend Paleo Protein smoothies because of their gut-repairing benefits. I drink one every morning. It’s the perfect, quick, breakfast that provides sustained energy.
My Collagen Protein is made from easily-absorbed bovine collagen peptides. It is an ideal complement to Paleo Protein for providing extra protein and amino acids while following a semi-elemental diet. Furthermore, collagen helps support a healthy gut barrier and mixes easily into any smoothie or other beverage, hot or cold.
Leaky Gut Revive®
This is my most comprehensive tool for repairing and maintaining a healthy gut lining. Repairing your gut is the first step in overcoming SIBO and other chronic illnesses, and Leaky Gut Revive® can fast-track your progress.
It contains a potent blend of gut-repairing herbs and nutrients, including L-glutamine. L-glutamine assists in cell turnover to help repair your mucosal lining and support overall intestinal health. It also curbs sugar cravings to help you beat SIBO.
While you have SIBO, I recommend you only take a soil-based probiotic to avoid feeding bad bacteria with the good. My soil-based Primal Earth probiotic contains three well-studied strains of spore-forming bacteria. These bacteria are able to bypass your small intestine without feeding the overgrowth.
Now that you understand how a semi-elemental diet can help combat SIBO, you may be wondering if I recommend it. It depends on whether you follow it in a way that supports optimal health. Follow any diet poorly, and it may not work optimally.
Therefore, I recommend enlisting the help of a functional medicine physician to ensure you are meeting all of your nutritional needs. Drink plenty of nutrient-dense smoothies such as this Semi-Elemental Diet Vanilla Shake and this Semi-Elemental Diet Chocolate Shake.
If you do choose to eat small amounts of food, there are some better options. These include soft-cooked, organic foods such as leafy greens and non-starchy vegetables, grass-fed beef, and wild-caught fish. When done safely and optimally, a semi-elemental diet can offer many health benefits for those struggling with SIBO.
- Eichenberger JR, Hadorn B, Schmidt BJ. A semi-elemental diet with low osmolarity and high content of hydrolyzed lactalbumin in the treatment of acute diarrhea in malnourished children. Arq Gastroenterol. 1984 Jul-Sep;21(3):130-5.
- Voss T, Rowe B, Graf L, Keyes C, Beal J. Management of HIV-related weight loss and diarrhea with an enteral formula containing whey peptides and medium-chain triglycerides. In: Abstract book of the VII International Conference on AIDS., editor. Italy: Florence; 1991.