Imagine having a gut health condition with symptoms so severe that you can’t leave the house, yet no-one is able to give you answers often calling it a “functional,” or “psychosomatic,” disease making you feel that it’s all in your head.
But it’s a very real problem for 1 in 7 Australians who have irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) are plagued by uncomfortable and often disabling symptoms like bloating, cramps, diarrhoea, constipation, and pain.
I have many patients with IBS, some of whom have suffered for decades without relief. Previous diagnosis has failed to find the cause of the illness even after undergoing procedures such Colonoscopies and Gastroscopies. Often they were told to eat more fibre or were prescribed laxatives, sedatives, anti-spasm drugs, or antidepressants.
Most patients find these suggested measure simply don’t work, predominantly because they fail to address the underlying cause of IBS. Emerging research has helped identify and understand the fundamental mechanisms that cause IBS hence can successfully treat irritable bowel syndrome and other digestive conditions. Using a very simple methodology based on functional medicine we are now able to identify and remove the underlying causes of IBS and restores normal digestive function.
In this article, I am going to share IBS insights. But first I want to tell you about a patient of mine …
Tony’s Story and His Lifelong Irritable Bowel
At age 68 Tony had suffered from IBS for over 30 years — almost half his life! From his medical history, he remembers never being the same after a holiday in Bali in which he got a real bad case of food poisoning. His major symptom was sudden, painful, cramping accompanied with diarrhoea. He was doing the best he could to prevent it. He didn’t consume dairy, didn’t drink or smoke, and took a fibre supplement every day. Yet nothing helped. This scenario is not uncommon when food poisoning or parasite infestation is not dealt with properly in it’s early stages.
He would go to the bathroom 4 to 5 times in the mornings before he left the house. He would plan his daily activities around knowing the locations of all the nearest bathrooms, just in case he had what he called “s— attacks.” That wasn’t Tony’s only problem … he also felt uncomfortably full and bloated after every meal, recognising starchy foods made things much worse.
He had taken many antibiotics over the years and had many yeast infections. An upper endoscopy (scope into his stomach) had shown that he had inflammation of the stomach (gastritis). He constantly suffered sugar cravings, headaches, agitation, fatigue and was too embarrassed to mention his rectal itching which was a result of yeast infections and food allergies.
Tony tried to eat healthy, but his diet was less than ideal. He had a bran muffin and coffee in the morning and a sandwich for lunch. But his “drug of choice” was sugar — in the form of cakes, ice cream, diet coke, and other junk foods. Not surprisingly, he was also about 10 kilograms overweight.
To help Tony, I simply identified and treated the underlying causes of his digestive problems! To understand how this is achieved, you first have to understand a little bit about how the gut works.
These are the two main causes of IBS: Food allergies and overgrowth of bacteria in the small intestine.
How Gut Bacteria Imbalances Can Lead to IBS
Imagine a tennis court. That is the surface area of your small intestine, where food is absorbed. Your small intestine is also the site of about 60 percent of your immune system. And this sophisticated gut-immune system is just one-cell layer away from a toxic sewer — all of the bacteria and undigested food particles in your gut.
If that lining breaks down from
Your immune system will be exposed to foreign particles from food, bacteria and other microbes. This will trigger and activate a strong immune response, allergy, and will irritate your second brain – the gut (enteric nervous system) creating havoc that leads to an irritable bowel, an irritable brain, and other system wide problems including allergy, arthritis, autoimmunity, mood disorders, and more.
The microbial ecosystem in the gut must be healthy for you to be healthy. When your gut bacteria is out of balance — when you have too many pathogenic bacteria and not enough healthy bacteria — it makes you sick. You’ve got about 1.5kg of bacteria — over 500 species — in your gut. In fact, there is more bacterial DNA in your body than there is human DNA! Among all that gut bacteria, there are good guys, bad guys, and very very bad guys.
If the bad guys take over — or if they move into areas that they shouldn’t (like the small intestine which is normally sterile) — they can start fermenting the food you digest, particularly sugar or starchy foods. Sugar fuels the bad guys giving them more ammunition to create havoc.
This is called small bowel bacterial overgrowth, and it’s a major cause of IBS.
The major symptom it causes is bloating, or a feeling of fullness after meals. What causes this bloating? The overproduction of gas by the bacteria as they have lunch on your lunch!
Small bowel bacterial overgrowth can be diagnosed by a breath test, which measures gas production by the bacteria, or by a urine test that measures the byproducts of the bacteria after they are absorbed into your system.
Bacterial overgrowth is a real syndrome and in some research in America, the condition is being treated with a non-absorbed antibiotics for 10 days resulting in a dramatic improvement in bloating and overall symptoms of IBS by clearing out the overgrowth of bacteria. That’s great news for many IBS patients. In clinic though, there is more than one factor in IBS.
Another major cause of IBS is food sensitivities. Not true allergies where you might break out in a rash, but low-grade reactions to foods that drive so many chronic symptoms including IBS.
A landmark paper, was recently published in the prestigious British medical journal Gut that found eliminating foods identified through delayed food allergy testing (IgG antibodies) resulted in dramatic improvements in IBS symptoms. It is important that we recognise the role of food allergies and inflammation in IBS. Again, the foods are causing a reaction in a system that is under functioning, it’s not the fault of the food (unless you solely eat junk food or you have pure allergy as do Celiacs to Gluten).
So the research tells us that these are the two main causes of irritable bowel — food allergies and overgrowth of bacteria in the small intestine — but in clinic I can find others, including a lack of digestive enzymes, poor stomach function, anxiety, parasites living in the gut, zinc or magnesium deficiency, heavy metal toxicity, and more.
And this is precisely why it is so critically important to personalise treatment based on the unique circumstances that exist for each person who suffers from IBS — the solution is most certainly not one-size-fits-all. But solutions can be found if we look carefully at the underlying causes and treat them.
Which leads me back to Tony …
How I Helped Tony Heal his IBS
I prescribed Tony a herbal antibiotic combination, acting as antimicrobial and antifungal to balance out his yeast problem, and had him eliminate the foods to which he was sensitive too. In clinic you can test for food intolerances using pathology (IgG) or by using computerised electro dermal testing. The key is to effectively treat the underlying cause of the problem. If there is a bacterial or yeast infection, then herbal antibiotics are often the best treatments. Sometimes in practice antimicrobial treatment is still warranted even if there is no sign of infection. This initial phase cleans up the micriobiome to correct levels.
He was also prescribed certain types of probiotics specific to his case (not all healthy bacteria are the same), extra prebiotics to feed the healthy bacteria, zinc, herbs and digestive enzymes to normalise his gut, help with digestion and reduce gut inflammation . I also modulated the immune system with additional prescriptions to die off the bad bugs.
Tony came back to see me 6 weeks later, and he was a different person. Not only did he lose 10kgs, he had not had a “s—- attack” and was having normal bowel habits for the first time in 30 years! He also had more energy, and his bloating had vanished.
He looked and felt 10 years younger and was free of the suffering he had endured for over three decades.
We have the science, the understanding, tools and clinical experience to deal with this chronic problem. I can say this with confidence as I have been treating IBS in my practice for over 18years with dramatic success.
If you suffer from IBS, I recommend that you consider taking these next few steps as you can dramatically improve your health and overcome the pain in your gut.