Surviving SIBO Part 1:
Background to Diagnosis
SIBO stands for Small Intestine Bacterial Overgrowth, woof. Sounds gross because it is. If you have ever had SIBO, you know just how uncomfortable it is, how incredibly difficult it is to treat, and how hard it is to keep it away once treated. Digestive symptoms can include bloating, digestive distress (diarrhea and/or constipation), gas, belching, dyspepsia (food sits in your stomach/slow motility). Other symptoms are often a result of prolonged SIBO and can include brain fog, anxiety, depression, low energy, skin disorders, and hormonal disruptions. If you are curious about whether or not you may have SIBO, other symptoms and the science-y stuff such as testing and treatment, I recommend, of course, Google. I also recommend the e-book The SIBO Solution by Sylvie McCracken. I found this book super helpful, concise and made several treatment decisions based on her recommendations. I also listened to countless podcasts and read other books once I was officially diagnosed. I’ll get to all that, but for now, the background of my experience with SIBO…
So how did I, or how does anyone get SIBO? So. Many. Reasons. Here’s most likely why I ended up with SIBO, but I think there there is no way to know for certain. Throughout most of my teenage years I had terrible acne. I tried all kinds of topical creams and treatments, special face wash products, you name it, I tried it. None of it seemed to help. Like many others, I was placed on oral antibiotics for years to help manage my skin troubles. The skin problems lead to emotional distress as well, or maybe it was the other way around, either way my skin was horrible and I felt pretty anxious, embarrassed and sad much of the time. I also had a pretty awful diet: cereal for breakfast with skim milk, peanut butter sandwiches and some sort of sugary snack for lunch with a red delicious apple. Maybe there were some carrot sticks in there too that I most likely did not eat. Pop Tarts were my after-school snack of choice. Coke was my favorite drink, until of course I switched to Diet Pepsi to watch my calories. So, that’s the nutshell: Antibiotics, emotional stress and a terrible highly processed, sugary diet. There’s more to the story, but that would be enough, damaging my poor gut with highly processed sugary “food” (not sure the ingredients in much of what I ate would qualify as actual food!) and destroying my poor microbiome with antibiotics for years. Emotional distress, anxiety, and overall stress were major contributing factors as well in damaging my gut.
Fast forward from my awkward teenage years into my 20s and 30s. In my 20's I became very interested in healthy eating, nutrition, wellness and yoga. I began eating more fruits and vegetables and drinking more water, and although I had no idea about how to implement mindfulness, the concept intrigued me. However, I was still consuming a ton of cheese, pasta and refined foods. I still ate a ton of sugar. I became a vegetarian, but really, I could have been called a cheese-atarian! My skin trouble now included acne and rosacea, an equally unattractive and uncomfortable condition. I also landed on birth control, while that did seem to help my skin, it was definitely a contributing factor in damaging my gut and disrupting my hormones. By my mid-thirties I struggled with hormone imbalances, primarily low progesterone and infertility. My energy levels declined and yet sleep did not come easily.
I thought I was so healthy. I had changed my diet, I became a passionate vegetarian and even went through bouts of being vegan. I could not understand why I had these health struggles. In my mid-20’s I began practicing yoga regularly, in my late 20's I became a yoga teacher, and managed my stress and anxiety way more effectively. I didn’t get why I had these annoying health problems. Intermingled with skin, hormone and energy problems, I began having uncomfortable digestive distress as well. Nothing crazy, nothing I would label as IBS, but still, not great-- or pleasant.
After becoming a health coach in my 30’s, I became far healthier in terms of diet, lifestyle and nutrition. I consumed WAY less sugar and WAY more veggies and fruits. After eliminating the cheese-cheese-cheese that I ate every day, much of my acne did clear up (especially the painful acne on my back!) but the rosacea, hormone imbalances, low energy and digestive distress were all still there, still annoying me daily.
In my late-ish 30’s I sought outside help for these health concerns. It was recommended that I do food allergy and intolerance testing as well as hormone testing to see if I could address the root cause of my hormone imbalances and skin/digestive concerns.
Turned out that I had a leaky gut. No shocker there! Looking back, I most likely had a leaky gut for a long time. However-- at the time I learned I had a leaky gut, I was shocked! I was living in total denial. (If you are unfamiliar with leaky gut, I again, recommend Google!). The testing that revealed my leaky gut also revealed that I have a mild allergy to peanuts and almonds, both of which I ate nearly every single day. I discovered that I was intolerant to ALL of my vegetarian protein sources: beans, most nuts, peas, soy, and nearly all dairy. All of these intolerances, allergies and system disruptors were causing a ton of inflammation in my body. The inflammation was majorly throwing all of my systems out of balance.
How was this possible? How could my way of eating-- that I believed to be so healthy—how could it be hurting me? The doctor who did the testing broke the news to me; I needed to eat animal protein. I needed to eat meat. She said other testing revealed that I also had low blood sugar and vitamin deficiencies, which is just as dangerous as high blood sugar. One of the best ways to stabilize blood sugar: Eat Protein. Yikes!
While this news was devastating at the time, I had to figure this out. I wanted to feel better, to actually be healthy. As a wholistic food therapist I encourage people to listen to their bodies and to find what works best for them. I tell people all the time that there is no one right way to eat for everyone. Now it was my turn to take my own advice. This was not an easy part of this process! So, with some organization and planning, I started working on healing my super leaky gut.
I started with eliminating all the foods I was intolerant to as well as alcohol and any added sugar. The way the test works is that it shows you what you are super intolerant to: probably should not eat much of that ever again, what you are pretty intolerant to: eliminate for 3 months and slowly add back in and see if you tolerate it, and what you have a low intolerance to: eliminate for 4-6 weeks and slowly add back in and notice how you feel. Unfortunately, how leaky gut works, you often build up an intolerance to the very foods that you eat most often because when your gut is leaky, your digestive tract becomes permeable and food particles get back into your blood stream (they are not supposed to be there!) and your immune system attacks them (because they are not supposed to be there!). Most of the foods I enjoyed and ate regularly I now had to live without.
I followed the plan, eliminated the low offenders for 6 weeks (we’re talking things like black pepper, chocolate, mushrooms…) The medium offenders I eliminated for 3 months, the highest ones for 6 months. Still to this day some of the medium and highest offenders I just don’t eat anymore. Feeling bad is just not worth it. I added in the recommended supplements: L-Glutamine, a high quality fish oil, Vitamin D, digestive enzymes, methylated B vitamins and… meat. Yes, meat. I started with seafood and worked my way to land animals. Turns out my body prefers to eat meat. It is ridiculous, a dedicated vegetarian and yogini, and yet my body thrives on meat. Boo.
I worked really hard to make peace with this, that my body seems to need meat, and somedays I still struggle, but it truly has made a difference.
So, this is it, right? End of the story, I took out the offenders, added in what would help heal me and I’m healed! Uh, NOPE. Unfortunately, that is not where my Surviving SIBO story ends. While I did absolutely feel way better, there were still problems. While my typical acne completely cleared up and my skin looked better than ever, I still had the annoying and uncomfortable skin condition rosacea. Itchy, red blotches and little gross bumps on my cheeks, and sometimes forehead, chin and nose. Super yuck. I also still had some stomach upset pretty much daily. Not all day, just nearly every day. While not to the degree it was, it was still there, manageable, but definitely unpleasant.
Over the course of the next year or so I adapted to a mostly Paleo-style diet and that seemed to work for me overall. I would say I was at about 70% better after about a year. At this point I had heard about SIBO, probably considered that I had SIBO, but after the hard work of healing leaky gut, I was in denial that I had it. It is such a pain (but SO worth it) to heal the gut. Over time the discomfort of my symptoms became more uncomfortable than the fear of the hard work to truly heal myself. So, I got tested for SIBO. I was positive for hydrogen-dominant SIBO at a pretty high level. Again, no shocker there. It felt like I had to go back to the drawing board. I had figure out all these new protocols and supplements and dietary theories.
There is SO much information out there in the way of healing SIBO, but there are no two people with SIBO conditions exactly alike. Some people respond better to certain treatments than others. Not to mention that there are a ton of differing opinions amongst the “SIBO guru’s” out there and it seems what one professional recommends, another recommends a seemingly opposite approach.
Through discovering and studying other peoples experiences of how they healed their SIBO, it became extremely apparent that this was NOT going to be easy. Or any fun…
Does this story sound familiar? Have you also struggled with digestive disorders or leaky gut? If so, keep in touch! Community is a great way to reduce stress and find support and hope! I know one thing for sure, without the support of my husband, sister and friends and family I would not have survived this. It is so helpful to share your experience and get support to heal yourself.
I can say (now that I have the treatment phase behind me) that it was all worth it. Along with support, the other thing that got me through was the hope that every day was an opportunity to feel better and improve my health for the long term.
So that’s it, the story of the background up to my diagnosis. Come on back to hear about how I treated my bout of SIBO and how I am maintaining my gut health!