Could IBS be caused by something as simple as a bacterial infection?
The perfect microbiome
A microbiome is the collection of good and bad bacteria in your body. Ideally they are perfectly balanced and work together to give you great health.
The perfect balance of bacteria can look different for everyone. It is unique to where you live, the food you eat, and what you have been exposed to throughout your life. While there is not a benchmark for everyone, there is certainly an ideal microbiome for you.
Your digestive tract is an amazing organ. It has the ability to adapt and change as you do. The bacteria found in senior citizens is different from newborns. People with gut issues will have different bacterial strains when compared to people without gut issues.
Read more about how the gut works.
Is there a connection between IBS and the microbiome?
Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) is a group of symptoms—including pain or discomfort in the abdomen and changes in bowel patterns.
The time it takes food to move through your body is related to the amount and type of bacteria in your digestive tract. (1)
The gut bacteria of people with IBS is usually unbalanced.(2, 3, 4) The microbiome of someone who has IBS with diarrhea is quite different than the microbiome of someone who has IBS with constipation. Good to know if you are interested in taking probiotics for your IBS. Since the symptoms of IBS are so varied, so far a “typical” IBS microbiome has not been discovered.
However, there does seem to be a collection of bacteria that cause IBS symptoms. Researchers transferred bacteria from the large intestine of patients with IBS into mice that did not have any bacteria in their GI tract. The mice then started suffering from IBS symptoms. (5)
There are also some general characteristics of the bacteria found in people with IBS. Their bacterial species are usually less diverse and less stable. The bacteria found in the guts of people with IBS are also thought to be more vulnerable to changes in stress and diet. (6)
While more research is needed to figure out the role bacteria play in the development or treatment of IBS, I believe there are steps that can be taken to ensure your gut bacteria are healthy and well-balanced.
The first is ensuring the beneficial bacteria in our guts are well fed through a healthy diet.
Healthy gut bacteria: Diet
Diet has the greatest influence on the human microbiome. A healthy diet adds good bacteria to the digestive tract and feeds the bacteria already residing there.
Foods that are fermented supply the body with new bacterial colonies. These foods include:
- yogurt, and
Resistant starches act as food for the bacteria in our digestive tracts. These foods include:
- green bananas and plantains,
- cooked and cooled rice, and
- white potatoes.
Avoiding refined and packaged foods is a great idea for people with IBS. These foods more often than not contain ingredients that are not whole foods and can cause inflammation in your gut. This inflammation creates an imbalance in your bacteria.
Gut bacteria does change with dietary changes. Participants in a study tried two diets: exclusively plant-based and then exclusively animal-based. Their gut bacteria dramatically changed based on whether they were consuming high carbohydrates on the plant-based diet or high proteins on the animal-based diet. (7)
There is a strong connection between IBS and undiagnosed celiac disease or non-celiac gluten sensitivity. (8, 9) People with IBS are much more likely to be allergic or sensitive to wheat or gluten. This means that when gluten is eaten, the body attacks the proteins and causes inflammation, affecting the balance of good and bad bacteria.
With this in mind, adopting a gluten-free diet is very important. Starting a whole food or Paleo diet will offer healthy food for the beneficial bacteria in your gut at the same time.
I recommend patients with IBS start with a 30-day Paleo reset diet. A Paleo diet sets you up with the perfect foundation for healthy bacteria.
A low FODMAP diet is also highly recommended for people with IBS, however do not start it until you’ve tried eating Paleo first. Once you have a Paleo nutrition plan mastered, it becomes much easier to tweak it to your individual needs.
Diet changes alone are often not enough to create a healthy microbiome. Stress plays an equally important part in the balance of good and bad bacteria in your gut.
Healthy gut bacteria: Stress
Stress is also one of the most significant risk factors for IBS. (10, 11, 12) The body’s stress response is governed by the HPA-axis. The HPA-axis is what prepares the body for the “fight or flight” response during a stressful event. The effects of the stress response are the same whether you encounter a bear or if you’re speaking in public.
You’re probably familiar with the physical symptoms of stress such as butterflies in the stomach, insomnia, nervousness, and sweaty palms. But recent research has shown the body’s response to stress also affects the bacteria in your gut. (13, 14, 15) In animal studies, mice raised without any intestinal bacteria respond to a mild stressor with increased stress response. (16) Even more fascinating, the stress response in these mice was normal after their guts were colonized with beneficial bacteria. (17)
Lowering your body’s stress levels can be as simple as taking a probiotic supplement.(18, 19) One study showed that taking basic lactobacillus and bifidobacterium species of probiotics were effective in boosting the subjects resilience to stress and improved emotional responses. (20) This research suggests that there is a strong connection between the gut and the brain in determining the body’s stress response. Many researchers like to call this the gut-brain axis.
Check out my tips on the best probiotics for IBS.
Simple steps to reduce the amount of stress you experience
- Learn to say no. Know your limits and be aware of over-committing yourself.
- Avoid people who stress you out. Limit your time with people who might be prone to drama or conflict, if you can’t avoid them entirely.
- Turn off the news, or at least limit your exposure. So much of the media coverage today is sensationalistic. Try looking for more neutral sources of news.
- Give up pointless arguments.
- Limit your to-do list. Ask yourself which items on your list are essential and see if you can cross anything off your list.
- Reduce your exposure to online stress.
Find an option for stress management that works for you.
There are a number of different clinically proven ways to manage stress, from yoga to deep breathing to biofeedback. Below are several points to consider, and a few options for specific techniques.
- Start small. If you’re new to meditation, start with just five minutes each day. Gradually increase that time as you become more accustomed to the practice.
- Make it a priority. Consider putting it on your calendar, just as you would any other important task for the day.
- Be gentle with yourself. It’s okay if you miss a day, and it’s okay if you don’t feel like you’re “good” at it.
- Choose a mix of practices. Some days sitting still on the cushion may feel near impossible, and yoga or another movement-based practice may be a better fit for the day.
There are other stresses occurring in our body that we can’t see. These include blood sugar dysregulation, chronic inflammation, and sleep disturbances. I explore each of these topics and offer solutions in this series of posts about the causes of adrenal fatigue.
By changing both your diet and the way you handle stress you’re well on your way to balancing your good and bad bacteria and creating a healthy microbiome. Should you implement these practices and you still don’t see an improvement in your symptoms, working with a Functional Medicine practitioner is a great next step. Together, you can test your microbiome to exactly find out what may be causing your IBS.
This blog post is the third in the series Possible Causes of IBS. Be sure to check out the other posts:
Does Low Stomach Acid Cause IBS?
Now, I want to hear from you!
What strategies have you used to change your gut bacteria for the better?
Also published on Medium.