Getting to the Root of Chronic Illness: Part V

In part one of this series, I introduced you to the idea of the “perfect storm” of factors that collide to create chronic, long-term health problems. Make no mistake: A host of physical, biochemical, and psychological stressors are at the root of every disease, and these stressors are brewing beneath the surface for many years before symptoms actually develop.

In parts two, three, and four, I shared with you the first 7 heavy hitters that pave the way for chronic fatigue and pain syndromes, as well as other illnesses, to take hold:

#1 Psychological Stress, Unresolved Trauma, and Unexpressed Emotions

#2 Sleep Deprivation

#3 Sedentary Lifestyle and Lack of Exercise

#4 Physical/Bio-Mechanical Stress

#5 Low Stomach Acid (Hypochlorhydria)

#6 Hidden Food Sensitivities, Intolerances, and Celiac Disease

#7 Dysbiosis (aka: Out of Whack Gut Microbes)

Today, I will focus entirely on the health of the gut with factors #8 and #9. There's no doubt about it: Most if not all chronic illnesses begin and end in the gut, even seemingly unrelated conditions such as chronic Lyme and mold illness can be set in motion by impaired gut health! For those of you afflicted with these conditions, I don’t doubt at all that you have them, as I did, but I believe that impaired digestion and gut inflammation flip on certain genetic predispositions that make us more vulnerable to succumbing to them. That’s why healing and sealing the gut is a primary focus of the work I do with clients, with great success.

Your Gut Is The Gateway to Health or Disease

If you’ve been chronically ill for any length of time, you have probably heard the terms “leaky gut” and “small intestinal bacterial overgrowth.” You see, the digestive system does a lot more than break down and assimilate our food!

Our gut is our body’s first line of defense against microbes and toxins that we are exposed to through the food we eat, water we drink, and the people with whom we come into contact. It houses 80% of the body’s immune system.

Our unique gut microbiome, the gut flora that live in our intestines, regulate everything from our hormones to our detoxification capacity to our mental health! Yes, the microbiome is that powerful and far-reaching

For healing to take place, restoring gut health and optimizing digestion must be prioritized, which I didn’t learn until I was very far into my illness journey. You might be thinking, “but what exactly IS ‘small intestinal bacterial overgrowth’ and ‘leaky gut’? What causes them? How do I know if I have them, and what can I do?” Let’s get into that now.

#8 Small Intestinal Bacterial Overgrowth

SIBO, or small intestinal bacterial overgrowth, is just that—an overgrowth of bacteria in the small intestine, the part of your digestive tract where the nutrients from food are absorbed for your cells to use as fuel. The small intestine should be relatively sterile, and SIBO is a condition in which gut microbes that belong in the large intestine and colon become translocated into the small intestine.

Symptoms of SIBO can include bloating, especially after meals, gas, indigestion, gastrointestinal reflux, constipation or diarrhea, abdominal cramping or pain, nausea, vomiting, anxiety or depression, widespread pain, and fatigue. At my worst with SIBO, I weighed 105 lbs. (I’m 5’6) and I was vomiting up to 20 times a day and having diarrhea 10-15 times a day—and the medical interventions offered to me by a motility specialist at at a major research hospital did not offer me lasting relief.

Most conventional doctors don’t recognize SIBO as a real condition and instead, they diagnose patients with “IBS” and send them off with a prescription for anti-nausea aids, proton-pump inhibitors, and/or antibiotics—the worst offenders when it comes to gut health—or laxatives. Even among the doctors who do acknowledge that it exists—usually functional medicine doctors—they often don’t explain to their patients that SIBO at its core is a product of system-wide imbalance and a fractured brain-gut connection that has persisted for many years, and ultimately has impaired gastrointestinal motility.  

SIBO Develops Due to Impaired Motility, Which Is Often Set In Motion By Chronic Stress!

While microbes are certainly wreaking havoc in your small intestine with SIBO, the reason they were given the chance to proliferate in the first place is primarily due to poor gut motility. This is the most important aspect to address when healing SIBO. If you don’t, the microbes will keep coming back, as many SIBO patients discover after several failed rounds of the antibiotic Xifaxan (rifaximin).

Gut motility is the process by which food particles progress down the digestive tract through a series of muscle contractions, and a key component of this is the migrating motor complex (MMC).

The migrating motor complex sweeps partially digested food particles, waste, and microorganisms through the intestines so that they can be eliminated via the large intestine and colon and end up where they belong—in the toilet.  The MMC is most active between meals and is intimately connected to the tone of the vagus nerve.  Chronic psychological stress is one of the biggest impediments to a properly functioning vagus nerve and MMC. When your brain is in a stressed state, your body is prioritizing getting you out of danger, not digesting your lunch!

So with every tyrant boss you work for, every toxic relationship you find yourself in, every emotion you suppress rather than express, every fight you have with your partner that goes unresolved, or any other stressful life situation—the rhythm of your migrating motor complex becomes disrupted, and over time the function of the gut becomes greatly compromised.  Because you are unable to efficiently sweep all that debris through the GI tract, bacteria remain in your small intestine instead of being swepped into the large intestine—and you develop SIBO.

Some other factors that prime a person for SIBO are the use of antacids and NSAIDs, low stomach acid, overconsumption of caffeine, a bad case of the stomach flu or food poisoning (which can lead to autoimmune SIBO), low thyroid and adrenal function, ileocecal valve dysfunction, hormonal imbalances, other underlying illnesses that affect the neurological system, and the list goes on.  

Eradicating SIBO for GOOD

First, it’s crucial to determine which type of SIBO you have via proper testing in order to target it with specific antimicrobials. There are four types, including methane dominant, hydrogen dominant, mixed, and hydrogen-sulfide. Unfortunately, some doctors fail to target the specific type you have, and instead use a one-size-fits-all-approach, which seldom results in long-term resolution.

Then I introduce a healing diet (such as the Specific Carbohydrate Diet (SCD) or SIBO specific diet for those in acute distress) and simple lifestyle interventions to re-engage the gut-brain axis, such as gargling and using the non-dominant hand for tasks.  From here, we then move on to address the bacterial overgrowth with herbal antimicrobials, an elemental diet, or a combination of the two. 

And perhaps most importantly, I offer mind-body strategies to help patients let go of the toxic thoughts, patterns, behaviors, relationships, and choices that are keeping their guts sick and their migrating motor complexes dysfunctional, including perfectionism, overworking, self-criticism, and eating on the run, to name a few.

Note that a full panel of DNA-PCR based gut testing is strongly recommended at the same time we test for SIBO, in order to identify stealth pathogens in the large intestine too, as they undoubtedly need to be treated before SIBO can be addressed. In my case, I was infected with the parasite Giardia, which had to be addressed first and took over a year to eradicate (though I was able to introduce herbs for SIBO well before the 1-year mark).

#9 Intestinal Permeability, aka “Leaky Gut”

If you are positive for SIBO, you most definitely have a leaky gut; SIBO bacteria will inflame the gut, interfere with the digestion and absorption of nutrients, and damage the cells of the gut lining. But not everyone with a leaky gut will necessarily have SIBO, though it definitely sets the stage for harmful bugs to set up camp!

In a nutshell, a leaky gut occurs when the tight junctions between the cells that line our intestinal tract become compromised, allowing undigested food particles and other harmful antigens to enter our bloodstream, where they don’t belong!

The gut lining is the major protective barrier between you and the outside world. When intact, it keeps food particles and harmful microbes contained within your intestines, but when compromised, it allows these substances and their bi-products into your blood, triggering an inflammatory immune response. This is how a “leaky gut” instigates food sensitivities; the immune system sees these food particles and microbes and develops antibodies to attack them. This inflammatory immune system response becomes chronic, triggering widespread inflammation in both the body and the brain and paving the way for autoimmunity, chronic fatigue syndrome, anxiety and depression, and many other debilitating conditions.

Remember, the majority of the body’s immune system resides in the gut. The strength of our immune system relies heavily upon antibodies and immunoglobulins to attack foreign invaders. Secretory IgA, the most abundant immunoglobulin in the body, is produced primarily by the gut lining.

The longer the gut lining is compromised, the lower SIgA falls, effectively lowering our defenses against gut pathogens and raising our risk of diseases of all types. Most chronic infections reside in the gut, and if they are not in the gut, then reduced SIgA plays an integral role in a person succumbing to infections elsewhere in the body. Such infections would include chronic Lyme, Epstein Barr, and intracellular parasites such as Babesia.   

Long story short: You want a healthy, plush gut lining with optimal function!

Gluten is especially problematic because it directly triggers leaky gut through the production of a molecule called zonulin, which opens the tight junctions between the cells of our gut lining. Other contributing factors include the Standard American diet full of hydrogenated oils and sugar, and various prescription drugs, with proton pump inhibitors and antibiotics being at the top of the list as well as statins and birth control pills. And of course, all gut dysfunction has a stress component, as it slows digestion and creates a hostile environment in the gut, which eats away at the gut lining.

Repairing Leaky Gut

There are many steps involved in healing and sealing your gut lining, such as removing inflammatory food triggers such as gluten, dairy, and for some, grains, legumes, and nightshades; adding in supplements to help your digestion, such as digestive enzymes with or without HCL (dependent upon the results of an H. Pylori test); probiotics ideally in food form but also supplements if needed; and gut soothing and repairing products such as slippery elm, DGL, N-Acetyl-Glucosamine, L-glutamine, and others, all bio-individualized to the person (some of these can feed SIBO and should be avoided in those individuals).

As much as possible, it’s also vital to lower stress, which eats away at the intestinal lining; make good quality sleep a top life priority, which means get to bed by 10pm and keep electronics out of your bedroom; and eat meals in a calm, relaxed environment without working or scrolling through your phone. If you eat while engaged in something else, you’re sending a very profound message to your body that it’s not time to digest food. Ideally, you will also be sharing some meals with someone you enjoy being around; happiness improves digestion!

Heal Your Gut, Heal Your Life

No matter how far down the illness rabbit hole you have fallen, you can recover, and healing your gut will be an integral part of this process. I am a living, breathing testament to that fact; my list of diagnoses was long and growing by the day, and I spent upwards of $300,000 in my quest to get well. It wasn’t until I identified and removed my gut pathogens—and broke out of the conventional medicine paradigm that made me hyper-focused on my diagnoses and merely matched symptoms to medications—that my body finally got the opportunity to do what it does best: Heal.  And yours can, too!

Chronic illness, while it brings tremendous loss and suffering, is ultimately an invitation to transform your thoughts, behaviors, environment, and overall understanding of health in order to find true and lasting well-being. It is a wake-up call, and if you answer that call and put in the work to address root causes, you will find vibrant health on the other side! 

Stay tuned for Part VI where you’ll learn more about the consequences of gut dysfunction and inflammation.

Cheers to Restoring Your Health and Reclaiming Your Life!