Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) affects one in five adult Americans, and is responsible for up to 40% of referrals to gastroenterologists. While there are legitimate criteria used to diagnose IBS (alternating constipation and diarrhea, bloating, abdominal pain), the term is generally used to label patients who don't have Crohn's disease, ulcerative colitis, or other underlying "organic" diseases. Once patients have been labeled with having IBS, they are often given one or more medications to treat the symptoms, usually with little to no relief.
Fortunately for IBS sufferers, a multitude of underlying factors may be the real cause of digestive symptoms, making the likelihood of recovery much more promising. One condition in particular that's often overlooked is small intestinal bacterial overgrowth (SIBO). This is an abnormal colonization of bacteria within the small intestine by bacteria that are normally found in the colon, mouth, or pharynx. When left untreated, SIBO is not only mistaken with IBS, but has been linked to fibromyalgia and chronic fatigue syndrome as well. The cause of SIBO isn't always clear, but patients who are at higher risk include those with chronic constipation, achlorhydria, diabetes, scleroderma, diverticulosis, and adhesions from prior surgeries.
Up to 78% of patients who are diagnosed with IBS may in fact be experiencing SIBO. Testing for this condition is performed by blowing into a tube that measures gases given off by the excessive amount of bacteria that are present in the small intestine. While these tests are typically offered by gastroenterologists, there are several commercial laboratories that offer test kits for home use, which are then mailed back to the laboratory for analysis. If diagnosed, SIBO can be treated initially with specialized antibiotics. Once the offending bacteria are successfully eradicated, measures should then be taken to improve the intestinal environment (probiotics, digestive enzymes, etc.), which should help to prevent recurrence.
A diagnosis of IBS does not mean all hope is lost. Explore the possibility of SIBO, and seek out a naturopath or other alternative practitioner who can focus on how the digestive tract functions, rather than just looking for a disease.