I have an issue with modern medical practices. And I may as well get it out there.
It’s all too common in modern medicine to focus on the symptoms and ignore the root problem. I get why medical professionals do this. First off, they’re trained that way. It’s hard to break out of the system you’ve been trained into. Second, the pharmaceutical companies push hard for their products. Third, medical professionals genuinely want to help their patients feel better. So there’s a temptation to focus entirely on getting rid of symptoms.
In my practice, I do it differently. I am all about helping my patients feel better. I hate seeing people suffer. And I know how miserable digestive issues like IBS can be. But I don’t want to just put a band-aid on your symptoms. My goal is to solve the underlying issues and imbalances so the symptoms go away naturally. This avoids long-term use of many medications, an improvement in overall health, and oftentimes a full recovery from the illness or issue that’s causing the problems in the first place.
Unfortunately, many people who are diagnosed with IBS don’t have a practitioner who goes the distance on this. They visit an overworked doctor and get a prescription to alleviate their symptoms. But they don’t get the chance to really dig deep and unearth the root cause.
If this is a familiar scenario, this article is for you.
I want to touch on some of the common misconceptions about IBS root causes. Once you understand these misconceptions, you can have a genuinely productive conversation with your practitioner about addressing your own underlying issues. And if they won’t help you, you’ll know that for sure and you can go shopping for someone new who’s willing to do the work of getting to the bottom of things.
IBS Root Cause Misconception #1: It doesn’t matter what I eat, so it can’t be the food.
Food is powerful. We don’t often think of it that way. You’re hungry, so you eat. Then you’re not hungry anymore.
But the saying is actually true. You really are what you eat.
Of course what you eat provides the calories you need to power through your life. But there’s more to it than that. The nutrients in your food help build the hormones and enzymes that keep your systems running effectively. Your body uses the nutrients you eat to build everything from the stomach acid that digests your food to the very walls of your cells.
When a patient comes to me and tells me they feel bad no matter what they eat, I don’t rule out food as a potential issue. Food is powerful. But if you react poorly to certain things, food can also backfire on you.
So why don’t I feel better when I change what I’m eating?
There are several possibilities:
😕 You’re reacting to a variety of foods and you haven’t eliminated all the right ones at the same time.
😕 Adverse food reactions can happen in minutes. But sometimes it takes days for the problems to manifest. So it’s hard to pinpoint the foods that are bothering you.
😕 The foods you react to have done damage that can’t be undone just by eliminating those foods. There is other healing that needs to happen also.
😕 Your issues are complicated and it will take more than just eliminating problem foods to fix them.
IBS is a complex condition. And while changing what you eat may not fix everything, figuring out your food issues (allergies, sensitivities, and intolerances) will certainly make a difference.
IBS Root Cause Misconception #2: My food allergy test was negative so food must not be the issue.
Allergies are one potential reaction to foods. When you have a food allergy, your immune system recognizes something in the food (usually the protein) as an invading “enemy”. So it attacks.
When it comes to allergies, the immune response is usually quick and pronounced — and sometimes even life-threatening.
But just because you don’t test positive for food allergies doesn’t mean you don’t react to foods. There are other possibilities.
One of the tests I often use with my clients is the MRT Food Sensitivity Test. You can be sensitive to a food without being allergic to it. Your immune system is still involved, but it’s a different type of reaction.
Food sensitivities are usually harder to figure out than allergies. They are less acute and often take longer to manifest. That’s why getting an accurate food sensitivity test is so crucial if you have IBS or other digestive issues. But be careful, the food sensitivity tests advertised on TV are not very accurate. They provide limited testing that overlooks and misdiagnoses a variety of sensitivities. So make sure you get a good quality test (like the MRT) with a qualified practitioner.
Or maybe you’re struggling with food intolerances. This occurs when your digestive system struggles with a specific food. In this case your immune system is not involved at all. So neither an allergy test or a food sensitivity test will tell you anything.
IBS Root Cause Misconception #3: IBS is the root cause of my symptoms
IBS is not a root cause. It’s a general diagnosis, but it isn’t actually the cause of your symptoms. If you’ve been diagnosed with IBS, you have some other underlying issues that are responsible for the irritation in your digestive system.
That’s why there is no one-size-fits-all medication for IBS. You have to figure out what’s going on inside your body that’s causing your IBS symptoms. Then address that issue. Here are a few possibilities:
SIBO — small intestine bacterial overgrowth
You’ve probably heard of the microbiome. This is the colony of bacteria and other organisms that live in your large intestine. It may sound unpleasant, but a healthy microbiome helps you with your digestion, immune function, mood, and more.
But sometimes the healthy bacteria from your large intestine can creep north and enter your small intestine. And once it gets there, it can multiply and get out of control. That’s what’s referred to as SIBO.
SIBO can cause a variety of other issues, including IBS.
SIFO — Small intestinal fungal overgrowth
In this case, instead of a bacterial overgrowth, your small intestine has an overgrowth of fungus. SIFO can cause symptoms like bloating, abdominal pain, and diarrhea. If you’ve been diagnosed with IBS, those symptoms might sound familiar.
It is possible to diagnose and treat both SIBO and SIFO. But if you don’t have a practitioner who knows to check for these imbalances, you won’t ever get down to this particular root cause.
Imbalances in the gut microbiome
Even if the bacteria and fungi in your gut are staying in the large intestine, you can still have issues with your microbiome. We all have both “good” bacteria and “bad” bacteria in our large intestine. And when things are going well, the beneficial bacteria keeps the potentially harmful bacteria in check.
But sometimes things get out of whack. If you take certain medications like antibiotics, or use too many antibacterial products, or eat an unhealthy diet, you can end up with an imbalance in your gut that can be responsible for your IBS symptoms.
Leaky gut occurs when the walls of your small intestine develop tiny fissures. When this happens, food particles can leak out and cause problems. These issues can range from digestive issues to autoimmune disease. And yes, leaky gut can also be an underlying cause of IBS.
IBS Root Cause Misconception #3: Stress has nothing to do with it.
If you’ve ever had butterflies in your stomach when you’re nervous, you’ve seen how stress and your gut are connected.
Whether you had a traumatic or stressful event as a child, or are under severe stress as an adult, it can affect your digestion, and even cause the issues associated with IBS.
What do I do now?
If your doctor has told you that there’s nothing you can do to fix your IBS, you probably need to find a new practitioner. That doesn’t mean that you have to switch doctors. Honestly, most medical doctors (even gastroenterologists) don’t know that much about the myriad of root causes associated with IBS.
I recommend you find a practitioner who can work in concert with your doctor, like a functional nutritionist or a dietitian who is experienced in dealing with IBS and its underlying causes. And yes, this just happens to be my jam. I’ve worked with hundreds of patients on getting to the bottom of their IBS symptoms. I implement strategies to reduce the symptoms, but I also dig deeper to find the root cause so we can stop the symptoms from the source.