Leaky gut/SIBO is not the real problem.

For the past few years there has been a lot of attention put onto the health of the gastrointestinal (GI) system, and rightly so. Terms such as “leaky gut” and “small intestinal bacteria overgrowth” (SIBO) have taken over in the world of holistic medicine as the possible causes of disease that ails people. People will treat these concerns and they will feel better! But I do believe that there is more to the story than that. So, let’s start first with the GI and then we will move to where the real problem is, the nervous system.

The ecosystem within the GI is a crucial part of health. As a naturopath, I learned this from day one. I learned that it is important that you put the proper foods into your diet. Foods that are nature/GOD made, not man made.  If you consume foods that are high sugar, high inflammation, high fat, and high in toxicity then you will influence the health of your digestion which in turn affects the rest of your body.  The most important part of diet as it relates to leaky gut/SIBO is the reduction of inflammation. What I have found is that if you consume foods that cause an inflammatory reaction within the GI, this will impact permeability of the gastrointestinal lining and alter the probiotic levels within the environment. Once these reactions begin taking place, leaky gut/SIBO start to become the end result of this process.

Another primary contributor to leaky gut/SIBO is the use of antibiotic therapy. You might ask how can this be because antibiotics are a primary treatment for SIBO. In my clinical experience, the suppressive action of antibiotics on the body is catastrophic to the health of that ecosystem (and in truth the whole body). That being said, there are times to take antibiotics, and yes, your system can recover back to balance after a course of taking them. But when there are reoccurring infections that are being treated with antibiotics or you are trying to kill off a strain of bacteria that is causing chronic symptoms in an individual, I feel that you are really only “kicking the dog while it is down.” This will enable long term negative patterns of physiology to continue, and prevent healing. The short term gain is by no means worth the long term consequences.

So what is really the cause of leaky gut/SIBO? It is an imbalance in the autonomic nervous system (ANS). The nervous system in your body has two parts. The part you can control, like raising your hand above your head, and the part you can not control, like stimulating enzyme function in the stomach. The ANS is the later, the one you can not control (but you can influence) and this is the one where the cause of leaky gut/SIBO lies. The ANS has two parts, the sympathetic (fight or flight) and parasympathetic (rest and digest). It can get pretty complicated going forward, so I will work to keep it simple. Let’s start with an analogy: you have a 12 piece orchestra. The instruments are your organs. The conductor is the ANS. If your conductor is leading the orchestra from a “fight or flight” state (high energy , high stress, and high tension), this will influence the long term capacity of the musicians. Much the same way that if you are living in a “fight or flight” state, which most people are, you will influence the long term capacity of your organ systems. And one of the most influenced is the GI system. Why? It really all has to do with blood flow. The GI is considered a non-essential system, so when stress happens, blood gets diverted from the tissue in the GI. Everything in the body needs blood (and lymphatic fluid) flow to function properly. We know this because if we do not water our plants and veggies, what happens? They become subject to infestation and die. This is exactly what is happening in the GI when leaky gut/SIBO are created. There is a lack of consistent blood flow (and lymphatic flow) to the tissue of the GI system and the lovely membrane that is lining the intestines starts to break down. As this lining diminishes, your capacity to manage inflammation within the GI drops. As the permeability opens up (leaky gut), larger molecular structures make their way into the blood stream creating systemic inflammation (allergy, joint pain, etc..). As the lymphatic fluid slows down you do not eliminate metabolic toxicity, which further overloads the kidney, lung and liver. And of course the other major thing that happens is you get small intestinal bacteria overgrowth (SIBO) because the environment is conducive to the build up of bad bacteria, fungus and parasite. This will all lead an individual down the chronic disease road to cancer, auto-immunity, heart disease, Alzheimer’s, etc…

Too often we are focusing our attention on the symptoms and not treating the cause of the problem. If you are dealing with leaky gut or SIBO (or really almost all chronic illnesses), you need to eat well, reduce inflammation, avoid taking long term suppressive medications (all prescription medications are suppressive), BUT most of all what you need to do is to break the pattern of “fight or flight” within the ANS so you can get “water to the plants”. You have to get blood (and lymphatic fluid) to the GI tissue and support proper elimination of metabolic toxicity. This is the only way to change the environment so healing can happen.

Here is your number one tip for improving the ANS- stop worrying, you are going to be ok!




Naturopathic physician who is educating people about their health in order to empower them to practice self care.