Our intestines are a rich and thriving ecosystem, when we are healthy.
The massive surface of our intestines (about the same as a tennis court) provides everything needed for life – space, moisture, and nutrients. Given the ubiquity of anti-bacterial products in our society, many people are surprised to learn that they have about 10 trillion bacteria living in their intestines. But not only do we have bacteria lining our digestive tract, we desperately need them.
There are basically three types of micro-organisms living in our intestines: Good bacteria; Bad bacteria/microorganisms; and Disease organisms.
The good bacteria include species and strains that we evolved with, like acidopholus and bifidobacterium. These are an essential part of our digestive systems and we would not survive without them. They help us to digest food by producing enzymes, manufacture some of the essential nutrients that we need to live, assist in the development of our immune system, and prevent infection by occupying the space in the intestines that unwelcome organisms would thrive in, if they could.
The bad bacteria and microorganisms include many species and strains that don’t symbiotically help us, but rather upset the balance. These can include bacteria that crowd out the species we need or other organisms like yeast. While some bad bacteria and yeast are often present in small numbers in healthy people, excessive yeast growth can upset the balance and trigger all kinds of effects. Since the advent of medical antibiotics it is quite common for people to use wide-spectrum anti-biotics and unwittingly kill off the bacteria they need, allowing bad microorganisms to ‘claim more turf’ and upset the balance.
Finally, disease organisms like salmonella, Heliobacter pylori, even certain strains of E. coli can infect the intestine and lead to IBS symptoms or worse. Parasites like Giardia, Cryptosporidium, even worms, can be contracted through contact with pets, infected persons, or contaminated food or water. These can cause a whole host of symptoms, but may only be evident from the symptoms that define IBS – altered stool habits and abdominal pain or discomfort. In some cases these disease organisms can be eradicated by your own immune system, but often they need to be treated.
IBS can be caused by these and other health conditions. In order to identify and treat the cause of the symptoms it is necessary to consult with a physician familiar with all the causes and testing. Click here for more information on testing.
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Dr. Stephen Wangen is the award winning author of two books on solving digestive disorders, and a nationally recognized speaker on IBS. He has been on ABC, NBC, and Fox as well as public radio. He was recently named one of Seattle’s Top Doctors by Seattle Magazine.