Stop the Leak! IBS and Chronic Fatigue Syndrome Examined
By Brenda Watson, CNC
Did you know that an estimated one in five Americans suffers from some form of irritable bowel syndrome (IBS)? Of course, bowel trouble is a subject we rarely discuss—it’s still a big taboo. The downside to this is that up to 90% of those with IBS never even talk to their health care professional about it.
But these are discussions we should be having. Why? The underlying imbalance that is contributing to IBS is also contributing to other issues such as chronic fatigue syndrome (CFS). CFS is a tricky diagnosis that, like IBS, was long considered a psychological disorder. Both syndromes produce mysterious symptoms that are difficult to pinpoint and seem in some way connected with the brain. That’s because they are connected with the brain—and the whole body. Some of the symptoms are definitely physiological, but cannot be chalked up to a simple case of psychosomatic triggers. IBS and CFS are real physical disorders, and they are more connected than you might think.
The Center Connection
At first glance, the symptom lists for these two disorders doesn’t look too similar.
IBS symptoms include:
- More frequent, looser stools with accompanying abdominal pain
- Abdominal bloating and relief of pain after elimination
- Feeling of incomplete evacuation when you go
- Alternating constipation and diarrhea
- Passing mucus with the stool
- Abdominal spasms, flatulence, nausea, vomiting
The primary CFS symptoms include:
- Chronic fatigue for more than 6 months
- Poor memory/concentration
- Exhaustion for over 24 hours after exercise
- Joint pain, but no swelling
- Ongoing muscle pain
- More severe headaches
- Tender lymph nodes/sore throat
- Poor sleep/feelings of never being rested
So, what could these two disorders possibly have in common? One seems entirely localized to the bowel and the other seems to be a general weariness and whole-body depletion. The connection between the two lies in the gut, and specifically in the balance of bacteria in the gut. I cannot emphasize enough how much dysbiosis, or an imbalance of the important bacteria you need in your gut, affects the bowels and the whole bodily system.
Dysbiosis is implicated in many health issues as a significant underlying trigger and yet it is seldom addressed in standard medical practice. “Eat better” is the comment many receive from their health professional on this topic. Sounds good, but what on earth does food have to do with chronic fatigue?
It Starts in the (Leaky) Gut
In IBS sufferers, dysbiosis often underlies their most painful symptoms—the unpredictable and alternating diarrhea or constipation that leaves sufferers bolting for the bathroom or painfully backed up. This happens when an excess of harmful, potentially pathogenic bacteria build up in the intestines, crowding out the beneficial, health-supporting bacteria. These harmful bacteria produce endotoxins and excessive intestinal fermentation which triggers constipation and diarrhea and the inflammatory immune response also associated with IBS.
The common ground between an issue that seems localized to the gut such as irritable bowel syndrome and one that spreads throughout the body such as chronic fatigue syndrome is leaky gut, or increased intestinal permeability. The endotoxins produced by harmful bacteria (plus poor dietary choices and stress) erode the lining of the gut, making the intestines more permeable. Instead of a fine cheesecloth-like lining designed to only let nutritious particles through, you now have a leaky sieve.
A leaky gut allows large particles and toxins to pass through the semi-permeable intestinal wall and into the bloodstream. In a balanced gut environment, the beneficial bacteria along the mucosal lining of the intestines help prevent this leakage. In an imbalanced environment, the gut has lost its primary line of bacterial defense and all bets are off.
When the gut has been compromised in this way, an immune response is triggered by the large particles and toxins. This immune response contributes to inflammation throughout the body. Inflammation is a probable trigger for many CFS symptoms. The immune response also communicates with the autonomic nervous system that is linked to the brain. The gut-brain connection is complex, but to simplify it is a connection that likely results in the psychological symptoms both people with IBS and CFS can experience. These symptoms include anxiety, depression, irritability, and trouble concentrating.
The exact causes of CFS are unknown, although it is believed to be a combination of causative factors that all add up to an immune dysfunction. Instead of fighting a virus, however, your body is fighting internal triggers such as leaky gut and the associated toxin spread. The general digestive imbalance that contributes to leaky gut is also implicated in IBS symptoms. Both issues can be traced to a similar gut imbalance.
Balancing the Gut
The gut can be rebalanced from a state of dysbiosis to symbiosis, a state in which bacteria and the gut as a whole work in harmony.
The first step in both conditions is to address Candida overgrowth, if it exists, and to rule out parasite infection, and hormone imbalance. These issues can be tackled with specific diets and supplement regimes and with hormone replacement therapy as prescribed by a health care professional.
The next step is to address food sensitivities, which most likely exist. The main culprits are gluten, lactose, caffeine, and sugar, though all foods and food combinations should be addressed. An elimination diet starts with a select group of foods that have a low potential to cause an allergic reaction or sensitivity. Over time, other foods are introduced and the body’s reaction closely observed. For some people, a long-term removal of the trigger foods needs to happen to keep IBS and CFS under control. For others, and once the gut dysbiosis has corrected, most or all foods may be tolerated.
Supplements your gut and body will love:
- Probiotics (80 billion plus cultures a day) protect the intestinal lining, help to reduce leaky gut, promote a healthy immune response, and rebalance the bacteria in the intestines in favor of beneficial bacteria over endotoxin-producing non-beneficial bacteria.
- Fiber helps bind with toxins which exacerbate IBS and CFS and also helps support beneficial bacteria levels (beneficial bacteria feed on select types of fiber such as fructooligosaccharides and inulin). People with IBS and CFS are advised to gradually build up to 30–35 grams of fiber a day, including both soluble and insoluble fiber types.
- L-glutamine powder with gamma oryzanol (about 5 grams daily) supports the integrity of the intestinal lining against leaky gut and helps offset the gut-associated damage that stress can cause.
- Fish oil omega-3 fatty acids at 2 grams daily (both EPA/DHA omega-3 types) help lubricate the digestive tract and reduce inflammation. People with CFS are typically low in omega-3s, a deficiency that contributes to their general inflammation levels.
- Vitamin D3 at 1,000 to 5,000 IU daily. The “sunshine vitamin” is a great immune booster, anti-inflammatory, and is vital to bone health and proper nutrient absorption (calcium), which can be impaired in those with IBS.
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