For those with small intestinal bacterial overgrowth (SIBO), the symptoms can sometimes be unbearable. Bloating, gas, diarrhea, constipation…the list goes on. While simply getting diagnosed in the first place is half the battle, when it is diagnosed, how do we treat it? If you’ve tried some of the options out there like rifaximin or herbal antimicrobials with no luck, what’s left?
What is SIBO?
Before we talk about treatment options, it’s important to know exactly what SIBO is. Small intestinal bacterial overgrowth is exactly what it sounds like – an overgrowth of bacteria in the small intestine. Normally, the small intestine has very little bacteria compared to the large intestine, which houses most of our gut bacteria. However, bacteria from the large intestine can translocate to the small intestine under some circumstances, leading to the development of SIBO. There are many underlying factors that relate to this translocation, including low stomach acid, pancreatic enzyme insufficiency, and intestinal motility disorders, among others. (1)
The usual treatment of SIBO can include diets like the Specific Carbohydrate Diet (SCD) or the GAPS diet (usually in combination with a low-FODMAP approach), antibiotics or herbal antimicrobials. (2) The SCD and GAPS diets help reduce the bacterial load of SIBO, but it can take a long time for dieters to feel significant improvement in their symptoms without the addition of other helpful treatments such as antibiotics or antimicrobials.
Rifaximin, the the antibiotic most commonly used to treat SIBO, is expensive, thus many patients cannot afford treatment. These patients may choose to forgo antibiotics completely and opt for natural antimicrobials such as oregano oil or berberine. These can be very useful in eradicating SIBO, especially in combination with a low-FODMAP SCD or GAPS diet.
However, I’ve had more than one client claim that they can’t tolerate the herbal antimicrobials. For these people, waiting months to over a year for relief with the SCD or GAPS diet can seem like eternity, yet they feel as though they don’t have any other options to try. Others have tried antibiotics or antimicrobials and failed. This is where the short-term elemental formula can be helpful.
What is an elemental formula?
In the simplest terms, an elemental formula is one that contains pre-digested carbohydrates, proteins, and fats. This means that it is absorbed very quickly from the digestive system. This is key for those with SIBO as we don’t want food sitting in the small intestine, where it would be used as fuel for the unwanted bacteria living there. Instead, an elemental formula provides a way to nourish the patient while starving the bacteria. When implementing the elemental diet, the patient will drink the formula instead of their regular meals for two to three weeks, depending on their case.
How effective is it?
In a study using the elemental formula Vivonex Plus, patients were instructed to consume only the formula for 14 days. On the 15th day, they were re-tested for the presence of SIBO. Remarkably, 80% tested negative. Those who were still SIBO-positive were instructed to continue the formula for another 7 days, after which the cure rate went up to 85%. (3)
So how does this compare to the other SIBO treatments I discussed above (rifaximin, herbal antimicrobials)? Though figures vary for the efficacy of rifaximin, the majority of studies I’ve seen estimate it to be around 50% effective, but some studies show even lower rates. (4) One study in particular showed the cure rate for rifaximin to be 34%, while herbal antimicrobials were more effective at 46%. (5)
An 85% cure rate for a three week elemental formula diet is impressive and should certainly be considered as a treatment option for those with SIBO. However, that doesn’t mean that it’s for everyone.
What are the drawbacks?
There are definitely some downsides to the elemental formula. First, and probably most important in terms of compliance – it tastes pretty nasty. A patient has to be willing to stick it out for at least two weeks (where we get the 80% cure rate) and potentially up to 3 three weeks to see results. While this doesn’t sound that long, it can be tough to stick to when the drink doesn’t taste so good! This means that anyone about to try this treatment has to be very committed.
Second, typical elemental formulas are not what we’d call “real food”. Vivonex, produced by Nestle, contains the following ingredients:
That said, you can make your own elemental formula if you choose. If you’re interested to see what goes into a homemade formula, check out this recipe from SIBO researcher, Dr. Allison Siebecker. Both homemade and commercial elemental formulas are expensive (though less expensive for most than a course of rifaximin), which is also a barrier.
Also, for those who are underweight already, embarking on a two to three week elemental diet can cause them to lose even more weight. This is potentially dangerous, thus an elemental diet should be very carefully implemented or not implemented at all in those who are underweight. Whether you’re underweight or not, an elemental diet should always be implemented under the supervision of a medical professional.
An elemental diet is also a short-term fix. SIBO is a condition that recurs frequently, thus during and after any type of treatment for SIBO, it’s imperative that the patient addresses these underlying factors to prevent future SIBO episodes. This means that those looking to an elemental diet to solve their problem forever still have a long road ahead of them after completing the diet.
Lastly, we’re not sure how it affects the rest of our gut bacteria. Does it starve the bacteria in the large intestine? If so, to what extent? We just don’t know, and only future research can tell us.
I asked Chris to share his experience with elemental formulas with me for this article. He responded:
“I created my own elemental formula, back when I was still struggling with my own gut issues. While it did reduce bacterial overgrowth, it seemed to exacerbate the fungal overgrowth problem I was also dealing with. I developed a thick, white coating on my tongue and the symptoms I associated with fungal overgrowth worsened. I also experimented with it in my work with patients with SIBO early on, but I found that compliance was low (because even the homemade formulas are pretty gross) and the SIBO tended to return soon after the patient started eating real food again. Nevertheless, elemental diets may have a place for patients that don’t respond to anti-microbial treatments (whether botanical or pharmaceutical).”
When to consider an elemental formula
There certainly are benefits to an elemental formula, namely its short duration (2-3 weeks). This is equal or one week longer than a course of rifaximin (14 days), and potentially up to four weeks shorter than a course of herbal antimicrobials, which are usually given for 4 to 6 weeks. Its effectiveness is also quite good (80-85%) compared to other treatment options. It might be worth considering for someone who doesn’t want to take antibiotics but wants a short treatment period, or for someone who has tried antibiotics and herbal antimicrobials and failed. It certainly wouldn’t be my first choice of treatment if I was going through it (mostly due to the taste and lack of real food), but if I had trouble with some of the other options, I’d certainly consider it. It’s a careful decision that one should make with their medical team and not something to take lightly, but its 80-85% cure rate deserves a look. Hopefully reading this article has made you think about the pros and cons of an elemental diet and allows you to make this decision more easily!
Now I’d like to hear from you. What do you think about elemental diets for SIBO? Do the positives outweigh the negatives or vice versa? Have you tried an elemental diet?
This is a guest post written by Kelsey Marksteiner, RD. Kelsey is a Registered Dietitian with a Bachelors degree in Nutrition from NYU and a Master’s in Human Nutrition and Functional Medicine. She works in private practice and recommends individualized dietary therapy focusing on biologically appropriate diet principles to aid her clients in losing weight, gaining energy, and pursuing continued health. She is a firm believer that everyone is different, and she tailors her plan for each and every individual. Through her work, she aims to meld the dietary wisdom of traditional cultures with the latest science in integrative and functional medicine to create plans for her clients that work in the modern world. You can learn more about Kelsey on her staff bio page, or by visiting her private practice website. Join her newsletter here!