Ahh summer time! Don’t we all LOVE summer? One of my favorite things about summer is the produce — whether from a farmers market, the grocery store or off a tree. My kids and I hold sacred our Tuesday trips to the farmers market and delight in the colorful fruit and veggies we purchase there.
But alas, my GI tract feels slightly differently about the mass quantities of plums, straight off the tree, that I consumed a few summers ago while at my in-laws house. Those small, tart, home-grown, pesticide-free gems simply set my belly a-rumbling. And not just with more frequent visits to the bathroom, but severe pain, cramping, and distention. Oh, and when I discovered how fantastic watermelon tasted in my summer spritzer a couple summers ago — which I drank for three days straight, gobbling up the chunks of melon in the bottom of glass — same fate: pain, cramping and severe bloating
I have since come to understand my issues and subsequently have helped hundreds of people with similar distress. Thank goodness!
Have you had this same experience? Maybe you were lucky enough to identify that it was a specific food, but more often, we have no idea what is causing our issue. We typically think of gluten, dairy, sugar, etc. as culprits of GI distress; we would never jump to the conclusion that a fresh fruit would cause such pain.
I call this the #1 F-word that sabotages gut health. No, not Fruit: Fiber.
YUP: Fiber. I know you are baffled right now. Fiber is, after all, one of the most prescribed, go-to treatments for ALL gut issues, right? More fiber! Everyone needs more fiber!
Well, I am here to tell you that fiber, like so many other foods, affects each person differently and NOT EVERYONE tolerates, or NEEDS tons of fiber.
Fiber and Rain
One of my virtual mentors, Dr. Michael Ruscio, describes the phenomenon this way — and I LOVE it! Imagine a rain forest: As an ecosystem, it thrives on hundreds of inches of rain per year. Now consider our region of the Eastern Sierra Mountains: high desert. We average eight inches of rain per year. What happens when we get more than eight inches per year, or five inches all at once? Well, we have all witnessed that disaster: mud slides, gardens washed away, retaining walls breached, roads closed. Deserts do not do well with too much rain fall, especially all at once.
Our Unique Ecosystems
Well, we humans are the same. We have an ecosystem in our GI tract — truly! We support and live synergistically with thousands of species of microbes all living in our gut. And each of our ecosystems is TOTALLY UNIQUE TO US. Some of us boast rainforest-like ecosystems, some of us simply thrive with a drier, high-mountain desert-like ecosystem. Neither is better, as it is simply our make-up. We can slightly alter our ecosystems with the right nudging. We can certainly improve our gut health and optimize our microbiome, but basically, due to genetics and nurture, we’ve got what we’ve got. We simply need to figure out what our microbiome needs and honor that.
How Fiber Wreaks Havoc
Fiber is food for our microbes. They break down fibers we cannot. This helps us and them. This is why when you eat broccoli, for example, you are gassy. Your gut bugs love broccoli and they have a party, and the by-product is gas. This is all fine and good — exactly how it should be — so long as most of this partying goes on in the large intestine. But the bloating, cramping, pain and altered bowels (ie diarrhea) is problematic because that indicates the party is going on in your SMALL INTESTINE (SI).
Here’s the problem. We can get perfectly good gut bugs, just IN THE WRONG PLACE. For many reasons, our bugs can migrate from the large intestine into the SI. The SI is not supposed to have many microbes at all. In fact, the upper SI is virtually sterile. This invasion is called Small Intestinal Bacterial Overgrowth (SIBO). The causes of SIBO are far too numerous and complicated to address here. But once you have SIBO, fiber becomes a painful problem.
Instead of a fiber-buffet party going on in your large intestine, the party moves into the SI, and this causes gas, bloating, cramping, distention, constipation or diarrhea and lots of pain. The bugs throwing the party aren’t necessarily bad guys, they are just in the wrong place.
So What Do We Do?
Oftentimes, simply eliminating the foods that provide party food for the bugs can make them subside. Sometimes it requires a more limited diet for a short period to kill off the misplaced bugs. Many times, working with a functional medicine practitioner like myself is required to kill off the bugs, heal the gut and fine tune the diet.
Our Individual Requirements
But in the long run, we also must remember our ecosystem. Even after getting SIBO under control, I, for example, still have to watch my over-consumption of watermelon and plums. In a fully “healed state,” I can eat SOME of the forbidden foods. But if I go overboard, I hear about it. It is because these particular types of fibers provided by these foods simply invite a party in my gut. Some foods I will have to avoid forever, some I can eat in moderation. But I have discovered what my ecosystem needs and know how to eat to feel good. And I know when I’m pushing my limits, and sometimes pay the consequences. But I also know how to get back.
I have worked with hundreds of patients and clients whose lives have changed simply by learning about their own ecosystems and what works for their bodies.
As healthy as fiber is — and we certainly DO NEED FIBER — everyone is different. So just because your best friend can down a huge bowl of kale salad and feel fine, this does NOT mean that you should do the same despite the pain it causes. Those fiber pills your husband swears by may torture your gut.
So start to put fiber on your radar if you have gut issues. Check out a Low FODMAP diet for starters. It might be as easy as eliminating a few foods. If you need more support, find a knowledgeable functional medicine practitioner. I work with people in Reno, Nev., and long distance.