The term, “leaky gut” is gaining a lot of attention lately in health blogs and on social media. In Part 1 of Gut Health, we discussed Candida (yeast) and how that can affect the gut microbiome. To recap some of what I talked about, let’s go over some gut basics.
The “gut” is part of the digestive system. The digestion process begins in your mouth, goes through your stomach, and all the way through the intestines. While the stomach helps to breakdown food, it is in the intestines where nutrients are absorbed into the blood stream and where waste products are eliminated.
There is a “pocket” at the junction of your large and small intestine called the cecum. Your gut microbiome is located here. This is the gut collective which consists of bacteria, fungi, amino acids, proteins, and viruses which all contain genes of their own. When you are first born, your gut microbiome’s genes are those which you’ve inherited from your mother.
Because up to 80% of the body’s defenses are located in the gut, newborn babies don’t have strong immune systems because their microbiomes are mostly undeveloped. However, Mother Nature provides an amazing way to get a jump start on immunity. Colostrum is contained in the first secretions of the mammary glands after a mother gives birth. For the first few days of breast feeding, she will produce this nutrient rich substance. It’s also full of antibodies and helps to develop and harden the gut lining of the baby. After those first few days, the mother will produce transitional milk for several days which still contains colostrum.
While there are many factors that can affect gut health, the most influential is the food that we eat. There are hundreds of different types of bacteria and other flora in the gut. The more diverse the bacteria, the healthier the microbiome. Some types of bacteria are beneficial and some can be harmful. Ideally, the good should outnumber the bad. A balanced microbiome paves the way for a strong immune system and a healthy body.
What is Leaky Gut Syndrome?
The intestines have a permeable lining that acts as a tight barrier to control what’s able to pass through to the bloodstream. It is made this way so that water and nutrients can be absorbed into the body. This lining is made up of epithelial cells which form the intestinal mucosal barrier. In addition to allowing nutrients to pass through, this lining also helps to prevent entry of any harmful substances or toxins into the body.
This intestinal barrier consists of tight junctions which are defined as areas where membranes of 2 or more cells join together and prevent molecules from passing through. In other words, the lining is there to provide a safety net from harmful substances getting into the bloodstream but to still allow necessary things like water and nutrients to be able to pass through.
Leaky Gut, also called Increased Intestinal Permeability, occurs when the tight junctions in the intestinal wall loosen. This creates spaces in the wall which allows toxins, partially digested food particles, and harmful bacteria or viruses to cross over and enter the blood stream.
This can trigger inflammation because the immune system’s job is to launch an attack against anything it views as being a foreign invader. When the immune response is triggered, this inflammation can occur at the gut site and/or in other areas of the body.
Recent research has shown that Leaky Gut Syndrome is a causal factor in auto-immune diseases such as Hashimoto’s Disease, Type 1 Diabetes, MS, Irritable Bowel Syndrome, Inflammatory Bowel Disease, Crohn’s, Celiac, and others. There is also emerging research that suggests that gut dysbiosis is also a risk factor for inflammatory responses that lead to cardiovascular-related disorders such as atherosclerosis, hypertension, heart failure, and myocardial infarction. Additionally, Leaky Gut can also play a role in developing cancer.
Gut Dysbiosis versus Leaky Gut
Gut dysbiosis simply means that there is an imbalance of the flora in the biome. For example taking antibiotics can cause this to happen. This type of medication doesn’t just kill off the harmful bacteria; it will also destroy the good stuff. Some people have side effects such as diarrhea or yeast infections which are directly caused by a microbiome imbalance.
Having an imbalance in the intestinal flora does not automatically mean that you have Leaky Gut Syndrome. While the intestinal lining does constantly react to stimuli, and the tight junctions expand and contract as a result, this doesn’t mean that you have Leaky Gut Syndrome because of a temporary imbalance. Our bodies have an incredible capacity to heal. However, when gut is chronically compromised, it can certainly lead to Leaky Gut Syndrome.
Many things contribute to poor gut health, and thus, an unhealthy immune system. The gut is linked to just about every biological process in the human body including digestion, brain function, the adrenal response, liver and kidney function, and the endocrine system. For example, when more toxins enter the bloodstream, it can create changes in the liver as it has to work overtime to filter them out. Here are just some of the things that can cause upset within the gut microbiome:
- Poor diet – When we consume a diet that is high in processed foods, sugar, and unhealthy fats, our gut is thrown out of balance. This is because the harmful bacteria residing in the gut thrive when they are fed these types of foods.
- Antibiotic use – the microbiome flora is made up of hundreds of different types of bacteria. Antibiotics target all of them whether beneficial or not.
- Gluten – gluten is an inflammatory food. Zonulin is a type of protein that regulates tight junctions within the intestinal wall. In fact, people who have autoimmune or inflammatory related illnesses have been shown to have high levels of zonulin which can cause the tight junctions to loosen. The two things which can directly stimulate zonulin levels in the gut microbiome are harmful bacteria and gluten. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3705319/.
- Chronic NSAID use – NSAIDs are anti-inflammatory type drugs including Advil, Motrin, Aleve, Naprosyn, Aspirin, and more. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/19148789Not only do NSAIDs contribute to dysbiosis but they also directly damage the digestive tract and intestinal lining making it much more likely to become leaky.
- Immuno-suppressant and chemotherapy medications.
- Excessive alcohol or drug use.
- High stress levels – stress comes in many forms. It can be mental or emotional but can also be physical. There is a strong link between the brain and the gut. Think of a time when you’re nervous about something and you get butterflies in your stomach; that’s just a small part of that link. Stress also triggers our bodies to produce more cortisol (the fight/flight hormone). When this process is initiated, the digestion system all but shuts down because blood flow is directed to the lungs, brain, and muscles in order to fight or flee. Illness or trauma also causes stress to the body. Anything that causes the body to dysfunction causes physical stress which also affects the intestinal microbiota. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/29276734
- Sleep deprivation.
Symptoms of Leaky Gut Syndrome
Digestion related issues are often the first signs that point to an unhealthy microbiome. It’s the body’s way of signaling that there is an imbalance. Frequent gas, bloating, heartburn, diarrhea, constipation, irritable bowel syndrome, and stomach cramping can occur. Many people see their doctors about such issues and oftentimes are prescribed medicines to treat the symptoms. For example, a patient might be told to use a proton pump inhibitor medication such as Nexium or Prilosec to ease symptoms. While these types of medications may alleviate the feelings of pain or burning, they ignore the root cause and don’t actually cure anything. In fact, not addressing the root cause can end up leading to dis-ease.
As changes to the intestinal lining occur, there can be a myriad of consequences as the immune system becomes more and more compromised. When the tight junctions loosen, toxins can more readily enter the bloodstream. Often, this will create an autoimmune reaction at the gut site or elsewhere in the body. For people who also have a genetic predisposition to some diseases, this can create an even bigger issue with Leaky Gut Syndrome. If you have any type of autoimmune disease, chances are that a leaky gut may be causing or contributing to the problem. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1856434/.
Symptoms of auto-immune diseases vary based on where the immune response is taking place. Sometimes, they are a group of seemingly unrelated symptoms like unusual rashes, headaches, joint and muscle pain, and fatigue. Examples of autoimmune issues include:
- Hashimoto’s Disease
- Celiac Disease
- Inflammatory Bowel Disease
- Chronic Fatigue Syndrome
- Type 1 Diabetes
As I discussed previously, diseases caused by inflammation such as cardiovascular disease, diabetes, insulin resistance, and many more can stem from an unhealthy gut microbiome and Leaky Gut Syndrome too. Increased intestinal permeability can also lead to mutations of cells which can be cancer-causing.
To be clear, Leaky Gut Syndrome isn’t the cause-all for every type of disease or symptom out there. However, because so much of the immune system is regulated by the gut, it’s a very important factor to consider when treating disease. Genetics and gene mutations also play a large role in health and disease. While we can’t change our genes, research is showing that we can alter the way our genes react to environmental triggers. https://health.clevelandclinic.org/billions-bacteria-bodies-change-genes/
Can Leaky Gut Syndrome Be Reversed?
Leaky Gut Syndrome can absolutely be reversed. What we eat and the lifestyle that we choose to live directly affects the health of our microbiome. By making some changes, we can improve both our gut and our overall health. For example:
- Drastically limit or eliminate processed foods, fast food, unhealthy starches, and sugars.
- Eliminate sodas.
- Avoid wheat-based foods and/or foods containing gluten.
- Eliminate unhealthy fats such as refined vegetable and seed oils.
- Avoid artificial sweeteners.
- Increase consumption of good fats such as olive oil, coconut oil, avocados, nuts, and seeds.
- Eat lots of fresh vegetables and fruits.
- Use drugs such as antibiotics and NSAIDs only when absolutely necessary.
- Eliminate stress from your life to the degree that you can. Proactively seek out stress reduction techniques such as meditation, yoga, tai chi, or other forms of exercise.
- If you are a smoker, stop.
- Consume probiotic foods which will help increase the beneficial flora in your gut. Foods that contain probiotics include fermented vegetables, kefir, and kombucha. You can also add a good probiotic supplement to your vitamin regime.
- Feed those beneficial bacteria by eating foods that contain prebiotics such as green bananas, fresh berries, artichokes, and other fibrous foods.
- Limit alcohol consumption.
- Practice good sleep habits and rest more.
There are laboratory tests that are specific to gut health and food sensitivities which can provide you with additional insight as to what your triggers might be. The ALCAT is a blood test that specifically identifies food allergies and food sensitivities. There are other stool tests that can provide you with information specifically about the health of your gut microbiome.
In many cases, an unbalanced gut leads to unbalanced hormones to include the sex hormones, thyroid, insulin, cortisol, and more. I recommend finding a reputable functional medicine provider to help you with these things since they will focus on targeting the root cause of many of your symptoms.
In Part 3 of this gut health series, I will provide more in-depth information on restoring your gut health. Illness, disease, and imbalances don’t occur overnight. Restoring health and balance takes some time too, but the first step is education. My hope is that I’m able to provide you with both awareness and education so that you can be healthier because better health leads to a better quality of life. Isn’t that what it’s all about?