What is leaky gut?
Like many other gut topics, leaky gut has gained a lot of popularity over the years. Many patients would come to me with a diagnosis of leaky gut, but very little understanding for what it actually was. My hope is that this article will help and shed some light on the topic, so that anyone suffering from leaky gut will no longer feel confused.
The intestines are basically a very long tube lined with a single layer of cells called enterocytes. These cells are aligned very close together in order to block unwanted particles inside the intestines from passing into your internal systems. This is a very important feature, because your digestive system is where you come into direct contact with your environment via eating and drinking. We want the ability to extract what we need from our food and absorb it into our system while also avoiding the things that we don’t need, or that could cause us harm. This is basically referred to as selective permeability. When leaky gut occurs the result is hyperpermeability, meaning that your intestines have lost the ability to control what passes out of the intestines and into your internal systems.
When these unwanted particles get into your system, your immune system detects them as foreign and launches an attack. This wouldn’t be a big deal if it only happened once or twice, but in the case of leaky gut, every time you eat this immune response occurs. When your immune system is constantly engaged like this and unable to clear the invaders, it results in chronic inflammation. Left untreated, this can lead to a lot of undesirable consequences such as autoimmunity, allergies, asthma, food sensitivities, etc.
Causes of leaky gut
The enterocytes that line the gut are held very close together by specialized proteins called tight junctions. Due to the various factors listed below, these tight junctions get damaged or malfunction leading to larger gaps between each cell. This allows particles to get into your system that wouldn’t normally be able to. To be honest, most Americans today probably have some level of leaky gut going on.
- Diet: Unfortunately, most of the food that Americans eat today is no longer in its natural form. Due to genetic modifications and hybridization, we have changed the structure of many foods resulting in them reacting differently in our bodies. This is why it is often advised to avoid gluten, dairy and soy. In addition to this, the pesticides used on vegetables and animal feed, and the preservatives found in processed food are toxic to our bodies and cause damage to our cells.
- Stress: Chronic stress leads to an increase of cortisol in our bodies, which leads to an increase in immune response, and a decrease in gut function. I already mentioned the problem with chronic immune activation. When you combine this with suppressed gut function, the ecosystem in your digestive system gets thrown off. This allows bad bacteria, yeast, and viruses to take over and cause damage.
- Infections: As mentioned previously, infections such as H. pylori, Candida, and C. diff (just to mention a few) lead to cellular damage and leaky gut.
- Hormonal imbalances: Hormones like estrogen, progesterone, testosterone, and thyroid all play an important role in maintaining optimal health. When they are out of balance our whole system gets out of balance and doesn’t function properly.
- Autoimmunity: In this situation it’s hard to say what comes first, the chicken or the egg? Leaky gut definitely contributes to the development of some autoimmune conditions, but there are also certain autoimmune diseases that contribute to the development of leaky gut.
- Environmental toxins: With the expansion of technology also comes an increase in toxins. In comparison to our ancestors, we no longer breathe clean air, drink clean water, eat clean food, or use natural body/cleaning/home products. This means we are exposed to an immense amount of toxins every day. Our bodies are only designed to handle so much, and anything beyond that become a huge burden on our health.
- Genetics: With our growing awareness of epigenetics, we have been able to discover genes responsible for many important pathways in our body. Some of these pathways are crucial for detoxification. If you happen to have abnormal mutations in some of these genes, it might mean that your body isn’t as efficient at detoxing, which can lead to inflammation and cellular damage.
- Vitamin D deficiency: We use to think that vitamin D only played a role in calcium levels and bone health. However, we now know that it also plays an important role in the function of our immune system. A deficiency in this nutrient can lead to the development of autoimmunity and increased susceptibility to infections.
- Medications: NSAIDs, antacids, and corticosteroids are just a few of the drugs that can contribute to leaky gut.
Symptoms of leaky gut
- Food sensitivities
- Various skin conditions (eczema, psoriasis, acne, rashes)
- Inflammatory bowel disease (Crohn’s and Ulcerative Colitis)
- Autoimmune diseases (Celiac, Lupus, Rheumatoid Arthritis, Hashimoto’s, Grave’s, etc.)
- Thyroid problems (hyperthyroidism and hypothyroidism)
- Mood issues (depression, anxiety)
- Chronic fatigue
- Digestive symptoms (bloating, excess gas, burping, abdominal pain, diarrhea, constipation, heartburn)
- Frequent infections
- Weight gain
Tests to determine if you have leaky gut
Unfortunately, there is still a lot of controversy surrounding a diagnosis of leaky gut and its acknowledgement in the medical community. If you’re hoping to find a doctor who will help test and treat you for leaky gut, you will have to seek out a naturopathic doctor, a functional medicine doctor, or an open minded integrative doctor. There are many of them out there, so you shouldn’t have too many problems locating one. The following tests can be helpful in determining whether or not leaky gut is part of the problem.
How to repair leaky gut with the 5 R’s
- Remove: Eliminate all offending agents such as processed foods, sugar, gluten, dairy, excess simple carbohydrates, alcohol, cigarettes, and stress.
- Replace: Add in whole organic foods. Try an elimination diet, autoimmune-paleo diet, or an anti-inflammatory diet.
- Repair: Start taking digestive enzymes, minerals, L-glutamine, B-Complex, fish oils, vitamin D, and Berberine. Drink 3-4 cups of bone broth daily. You can read more about the benefits and find my recipe here.
Digestive enzymes will help you digest your food and pull out nutrients while you are in a state of inflammation and poor immune function.
Minerals are depleted from the body when we can no longer digest and absorb our food properly, so it is important to replenish them.
L-glutamine is fuel for the enterocytes that line the gut allowing them to detox and heal.
B vitamins are commonly deficient in people with leaky gut and other gut issues because of poor digestion and microbial imbalances.
Fish oils are very anti-inflammatory and can aid in the healing process.
Vitamin D is important for the immune system.
Berberine is a powerful antimicrobial herb. When the gut isn’t healthy, the flora in our gut is often out of balance allowing for infection. Berberine will help fight off bad bacteria, yeast, and viruses.
- Repopulate: Once you are on the path to healing, it is important to repopulate your gut with lots of healthy bacteria. This is where quality probiotics, and fermented foods come into play.
- Rebalance: In order to ensure that you don’t find yourself back in a state of disease, you want to create a healthy balanced lifestyle for yourself.
- Try to eat organic as much as possible.
- Stay away from processed foods and excess sugar.
- Limit alcohol consumption.
- Practice stress management techniques.
- Find time for plenty of joy and laughter.
- Exercise for 30-60 mins 3-5 days a week.
- Drink lots of water.
- Get 8-10 hrs of replenishing sleep per night.
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Affiliate Disclosure: In the spirit of full disclosure, there are affiliate links in this article, which means that I may get a commission if you decide to purchase any such product. I only recommend products and services that I use and love myself.