With the popularity that gut health has been getting in the health world, leaky gut has been getting a lot of attention. Leaky gut syndrome, also known as gut permeability, is one of the leading causes of a wide range of diseases but often goes undiagnosed.
Research shows that our health is hugely influenced by the huge population of microorganisms living in our gut and we now have a better understanding on how the gut flora affects our brain, emotions, behaviour as well as physical health - indicating that in order to have a healthy and happy life, one has to pay attention to their gut health.
What does it mean to have a leaky gut?
Leaky gut is the term used when the protective intestinal barrier becomes damaged and results in gaps in your intestinal walls to start to loosen. When the integrity of the intestines is compromised, some toxic debris such as partially digested food particles and bacterial fragments may leak through the intestinal walls.
This upsets the body which creates an immune response putting the body into a chronic state of inflammation. Studies have associated increased intestinal permeability with several chronic and autoimmune diseases, including celiac disease and type 1 diabetes.
How can you tell if your gut is out of balance?
Our digestive health has a huge impact on your mental and physical health. If you experience any digestive issues, skin irritation, lack of energy, have poor concentration, and experience frequent headaches, disturbed sleep or unexplained weight gain you can assume it has something rooted in a gut disturbance.
Symptoms of the leaky gut vary from one to another, depending on the extent of the damage to the gut lining. Mild symptoms may include bloating, cramps, gas, indigestion, nausea, diarrhea, dizziness and food intolerances in minor leakage of the gut.
Serious damage of the gut may produce significantly worse symptoms like fatigue, malabsorption, rashes, asthma, irritable bowel syndrome, muscle pain, foggy thinking, low immunity, various infections, and many other autoimmune-related illnesses such as Type 1 diabetes, Grave's Disease, or Crohn's Disease. Many of these autoimmune conditions are strongly associated with intestinal permeability. If you are in doubt, over 10,000 research papers can be found in pubmed.gov on intestinal permeability (or leaky gut) related diseases.
What causes the gut to 'leak'?
The exact cause is a puzzle.
Naturopathic doctors and other experts claim the top culprits are non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) like ibuprofen, overuse of antibiotics and steroids, as well as processed food, refined sugar, alcohol, chronic stress and anxiety, and environmental toxins.
Beyond poor diet, many other lifestyle factors can cause a disruption in the gut flora. Chronic stress, sleep disturbances, anxiety, and even overtraining can cause imbalances of the microbiome in the gut.
Due to the gut-brain connection, stress causes a lack of blood flow into many organs, suppresses the immune system, alters the intestinal physiological function, and increases gut permeability; causing inflammation.
This leads to overgrowth of bacteria, yeast, or parasites in the small intestine, resulting in more serious gut damage, infections, and increased intestinal permeability.
I eat healthily. Is leaky gut still a possibility?
The gut is impacted by our entire body including the enteric nervous system. If one organ isn’t functioning optimally or we’re over-stressed and overtraining, then there can be nutrient deficiencies, no matter how healthy you eat.
It is important to understand that many diseases that seem to be unrelated to the gut such as psoriasis, thyroiditis, or arthritis, are actually caused by gut problems.
If you experience any of these symptoms, you need to be aware that your body might not be absorbing nutrients due to impaired digestion and poor gut health, which is fixable.
How does leaky gut occur in the body?
Although most of the symptoms associated with leaky gut occur in the small intestine, your whole digestive system, immune system, and nervous system have a direct impact on your health.
Let’s break down the digestion process:
Mouth: Digestion begins in the mouth. Your first digestive problem will arise if you do not chew your food thoroughly. A proper mechanical breakdown of your food in the mouth helps your stomach to digest it easily.
Stomach: Stomach acids and other enzymes start the breakdown of the food into smaller pieces and move them into the duodenum and small intestines. Stomach acid production decreases as we age, and it's largely affected by chronic stress, excess food intake, alcohol intake, or overuse of medication.
Leaky gut syndrome occurs as a result of low stomach acids and poor digestion.
Small Intestine: The lining of the intestinal tract has a dynamic and self-renewing population of epithelial cells that participate in several ways to facilitate digestion and absorption. It is a barrier that, when healthy, transports the digested micronutrients from the 'inside’ of the gut to the 'outside’ of the gut.
Tight junctions form the seals between the cells of the gut lining, allowing partially digested vital nutrients to pass through the layer so that they can get into your bloodstream and nourish your body.
When the junctions get irritated and inflamed, leaky gut occurs, allowing larger food particles and toxins to sneak into the bloodstream and lymphatic system.
Immune system: On the other side of the intestinal lining, are about two-thirds of your immune system (lymphoid tissues) called Peyer’s patches that live in your gut. They serve as the gatekeeper to your gut.
When toxins and harmful substances come into contact with the linings of a leaky gut, they will be tagged with antibodies that attract white blood cells to neutralize the toxins. This results in the build-up of antibodies which attack not just the food particles but also healthy cells.
This type of immune response can cause allergy-type symptoms, and it's also one of the ways many autoimmune disorders develop. Headaches, joint pains, mood swings, fatigue, even skin, and vision problems may all arise from an overtaxed immune system and abnormal gut flora environment (also called dysbiosis).
Large Intestines: Your colon has to remove water and waste, especially the toxins produced as byproducts of your metabolism, which your liver dumps into bile. Some beneficial bacteria within the intestines are capable of digesting fiber, making vitamin K, vitamin B12, thiamin, and riboflavin.
These vitamins are responsible for breaking down the bile salts and maintaining the pH balance of the intestine, and also metabolize hormones such as estrogen discharged from the liver.
Stress and antibiotics can damage the natural balance of the gut flora in the colon. If you lack these beneficial bacteria to break down the bile salts and estrogen, bile salts will enter freely and damage the colon.
In summary, leaky gut syndrome is the root cause of many different diseases. Your gut health is the mirror of your total physical health. Hippocrates, the founder of medicine once said, "All Disease Begins In the Gut." Therefore, I believe "True Health Starts In the GUT", too.
Look out for the next article - Leaky gut healing protocol.
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