So what exactly is leaky gut, and how does it happen?
After a meal, the food you eat gets broken down into smaller and smaller particles in your intestines. Eventually it gets broken down into the tiny units that make up the building blocks of your tissues - amino acids, vitamins, minerals, fatty acids, and sugars.
With leaky gut syndrome, the cells start to lose their ability to stay tightly closed. They start to open too frequently, too early, or at the wrong time - and because of that, larger molecules of partially-digested food can get into the blood. When the immune system sees these large molecules, it can go into a state of hyper-reactivity, resulting in symptoms such as asthma, food and seasonal allergies, eczema, psoriasis, and even mood disorders like anxiety and depression.This extra permeable gut lining is what we call “leaky gut.”
What happens once these undigested foods hit your bloodstream?
Your blood doesn’t like big chunks of food. It likes your nutrients to be broken down to their tiniest pieces, ready to be rebuilt or put to use in the tissues of your body. When white blood cells see a big molecule of incompletely digested food, they can react by putting out a lot of chemicals such as histamine (the chemical that makes your eyes itch and water, causes runny nose, and can cause irritability or anxiety when it gets too high) or by increasing in number to respond to the “threat” of the undigested food. White blood cells act like scouts, traveling all around your body looking for trouble. When you have more white blood cells in circulation, there is more of a chance that they will react to simple things like pollen or mold, and when you do get a reaction, such as a rash, the more white blood cells you have the bigger and more intense the reaction will be. That’s how leaky gut can turn a tendency toward eczema into a huge, itchy, hot, angry rash.
If this hyper-reactivity of the immune system goes on long enough, it can put you at risk for the development of autoimmune diseases, where the immune system accidentally starts to attack your own tissues. Examples of common autoimmune diseases are rheumatoid arthritis, Hashimoto’s thyroiditis (hypothyroid), Graves’ disease (hyperthyroid), lupus, and multiple sclerosis.
What causes Leaky gut?
There are many theories about what may cause leaky gut.
- Bacterial Imbalance. Your gut contains billions of bacteria, which perform many functions that we need to be healthy. Good bacteria, such as lactobacillus and bifidobacterium, make food that nourishes the cells of our gut lining. If you have ever taken antibiotics you may have altered the healthy balance of bacteria in your gut. Antibiotics kill bacteria, which can be a good thing, when you have bacterial pneumonia or some other life-threatening infection. Unfortunately, when antibiotics kill off that bad bacteria, they also kill off all the good bacteria that you need for a healthy gut lining. That leaves a lot of “open real estate” in the intestines for yeast and other harmful microbes to colonize. Bad bacteria, such as strep, and yeasts like candida, produce toxins that irritate cause inflammation in our gut lining. This can cause dysfunctions in the gut lining’s ability to open and close properly, and eventually lead to leaky gut.
- Food Allergies. Another way leaky gut syndrome can be triggered is by eating foods that are irritants to your gut lining. If you are allergic to certain foods - common allergies include gluten, dairy, eggs, corn, etc - eating these foods can cause chronic inflammation in the cells lining the gut, leading to further inability to regulate the absorption of nutrients. There is even a protein in wheat called zonulin that acts as a trigger to the “gatekeepers” that open up the gaps between gut cells, leading to more food leaking out before it’s fully digested. Because of zonulin, eating wheat can trigger a leaky-gut like reaction in any person, not just those who are sensitive to wheat and gluten.
- Medications. Certain medications, especially steroids, NSAIDS such as ibuprofen and Advil, and certain anti-cancer agents can cause increased intestinal permeability.
So how do we fix leaky gut?
There are many natural and effective ways to heal a leaky gut.
- Probiotics. Probiotics can help rebuild healthy populations of bacteria in the intestines, as can eating naturally fermented foods such as kimchi, yogurt, sauerkraut, and pickles.
- Anti-Inflammatory Diet. A healthy diet high in organic vegetables, fruits, healthy fats such as coconut and avocado oil, grass-fed meats, fish, and seeds can lower inflammation, support healthy bacteria in the gut, and decrease the immune response. Known irritants, such as any food allergies, wheat, foods high in refined sugars, and processed foods that contain artificial preservatives and colorings should be avoided. Other inflammatory foods such as dairy products should be eaten in moderation, or removed all together in the case of especially sensitive individuals.
- Herbs. There are also certain supplements ad herbs that can help restore the integrity of your gut lining. DGL, or deglycyrrhizinated licorice, is derived from the licorice plant (Glycyrrhiza glabra), which has been used for centuries to soothe and heal the lining of the digestive tract. It also helps the body adapt to stress, nourishes the adrenal glands, and reduces overall inflammation.
- Nutritional Supplements. L-glutamine is another important supplement for healing the gut. It is anti-inflammatory and anti-oxidant, and an important part of the growth and repair of the gut lining. Other supplements that may be of help include n-acetylcysteine, vitamin D, and fish oil.
While dealing with the symptoms of leaky gut can be a frustrating experience, following these simple guidelines and adopting an anti-inflammatory diet can make huge differences in both your current symptoms and your lifelong health. As always, you should see a qualified specialist for help and guidance when dealing with any significant health concern.
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