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Q. What is leaky gut? How do I know if I have it?
A. Leaky gut, technically known as intestinal permeability, is when the lining of your gut becomes damaged resulting in little holes in your intestinal lining. Your intestinal lining is your second skin; this mucosal barrier prevents unwanted invaders from entering your body. You see, the gut lining is made up of cells that are only one layer thick. They contain tiny hair-like projections called microvilli which produce enzymes for digestion and to allow nutrients to pass through. These cells are held together by tight junctions which prevent harmful things like pathogens from passing through. When the microvilli become damaged and the tight junctions become loose (aka leaky gut), food molecules can leak into circulation and cause an immune reaction resulting in food intolerances to all sorts of different foods and inflammation in various parts of the body often far removed from the digestive system.
Q. What causes leaky gut?
A. This can occur due to many different factors. Chronic stress is actually the primary factor in leaky gut occurring. Chronic stress induces a cascade of cytokines and changes in neurotransmitters that directly lead to inflammation in the gut and inhibit digestion. An improper diet is the second biggest factor. Processed foods, pesticides, gluten, alcohol, and artificial sweeteners can all be damaging to the gut lining and disruptive to the bacterial balance. Another major contributor is NSAIDs and prescription medications like corticosteroids, antibiotics, antacids, and other medications, toxicity from these things can all be damaging to the lining of the gut in themselves or lead to bacterial overgrowths that cause damage as well.
Q. Why is this a problem?
A. If the lining of your gut becomes damaged and leaky, this can become a big problem. Your gut lining is the barrier between you and the outside world and in some places it is only one cell thick. When you consume food, you are literally taking something from the outside world, something that is not you, and through the process of digestion, breaking it down into useable chunks. Your digestive and immune systems determine which parts of that consumed substance you will assimilate into your body and use for fuel and which parts don’t belong or won’t be useful, eliminating that which is not useful or agreeable with you. That’s why the health of our digestive system is so crucial. If it becomes damaged and ‘leaky,’ larger protein molecules of your food can slip through into the blood stream where they are not supposed to be; this triggers an immune system response which creates food sensitivities and leads to inflammation in other areas of your body as your immune system chases down these ’invaders.’ This can also overburden the liver as it now has to try and filter out what the digestive system failed to break down, stalling its other detoxification activities, leading to back-ups in other systems in the body as well. As a result of the damage to the microvili, you can also develop malnutrition problems from lack of ability to absorb nutrients. You can see how this missed step of proper and complete digestion can cascade to a series of imbalances in other areas, creating metabolic chaos.
Signs and Symptoms of Leaky Gut
- Digestive issues like gas and bloating, constipation, or diarrhea
- Skin issues like eczema, psoriasis, rashes, and breakouts
- Autoimmune diseases
- Joint pain
- Thyroid conditions
- Weight gain
- Mood disturbances like depression and anxiety
Leaky gut = fatigued, inflamed, and depressed
What you can do about leaky gut
The classic 4R approach is the functional medicine approach to healing the gut:
Remove: Remove the chronic internal and external stressors contributing to poor gut health. That is, stop consuming foods/substances that are known to be damaging to the gut lining (gluten, processed foods, industrial seed oils, artificial sweeteners) and remove other invaders like parasites, yeast, or bacteria that cause damage. Minimize your stress and find ways to manage it better.
Repair: Repair the gut lining with supplements to support gut healing. Things like slippery elm, marshmallow, L-glutamine, and aloe can be great for healing and soothing the intestinal lining.
If you need help figuring out your situation and identifying your hidden stressors, find a practitioner to work with to help guide you here.