Leaky Gut, what is it?

Have you heard the term “leaky gut” and wondered what it means? Leaky gut syndrome is at the root of many gut and health disorders. Your gastrointestinal tract is meant to digest food, break it down into its component parts, and absorb what is needed for nutrition while keeping out infectious organisms, such as harmful bacteria, parasites, and yeast. Sure, your gut needs a certain degree of “leakiness” to function properly. But the type of leakiness you’re thinking of is actually “porousness,” which is basically controlled leakiness. That is, porousness allows for the passing of small molecules (digested food components and minerals) through holes or transport channels in the cell wall of the enterocytes (the cells that line the intestines). Think of your healthy gut as a cheesecloth with really small holes that only allow nutrients to pass through.

In a healthy gut, digested food is absorbed through the cell wall through well-controlled mechanisms. But when your gut becomes “leaky,” the absorption bypasses the well-ordered cell wall and allows substances (such as partially digested food particles) to pass through the lining. It’s as if the cheesecloth develops bigger holes that allow these food particles to pass through. Larger proteins and pathogenic organisms can then pass into the spaces between the cells, which are composed of tight junctions (see diagram). Imagine two cells side-by-side with multiple suction cups (i.e. tight junctions) connecting them to each other and sealing up the space between the cells. If these suction cups loosen up, they then allow the larger molecules that cannot get through the cell wall to pass through.

Leaky gut syndrome is basically a condition where the tight junctions or connections between the cells that line the inside of the intestines become looser, allowing for larger molecules (such as partially digested food particles) to pass through the gut lumen. Usually, digested food is absorbed through the cell wall, but in a leaky gut, because the pathway between the cells is opened up, you are exposed to these larger protein molecules from food and can develop immune reactions to these foods.

How is Leaky Gut Connected to the Immune System?

The largest presence of the immune system exists all along the intestines. Immune cells serve as a first line of defense to protect against any invaders along the length of your digestive tract. However, in a leaky gut, these immune cells are exposed to partially digested food particles that get through the spaces between the cells that line the intestines. These immune cells then signal other white blood cells to form antibodies to these food particles. Research has clearly shown that many conditions, like irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) and migraines, are partly due to the immune reactions to foods that a person may consume on a regular basis.

What Causes Leaky Gut Syndrome?

Many circumstances may lead to the development of a leaky gut, including:

  • Poor dietary choices

  • Chronic Stress

  • Negative Emotions

  • Infections

  • Systemic inflammatory diseases

  • Low stomach acid

  • Toxin exposure

  • Use of Anti-inflammatory medications, such as common OTC remedies, like Naprosyn, Ibuprofen, Motrin, and Aspirin, which essentially poke holes in the gut lining

  • Use of Antibiotics, which disrupt the normal gut flora

Leaky gut syndrome may be a characteristic of many diseases, including gut-related ones like IBS and inflammatory bowel disease. In other words, think of IBS, Crohn’s disease, and ulcerative colitis as conditions that may be characterized by an underlying leaky gut.

It is also associated with other conditions that may not seem to be associated with the gut, such as migraine headaches, allergies, eczema, hives, and autoimmune diseases. In fact, all these conditions have a disruption in the normal healthy gut lining in common.

What will Happen if You Have a Leaky Gut?

Leaky gut syndrome may result in the following conditions:

  •         Food allergies or sensitivities

  •         Malnutrition

  •         Dysbiosis

  •         Toxin overload

  •    Autoimmune diseases (an example is a thyroid disease known as Hashimoto’s, in which the body   attacks its own thyroid proteins)

How do I Know if I Have a Leaky Gut?

The symptoms of a leaky gut include:

  • Bloating

  • Indigestion

  • Constipation/diarrhea

  • Fatigue (through malnutrition or its effect on the thyroid)

  • Weight gain (partly due to water retention)

  • Migraine headaches

  • Autoimmune disease

The treatment for a leaky gut depends on finding the underlying causes. It is often accompanied by a dysbiosis (or microbial imbalance) in the body. Such an imbalance has to be corrected. If there is low stomach acid, which leads to a condition known as SIBO (Small Intestine Bacterial Overgrowth), this has to be corrected through stomach acid supplementation. Exposure to toxins or antibiotics needs to be reduced. Exposure to inciting foods needs to be eliminated. (Usually, testing for food sensitivities through IgG Type4 testing will reveal what foods are aggravating the immune reaction and need to be avoided in the diet.)

Digestive enzymes may also be needed. Improving the microbiota of the gut through both probiotics and prebiotics is a key part of the treatment. Probiotic bacteria actually help regulate our immune response and help heal the leaky gut. Learning relaxation techniques and slowing down to eat (rather than eating on the run) are all important aspects of healing the leaky gut.

How Can I Fix My Leaky Gut?

A summary of the steps needed to repair a leaky gut includes:

  • Elimination diet (remove food allergens and sensitivities)

  • Probiotics

  • Vitamins D & A

  • Omega-3 fatty acids

  • L-glutamine (very important nutrient for the intestinal cells to repair the tight junctions)

  • Mindfulness practices

  • Stress reduction techniques (such as yoga, tai chi, and meditation)