Leaky gut syndrome is a condition that affects the small intestines. But before we can explain leaky gut, you need to know a bit about how digestion and absorption of food nutrients work.
Food is mechanically broken down in our mouths by chewing; digestion begins as saliva, which contains enzymes, starts to digest food. In the stomach, food is completely broken down from its solid state into a slurry of sorts. By the time food leaves the stomach, it enters the small intestine where more enzymes mix with it to further digest it. At this point, food should be broken down into its most basic components, and is ready to be absorbed.
The small intestine is designed to have a huge surface area through which our food is absorbed. This is accomplished by the villi, which are miniscule finger-like projections lining the small intestine. On the villi are microscopic pores. It’s through these pores that food, now broken down into its smallest components, is absorbed. Think of this as a very fine net, which allows only the tiniest particles through, while larger ones are caught in the net (small intestine).
Just beyond the wall of the small intestine is a large component of our immune system, ever on guard for what it determines to be foreign proteins trying to enter our body. After all, nothing is truly “in” our bodies until it’s absorbed into the bloodstream, just beyond the small intestinal wall.
Normally, food that has been completely and properly broken down is absorbed across the small intestinal wall with no problems. However, a series of events can lead to those microscopic pores on the small intestinal wall to become bigger. In other words, we have increased permeability through the intestines. This isn’t good, and this is what leaky gut syndrome is.
We now have a situation where larger food proteins (improperly digested foods) are able to cross the small intestinal wall and are soon greeted by the immune system. The immune system may mistake those food proteins as foreign invaders, and launch an attack against them.
Next, the chemicals that the immune system releases against the improperly absorbed food proteins are now roaming the whole body. In the end, these chemicals can cause problems throughout the system as they mistakenly attack different areas of the body, creating symptoms.
· Joint pain
· Brain fog
· Digestive problems
· Food sensitivities
Many people with leaky gut syndrome have a lot of bloating and digestive problems. They also have additional issues like chronic sinus infections, joint pain, fatigue, food sensitivities, skin problems, and brain fog.
They often feel discouraged and hopeless because they’ve been to several doctors and the usual conventional tests don’t reveal any kind of problem. Their symptoms are usually treated as an isolated condition with things like multiple antibiotics for sinus infections, prednisone for joint pain, antacids for digestive problems (all of which make things even worse) and of course antidepressants because they’re told so often that nothing is wrong and maybe they’re depressed! Sound familiar??
Leaky gut isn’t as much a disease as it as a condition that allows many other health problems to manifest. When toxins (be it food proteins, chemicals, drugs, etc) slip past the intestinal lining and stir up the immune system, symptoms occur throughout the body. Treating localized symptoms may alleviate them in the short term, but if the actual cause isn’t detected and treated, a person will experience the same problems over and over again.
So what causes
increased intestinal permeability? Researchers are trying to learn more,
however there are a few situations that are well linked with the development of
leaky gut syndrome.
Excess or chronic stress weakens the immune system, limiting the body’s ability to fight off viruses and bacterial infections. This contributes imbalanced gut bacteria and upsets the system as a whole.
Non-steroidal anti-inflammatories (NSAIDs) are notorious for the damage they inflict on the gut. Antibiotics kill good bacteria and often create an imbalance in gut bacteria.
A diet high in sugar allows yeast to overgrow and feeds unhealthy bacteria. Chemicals and preservatives, certain food proteins like those found in dairy and wheat, junk food and alcohol further damage the lining of the gut.
of healthy versus bad gut bacteria:
Also known as dysbiosis, this is perhaps the most important factor in the development of leaky gut. Parasitic infections are another possible cause.
Other risk factors include chemotherapy and radiation; these are especially damaging to sensitive gut tissue.
There is no outright way to diagnose leaky gut syndrome. Rather, it is said to be a clinical diagnosis, meaning it is diagnosed based on a collection of a person’s signs and symptoms.
That being said, there is a test that can confirm suspicions of leaky guy syndrome; an Intestinal Permeability Test can be used to further elaborate a diagnosis.
The test measures how much of two types of non-digestible sugars (mannitol and lactulose) are able to get through the intestinal barrier.
Mannitol is a small molecule and passes through the intestinal barrier with ease; it is a marker of how well the intestines are absorbing. Lactulose is a larger molecule that shouldn’t be absorbed across the intestinal lining; it’s a marker to determine if there are larger holes in the barrier.
To perform this test, a person will drink a measured amount of both sugars. Then, their urine is collected over
the next 6 hours and analyzed for lactulose and mannitol content. Low amounts
of both sugars in the urine indicate poor absorption of nutrients, while
elevated amounts of both sugars are suggestive of intestinal permeability. If lactulose is high, but mannitol is low,
this may also indicate leaky gut, and malabsorption as the small mannitol
molecules are not absorbed.
An explanation of the ratio of lactulose to mannitol is provided in the test results to help determine the extent of intestinal permeability. Again, while not a direct test to determine leaky gut, it can be used as another piece of evidence in trying to determine whether a patient’s symptoms are due to leaky gut.
Food sensitivity testing tells us which foods, and to what extent, you have sensitivities to. A small sample of blood is taken from your finger, then analyzed in a laboratory. Leaky gut is often (but not always) the cause of food sensitivities. We use this test quite a bit, because in order to repair a damaged intestinal lining, inflammatory foods need to be identified and removed from the diet. Here’s more about food sensitivity testing.
Repairing a permeable intestinal lining takes time. It involves diligence in avoiding trigger foods, maintaining a healthy diet and lifestyle, and using several natural medicines to help repair the lining. However, with a solid plan and persistence, our patients find this treatment course much more agreeable than a lifetime of prescription medications and ill health.
Here are a few key treatments for restoring intestinal barrier integrity:
1. Identifying and
removing food sensitivities.
Food sensitivities are typically the result of developing leaky gut syndrome. Removing foods that the body is sensitive to can alleviate a lot of symptoms. This also gives the gut a break so to speak so it can heal. Here’s more information about food sensitivities.
2. A healthy,
Sugars, dairy, gluten, alcohol and artificial chemicals are the biggest problem foods for inflaming the gut (and wrecking your health). Instead, eating plenty of plant based foods, nuts, seeds, beans with some healthy meats (if you want) is a great way of eating that will limit gut inflammation and improve your overall health.
Adding plenty of anti-inflammatory omega-3 fatty acids from fish and nuts, with plenty of good fiber will promote the growth of healthy bacteria in the gut, further balancing overall health.
Bone broth is an important dietary modality used to heal leaky gut syndrome.
3. Supplementation with probiotics
Healthy bacteria (probiotics) can improve the balance of the intestinal
bacterial population (flora) and help repair the gut. Glutamine is an amino
acid that can help repair damaged intestinal linings and may help leaky gut.
Repairing leaky gut syndrome, and it's symptoms take time. Remember, we are working to repair and rejuvenate an important bodily system. Naturopathic therapies like these take time; just as regaining health does. Taking antibiotics, steroids like prednisone, or antidepressants aren't going to make your health issues go away, but dedication to a healthy diet and other treatment modalities will, in time, repair leaky gut. And once this happens, you’ll notice that many of those other symptoms you have – the ones that you were offered additional prescriptions to mask – will begin to resolve on their own.
Regaining your health is possible with this approach. No, you aren’t crazy, getting old, or just stressed out. Something is going on with your health, and that’s why you have the symptoms you’ve got. It’s your body’s way of telling you that something is wrong. Working on the cause is the best way to achieve health, rather than taking drugs with serious side effects for the rest of your life.