What is leaky gut?
Leaky gut – as the name would suggest, is characterized as an unhealthy or damaged gut lining. The leakiness of our gut, or intestinal permeability, is a regulated feature of our digestive system. Our gut, or intestines, must serve as an effective barrier to prevent dangerous substances from being absorbed into our bodies. Our immune system provides monitoring and back up of this barrier so that it can quickly respond to any invaders that make it through. In fact, 70% of our immune system is dedicated to this vital task. However, in order to save energy and time, our intestines are designed to allow some small molecules, such as water, to permeate through the spaces between the cells that make up the lining of our gut. Larger molecules are usually actively transported into and then through these cells. This active transport system is a safer method of absorbing nutrients and helps to ensure that unwanted bacteria, toxins, and other potential pathogens don’t end up being absorbed. It also allows for our immune system to examine and screen the absorbed materials. This provides us further protection from invaders but also serves to educate the immune system about the outside environment and help it determine friend from foe. However, because the active transport system is inefficient and energy intensive, in times of immediate need or famine, our gut has the useful ability to increase its leakiness, or permeability, to passively allow certain substances to flow between the cells. Even under normal circumstances, passive absorption of small non-toxic molecules such as water and electrolytes is beneficial, so a small amount of leakiness is beneficial and normal.
However, a variety of conditions can cause this system to run amok, leading to excessive leakiness, or permeability, and passive absorption. When the spaces between the cells of intestines become too large, larger molecules such as intact proteins, viruses, and bacteria can make their way through. When viruses or bacteria are absorbed this of course may lead to infections. The large protein molecules, which are not harmful directly to our bodies, can cause significant problems too, however. This is because when these proteins bypass the active absorption system, they also bypass critical steps in our immune system’s monitoring and regulation. This can lead to the protein molecules being misidentified as dangerous and set off a cascade of immune activation and inflammation. This immune system activation can cause serious side effects both within and outside of our digestive system and in some cases may lead to more serious forms of immune dysregulation, such as autoimmune diseases.
How Will I Know If I Have Leaky Gut?
While there are symptoms that typify leaky gut, you will not truly know if you are suffering from leaky gut until you consult a professional. Some common signs and symptoms of leaky gut within the digestive system include chronic diarrhea, constipation, gas, issues with appetite, and bloating. Not all individuals with chronic digestive symptoms have leaky gut though. Outside of the digestive system, the immune activation and inflammation from leaky gut may also cause excessive fatigue, headaches, joint pain, eczema, psoriasis, allergies, and auto-immune illnesses such as thyroid disease, rosacea, and painful mouth syndrome. You may notice that certain foods seem to trigger symptoms associated with this condition but that the response is far from predictable. Trying to determine which foods are triggers is often frustrating, tedious, and can feel like you are being led around in circles. The reason is that unlike true allergies, food sensitivities, which often play a large role in leaky gut, may not cause symptoms for 24 to 48 hours. Some people with leaky gut have only minor digestive troubles and none of these symptoms are unique to leaky gut, so lab testing is the most accurate way to assess the leakiness or permeability of your gut.
What Causes Leaky Gut and How Can I Prevent it?
Assaults to the complex process that regulates the permeability of our gut can come from a variety of sources. Leaky gut is almost always caused by more than one factor that combine to create a dysregulated condition. Here is a list of the most common factors:
- A poor diet, high in fats, sugars, and chemical additives and low in fiber, can cause alterations in our gut flora and other regulatory changes that in turn lead to more leakiness.
- Alcohol and over-the-counter and prescription drugs may also play a role. Individuals suffering from the conditions associated with leaky gut often use pain relievers and NSAIDS (non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs). This class of drugs are especially effective at causing leaky gut. Antibiotics also may cause significant negative changes to our gut flora and health.
- Poor sleep – sleep is where the digestive system rests and repairs
- Lack of exercise – exercise has a profound effect on the ocean of gut bacteria we have, and a healthy gut flora protects the lining of our gut.
- Exposure to toxins: unfortunately, we have soiled our nest. The air we breathe, the food we eat, the water we drink and the products we use to take care of our bodies like our toothpaste, skin care products and sunscreens all contribute to an increased toxic load. The gut, liver and kidneys suffer and their ability to carry out their most important roles can be compromised. Leaky gut can be a result and it further contributes to the loss of the capacity to protect ourselves from these toxic exposures.
- The most common cause of leaky gut in our experience is chronic stress. Chronic stress hormone elevation has a profound effect on suppressing the protective actions of our immune system. Chronic stress hormones also disturb the beneficial flora that play a role in protecting our gut lining.
If I’ve got it, how do I fix it?
Many of our clients have become concerned they may have this condition – or have just heard that an elimination diet can help heal the gut lining and have tried changes to their diet by taking food groups such as gluten, dairy, citrus, grains, nuts, seeds, and legumes out of their diet. Often this results in a temporary or partial improvement in their symptoms. This is because eliminating triggering foods will not fully repair the damage and does not address other contributing factors. Overtime continued immune activation from leaky gut leads the body to develop a whole new set of food sensitivities and the process must then be restarted.
The best way to treat leaky gut and to create lasting results is to take a holistic approach to your digestive and overall wellness. Since leaky gut is generally caused by more than one factor, effective treatment must also be multifactorial.
Like most issues with gut health, leaky gut may be treated in-part with a change in diet. Particular foods may be causing inflammation which can be revealed through blood tests. Other foods and food additives that interfere with normal gut regulation should always be avoided once leaky gut has been diagnosed. A customized anti-inflammatory diet can help to calm overactive immune systems, repair damaged gut linings, and facilitate a healthier gut flora.
We also recommend stress management techniques, regular exercise, adequate sleep, and avoidance of problematic toxins to promote a healthy lifestyle and a healthy gut. Managing your stress can play a surprising large part in your gut health and your overall health as the connection between the gut and brain is stronger than most realize. Surprisingly, physical activity plays a key role in the health of our gut flora which is intimately involved in regulating the leakiness of our gut. Sleep is when we do most of the repair to our gut and is essential for healing.
Our team of professionals are here to support you in creating a healthier lifestyle for your gut health and managing your leaky gut symptoms. Work together with experts in functional medicine, nutrition, and stress resilience to create an individualized wellness plan for your ailment and your overall health. We are seeking to not only address your leaky gut symptoms, but to understand the root causes of why you are having those symptoms in the first place. After addressing these issues at their roots, we will work to create a wellness plan by building the skills and habits you need to heal your leaky gut, and to lead a healthy and active lifestyle. Contact Dr. Sharp to learn more about your leaky gut.