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Leaky Gut

Updated: Jan 16, 2023

Summary: Abnormal intestinal permeability, also known as “leaky gut,” can cause a variety of worrisome and frustrating symptoms and illnesses.


Digestion is a complex and incompletely understood process. When functioning normally, the semi-permeable inner mucosal surface of the intestinal tract allows beneficial micronutrients to cross over into the bloodstream, making them available to cells throughout the body. The intestinal lining also prevents harmful contents from crossing over into the circulation. This selective process is integral for cells to receive both fuel and ingredients necessary to maintain health and repair damaged areas.


An unhealthy gut lining, however, may allow harmful partially digested foods, bacteria, and endotoxins into the bloodstream. This abnormal intestinal permeability, also known as “leaky gut,” can cause a variety of worrisome and frustrating symptoms and illnesses.


The combination of genetics, environmental factors, and exposure to toxins can damage the intestinal lining, causing it to be less effective in absorbing healthy nutrients and more permeable to harmful materials. Harmful chemicals likely break down portions of the intestinal lining, altering its mucosa, and creating a more porous less effective intestinal wall. These abnormal “leaky” pores allow material not intended for absorption to enter the circulation. The immune system may identify as foreign, the harmful materials in the circulation. These antigens (antibody generating material) can be expected to stimulate both local and systemic immune responses as the body works to neutralize or eliminate foreign toxins. Tissues exposed to this inflammatory process may include intestinal and abdominal structures as well as distant sites, e.g., joints, skin, respiratory tract, and areas of the brain.


How would you know if you have a leaky gut?

The clinical symptoms consistent with abnormal intestinal permeability vary but are often associated with inflammation. Thus, the most common conditions include inflammatory bowel disease, food / seasonal allergies, asthma, inflammatory joint disease, and atopy (itchy skin) (Humphreys 2013). Studies have suggested a link between leaky gut and autoimmune diseases: multiple sclerosis, rheumatoid arthritis, type 1 diabetes, celiac disease, Hashimoto’s thyroiditis, systemic lupus erythematosus (SLE), and Reiter syndrome (Kinashi & Hase 2021). Less obvious but extremely important consequences of an abnormal intestinal lining and the associated inflammation may include depression, anxiety, chronic fatigue, arthritis, and fibromyalgia. Additional resulting conditions include rosacea, eczema, acne, psoriasis, pre-menstrual syndrome (PMS), ankylosing spondylitis, and nutrient malabsorption.


What contributes to developing a leaky gut?

An individual’s genetic makeup can predispose an individual to developing abnormal intestinal linings. The microbiota helps regulate the integrity and function of the intestinal mucosal barrier. A healthy and normal intestinal flora nourishes the cells lining the digestive tract. Abnormal intra-intestinal bacteria can destroy the integrity of the sensitive and critically important semi-permeable intestinal lining (Campbell-McBride 2010). Other pathogens (fungi, parasites, SIBO/SIFO), toxins, medications, nutritional depletion, and certain foods can also alter the flora, causing inflammation and damage (Tommaso, Gasbarrini & Ponziani 2021).


Glyphosate, the active ingredient of the popular weed killer Round Up®, is sprayed on an enormous percentage of food crops across America, making exposure to glyphosate virtually inescapable. This toxin has been studied by researchers and is often mentioned in news reports due to its profoundly negative effects on gastrointestinal microbiomes. Excess levels of glyphosate have been identified by The Environmental Working Group (www.ewg.org) in oats, beans, and other legumes. Rodents exposed to glyphosate develop significantly abnormal gut microbiota (Dechartres 2019). Heavy metals, GMO’s, perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA), perfluoro octane sulfonate (PFOS), BPA and endocrine disrupters are other toxins present in plastics, clothing, cosmetics, furniture, carpeting, cookware, automobiles, and likely present in our water and air. These ubiquitous chemicals likely contribute to abnormal intestinal microbiomes.

Processed foods, often high in unhealthy quantities and types of sugar, also have ingredients that include a variety of chemicals for coloring, taste, smell, texture, and preservatives. Each of these toxins can stimulate inflammation that can lead to tissue damage. Even some foods generally considered safe and healthy for most people (milk, eggs, grains, legumes, etc) can irritate the gut lining (Grundy 2017). Consuming alcohol and/or gluten as well as smoking have been associated with an abnormal “leaky” gut. Short-term use of NSAIDs, e.g., Advil®, Motrin®, and Aleve®, have been shown to damage the intestinal mucosa (Humphreys 2013). Glucocorticoids (“steroids”), antibiotics, birth control medications, proton pump inhibitors (Prilosec®), chemotherapy drugs and radiation therapies are likely to adversely affect the gut lining.


Chronic stress can be a significant factor as well. Both cortisol and mast cells increase inflammation and may lead to a weakened gut barrier. (Madison & Kiecold- Glaser 2019)

How do we heal a leaky gut?

Eliminating as much exposure to these damaging sources is the first step. Second, an elimination diet can be pursued. Eliminating foods likely to stimulate an inflammatory reaction is ideal. Avoiding sugar, alcohol, grains, dairy, soy, eggs and high lectin containing foods should improve health by reducing stimulation of the immune system. Eat organic/non-GMO/anti-inflammatory whole foods that have not been treated with insecticides. One may need to address infections and/or parasites.

Choose supportive foods that can help heal the gut lining. These include cabbage juice, cruciferous vegetables, bone and vegetable broths, vegetable juices, aloe vera juice, and slippery elm tea. (Lipski 2012) Take into consideration the quality of the water you drink and the air you breath. There are many supplements to consider. Working with a professional health provider can guide you on the steps needed to heal your gastrointestinal tract.


References:

Campbell-McBride, N. (2010) Gut and Psychology Syndrome Cambridge, UK: Medinform Publishing

Gundry, S. R. (2017) The Plant Paradox NY, NY: HarperCollins Publisher

Dechartres, J., Pawluski, J.L., Gueguen, M.M., Jablaoui, M., Maguin, E., Rhimi, M., Charlier, T.D. Glyphosate, and glyphosate-based herbicide exposure during the peripartum period affects maternal brain plasticity, maternal behavior and microbiome. Journal of Neuroendocrinology, September 2019 DOI: 10.1111/jne.12731

Humphreys, C. (2013) Intestinal Permeability Assessment in Pizzorno & Murray’s Textbook of Natural Medicine; St. Louis, Missouri, Elsevier

Lipski, E. (2012) Digestive Wellness (4th ed.). United States: McGraw-Hills Books

Madison, A., Kiecold-Glaser, J.K. Stress, depression, diet, and the gut microbiota: human-bacteria interactions at the core of psychoneuroimmunology and nutrition. Current Opinion in Behavioral Sciences August 2019 doi: 10.1016/j.cobeha.2019.01.011

Kinashi, Y., Hase, K. Partners in Leaky Gut Syndrome: Intestinal Dysbiosis and Autoimmunity Frontiers in Immunology April 2021 DOI: 10.3389/fimmu.2021.673708

Tommaso, N.D., Gasbarrini, A., Ponziani, F.R. Intestinal Barrier in Human Health and Disease December 2021 International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health DOI: 10.3390/ijerph182312836

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