“All disease begins in the gut.” - Hippocrates.
Updated: Feb 21, 2019
Science has finally caught up to what Hippocrates penned nearly 2500 years ago!
The latest research affirms that at least 90% of all modern health problems and diseases start in the gut.
Chronic diseases such as arthritis, diabetes, depression and autoimmunity are rising to epidemic proportions, and they are traced back to an irritated and inflamed gut. Even minor ailments, such as constipation, eczema, lack of libido, aches and pains, and fatigue are directly linked to gut dysfunction. A damaged gut can increase the levels of toxins in the body, which also leads to premature aging.
When your gut is unhealthy, the whole body is at risk. This is because the digestive, immune, nervous, and endocrine systems all communicate and interact with each other. When your gut is not functioning properly, the activities of the other three systems may easily be compromised.
The gastrointestinal (GI) tract is the engine of your body. It extracts nutrients from the food you consume and delivers energy to every cell of the body needed for survival. It is a specialized, incredibly complex system, and every part plays crucial functions. Many metabolic processes occur along the 30-foot digestive superhighway, from the mouth to the anus, and things can go sideways at any point.
Bacterial imbalance, mechanical blockages, and other issues can wreak havoc on the smooth functioning of your digestive system, causing abdominal distress and bloating, or worse, chronic diseases.
What is Leaky Gut?
A leaky gut, or more technically “increased intestinal permeability” (IIP), means things can get across the gut barrier that aren’t supposed to. What forms this highly selective semi-permeable barrier is a single layer of highly specialized cells called enterocytes. On the other side of that barrier is 80% of our body’s immune systems, acting as a watch guard, ready to attack anything that might try to cross the barrier. This happens when either the enterocytes are damaged or the complex structures that glue the enterocytes to each other are damaged. What leaks into the body isn’t big chunks of food, but a variety of small substances—like incompletely digested proteins, bacteria or bacterial fragments, infectious organisms, and waste products—which all stimulate the immune system on the other side. Some substances cause generalized full body inflammation (ex., bacterial fragments from those good bacteria that live in our digestive tracts but are supposed to stay there can stimulate inflammation which can then travel throughout the body). Some stimulate targeted attacks by the immune system (Ex., A food intolerance or allergy could result from incompletely digested food proteins leaking into the body). The many symptoms and health conditions related to leaky gut are caused by this stimulation of the immune system.
Unfortunately, this is very burdensome on the body, and can lead to developing a secondary inflammation-related condition or multiple. It is not uncommon for people with chronic GI inflammation to develop autoimmune ailments such as Hashimotos thyroiditis, Crohn’s disease, rheumatoid arthritis, multiple sclerosis, ulcerative colitis, etc.
Sometimes, a leaky gut can develop slowly—over years or decades. Stress, sleep deprivation, and some infections may make matters worse very quickly (and unpredictably). Once you have a leaky gut, it's only a matter of time before other symptoms begin to pop up. Depending on the extent of the damage to the gut lining, the exact substances that leak out, and your specific genetic makeup, the inflammation and immune reactions caused by a leaky gut can add up to any of a huge variety of health concerns, many of which can be life-threatening, including autoimmune disease.
The gut can become leaky for a variety of reasons, but they all have their root in diet and lifestyle factors (including insufficient sleep, inactivity, overtraining, and chronic stress). Other causes of a leaky gut include medications, such as corticosteroids and NSAIDs, and infections (parasites, candida, some bacteria…). In the case of short-term courses of medication or infections, what keeps the gut leaky afterward is the extra negative impact of diet and lifestyle. In the case of chronic infections, diet and lifestyle factors weaken the immune system to the point that it can’t deal with the invading microorganism. Gut flora imbalances (aka gut dysbiosis) can also directly cause a leaky gut.
A leaky gut affects many aspects of your health. When the gut is compromised, you may experience many symptoms that affect the entire body, not just the GI tract.
Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS)
Small Intestine Bacterial Overgrowth (SIBO)
Problems in the digestive system often extend into the other systems of the body, causing symptoms such as:
Brain fog-especially after eating
Skin rashes/Itchy Skin
Food allergies and sensitivities
Weak immune system
Symptoms of malnutrition
What causes leaky gut?
There are usually a wide variety of factors that play key roles. Its worth mentioning some known culprits that can significantly affect the health of your GI tract and play a role in development of a leaky gut.
The food we consume not only provides your body with the energy and nutrients it needs to survive - your gut microbiota also feed on what you eat. Some foods help grow and maintain healthy levels of the beneficial bacterial community, while other foods not only cause inflammation in your gut, but they also initiate the overgrowth of pathogenic bacteria.
Certain types of foods can cause changes in the bacterial community in as little as 24 hours. When you consume food that alters the balance of bacteria living in your GI tract, it can also impair hormonal balance and immune function.
An unhealthy microbiome can lead to a leaky gut.
Secondly, a leaky gut can be caused by inflammation due to food sensitivities. A food sensitivity is not the same as anaphylaxis, where a trigger food or substance may result in immediate closed airways. Reactions from food sensitivities are usually much more mild and delayed (up to 72+ hours), but are not unimportant since they create a chronic state of inflammation.
Symptoms can include, (but not limited to); asthma, joint pain, migraines, ear infections, or eczema. If you feel like you may have a food sensitivity, but you are not sure what it is, you may find it helpful to get with a skilled nutritional therapist and start an elimination diet. (*which is the gold standard among medical professionals)
GMOs- There are two major concerns associated with genetically modified feed and food.
The first concern is about the effects of GM food on the body. They are under-regulated by the government, and many products are new to the market. Long term effects of GMOs are unknown. What is known however, is that since GMOs were introduced in 1996, numerous health problems increased. Cases of people with food allergies, autism, reproductive disorders, and digestive issues all increased. It is unknown if these issues occurred from DNA changes in these foods, or because of the second concern; glyphosate.
GM foods are engineered to withstand the intense chemical sprays of the herbicide, Round Up, which could kill any other non-modified plant. The active ingredient in this particular compound is called glyphosate. Glyphosate, a known carcinogen is also associated with breast cancer, birth defects, kidney disease, and is known to draw minerals and nutrients out of the body. Research also suggests that glyphosate may be damaging to the microbiome, and thus, impair gut health.
You can lower your exposure to glyphosate by choosing to eat organic.
Gluten, found in grains such as wheat, barley and rye, can cause leaky gut by stimulating the release of zonulin. Zonulin is a molecule released by intestinal cells, which causes the tight junctions of the gut wall to open. This is an important mechanism in the body to ensure that nutrients pass from the gut into the bloodstream. When there is too much zonulin in the body, the ‘gates’ of the gut (tight junctions) are left wide open, allowing undesired pathogens & particles to pass through. The presence of gluten in the body can stimulate such an overproduction of zonulin, thus contributing to leaky gut.
**You do not have to be celiac to be affected by gluten in this way.**
Dairy intake reduces the abundance and the diversity of the gut microbiota, especially in people who drink significant amounts of pasteurized milk products, which are relatively sterile in microbiota composition.
The digestion of protein in processed or raw milk leads to the production of a particular molecule that can cause an immune response, with symptoms such as skin reactions, rich mucus production, asthma and inflammation. This molecule slows down the passage of food through the digestive system
Low Intake of Dietary Fiber
Not consuming enough dietary fiber causes microbiota induced chronic diseases such as obesity. Fiber is food for our good bacteria in the microbiome. Not getting enough fiber changes the abundance and diversity of the gut bacterial community, and also alters the levels of products created during digestion (such as butyrate) that keep the junctions of the gut tight and prevent intestinal permeability.
Alcohol in the colon and the small intestine reduce the abundance of helpful bacteria that calm inflammatory activity. This eventually causes intestinal damage or even leaky gut by dissolving mucus on the intestinal lining, which is responsible for the proper function of the gut barrier.
2. Environmental Contaminants
Many environmental contaminants, including; pesticides, heavy metals, and antibiotics, can contaminate water and food. This leads to intestinal disorders, oxidative stress, and inflammation. A healthy gut microbiota help reduces the toxicity of numerous contaminants by decreasing their absorption and enhancing the function of the gut barrier. Furthermore, it can help calm inflammation, as well as reduce the number of pathogenic bacteria by competing against them and producing compounds to fight them off.
People are overly exposed to antibiotics not only through medical use but also utilization in crops and farm animals. Antibiotics not only kill ‘bad’ bacteria, but ‘good’ bacteria too. Exposure to antibiotics can rapidly alter the balance of the gut microbiome, causing immediate effects on health and the opportunistic growth of antibiotic-resistant pathogenic bacteria.
Through the gut-brain axis, changes in the microbiome and digestive system can affect the function and the structure of the brain, causing depression and anxiety. Similarly, changes in cognitive function affect the gut bacterial community and the GI system. Depression promotes the onset of irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), and the changes in the gut microbiota causing depression can worsen the symptoms of IBS.
4. Stress & Insufficient Sleep
Psychological and emotional stress can affect gut microbiota composition, creating dysbiosis. This dysbiosis, together with inflammation, can cause metabolic disease, affective disorders, circadian misalignment, and sleep loss. Insomnia alters the function of the immune system, biological rhythms, and the metabolism of nutrients in the body. Insomnia also affects the digestive functions and the bacterial community in the gut. It is a vicious cycle that starts and ends in the gut.
Chronic stress initiates intestinal permeability, increases the levels of cortisol (a stress hormone), and reduces the abundance of bacteria that help calm inflammation, leading to the dysfunction of the microbiota-gut-brain axis. Chronic stress due to gut dysfunction can also stimulate the development of Parkinson’s disease. In people who already have Parkinson’s, chronic stress can initiate microbial dysbiosis and a leaky gut, which accelerates motor deficits and neuronal degeneration.
Being overweight reduces the number of short-chain fatty acids (SCFA) in the GI tract that keeps the junctions tight, increasing the permeability of the gut and stimulating the development of nonalcoholic fatty liver disease.
6. Small Intestine Bacterial Overgrowth (SIBO) or Candida Overgrowth
Your gut bacteria primarily live in the large intestine. Factors like aging, poor motility, diabetes, low stomach acid or injury, cause the gut bacteria to overgrow into the small intestine. This is known as small intestine bacterial overgrowth (SIBO). This overgrowth can stimulate the release of the molecule zonulin, which opens the junctions of the gut. If there is too much zonulin in your body, the tight junctions of your gut wall will continue to be open, creating leaky gut.
Leaky gut can be caused by a fungal overgrowth, referred to as candida. A diet high in sugar, stress, alcohol or the use of antibiotics & oral contraceptives can all contribute to this fungal overgrowth. This can then cause inflammation to the gut wall, causing leaky gut. A common sign of candida overgrowth is a white film over the tongue.
7. Maternal Factors
Your body’s first encounter with the microbiome is during your development in the womb and at birth. The composition of the gut microbiota then adapts and evolves as you grow and become exposed to various environmental factors. Children born vaginally and who are breast fed have a much more robust and diverse microbiome than born via C-section and formula fed. Children gain their microbial foundation from their mothers, so it’s very important that mothers do their best to nurture their own microbiome.
8. Childhood Trauma
Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) is a disorder linked to the interactions of the gut and the brain, and it is also related to early adverse life events. Research indicates that people who experience severe traumatic incidents have a greater risk in developing IBS and gastrointestinal symptoms related to it.
How to Heal Your Leaky Gut
The best way to repair your leaky gut is to ensure the diversity and abundance of your body’s bacterial community, and lower GI inflammation as much as possible. Much of this can be achieved through diet and lifestyle.
*Your course of action will differ depending on your specific underlying root cause, ie. if you have SIBO, or candida overgrowth, or a food sensitivity. That said, many of the following suggestions are helpful for most of my clients.
1. Test Don't Guess
If you think you may have leaky gut, or intestinal permeability, find a gut-knowledgeable health practitioner to guide you through testing. This is because a leaky gut can be the result of many different root causes, whether it be SIBO, candida, food sensitivities or other factors. You may also need to talk with your practitioner about your diet or lifestyle factors, that may be contributing ill health. We are all bio-individually diverse so what works for one person may not work for the next. Speak with your health practitioner about the best course of action for you.
Any change in the gut microbiota affects the performance of the brain, which causes anxiety and depression. Meditation is helpful in reducing stress and to calm the fight-or-flight response, which prompts the release of hormones and neurotransmitters in the body that disturb the microbiota. Meditation isn't for everyone, so find what works to help you relax. Maybe its a warm bath, some adult coloring or getting out into nature. When stress levels are low, the gut bacterial community can efficiently create anti-inflammatory compounds to heal a leaky gut.
Getting enough sleep regulates the production of inflammatory substances secreted by the immune system caused by sleep deprivation. Decreasing inflammation can prevent the further development of IBS, liver disorders, gastroesophageal reflux, and colorectal cancer. Sleep-deprivation related diseases exacerbate the same GI diseases.
4. Remove Triggers
Avoid the foods that trigger an immune response, as well as those that cause inflammation and increase the levels of pro-inflammatory and pathogenic bacteria. Eliminate or reduce GM food, sugar, gluten, dairy, processed foods, and alcohol. It’s a great idea to try to eat organic as well. Look up The Dirty Dozen, Clean Fifteen by EWG (www.ewg.org/foodnews) to learn how you can shop organic on a budget. You’ll learn which foods you must definitely buy organic, and which foods are safe to buy nonorganic.
Studies show that probiotic supplements can enhance the production of proteins that are responsible for the tight junctions of the GI tract barrier, reversing leaky gut. Another study shows that probiotic supplements reduce the levels of toxic free radicals in the body, increasing the body’s ability to detoxify and counteract their effects through the antioxidant functions of beneficial bacteria.
Fermented foods, such as sauerkraut, kimchi, miso, tempeh and kombucha, also contain helpful bacteria (probiotics) that may help repair a leaky gut.
*If you have SIBO or candida overgrowth, this is not the best immediate course of action.
Different from probiotic supplements, prebiotics help alleviate the symptoms of and heal leaky gut. The non-digestible carbohydrates and dietary fiber in prebiotics promote the growth of beneficial microorganism communities in the body. They serve as food for your gut microbiota and you can get them by eating prebiotic-rich raw food, such as chicory root, Jerusalem artichoke, dandelion greens, cooked beans, garlic, leeks, onion (even cooked), asparagus, and banana. You can also get them from apples, konjac root, cocoa, burdock root, flaxseeds, yacon root, jicama root, and seaweed.
*If you have SIBO, this is not the best immediate course of action.
7. Anti-Inflammatory Foods
Turmeric, ginger, grapeseed extract and other anti-inflammatory foods contain polyphenols – compounds that have anti-inflammatory, anti-aging, and antioxidant properties, as well as neuro and cardiovascular protection. Polyphenols reduce the risk of diseases in the intestine.
Marshmallow Root is full of health benefits? In addition to soothing skin, coughs and the digestive tract (among many other things), marshmallow root can also assist to repair the gut lining. Recent research shows that dried marshmallow root contains proline as the main compound. Proline is an amino acid that helps build protein in the body for tissue repair, and it is stored in the collagen. In reference to leaky gut, marshmallow root creates a protective layer around the GI cell junctions. You can take marshmallow root as a tea, tincture, powder or within supplement capsule.
Aloe vera leaves contain compounds that are broken down in the body into metabolites that inhibit the production of proinflammatory cytokines -- molecules that promote inflammation. Aloe vera extracts reduce the levels of gastric acid in the stomach that prevents further damage to a leaky gut.
Licorice Root can treat several diseases through its pharmacological properties. These properties include anticancer, antiasthma, antidiabetic, antioxidative, antimicrobial, antiviral, and anti-inflammatory activities, as well as cardioprotective, neuroprotective, hepatoprotective, gastroprotective, and immunomodulatory effects. Licorice root also helps maintain the mucosal lining of the stomach and duodenum. It can be taken as a tea or supplement. Be aware however, licorice can cause edema and hypertension when taken in very large quantities, so just don’t overdo it!
Evidence shows that exercise increases the diversity of the gut microbiota, combating dysbiosis. Thus, it can enhance the functions of the GI tract bacterial community to suppress inflammation and regulate the immune response.
*Be careful of overdoing it though as intense daily exercise may exacerbate intestinal permeability.
10. Dietary Supplements
L-glutamine is one of the most versatile and abundant amino acids in the body. Studies determined that glutamine is vital for the production of a type of white blood cell that fight disease and illness, and molecules that aid cell communication during an immune response and initiate cell movement to the site of trauma, infection, and inflammation. The body makes L-glutamine, but it may still be helpful to consume additional L-glutamine in supplement form, particularly beneficial for people with immune response disorders.
Glutamine supplements reduce the symptoms of intestinal hyperpermeability-induced IBS with post infections and predominant diarrhea. Glutamine prevents alcoholic injury in the tissue and dysfunction of the colon, as well as liver damage and the spread on toxins found in bacteria in the blood, causing shock, kidney necrosis, and hemorrhages.
*People with certain genetic mutations do not feel well while on L-glutamine supplements. If you feel nauseous while on L-glutamine, discontinue use.
Digestive Enzymes They say, “You are what you eat”...however a more accurate truth is, “You are what you digest”. Acquiring food is only part of the challenge in order to survive and stay healthy. An equally important task is actually digesting and utilizing the food you eat. Food needs to be broken down to smaller, simpler compounds before your body can absorb them. This important process of breaking down food for its nutritional components is performed by enzymes, which are either the products of your microbiome or found naturally in your digestive tract.
If our body’s natural processes are compromised, we need supplemental support. There are a few reasons your body may need assistance from digestive enzyme supplements, such as digestive disease, liver disease, pancreatic disease, or simply the aging process.
In these cases, digestive enzymes may decrease the burden of digestion on the digestive organs, which in turn reduce inflammation, and ultimately, leaky gut.
11. Essential Oils
Essential oils can be a sweet smelling way to nurse your gut back to health. A few oil options you may want to try for relieving gut symptoms:
Lavender- anti-inflammatory, calms anxiety and depression
Thyme/Rose- chemical components of thymol and geraniol (found in oils such as rose) have been shown to be a helpful remedy for SIBO.
Peppermint- can assist digestion in both whole herb form, and oil form.
*Discuss dosage and applications with a knowledgeable natural health practitioner.
If you'd like to schedule a free 15 minute consultation regarding your very own personalized step by step healing guide, contact me HERE for more info.
Thank you for joining me today!
-Brianna Marie, HHFC
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