|Posted on March 19, 2014 at 8:15 AM|
By Lucinda Bedogne – CNHP
More and more is being discovered today regarding the clear connection between gut health and the overall health of the body. The fact is that food cannot be converted to energy or provide fuel to run the various processes of the body if it is not sufficiently digested and absorbed. Nor can the body be truly healthy apart from adequate nutrition.
The essential role the small intestine plays in the final stages of digestion and absorption of nutrients into the bloodstream cannot be overestimated. Evidence continues to mount which proves that a healthy and uncompromised gut lining equates to a strong immune system and affords us protection against a wide range of health disorders and diseases currently on the rise. Thus far, the following disorders or diseases have been linked in medical literature with a condition commonly referred to as leaky gut syndrome:
In actuality, a great many more health issues people commonly experience originate with poor digestive health and a weakened immune system stemming from leaky gut syndrome. However, the connection between the two is often not recognized since leaky gut syndrome symptoms run the gamut and conventional medicine tends to focus more on treating symptoms than identifying underlying root causes.
The Body’s First Line of Defense
In order to comprehend how a condition such as leaky gut can cause such a wide array of health problems, one must first understand the important role the gut wall plays in protecting our health. The lining of the small intestine forms a barrier that keeps unwanted compounds in the digestive tract from escaping into the bloodstream where they can travel throughout the body. This semi-permeable barrier acts as our first line of immune defense – sorting through and selectively choosing what raw materials the body can assimilate while, at the same time, rejecting any microbes, toxins, large food molecules or whatever else might adversely affect the health of the body.
Nutrients the body needs to produce energy and fuel its processes are absorbed into the bloodstream through hundreds of villi (small, fingerlike folds) that line the walls of the small intestine, each of which is covered with thousands of microvilli. Because villi and microvilli appear under a microscope similar to bristles on a brush, this one-layer thick small intestine lining is sometimes referred to as the “brush border”. If the surface area of all of these villi and microvilli were spread out flat, it would comprise an area the size of a tennis court when you take into account that the small intestine itself is 20 to 25 feet in length. Even more amazing is the fact that the cells that make up this lining are able to replace themselves approximately every six days.
Many people are unaware that approximately two-thirds of immune system activity takes place within this intestinal lining. One type of antibody produced there in abundance (secretary IgA) performs the job of neutralizing or otherwise countering bacteria, microbes, parasites and allergens to keep them from crossing the gut wall and getting into the bloodstream. Other specialized immune cells located throughout the gastrointestinal tract are housed in a type of lymphatic tissue known as GALT (Gut Associated Lymphoid Tissue) that lies just on the other side of the brush border. The job of these immune cells is to identify harmful substances and alert white blood cells and macrophages (another kind of immune “attack” cell) to destroy potentially harmful substances before they can enter the bloodstream.
In this way, the small intestine lining functions as both a barrier and a gatekeeper. How well the immune system is able to do its job of counteracting harmful substances in order to keep them from penetrating the internal environment of our body greatly depends on the condition of the intestinal brush border.
What is Leaky Gut Syndrome?
In a perfect world food particles are reduced to their lowest common denominators before reaching the wall of the small intestine for absorption - proteins into amino acids, carbohydrates into simple sugars and fats into fatty acids. A healthy gastrointestinal tract only absorbs these types of completely digested food molecules.
Leaky gut syndrome (termed “increased intestinal permeability” in the medical world), is a condition that develops when gaps form in the tightly packed junctures between cells in this protective membrane due to inflammatory damage. Tiny holes or tears from various sources of irritation cause these gaps to widen, allowing partially digested food components as well as bacteria, yeasts, parasites and toxins to literally leak into the bloodstream. A leaky gut is usually characterized by damaged cells in the intestinal lining along with flattened or inflamed microvilli that are no longer able to effectively secrete IgA or produce the special enzymes needed to facilitate the absorption of nutrients in the final stage of digestion that takes place in the small intestine.
A leaky gut wall becomes like a sieve that lets food particles pass into the bloodstream before they are completely digested. Because partially digested food and other substances were never meant to enter the bloodstream, the immune system perceives them as foreign invaders and acts to mobilize an immune defense against them. Antibodies form and white blood cells spring into action to initiate the inflammatory process the body engages to deal with these “invaders”. Oxidants and free radicals are produced in this battle that can cause further irritation and inflammation to other parts of the body. Since the inflammatory process makes tissues swell, cell membranes can lose tone and more easily become porous over time. As the intestinal lining becomes more permeable, its ability to act as a protective barrier is compromised.
How Leaky Gut Syndrome Affects the Body
When the gut loses its ability to filter incompletely digested food particles, harmful toxins and microbes, the organs that must deal with the effects of that influx in the bloodstream and lymphatic system can become overburdened with the toxic load. The liver, which acts as a back-up “second line of defense” for the body, especially bears the brunt of dealing with these substances. This is because everything from the digestive tract first goes to the liver for processing before it can be utilized by the rest of the body. The more the liver is bombarded with inflammatory irritants and partially digested food molecules, the less capacity it has to break down or neutralize chemicals and metabolic byproducts.
Since this important detoxification organ can only deal with so much at a time, the overflow of irritants and toxins from the intestines through a leaky gut diffuse into tissues of the body and tend to accumulate in organs, glands and fat cells. The inflammatory and free radical damage created in combination with the repercussions of an overtaxed liver and overworked immune system can result in any of the following conditions:
Do You Relate to any of These Symptoms?
The symptoms that indicate leaky gut syndrome may exist are numerous and extremely varied. Some of the more common ones people tend to experience are:
What Causes Leaky Gut Syndrome?
Anything that compromises the intestinal lining or disturbs the healthy balance of intestinal flora can potentially lead to the development of a “leaky” gut. The primary causes are:
Food allergens – Food allergies and leaky gut go hand in hand. Even though food allergies often develop due to a leaky gut, continuing to eat reactive foods only increases inflammation and worsen the condition of the gut wall over time. Protein fragments such as gliadin (protein in wheat gluten), zonulin (protein activated by gliadin known to widen gaps between cells and increase permeability), and casein (protein in milk) are among the worst offenders known to trigger immune system reactions. Because diets high in grain and dairy are so typical in this country, people tend to eat more of them than their body is able to handle, which is a primary reason food allergies and intolerances are a growing problem today.
Imbalanced Intestinal Flora – Chronic bacterial or viral infections, parasites and yeast/fungal overgrowth such as Candida upset the balance of intestinal flora within the intestinal tract. As these microorganisms feed on undigested food molecules, they flourish and outnumber the population of friendly bacteria. Toxins emitted by these organisms contribute to the inflammatory damage leading to leaky gut. In the case of Candida, root-like structures literally penetrate and form holes in the intestinal lining. As I previously covered, antibiotics and other drugs upset the balance of intestinal flora by destroying beneficial bacteria.
Poor Digestion and Overeating – Normal gastrointestinal function cannot occur without adequate digestion. Deficiencies in digestive enzymes, hydrochloric acid, and an imbalanced gastrointestinal pH can cause impaired digestion that contributes to malabsorption, food allergies, bacterial overgrowth and other factors tied in with the development of leaky gut syndrome. Since overeating burdens the digestive system with more food than it can process at one time, excess undigested food molecules can further contribute to poor intestinal health.
Toxins & Chemicals – The cumulative toxic burden from daily exposure to household and environmental chemicals, heavy metals and other toxins overwhelms the immune system and depletes nutrients, removing resources needed for repair and replacement of intestinal cells.
Trauma or Prolonged Stress – High levels of cortisol and other chemicals produced during periods of stress can contribute to intestinal inflammation. Stress robs the body of glutamine, the primary fuel for the cells that make up the intestinal lining. Since stress affects our immune system’s ability to respond and reduces blood flow to digestive organs, it slows down the healing process. Besides mental and emotional stress, surgery, injuries, high fever, infections, and overly rigorous exercise are additional stressors to the body.
Steps to Healing a Leaky Gut
As long as the immune system, digestion and detoxification processes of the liver work well, the small intestine lining is able to repair and replace itself in a matter of days. However, healing can be difficult and take much longer if any of these systems are impaired and/or overtaxed for any length of time. Following the recommendations for healing leaky gut can improve symptoms in some people in a matter of weeks whereas others with more advanced cases may take six months or longer. A number of steps are involved in healing a “leaky” gut. The first is really a two-step process that is of utmost importance, though it can be the most challenging to implement.
Remove Irritants Long Enough for the Gut to Recover
In spite of other measures taken to heal a leaky gut, full healing is difficult to achieve when any of the causal factors cited above are ongoing. In order to successfully remove these irritants, it is recommended that you:
Since poorly digested food plays a major role in leaky gut syndrome, improving digestion is essential to restoring gastrointestinal health. The more food is broken down into the smallest molecules possible, the less it will lead to malabsorption in the small intestine. The best ways to optimize digestion are to:
For more information on improving digestive health, I would refer you to my articles "The Key to Good Digestion" , "Stomach Acid - Too Much or Too Little" and "The Key to Health and Longevity".
Support Organs and Pathways of Elimination and Detoxification
Waste that is not rapidly eliminated can irritate and inflame the intestines as well as increase the likelihood that toxins reabsorb and circulate back to the liver, increasing systemic toxicity. The use of extra fiber helps reduce intestinal inflammation, binds toxins and irritating substances, and improves colon transit time by holding moisture in the intestines to remove them more quickly. In addition, fiber acts as food to help boost the growth of friendly flora in the intestinal tract*. Supporting the liver involves supplying key nutrients and herbs that protect it as well as fuel the detoxification process it uses to convert harmful fat-soluble toxins into water-soluble forms the body can easily excrete. Milk thistle, N-acetylcysteine (a precursor to glutathione production), lipoic acid, Vitamin C and other anti-oxidants are used for this purpose. To cleanse and stimulate overall liver function and bile production, herbs such as dandelion root, fringe tree, Oregon grape root and beet leaf are recommended. Consuming vegetables such as dark, leafy greens, beets, artichokes and young dandelion greens will further help to cleanse and support the liver. For more information on supporting the organs of the body involved in detoxification and elimination, I would refer you to my five-part series on "Detoxifying for Better Health", particularly Part 2 and Part 3 which covers colon cleansing and liver detoxification.
* Special Note: those people with leaky gut who also have SIBO (Small Intestine Bacterial Overgrowth) may need to avoid certain types of fiber since it may accelerate the growth of harmful bacteria and worsen SIBO symptoms.
Recreate a Healthy Balance of Intestinal Flora
Repopulating the intestine with friendly bacteria by eating fermented foods and/or taking a high quality multi-strain probiotic supplement is often necessary to restore the balance of gut flora needed to strengthen the immune system, protect against yeast and bacterial overgrowth, and help breakdown food as well as neutralize toxins.
Repair and Restore the Integrity of the Gut Wall
The “holes” in the gut wall need to be toned and tightened which may be accomplished through supporting the healing process with the use of various nutrients and herbs. Supplements are especially necessary with people who have leaky gut since they often have difficulty absorbing sufficient nutrients from foods. The following are nutrients and herbs that are commonly recommended:
If steps are not taken to heal a porous gut wall, health may decline due to two primary factors: nutritional deficiencies from a growing inability to adequately absorb them and an overworked immune system with limited ability to protect the body against infections and disease. Keep in mind that good health is dependent upon a well functioning immune system and the body cannot regenerate healthy new cells and tissues if it is nutrient-deficient.
A Test to Learn for Certain
If you suspect you may have leaky gut syndrome but are unsure and wish to be tested, a test by Genova Diagnostics is available that directly measures gut leakiness in addition to nutrient absorption capacity. It is called the “Intestinal Permeability Assessment” and can be ordered by your doctor or online at Lab Testing Direct.com or through other sites for approximately $100. This assessment simply involves drinking a solution with two non-metabolized sugar molecules (lactulose and mannitol) and collecting urine samples at designated intervals over a six hour period, which are then sent to a lab for analysis.
However, it is not necessary to be tested to begin to work on improving your digestive health. Many of the guidelines in this article can benefit anyone, whether they already have leaky gut syndrome or simply wish to prevent it by taking better care of their intestinal health in order to enhance the overall health of their body.