Hippocrates, the father of modern medicine, was quoted as saying, “All disease begins in the gut.” We are hearing a lot about the gut in the media lately — “leaky gut” is a hot topic on programs like Dr. Oz and even Oprah. Is “leaky gut” what Hippocrates was talking about as the basis for all disease?
What exactly is leaky gut? And how do you know if you have it?
The gut is another name for your digestive tract, which is a long tube that begins in your mouth and ends at your anus. It includes the stomach, the small intestine and the large intestine. The gut, just like the sinuses and genitals, is a lined with a mucosal barrier, which protects the body from pathogens and foreign substances. In order for the body to remain healthy and functioning normally, this mucosal barrier or lining must be healthy and functioning normally. If the lining becomes damaged, this creates a condition known as leaky gut (more formally known as intestinal permeability).
How does the gut become leaky?
The lining of the intestines can become “leaky” in a variety of ways, but it is most commonly due to poor food choices, chronic infections and/or exposure to toxins. Foods such as gluten, conventional dairy, processed seed oils and sugar are inflammatory to the body and can cause small holes to form in the mucosal barrier of the gut. These small holes allow pathogens, food particles and toxins to leak into the bloodstream where they don’t belong. Candida, parasites or bacterial overgrowth can also cause this degeneration of the mucosal barrier. Certain medications, acid-reducing drugs, antibiotics and environmental toxins like pesticides and BPA in plastics can cause leaky gut as well. Even stress plays a role in the disruption of proper gut function.
What are the symptoms of leaky gut?
Symptoms of leaky gut can include digestive issues like gas, bloating, diarrhea or constipation, but a leaky gut can affect other systems in the body as well – in fact, all of them. This is because the vast majority of the immune system is housed in the gut. The mucosal barrier is responsible for making sure that all of our food is digested properly and that we are able to absorb and assimilate all of the nutrients from the food we eat. When the gut barrier becomes permeable, bacteria and toxins – as well as incompletely digested proteins, fats and waste, can leak out of the gut and make their way into the bloodstream. When the body sees things it does not recognize in the bloodstream, it launches an immune attack against these foreign “invaders” and that’s when we start to notice symptoms. And these symptoms can be system-wide, since the bloodstream is system-wide. If you suffer from food allergies or intolerances, seasonal allergies, asthma, autoimmune conditions like rheumatoid arthritis or Hashimoto’s thyroiditis, hormonal imbalances, skin conditions like acne, eczema, rosacea and psoriasis or even brain-related issues like autism, ADD/ADHD and anxiety or depression, you may have a leaky gut.
Are there tests for leaky gut?
The most advanced test currently available is a test for Zonulin. Zonulin is a recently discovered molecule that regulates junctions between the cells of mucosal lining of the gut. You can also test for leaky gut with a lactulose/mannitol test, or you can save yourself the expense and simply assume you have it. All of us are exposed to the things that cause a leaky gut on a daily basis, so unless we have taken steps to heal it already, most of us can be pretty sure that we leaky gut to some degree.
Can leaky gut be fixed?
The good news is that you can heal a leaky gut. Removing anything that negatively affects the mucosal barrier, like inflammatory foods, is a great first step. Beginning a gluten-free, dairy-free diet that is low in sugar, low in processed seed oils like canola and soybean, and low in processed foods will allow the body to calm down so it can begin the healing process. Avoiding pesticides and GMO foods by buying organic fruits and vegetables (or, if it is too costly for you to buy all organic, at least buy those designated by the Environmental Working Group as the “Dirty Dozen”) is a must. Consuming gut-healing foods like bone broth can be very helpful as well. And, there are several supplements, such as L-Glutamine and a good, multi-strain probiotic, that can also aid in healing the mucosal barrier.
Another useful step would be to identify any pathogens or an overgrowth of unfriendly bacteria that may have taken up residence in the gut. A stool test and a SIBO (Small Intestinal Bacterial Overgrowth) breath test that you do at home check for such pathogens. The results of these tests can help determine the best course of treatment in the healing of your leaky gut.
Adding in the nutrients that are necessary for gut repair is crucial as well. Digestive enzymes, hydrochloric acid (stomach acid) and bile acids can be very beneficial in helping a damaged gut to break down food into a more absorbable form. Your doctor can order blood work to check for nutrient deficiencies and can prescribe supplements to correct those imbalances and support the body in its healing process. Slowly adding fermented foods and fermentable fiber into the diet will feed the good bacteria in the gut and help replenish any insufficiencies. Finally, taking steps to manage your stress – walking in nature, doing yoga or adopting a meditation practice – can be amazingly beneficial.
It may seem overwhelming at first, but the right practitioner can guide and support you through this healing process and help you to live the life you truly want to live – a life that is free of pain. A life of that is full of health and happiness. Because anything other than that is not much of a life at all.