Don’t let this unpleasantly and oversimplified titled condition fool you – Leaky Gut Syndrome could be at the core of your food intolerance(s) and many other unexplained symptoms you’re experiencing. Most people would be surprised to know that a digestion issue could be the culprit for a variety of symptoms outside of the expected gas and bloating. But make no mistake: your digestive system is the foundation for wellness for your whole body and can be the primary source of many chronic disorders.
Leaky Gut Defined
Leaky Gut Syndrome – or to be technical, “intestinal hyperpermeability” – indicates a condition where the mucosal tissues in your gut lumen (the space inside the tube of your intestine that regulates the passage of nutrient particles into your bloodstream) is compromised, causing it to be overly permeable, or “leaky”. This allows larger undigested nutrient particles and various toxins to enter your bloodstream, which normally shouldn’t be able to pass through this barrier. These escapees are viewed as foreigners by your immune system and trigger an antibody reaction leading to inflammation. A great example of “larger undigested nutrient particles” are the hard to digest, larger proteins in wheat and dairy — gluten and casein, respectively.
A very simplified (and personal) source for context would be the case of my gluten intolerance and rheumatoid arthritis (RA): I consume gluten and because of my very permeable intestinal wall, the gluten gets into my bloodstream > the gluten travels to my joints > my immune system sees the gluten as a foreign invader and attacks > I wake with aching and burning phalanges from the inflammation.
Symptoms and Related Conditions
If any of the below symptoms sound all too familiar, it’s worth looking into Leaky Gut as a possible factor:
What’s Causing the Leak?
Unfortunately, we are exposed to many factors in our society that can compromise the integrity of our gut and lead to such undesirable symptoms and conditions. Some of the most common causes include:
- Overuse of antibiotics (and the imbalance in gut flora this leads to)
- Overuse of NSAIDS (Non-steroidal anti-inflammatories – e.g. aspirin, naproxen, etc) as well as corticosteroid use
- Exposure to heavy metals and toxins (e.g. mercury, which can be found in contaminated fish and other sources)
- Long-term alcohol use and highly processed foods (see why I saved this post for AFTER the Super Bowl)
- Inadequate digestive enzyme production (e.g. the genetic deficiency of the enzyme lactase that causes lactose intolerance)
- Radiation or chemotherapy
- Intestinal Infection/Parasites
As I learned about the causes of Leaky Gut Syndrome, I realized my poor intestinal wall never had a chance. Throughout my life, I have had chronic strep throat and sinus infections, making it impossible to even count the number of antibiotic prescriptions I’ve been written. I’ve also had mercury-laden amalgam fillings since I was about 10, and was not really notorious for my clean eating ways growing up (I remember savoring my hearty meal of Cheetos, Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups and Dr. Pepper everyday before high school basketball practice). But what likely really did me in, was my refusal to rest a torn rotator cuff volleyball injury the year before having my daughter (and also receiving my RA diagnosis). I had taken so much Alleve to allow me to compete that Summer, that I ended up with a prescription for Zantac to counteract the acid-reflux I started experiencing. How’s that for a case study in how NOT to practice preventative medicine?
Fixing the Plumbing
The good news: it is entirely possible to heal the gut using nutritional measures and other aids that restore the integrity of the intestinal barrier and limit the immune response and chronic inflammation. I’ve followed all of the advice below and have been able to greatly lessen my symptoms, even when I’ve inadvertently consumed foods I don’t tolerate well.
In a nutshell, you want to eliminate common allergens, reduce inflammation and restore proper gut flora (more good bacteria, less bad)
Here’s the plan of attack:
- Start eating a clean diet: eliminate foods you have intolerances or sensitivities to (I’ll discuss specifics of following an elimination diet in an upcoming post), eliminate processed foods (especially sugar) and choose organic whenever possible. Organic is especially critical if you consume meat or dairy – if you’re not, that antibiotic overuse isn’t just coming from a prescription.
- Start a customized program of a good probiotic and digestive enzymes, if needed. Chewing slowly can also aide in digestion because digestive enzymes are located in your saliva. Additional supplementation to repair the gut could include, Glutamine, Methionine, N-acetyl cysteine, Larch, Kiwi Fruit and Zinc. I highly recommend you do this under the care of a progressive, skilled nutritionist, progressive M.D. or a Naturopathic Doctor.
- Consider a customized detox plan. I followed one to eliminate heavy metal toxicities, with great results. But again, only do this under the care of a trusted healthcare provider.
If the existence of symptoms isn’t enough evidence for you, you can receive more concrete information from an Intestinal Permeability Test, commonly known as the “lactulose-mannitol challenge”. This will measure the degree to which these two sugar molecules are able to permeate your intestinal barrier and differentiate between true hyperpermeability and nutrient malabsorption. The testing involves drinking a solution with both mannitol and lactulose and collecting your urine for six hours. This can be ordered and evaluated from a progressive M.D., Gastroenterologist or a Naturopathic Doctor.
A Vicious Cycle
In leaky gut syndrome, your body is caught in a self-perpetuating loop. Without recognition of the issue and proper diet modifications, you’ll find yourself in a vicious cycle: exposure to allergenic foods will continue to increase the permeability, making you subject to further food sensitivities. This leads to malnutrition and disruption of the proper gut flora, which is the cause of chronic yeast or Candida. There is also an added stress on the liver, compromising its ability to excrete toxins — all of which increase the leakiness. Vicious, indeed..