Recent discoveries in nutritional science show that dysfunction of the digestive system plays a significant role in the spread of disease. Research involving the GI tract, and particularly the gut biome, is now the most studied area of nutrition and biology.
Although there is a myriad of research on the subject, digestive disorders such as “leaky gut” are still not recognized officially by the medical community. This adverse digestive condition presents uncomfortable symptoms that are often brushed off by people living with the disorder.
Here is a brief guide to understanding leaky gut, its symptoms, and how to treat it. (1)
What Is Leaky Gut?
The GI tract covers over 40,000 square feet and is home to trillions of live bacteria known as the gut microbiome. When working as intended, the intestinal wall forms a tight barrier controlling the release of nutrients into the bloodstream.
While it is perfectly normal for the gut to leak a little, there are health risks involved when the intestinal wall is severely compromised. This occurs when intestinal inflammation is chronically elevated, hence the digestive disorder is known as “leaky gut”.
Leaky gut creates uncomfortable gastrointestinal, skeletal, and neurological symptoms in the human body. These symptoms may be confused with other digestive issues such as irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), or gluten and lactose intolerance.
Changes in gut biome health occur as a result of a leaky gut and research shows that this issue could play a significant role in the development of several other chronic diseases. (2)
What Does Leaky Gut Affect?
The advanced intestinal permeability that results from leaky gut is responsible for developing gastrointestinal conditions such as Crohn’s disease, celiac disease, and IBS. Along with these diseases, there is convincing research that shows that disorders of the digestive tract may be responsible for the development of autoimmune conditions such as acne, fibromyalgia, allergies, asthma, and obesity.
What Causes Leaky Gut?
Aside from some people who may have a genetic predisposition to sensitive adjustments in the GI tract, the main culprits of a leaky gut are a sedentary lifestyle, chronic stress, and inflammatory and immunogenic foods.
You are what you eat. Diets that consist of poor food choices can cause high levels of inflammation to develop in the gut. Furthermore, certain foods are immunogenic and can act to destroy the gut barrier and cause the immune system to activate. The gut houses the largest concentration of immune cells in the body since it is the only place, aside from the lungs, where the outside world comes into contact with the “inside world”, and since the gut contains trillions of bacteria. Hence, immune cells need to be primed and ready to prevent bacteria and foreign invaders from entering into the bloodstream from the gut.
Foods that are inflammatory or immunogenic can increase intestinal barrier permeability. Here are three primary food sources associated with the development of leaky gut…
Wheat, Barley, Rye and Other Foods Containing Gluten
Gliadin is a gluten protein found in grains such as wheat, barley, and rye. Studies show that some people may have an allergy to gluten known as celiac disease or non-celiac gluten sensitivity.
Eating gluten-based foods increases intestinal permeability which can lead to symptoms of a leaky gut. Research suggests that gluten will degrade in the GI tract to form substances known as exorphins. These compounds act as a natural painkiller and mask the damaging effect of the intestinal wall lining.
Even non-gluten containing grains can increase intestinal permeability. Grains, in general, can contain saponins or lectins. Saponins are molecules that effectively “punch holes” in the gut. Lectins are molecules that look exactly like our own bodies proteins (e.g. tissue proteins) and are transmitted intact and undigested into the bloodstream, setting up the stage for autoimmune issues.
Trans fat is another culprit of leaky gut syndrome. Trans fat increases oxidative stress and permeability of the intestinal wall.
Food additives also play a significant role in the degradation of the gut membrane. Glucose, emulsifiers, and other preservatives have been linked to the increased permeability of the intestinal wall as well. Nanoparticles such as microbial transglutaminase and nanoparticles breach the junctional complex. (3)
How is Leaky Gut Diagnosed?
If you are showing signs of a leaky gut, visit your doctor’s office for an official diagnosis. Blood work and an antigenic permeability test may be necessary to determine if leaky gut has led to other chronic illnesses of the digestive system.
A zonulin test is the most effective means of identifying leaky gut syndrome. Zonulin is a specific protein which controls the opening and contraction of the tight junctions in the small intestine. We require these openings for the transport of nutrients and zonulin regulates their function.
Zonulin tests are a useful marker for understanding intestinal health and function. An enzyme-linked immunosorbent assay test (ELISA) is used to determine zonulin function. If zonulin is present in the serum, this may indicate that the gut barrier has been compromised. (4)
Leaky Gut Symptoms
The early stages of gastrointestinal stress, due to a leaky gut, are mild and often disregarded.
As the degradation of the intestinal wall progresses, symptoms escalate in both variety and intensity. Reduction of intestinal surface area reduces nutrient absorption and creates micronutrient deficiencies in vitamins and minerals. Nutrient deficiencies manifest in different GI tract and health disorders.
Some of the gastrointestinal symptoms you may experience as a result of a leaky gut are:
- Abdominal pain.
- Constipation or diarrhea.
- Gas, nausea, and vomiting.
- Acid reflux, heartburn, and belching.
Leaky gut also affects the skin. If you have any of the following dermatological disorders, you may be living with a leaky gut.
- Dry skin, psoriasis, or eczema.
- Acne, rashes, or hives.
Neurological disorders may develop from a leaky gut. These include:
- Brain fog.
- Anxiety and depression.
Can Leaky Gut Be Dangerous to Health?
Random particles that pass through the intestinal barrier into the blood set off an aggressive immune response. Unfortunately, this event causes systemic inflammation in all biological systems within the body. (5)
The primary danger of leaky gut syndrome is chronic inflammation. This stressful condition prevents the body from naturally healing itself. Systemic inflammation creates the perfect biological environment for the development of other chronic diseases.
Diseases Linked to Leaky Gut
A leaky gut presents uncomfortable symptoms. If left undiagnosed and untreated, the condition could result in the development of other chronic diseases. Here are a few of the adverse health conditions that might develop as a result of an untreated leaky gut.
Increased intestinal permeability has links to a vast variety of chronic diseases including the following:
- Chronic fatigue syndrome
- Celiac disease
- Crohn’s disease
- Ulcerative colitis
- Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS)
- Rheumatoid arthritis
- Multiple sclerosis
- Chronic inflammation
The medical community is divided on the subject of chronic disease manifesting from a leaky gut. Medical professionals are unsure if leaky gut causes these diseases, or the diseases cause leaky gut.
How to Heal and Recover from Leaky Gut
It’s possible to repair and heal a leaky gut. It takes time, patience, and consistency to experience a full recovery back to normal digestive health.
Heal Your Gut
The first step to rehabilitating your GI tract is a visit to your local health professional. Try to visit a specialist; they will have a more complete understanding of GI disorders than your regular M.D.
Your doctor will draw blood and submit it for testing to diagnose your condition. The diagnosis will also show any mineral and vitamin deficiencies, and you can begin to plan your recovery diet with the results.
Experiment with Different Dietary Principles
Plan a new diet based on paleo or ketogenic principles. Both of these diets avoid refined carbohydrates. If the thought of abandoning carbs scares you, then opt for the paleo diet over the ketogenic diet. The paleo diet requires the majority of daily calories to come from protein and healthy fats, with limited carbs coming from vegetables and fresh fruits.
The ketogenic diet focuses on healthy fats for 90% of daily caloric consumption, with very little protein and hardly any carbs. Choose the diet that suits your lifestyle and plan your meals for the week. You might struggle to calculate the right macronutrient percentages and calorie goals correctly, in this case, visit a nutritionist.
A nutritionist will analyze your blood work results and plan a diet for you that consists of foods and supplements to heal your gut. Your new diet should include fermented foods, such as sauerkraut and kimchi, which are excellent sources of prebiotic fiber for gut biomes.
Reduce stress in your life wherever you can and start a beginner exercise program. Hire a personal trainer to help you build an exercise program and stay consistent with your training. Revisit your doctor after 6 months on your new diet and exercise program. Repeat the testing process and have your doctor analyze the results.
The results of your second test should show significant improvement in the health of your digestive system. Take the results to your nutritionist and have them adjust your diet to keep your progress moving along. Keep a journal of your road to recovery and include all of your medical history, diet changes, and workouts.
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