What Causes Leaky Gut?
Leaky gut syndrome has recently received significant attention in the health world. It has been a hot topic of debate among researchers, doctors, nutritionists and dieticians, regarding what it is, how to treat it, and whether it actually even exists.
Over the past ten years or so, most health practitioners have come to a consensus that leaky gut syndrome (known by different names) is, indeed a serious health problem that may be affecting hundreds of thousands of people. The problem is, however, that since they are still in the process of understanding how and why it occurs, there are still significant gaps of knowledge regarding the best ways to treat it.
To help you see through the confusion, in this article we will review the basics of leaky gut syndrome and what causes it. We will discuss how to prevent and treat leaky gut in separate articles.
An Introduction to “The Gut”
We often talk about “the gut” when we refer to what lies below the skin in the softer stomach area of the body. The official term is the gastrointestinal tract. The gastrointestinal tract is a group of connected, hollow organs through which the foods we eat move and are digested. It is made up of the esophagus, stomach, small intestine, large intestine, rectum, and anus.
The gastrointestinal tract is part of the digestive system, which also includes other organs that produce juices that are important for digesting food. These include the liver, the gallbladder, the pancreas, and the appendix.
A very thin layer of cells that cover the surface of the intestine, called the epithelium, is responsible for absorbing nutrients into the body from the intestinal tract. It is also important for keeping the body protected from potentially harmful substances, or simply for keeping the body separate from the external environment.
A healthy epithelium is selective in what it lets through to the body. It absorbs nutrients, electrolytes and water through many pathways, and gets them to all of our cells and organs to keep them working in a healthy manner. At the same time, the epithelium acts as a barrier to keep out toxins, bacteria, and other elements that might cause infection or illness. It also keeps out fiber, but fiber feeds the healthy bacteria in our gut and forms part of the “bulk” in our stool, which will soon make its way out of the digestive system with other substances that can’t be absorbed.
Of course, if the health or structure of the epithelial barrier is compromised, it is possible that it can no longer be as selective to the entrance of different substances, making way for what is popularly known as a “leaky gut”.
What is Leaky Gut Syndrome?
Another name for leaky gut syndrome is increased intestinal permeability, and this is probably the best way to talk to your doctor about it. Over the past decade or so, researchers have recognized that the barrier function of the intestine can be disrupted by a range of factors, which we will discuss below. This can lead to inflammatory diseases and immune system disfunction, among other issues.
When intestinal cells, groups of cells, or bonds between the cells are damaged, microscopic holes are formed in the intestinal barrier. Here, potentially harmful substances can get through, like bacteria or bacterial fragments, incompletely digested proteins, toxic substances, or waste products. In a healthy intestine, all of these things would be removed from the body in our stool and urine, but when there are “leaks” in our gut, many of these things can get through.
If these pathogens get through our gut, our immune system responds immediately. Sometimes, however, if the leak is big enough or persistent enough, our immune cells are unable to take appropriate control of the situation, and this can cause large-scale inflammation.
What’s more is that undigested proteins and other molecules which penetrate through the “leaky” gut barrier can often closely resemble the proteins and compounds found in our very cells and tissues. However, these foreign proteins and molecules are just slightly different enough to cause our immune cells to recognize them and mark them for destruction. The problem with this is that now our immune cells are primed and ready to recognize and attack these foreign proteins and molecules, which also happen to closely resemble our own proteins and molecules. This leads to immune cell attack and antibody production against these foreign proteins and molecules. But since these are similar to our own proteins and molecules, this also then leads to an attack on our own proteins and molecules, thus paving the way for the development of autoimmune complications.
7 Causes of Leaky Gut
In some people, leaky gut develops quickly, and in others it develops over several years.
Most of the elements that cause leaky gut are lifestyle factors. In some cases, the relationships between lifestyle choices and leaky gut are not what you might imagine. Below are 7 potential causes of leaky gut syndrome.
1) Diet and Food
Certain dietary patterns are suspected to promote leaky gut syndrome. These include foods with gluten, like breads and wheat tortillas, grains like rice and spelty, soy, dairy, and refined sugar. This means that, in order to preserve intestinal health, stay away from bread, especially white bread and processed foods, milk and yogurt, and others.
Light or intermittent stress is normal. As humans a reasonable amount of stress helps us stay focused and driven, while also helping us adapt to new situations. Health problems arise when the stress is no longer transient, and instead is here to stay. This sort of stress is known as chronic stress. While stress should only be “felt” in our mind, it connects to other parts of our body, like our gut, as well. The relationship between our gut and our brain has a name – known as the “gut-brain axis”.
What happens in our gut can affect our brain (think about how constipation can make us feel irritable), but what happens in our brain can also affect our gut. Chronic stress can affect the environment of our intestine, killing off “good” bacteria and promoting the growth of resistance “bad” bacteria. The change in environment together with the disbalance in bacteria can make the gut more permeable to potentially pathogenic elements.
Drinking copious amounts of alcohol on a regular basis can damage the intestine in a number of ways. It can damage the bonds between intestinal cells, which can create the holes in the intestinal lining that cause leaky gut syndrome. It can also promote the accumulation of substances that increase the permeability of the intestine.
4) No Sleep
Alterations in sleep patterns can also disrupt the gut microbiome (the population of bacteria in the intestine), thus, damaging the intestinal lining. Fragments of bacteria then pass through the barrier and attempt to enter the circulatory system. The immune system responds, causing inflammation and changes in metabolism, including insulin sensitivity.
5) Gut dysbiosis
As we’ve mentioned above, a disbalance in healthy bacteria in the intestine can also cause leaky gut. Healthy bacteria is important because it fights off pathogenic bacteria, and because it helps our bodies to digest certain substances, and in the production of some nutrients, like vitamin K.
Our healthy gut bacteria population can be altered by many of the previously mentioned causes, but also as a result of illness or of taking antibiotics. When the population of healthy bacteria in our intestine is no longer in balanced, it is known as “gut dysbiosis”.
6) Toxin overload
Toxins are elements that are damaging to our cells and organs. They either result of a biological process or they come from the environment (in this case, from the food we eat). Usually, our body tries to get rid of these toxins through excretion, but when there are too many, they can cause damage before our body can remove them.
Toxins can come from the “wrong” bacteria in the gut, from food additives, improper digestion, gut inflammation, infections, and others. If we already have leaky gut, it is more likely that we will have a greater toxin concentration in our gut, thus creating a vicious cycle.
Regularly eating processed foods that contain additives may also contribute to toxin overload.
7) Too much exercise
Regularly exercise in reasonable amounts has numerous benefits for your health. When we don’t exercise regularly for long periods of time, we are at risk of illness, stress, and chronic diseases. However, too much of a good thing also has health consequences. Too much intense physical activity can cause hormonal distress, immune suppression, and leaky gut.
For several centuries, the idea of having a “leaky gut” (though by different names) was only present in traditional medicine models. Modern medicine is now recognizing how lifestyle factors can damage the intestine, and, as a result, affect its ability to act as a barrier between the outside and inside of the body.
It is important to note that there are several factors that can increase your risk of leaky gut syndrome, usually it is not attributed to one specific factor, but rather several occurring at the same time. For example, if you aren’t getting enough sleep, it is likely that you are under a lot of stress and not eating very well. Each factor individually will not necessarily result in leaky gut, but all three factors occurring at the same time for several months or years can certainly influence your risk of experiencing leaky gut.
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