Harvard Health calls it a “medical mystery” and “mysterious ailment.” It’s been linked to everything from gut troubles, autoimmune diseases, and even mental health concerns.
I’m talking about “leaky gut” or “intestinal permeability”—have you heard of it?
Many doctors and the established medical community may not recognize it, but there is growing research to suggest it is associated with many health conditions.
What exactly is “leaky gut?” Do you have it? How does it happen? What can you do about it? Hold on to your seats, because this leaky gut train is about to leave the station!
What is “leaky gut?”
Your gut (gastrointestinal system) is not just a 30-foot-long muscular tube that starts at your mouth and ends with you using the restroom. It’s a vast and complex system with many functions. It breaks down food into smaller digestible bits, keeps it moving through the gastrointestinal tract, and skillfully absorbs water and nutrients while keeping out harmful substances. More and more research has revealed that these essential gut functions are interconnected throughout your body—to everything from your heart to your brain. This means that the foods and drinks you consume can directly affect your health and mood. So maybe it isn’t you after all, maybe it’s your gut.
Your gastrointestinal tract is lined with millions of cells, all side-by-side in a single layer so thin it’s less than the width of a human hair. Those intestinal cells help the body to absorb what we need from foods and drinks while acting as a gatekeeper, allowing in what your body uses and keeping out what it doesn’t, which ultimately ends up as waste. This ability to selectively allow some things in our gut to be absorbed while keeping others out is only possible if the cells are working properly and physically joined together very tightly. The bonds that keep the cells tightly together are called “tight junctions.”
Leaky gut happens when the tight junctions aren’t so tight anymore. The cellular barrier is inflamed, irritated or otherwise weakened, allowing tiny holes to appear. These tiny holes or gaps allow things that would normally stay out of the bloodstream into the bloodstream causing a number of issues. When things like food particles, waste products, and bacteria get into the bloodstream your immune system is altered and triggered, responding by attacking the foreign bodies similar to how your immune system would fight the cold virus and cause inflammation.
Do you have a leaky gut?
The symptoms of leaky gut are similar to those of other digestive conditions like inflammatory bowel disease, celiac disease, and Crohn’s disease. Symptoms can include diarrhea, constipation, cramps, bloating, food sensitivities, or nutrient deficiencies.
But, because the food particles, toxins, and bacteria have been absorbed into the bloodstream which travels throughout your body, symptoms can appear anywhere. Studies show that leaky gut may feel like fatigue, headaches, confusion, difficulty concentrating, joint pain, or skin problems (e.g., acne, rashes, eczema). Leaky gut is also linked with diabetes, polycystic ovarian syndrome, liver disease, chronic fatigue syndrome, and autoimmune diseases such as lupus and multiple sclerosis. There may even be links to anxiety and depression.
Many of these gut and non-gut symptoms and conditions are linked to chronic inflammation, but more research is needed to understand how they are connected.
Even if you have some of these symptoms, the fact is, it’s very difficult to diagnose a leaky gut, or how leaky it is. However, many functional and integrative doctors are using the Cyrex Array 2 testing to help determine gut permeability. This means science is heading in the direction of developing tests to diagnose leaky gut. But, in some instances it is difficult to say whether your symptoms are from leaky gut, or whether leaky gut is a symptom of another issue.
What causes leaky gut?
It’s not 100 percent clear what causes those bonds to loosen and result in tiny perforations in the gut barrier. In fact, we’re just starting to understand how the gut barrier functions and there is a lot of ongoing research.
Part of leaky gut may be due to the genes you inherit from your parents. It can also be from medications or gut infections. Leaky gut is also linked to eating a diet that is low in gut-friendly fiber (adults should aim for 25-30 g of fiber per day). It can also be from consuming too much added sugar and saturated fat. Leaky gut may even result from stress or an imbalance in the diversity and numbers of your friendly gut microbes. As you age your cells can get damaged more easily and heal slowly, including the cells that line your gut. This can leave you more susceptible to loosening of the gut barrier.
The bottom line
More and more research suggests that your gut is deeply interconnected throughout your body—from the brain, to your heart, to your immune system, and even to your mood. This means that the foods and drinks you consume can directly affect your health and mood. The gut’s ability to selectively allow the foods we consume to be absorbed while keeping others out is only possible if the cells are working properly and physically joined together very tightly, via tight junctions. When the cellular barrier lining your gut is inflamed, irritated or otherwise weakened, the tight junctions loosen, allowing tiny gaps for unwanted entities to enter your bloodstream and thus cause leaky gut. This then translates into a slew of symptoms and conditions. However, leaky gut is preventable and treatable. That’s why next week, we’ll discuss strategies for reducing gut inflammation, ways you can keep those tight junctions tight, and how to mitigate the onset of leaky gut (hint: it has a lot to do with nutrition).