4 min|Dr. Maya Kuczma
Do You Have Leaky Gut?Gut Health
The Digestive System and You
Working together, the organs of our digestive system, along with the trillions of bacteria in our gut (known collectively as part of our 'microbiome'), enable the breakdown of food into nutrients that we can absorb into our bloodstream. We need these nutrients for healthy brain function, maintaining our bones, creating hormones, producing energy, and many, many other functions.
The entire digestive system is connected
If one area malfunctions, the entire system feels the effects, and there are many possibilities for what can go wrong! One of the most important parts of the digestive system is our small intestine. The small intestine is covered with many tiny finger-like projections known as villi. These villi increase the surface area of the small intestine.
When nutrients move through the small intestine, they get caught on tiny hairs on the villi, known as microvilli. The villi, along with their micro villi, are known as the 'brush border'. The cells of your small intestine, known as enterocytes, are joined together by tight junctions, special channels that allow nutrients to move through them and into the bloodstream. The brush border directs nutrients into the gap junctions, enabling nutrients to move from the gut, into the bloodstream where they can travel throughout the body.
What is Leaky Gut?
In a healthy gut, our gut lining acts as a barrier. The tight junctions work together, regulating what is allowed in, and what is kept out of our bloodstream. A substance called zonulin signals to the tight junctions to open and allow nutrients of a certain size into the bloodstream. Nutrients such as vitamins and minerals are let in while large and undigested food particles are kept out. However, If the body is triggered to synthesize too much zonulin, the tight junctions break apart, allowing undigested food, toxins, microbes, to enter into the bloodstream.
The immune system, surprised by the influx of substances that it does not recognize, springs into attack, attacking the foreign substances as well as our own gut lining, creating inflammation and damage. The result of this process is known as 'leaky gut', or increased intestinal permeability (1). As part of the immune system response, antibodies are created towards food particles - even healthy foods - simply because the particles are too large for the immune system to recognize. It mistakenly identifies them as a threat.
In response to the toxic overload in your bloodstream, your immune system also creates inflammatory chemicals, and you develop chronic inflammation. This chronic stress on your immune system increases your likelihood of an autoimmune illness; left unchecked, leaky gut can lead to a full blown autoimmune disease (2). Leaky gut has also been associated with inflammatory bowel disease, Parkinson's disease, obesity, as well as many other conditions (3, 4, 5).
What Causes Leaky Gut?
Anything that causes inflammation in the gut can cause leaky gut such as stress, NSAIDS, alcohol consumption, various medications such as proton pump inhibitors, pesticides, gluten, and gut infections (6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12). Our body is designed to manage inflammation. If we are only exposed briefly to stress or a small dose of one of these inflammatory triggers, we may be able to quell the inflammation it causes. However, many of us are constantly exposed to a variety of triggers, experiencing stress daily, eating gluten at each meal, taking medications, and eating food that is genetically modified and treated with pesticides.
This constant onslaught of gut irritation is more than our body can handle, especially if we do not have a healthy microbiome to protect the gut lining. Additionally, tolerability of gut-irritating substances varies greatly from person to person. Genetics play a factor, as do the health of our microbiome, and the thin layer of mucous that lines our intestine (13, 14). Once individual tolerance is reached, the irritation leads to leaky gut.
Do I Have Leaky Gut?
Due to our current way of life, many of us experience leaky gut at some point in our lives. Even if you have leaky gut, you may not experience digestive symptoms. If you are experiencing any of the following symptoms or conditions, especially chronically, you could have leaky gut and may benefit from treatment to heal the gut:
- Acid reflux/heartburn
- Irregular stools (diarrhea and/or constipation)
- Abdominal pain
- Joint pain
- Widespread muscle aches
- Iron deficiency anemia
- Vitamin deficiencies
- Chronic yeast infections
- Irregular periods
- Perimenopausal/menopausal symptoms
Irritable Bowel Sydrome (IBS), Autoimmune disease, eczema, food allergies, obesity, psychological conditions, Type II Diabetes
Do you have many of the signs of a 'leaky gut'? Learn how to HEAL YOUR GUT