What is leaky gut? Leaky what? When I first heard about this phenomenon called, “leaky gut,” I tried to visualize what it was but had no reference point. All I could think of was, “Why is a leaky gut such a “buzz” word these days in natural health circles?" And why is knowing what to do about this problem that 1 in 133 people in the U.S. alone have but don’t know they have (according to celiac researcher and gluten expert Alessio Fasano,M.D. ) so important? So, what is leaky gut?
Leaky gut has been defined as intestinal permeability which occurs when the tight junctions composed of epithelial tissue in the small intestine which ought to be semi-permeable, open up allowing larger particles to escape into the bloodstream. These escaping particles are called lipopolysaccharides (or LPS), and they are endotoxins. So, do you follow me? When someone has a leaky gut, or LGS, (Leaky Gut Syndrome) toxins are floating around in the blood rather than staying in the intestines to eventually be eliminated or pooped out. (Yikes! This is not a good thing. I’m not saying there is poop in the blood, it is actually intact food that leaks out and activates T-Cells but you get the picture, right? LPS does not belong in systemic circulation!)
The body, in its wisdom, after seeing LPS floating around in the blood, activates pro-inflammatory cytokines to initiate an inflammatory response. (Kind of like a scene from the vintage video game Mrs. Pacman, where Mrs. Pacman is eating the white marshmallows, trying not to get caught.) The immune system, which 80% lives in the gut, starts to work overtime trying to eliminate these toxins which Mrs. Pac-man is eating. And she is winning, but as the game progresses she is creating inflammation by overworking her immune system! When this happens, the body thinks it has to protect itself by creating more and more inflammation. (Sounds a lot like the definition of autoimmune disease, doesn’t it? When the body fights a foreign invader only to find it was created by the body itself?)
And inflammation, when it gets out of control in the body, is not a good thing. (Have you ever heard of brain fog? Insomnia? Arthritis? Dementia? Inflammatory Bowel Disease? Depression, autoimmune disease, cancer Etc? These have all been touted by experts as finding fertile soil for growth and proliferation from inflammation!!)
This chronic systemic inflammation can affect the entire body, including the cardiovascular system, the skeletal system, and the brain. This is a SERIOUS SITUATION and not just a tummy ache. Right? Even though the symptoms of LGS, or Leaky Gut Syndrome may appear to be as benign as a bloating belly after a meal, or chronic constipation and gas, in the long haul, because of the inflammatory indicators, LGS has been proven to be a factor in developing chronic disease.
Okay, now that I’ve told you the bad stuff, let me give you something positive. (Yes, there is a positive note here.) There are things that you can do today to avoid, minimize or reverse the effects of inflammation from LGS. You see, what holds these tight junctions (TJs) in the gut mucosa together is a protein called, “Zonulin.” (Zonulin was discovered by celiac disease and gluten researcher, Alessio Fasano, M.D. in 2000. Before Dr. Fasano’s discovery, leaky gut was touted as junk science by many people in the medical community and in some practices even today it is ignored.) So, for people hopping from doctor to doctor for years, spending lots of money and being told they would have to live with their chronic bloating, gas, insomnia, chronic diarrhea and brain fog issues forever, there is hope.
Functional medicine doctors and integrative specialists (M.D.’s. D.O.’s, D.C.’s, N.D.’s with post-doctoral certifications) can test for Leaky Gut Syndrome using lab studies with biomarkers for LGS. Once it is determined that you have LGS, depending on the severity, it can be improved naturally by lifestyle and dietary modifications.
Getting tested and treated by a health professional for LGS is a very good idea. However, the least expensive pro-active therapy without testing is to go on an elimination diet. Three of the most antigenic foods which can cause LGS in many populations are gluten, dairy and some tree nuts. There are many more things on the list including junk food, high fructose corn syrup, some prescription drugs, antacids and pesticide ridden non-organic fruits and vegetables. Also, emotional and physical stressors have been known to be a cause of LGS.
So, what to do, right? A specialist who recognizes LGS as a health issue will not only give you a thorough health assessment but will also give you a lifestyle and dietary assessment to determine if dietary antigen testing is indicated. (When was the last time a doctor asked you about your diet? How many hours of sleep you get per night? Or if you are happy with your life?) Blood, urine, breath and stool profiles may be used to find the specific triggers that are affecting your immune system. Regarding the three triggers listed above, eliminating gluten, dairy or tree nuts one at a time or all three for 6-8 weeks or longer, may in some populations offer a resolution to the symptoms of LGS. Also, moderate exercise, such as brisk walking, and adequate water intake have both been proven to strengthen the tight junctions in LGS.
The first step in balancing the gut is in recognizing that LGS is a serious health concern. It may not be a disease but has been proven to be a precursor in setting up systemic inflammation in the body, which has been proven today to cause chronic disease! Finding a doctor who specializes in natural ways of balancing the LGS is imperative. Eliminating trigger foods, foods that may initiate an allergic response which may be causing health challenges, utilizing daily supplementation for tested nutritional deficiencies and lastly, introducing a strong probiotic to reintroduce healthy bacteria for healthy flora functioning all work together in tandem to begin balancing the gut.
By learning all you can about health challenges such as LGS you can not only find ways to prevent it, but you can work to reverse it if you have it.
DISCLAIMER: The information contained in the above article has been compiled for educational purposes only. It is not meant to be a replacement for getting medical advice, medical diagnosis or treatment from your doctor.
Dr. Denise D’Angelo is a chiropractor, certified personal trainer and certified sport’s nutritionist currently studying functional medicine. She has left private practice to be a 24/7 family caregiver to a family member who has dementia. She just completed her first novel and is also a jazz composer. She writes a blog about caregiving: caregiversgetfit.org and is a featured contributor at sheville.org