What is leaky gut and do you have it?

I recently went to my doctor for a regular check-up.  In speaking with her, she suggested that I may have what is called a “leaky gut”.  Have you heard of it?  Harvard Health calls it a “medical mystery” and “mysterious ailment.” It has been linked to everything from gut troubles, autoimmune diseases, and even mental health concerns.

There is growing research to suggest it is linked with many health conditions.  Most doctors may not recognize this issue.

So, what exactly is a “leaky gut?” Do you have it? How does it happen? What can you do about it?

What exactly is “leaky gut?”

Your gut (your gastrointestinal system) isn’t just a 30-foot-long muscular tube that starts at your mouth and ends where you go to the bathroom. It’s certainly a complex system with many features. It breaks down food into smaller digestible pieces that keep it moving in the gastrointestinal tract,  skillfully absorbing water and nutrients while preventing contaminants. More and more studies show that these important bowel functions are interrelated throughout your body, from the heart to the brain.

Your G.I. tract is lined with millions of cells, all side-by-side in a single layer. In fact, when laid flat, this layer covers an area of ​​400 m2 of surface area! These intestinal cells help the body absorb what it needs from food and drink while eliminating what needs to be wasted. It acts as a gatekeeper, allowing what your body uses and keeping out the waste. This ability to selectively take up some of the intestines and eliminate others is possible only if the cells are functioning properly and are physically very closely connected. The bonds that connect cells  are called “tight junctions.”

Leaky gut takes place when the tight junctions aren’t so tight anymore.  Tiny holes appear because the cellular barrier is irritated and becomes weak.  These tiny perforations allow things into the bloodstream that normally would stay out of the bloodstream.  These things include food particles, waste products, and bacteria.

Your immune system is triggered to start fighting these foreign objects that are now in the bloodstream.  This is very similar to how your immune system starts fighting a cold virus and causes inflammation.  This immune reaction is normal and helps keep you healthy. 

How to know if 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. 

Because the food particles, toxins, and bacteria are now absorbed into the bloodstream, symptoms can appear anywhere.  Studies show that a leaky gut may feel like fatigue, headaches, confusion, difficulty concentrating, joint pain, or skin problems (e.g., acne, rashes, eczema). A 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.

It’s very difficult to diagnose a leaky gut, even if you have some of these symptoms.  There may be some biomarker tests, but there isn’t a reliable diagnostic test available just yet.  So, it’s difficult to say whether your symptoms are from a leaky gut, or whether a leaky gut is a symptom of another issue. 

What causes a leaky gut

It is not 100% clear what causes the bonds to loosen and cause small perforations in the intestinal barrier.  There is a lot of research going on so we are just beginning to understand how the gut barrier functions.

In fact, we are just beginning to understand how the intestinal barrier works and there is a lot of research going on right now.

The genes you inherit from your parents may also contribute to a leaky gut.  It can also be a result of drugs or intestinal infections. A leaky gut is also associated with eating a diet low in fiber (adults should aim for 25-30g of fiber per day). It can also occur when you add too much sugar or saturated fat. A leaky gut can also be caused by stress and imbalances in the diversity and number of friendly gut microbes.

Also, age is a factor.  As we age, our cells, including the nucleus, become more susceptible to damage and slow to heal.  This also goes for the cells that are lining the gut.  This leaves you more susceptible to the gut barrier loosening.

What can you do about gut health?

Something that needs to be addressed is inflammation and eating a more gut-friendly diet.  This means reducing excessive alcohol and processed foods that tend to be high in fat and sugar or artificial sweeteners. It’s also a good idea to avoid foods that you are allergic to or sensitive to. For example, if you have been diagnosed with celiac disease, you want to be sure to stay away from gluten, as exposing your gut to it can cause a large inflammatory response. 

Instead, enjoy more foods rich in gut-friendly probiotics [link to your recommended meal plan or recipe] and fiber [link to your recommended meal plan or recipe] which is a prebiotic, or food for your friendly gut microbes. These include:

Style Tip: If you’re going to increase your fiber intake, do it over several days or weeks because sudden increases in fiber can cause gas, bloating, and other gut discomforts. If you have IBS (Irritable Bowel Syndrome) talk to your doctor, [or me] to see if certain fibers may worsen your condition and which are recommended.

Also, regular exercise can help your digestive system. A 15- or 20-minute walk after you eat to help you digest your food is a great way to help your digestion. And don’t forget the importance of stress management, quality sleep, and not smoking.

If you plan on making changes to your diet and lifestyle, consider keeping a journal to help see if the changes are helping your symptoms.

Bottom line

When it comes to a leaky gut, a few simple shifts toward a gut-friendly diet can help you optimize your gut health.

Leaky gut is an inflammatory condition that has been linked to metabolic disorders, autoimmune conditions, and even mental health. Currently, there is not a good diagnostic test at this time to know for sure if you have it or not. This is still a new area of research, so more information comes out all of the time. 

If you have symptoms that suggest a leaky gut, you can move toward a more gut-friendly diet. Some things you can do to style your diet and clean up your gut health –  Try cutting down on alcohol, processed foods, and any food that you may be allergic to or sensitive to. Replace these foods and drinks with ones higher in gut-friendly probiotics and fiber. And remember that regular exercise, stress management, and quality sleep are great lifestyle strategies for your gut and the rest of your body.

If you are suffering from a leaky gut or other inflammatory symptoms, book an appointment with me to see if my program can help you.

References

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