What Is Leaky Gut?
Leaky gut is a term commonly used to refer to intestinal permeability. Your digestive system is basically a long continuous tube starting at your mouth and ending at your anus. Part of that tube is the small intestine and this is where intestinal permeability can occur.
The small intestine is lined with a thin layer delicate layer of cells called enterocytes, and they have two main functions. To let the ‘good stuff’, nutrients in and to provide a protective barrier between your body and the outside world and keep the ‘bad stuff’, everything else out. These cells are joined by structures called tight junctions which open and close at appropriate times to absorb nutrients.
Intestinal permeability or leaky gut occurs when one or more of the enterocytes that line the small intestine or the tight junctions between them become damaged. When this happens, tiny holes are formed. Without that sealed protective barrier unwanted molecules such as partially digested food, toxins and bacteria can enter the bloodstream. This can lead to IBS, food sensitivities, allergies, skin rashes and even autoimmunity.
HOW IS DIGESTION AFFECTED?
As mentioned previously one of the two main jobs of the enterocytes cells which line the small intestine is to transport nutrients from digested food into the body for use. In fact, it is within your small intestine most digestion and absorption of nutrients takes place.
Any damage to these cells means a reduction in their surface area and therefore less nutrient absorption can take place. Over time, this can lead to vitamin and mineral deficiencies. The inflammation and damage caused by leaky gut can also cause symptoms such as pain, fatigue, gas, bloating, diarrhoea and constipation.
WHAT TRIGGERS LEAKY GUT?
There are several factors which can contribute to intestinal permeability including:
INFLAMMATION – damages the gut lining (see study)
PERSISTENT INFECTIONS – cause inflammation (see study)
STRESS – causes elevated cortisol which is inflammatory (see study)
STRENUOUS EXERCISE – can damage the gut lining and raise cortisol levels (see study)
MEDICATIONS – which damage the gut lining or raise cortisol e.g. antibiotics, NSAIDs, corticosteroids (see study)
GLIADIN – a protein in gluten which can upregulate zonulin the protein which opens and closes the tight junctions (in susceptible individuals) (see study)
WHAT TO DO IF YOU HAVE LEAKY GUT
For good digestive health, the causes of leaky gut must be identified and addressed. A compromised gut lining can potentially lead to a plethora of chronic illnesses, not just digestive issues.
Practical ways to heal intestinal permeability include:
AN ANTI-INFLAMMATORY DIET
A GLUTEN-FREE DIET
JUDICIOUS USE OF MEDICATIONS
TREATING PERSISTENT INFECTIONS
EMPLOYING STRESS MANAGEMENT TECHNIQUES
Healing intestinal permeability doesn't happen overnight and because nutrient absorption and digestion are severely affected, it's important to include nutrient-dense, easy to digest foods such as vegetable juices and smoothies in your diet.
Boiling food to make it more digestible can also be helpful and the water which will contain important minerals can be used to make a nutritious stock rather than being discarded.
I always recommend any supplements being taken are in transdermal (through the skin e.g. patches, creams, oils), liquid or lozenge form so as to avoid the gut and go directly into the bloodstream.