By now you may have heard of “leaky gut syndrome”. It’s a condition that affects the small intestines, and can be the source of many other health issues.
Leaky gut isn’t a symptom itself, however. Rather, it’s a condition caused by poor digestive health.
In order to understand leaky gut though, we first need to understand the basics of digestion.
When we eat a food, it’s first broken down in the mouth by chewing and mixing with saliva, which contains enzymes that begin the true digestive process. In the stomach, food must then be turned into a liquid so it can be absorbed in the small intestine. At this point, foods are broken down into their most basic components where they can be absorbed through the small intestinal barrier.
The interior of the small intestine is layered with microscopic finger-like projections known as villi. The villi are covered with tiny “pores” which selectively absorb all types of different nutrients. Think of this as a very fine net that only allows the smallest particles through –everything else that wasn’t completely digested isn’t allowed in and passes through the gut unabsorbed.
On the other side of the small intestinal wall, a large component of our immune system lays in wait, ready to defend us against any foreign proteins that might enter our body. (Nothing is truly within our bodies until it’s been absorbed across the small intestine into the bloodstream.)
If the villi become damaged, those tiny pores can become enlarged, allowing larger particles across the small intestinal barrier. In other words, we now have increased intestinal permeability – or leaky gut. Once this occurs, the immune system standing guard here will begin to attack those previously unabsorbed particles. And because we eat so often, the immune system will continually fight against those molecules that are absorbed across the damaged intestinal lining.
The immune system’s job is to protect us by destroying anything it deems foreign and it does this by orchestrating the release of many different chemicals that activate immune cells and destroy foreign proteins. Unfortunately, as smart as our bodies are, the actions of an immune reaction left unchecked (as in leaky gut) can lead to symptoms throughout the body – not just the gut.
Most commonly, a person with leaky gut will complain of excessive bloating and digestive problems. But they may also have chronic sinus infections, joint pain (that isn’t rheumatoid arthritis), muscle aches and pains, skin problems, brain fog and food sensitivities.
Typically, a person with leaky gut will have been to numerous doctors and have had many conventional medical tests that don’t reveal any kind of health problem. In turn, they are treated symptomatically with things like antibiotics for sinus infections and chronic diarrhea, prednisone for joint pain, acid-blockers for digestive issues, and of course antidepressants because they’re so often told nothing is wrong them but maybe they’re depressed! Sound familiar?
Leaky gut itself isn’t a disease as much as it’s a condition that allows other symptoms to occur – hence the confusion with treatment.
When toxic substances (improperly digested food proteins, chemicals, drugs, etc) pass through the normally tight digestive barrier and the immune system becomes activated, we can end up with diverse symptoms through the body.
Treating these symptoms individually only brings about short-term relief, but if the gut isn’t directly treated they will come back over and over again.
By now I’m sure you’re asking, “So what’s the cause of this?” There’s a lot of ongoing research in this area, and there are a few situations that have a close relationship with the development of leaky gut. These include:
Key points to remember are that leaky gut syndrome is a causative factor for other conditions – especially if there’s a history of heavy NSAID, alcohol or antibiotic use, and conventional diagnosis and testing have lead nowhere for you.
Athletes! -NSAIDs (ibuprofen, aleve, motrin, etc) are a major cause of leaky gut!
That’s a lot of info, and we still need to cover how leaky gut syndrome is diagnosed and treated in a future blog.
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