Leaky gut is a termed used to describe a condition that affects how we absorb nutrients from the small intestine. But in order to understand leaky gut, we need to understand a bit about how the digestive process works.
Once we’ve chewed our food and mixed it with saliva, it undergoes further mechanical digestion in the stomach - essentially we’re taking a solid food and turning into pure liquid so all the nutrients it contains can be absorbed. Once food reaches the small intestine, it’s supposed to have been broken down into it’s most basic components - proteins are now amino acids, carbohydrates are now sugars and fats are now fatty acids.
The small intestine contains millions of microscopic ‘fingers’ known as villi that are covered with tiny pores through which all types of nutrients are selectively absorbed. You can think of the villi as a very, very fine net through which only certain nutrients are absorbed - you don’t want to absorb every single thing that comes through the gut (like bacteria, viruses, fungi, etc).
Just outside of the small intestine awaits a large component of our immune system. It’s there to defend us against anything we’ve eaten that could be threat to our immune system - remember, nothing is truly inside of us until it’s been digested!
Anything that isn’t absorbed is passed onto the large intestine where bacteria work on it to further process it as waste.
How Leaky Gut Begins
If the villi become damaged the tiny pores (also known as Tight Junctions) on them become enlarged (this is all on a microscopic scale - you don’t really have holes in your small intestine) and then larger, improperly digested food proteins bacteria, or other toxins can then be absorbed beyond the small intestinal barrier. This is referred to as increased intestinal permeability or leaky gut.
When this occurs, the immune system that sits just on the other side of the intestinal wall is called to action and reacts - creating an immune response to those proteins or toxins that were absorbed, but shouldn’t have been in the first place.
The immune system’s job is to protect us against anything it suspects to be harmful to us. It does this by directing the release of many different immune chemicals and cells that are meant to destroy foreign invaders.
Yet, as intelligent as our bodies are, an unchecked immune response (like that which occurs in leaky gut) can lead to symptoms throughout the body, not just locally in the gut.
Causes of Leaky Gut
So, what is the true cause of leaky gut? While this is a relatively new area of research, we do know there are certain situations that are closely related to the development of leaky gut.
High sugar in the diet can contribute to imbalances in our delicate bacterial ecosystem. In other words, certain undesirable bacteria feed on sugars and its population grows beyond normal; these bacteria may emit chemicals that are toxic/damaging to the intestinal lining. Similarly, some people are susceptible to the proteins found in certain foods, especially if they have a sensitivity to those foods.
Antibiotics kill both the bad and good bacteria, which can then lead to an imbalance between our healthy and disease-causing bacteria. Non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) like ibuprofen, aspirin, Celebrex etc are notorious for the direct damage they cause to the gut.
Over time, stress chips away at our overall health and vitality. High stress can have a suppressive effect on our immune systems, such that it isn’t always able to fight off the usual infectious bugs that we come across from time to time. Chronic infections and or bacterial imbalance in the gut can eventually damage the intestinal lining.
Also known as dysbiosis, this is perhaps the main cause in the development of leaky gut. Infections, antibiotics, certain medications and even medical procedures can upset the delicate balance of the gut flora.
Diagnosing Leaky Gut
Diagnosis isn’t always easy. Oftentimes, clinicians will rely on a person’s symptoms and medical history, along with more specific testing to diagnose leaky gut.
We use two tests as part of this process - the first is an Intestinal Permeability test. This test measures how two different types of non-digestible sugars (Mannitol and Lactulose) are passed through the digestive tract.
Based on the amounts of these sugars that show up in the urine can either deny or confirm the presence of leaky gut.
The other test we’ll use is a Food Sensitivity Test. This isn’t a skin prick test but rather a blood test that measures the degree to which a person’s immune system is reacting to commonly eaten foods. If a person’s test comes back with many food sensitivities, this is thought to be an end result of leaky gut.
Fixing Leaky Gut
Repairing a leaky gut takes time and diligence. A strict, healthy diet (avoiding all food sensitivities) needs to be followed along with using specific nutrients that help repair the intestinal barrier.
- Identify, remove and restore bacterial imbalances.
If a person has an overgrowth of bacteria, in some cases it needs to be removed using natural medicines that can kill that bacteria. Then, the bacterial balance needs to be restored using healthy bacteria (probiotics)
- L-Glutamine is an amino acid that also feeds the cells lining the intestinal tract - it can also direct the repair of those damaged cells
- Permeable Gut Formula contains a variety of the top gut-restoring nutrients known. When used together these nutrients have a synergist effect on gut healing.
- Probiotics are healthy bacteria that our body needs to maintain a balanced bacterial population in the GI tract. Taking probiotics ensure that the right bacteria are 'seeded' and help crowd out non-essential bacteria.
- Fiberbiotics is a unique blend of fiber and pre-biotics, or compounds that nourish and feed a healthy bacterial population. When using probiotics (healthy bacteria) it’s also very important that the right nutrients are available for them to flourish.
- Digestive Enzymes are the chemicals our GI tract produces to chemically break down foods. These same compounds can be taken as a supplement and are especially helpful in making sure the digestive process is complete. After all, incomplete/inefficient digestion can lead to some of the conditions that bring about leaky gut.
There is a detailed process to healing leaky gut that takes time and perseverance. This article is only a brief look at the process. Here’s more information on how leaky gut is diagnosed and treated.