What is Leaky Gut and 3 Tips to Heal It
Enhanced intestinal permeability or “leaky gut” is THE significant gut issue you’ve never heard about - at least not from your conventional health care provider. Or maybe you have. Leaky gut is ubiquitous and while there has been data on it for years, it’s just starting to be discovered by savvy people who are taking a more vested interest in their health. It’s estimated that up to 80% of Americans have leaky gut. As with most things in this world, leaky gut exists on a spectrum or in stages. But one thing is pretty certain; if you leave it unaddressed it will lead to abnormal signs and symptoms and likely disease. It’s pretty safe to say that if you have a chronic disease, you likely have a leaky gut - anything from:
- an allergy
- skin condition such as eczema
- autoimmune disease
- heart disease
- GI disturbances or issues such as bloating or constipation or diarrhea
Let’s define some of the basics to get a better understanding of this not so mysterious condition.
What makes up our GI tract?
In order to understand leaky gut, it’s important to understand that our gut or GI tract is a hollow tube that extends from your mouth through to your anus. This tube is made up of a mucous membrane lined tract that interfaces with anything we ingest via our mouth. Its job is to allow nutrients and hydration to be digested and absorbed mainly via our small intestines.
This tract is the home of a microbiota ecosystem called our gut microbiome. We house trillions of microorganisms and feed them and in return they provide much of the necessary vitamins, enzymes, hormones and neurotransmitters that allow us to function. Optimal levels of good bacteria also provide crowd control - they stop the overgrowth of not so beneficial bacteria as well. These functions aid in the physical barrier to protect us from any potential threats, such as pathogens or even undigested food particles - more on that in a bit.
It’s also where some other biochemical actions take place. We produce some compounds that help to deactivate and neutralize compounds from natural processes there. For example, our bile acids, stored in our glorious gallbladder, get released to emulsify the fats in what we have eaten and wash away cellular debris which can be quite inflammatory and toxic. Bile is antimicrobial.
This design, if you will, is brilliant as our GI tract is intended to do a job - nourish and hydrate - to biologically support us while keeping us safe from any unintended threats that may lurk in anything we consume. This makes this tract semi-permeable, which is what we need.
I still marvel at the set up!
Underneath this tract there are two mucin or mucous layers that provide even more of a physical barrier. These mucous layers act like the sticky substance of fly trap paper. Fun fact - akkermansia muciniphila is a good bacteria that promotes healthy mucin layers. Eating a diet rich in red polyphenols will boost your akkermansia and optimize your mucin layers. The use of NSAIDs, such as ibuprofen, wears away this important layer.
The Intestinal Lining
The cells of the intestinal lining are where the magic happens. This lining is one cell layer thick. However, the surface area of this membrane, when stretched out, would cover a tennis court. It is made up of finger-like projections ready to absorb what it needs - nutrients and fluids - and repel what it deems a threat to us. It is well able to do this for a few reasons. This is where approximately 80% of our immune system lies. The cells that make up this membrane are also zipped together very tightly - think tight-fitting legos. We call these tight junctions.
It’s important to highlight that our intestinal lining is semi-permeable. We need this in order to live. Issues can arise when the form or function veers off or no longer serves its intended purpose. This becomes the case when the membrane is breached. This is called “enhanced intestinal permeability” or “leaky gut.” These tight junctions are no longer and gaps appear rendering it loose and no longer tight. This poses a big problem because potential threats slip through to the other side which is our systemic circulation. Our unsuspecting circulation is forced to defend us. Whether a pathogen came through or a partially undigested food particle, our systemic circulation will now have to deal with it.
As with any vulnerable and important area, there are usually a few outer layers of protection before this area. A decent analogy could be the Pentagon in the US Department of Defense which is made up of concentric circular corridors. These corridors are there to protect sensitive operations that if breached could be injurious to national security. This best describes the GI tract and the mucin layers that lie beneath it just above the intestinal lining. They are the corridors and the most sensitive operations are your systemic circulation.
What makes a gut leaky?
Believe it or not, our GI tract is fragile but hardy. It’s meant to counter one-off incidents and it does this quite well. But, constant exposure to “gut busters” and unresolved issues can wear down its resilience and cause the breakdown of our gut lining. Below are some gut busters:
- Eating a Standard American Diet (SAD) which includes alcohol
- Chronic gut infections such as gut dysbiosis and SIBO
- Stress - emotional/mental or physiological such as food sensitivities or other chronic health conditions
- Medications - such as steroids, NSAIDS, birth control pills
Our Top 3 Tips to Begin to Heal Leaky Gut
While there are many triggers for leaky gut, starting down the path of healing can be simple and increase your odds of building a healing routine. Continuing to cultivate self awareness will help you hone your intuition, which will uncover your root causes. Here are our top 3 tips to begin healing your leaky gut today.
- Nourish your body with whole foods, a nutrient-dense diet full of vegetables, good sourced protein, healthy fats and some fruits. Eat the rainbow! Lay off the alcohol until you are fully healed. Trust me, this is sage advice, as alcohol not only rips our tight junctions apart but wreaks all sorts of havoc on our microbiome and blood sugar.
- Heal your chronic gut infections and any digestion problems. Avoid unnecessary medication. Partner with a practitioner who can help guide you in this process with the use of functional medicine testing such as a comprehensive stool analysis or food sensitivity testing. They will also have supplement recommendations that do not contribute to leaky gut and can help bring inflammation down and heal it.
- Manage your stress. The stress hormone, cortisol, is a gut buster. Learning to regulate your nervous system will help all gut function and begin to balance the gut brain connection. This will allow you to focus your efforts on healing your leaky gut. Intentional breathing or yoga is a great place to start.
Leaky gut is so common - most of our clients have it. The good news is that you can heal it. It will take time and commitment. Developing healthy habits will not only benefit you but your family as well and quite possibly prevent you from developing a chronic disease in the future. Start with these tips and you will be headed in the right direction. You might not believe how good you can feel.
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