Leaky gut…a buzzword you may hear relating to digestive health, but I wonder if most truly understand its meaning. So, what the heck is a leaky gut?
To dive into this question, it is best to start with a brief anatomy review:
Anatomy of the Digestive Tract (our internal plumbing):
- See food. Place food into mouth, [hopefully] chew it and mix it with saliva to the point where it may be swallowed without choking; a process called mastication.
- Chewed food enters the esophagus where it soon lands in the stomach. The stomach splashes a bunch of digestive juices (hydrochloric acid, enzymes) to continue digestion until the food turns into chyme (partially digested food).
- Chyme slowly releases from the pyloric sphincter of the stomach into the small intestine, where it meets even more digestive juices (sodium bicarbonate, enzymes, bile acid) so that it breaks down to even smaller particles.
- What was once food is now absorbable digestive products like amino acids (the breakdown of protein), monosaccharides (the breakdown of carbohydrates), glycerol and fatty acids (the breakdown of fats), vitamins, and minerals.
- These small particles are absorbed into the body by passing through the digestive tract’s brush border. To picture this, think of a shag carpet lining the inside of a tube! Each tiny carpet strand, called the villi and microvilli, provide surface area where these tiny particles may pass through to circulation.
- Let’s go one step smaller…there is an itty-bitty space between the cells that make up this shag carpet…that space are the tight junctions.
Okay, that’s the end of the anatomy lesson.
So at what point does the digestive “plumbing” get leaky?
Going back to the small intestine shag carpet, the leaky plumbing comes into play when the tight junctions are not quite tight enough! The barrier between the the digestive tract and the rest of the body is not completely in tact. Larger food particles or even harmful substance like toxins or microorganisms can now easily slip through the cracks. The gut is “leakier” or more permeable than it should be.
What makes the gut “leakier”?
Essentially, a protein molecule called zonulin is a key regulator in the tightness of the tight junctions in the gut barrier. Some research suggest that gluten and bacteria are 2 factors that impact zonulin’s control. Below is a list of other potential factors that may damage the tight junctions and health of the gut barrier.
- Stress, particularly trauma
- Toxin exposure
- Poor diet
- Alcohol consumption
Are there negative consequences of having a leaky gut?
Everyone must have some level of leakiness in their gut in order for vital particles to pass through from the digestive tract to the rest of the body. But, when the gut is too leaky, this may cause a problem for some individuals. Some may experience increased inflammation and activation of the immune system.
Leaky gut may also be a precursor for the expression of many autoimmune diseases. Nearly 70% of the immune system is located around the digestive tract so when larger particles pass through the gut barrier and come into contact with the immune system, there is the potential for heightened activation. Leaky gut may also provoke the development of food allergies and sensitivities.
Can tests diagnose leaky gut?
Most clinicians do not test for leaky gut, however there are tests available including the lactulose-mannitol challenge protocol. These 2 types of sugars (lactulose and mannitol) are ingested and then measured in the urine after 6 hours. The test will indicate the degree of carbohydrate malabsorption and/or leaky gut.
Leaky gut may be suspected if someone suffers from multiple adverse food reactions (allergies, sensitivities, intolerances), bloating and gas, inflammatory bowel disease, autoimmune diseases, other digestive concerns.
What steps help improve leaky gut?
This can get a bit tricky and I recommend personalized care [call me!], however there are steps you may take to help improve the health of the gut lining and tighten up those tight junctions!
- Clean up the diet– this means removing the not so good stuff and replacing it with the good stuff! Remove foods you suspect cause you problems and try out an elimination diet for at least a few weeks. Avoid processed foods that contain food colors, preservatives, and other additives.
- Add in the probiotics- this may be via a probiotic supplement or including a variety of fermented foods like yogurt, kefir, kombucha, miso, sauerkraut, etc.
- Reduce the inflammation– anti-inflammatory compounds like omega-3 fats, curcumin, and phytonutrients from plants help to combat inflammation in the gut and allow damage to heal
- Use l-glutamine– this amino acid allows the cells in your digestive tract to rebuild and repair themselves. Take about 5g of l-glutamine per day.
Do you suspect you have a leaky gut? Do you need more help coming up with a plan to improve the health of your digestive tract? Contact me today to set up an appointment!