The Gut is the Gateway to Good Health
As I began my training in integrative wellness, I first learned that the gut is the gateway to good health. If your gut is healthy, there is a good chance that the rest of your body is also going to be healthy. When I first work with a client, I start by talking with them about their digestive issues. Although most people don’t like to admit if they have gas, burps, grumbling stomach, or uncomfortable poops, the root cause of so many ailments is with an improperly functioning gut. It can be the lead cause for food sensitivities, autoimmune disease, mood imbalances, skin rashes, constant fatigue, hormonal issues, and allergies.
Most of the time when someone goes to the doctor with intestinal issues, it is usually when they are at a significant disease state, such as having bowel disease, acid reflux, or irritable bowel syndrome. What they don’t realize is the root cause of many gut problems is something called increased intestinal permeability, or leaky gut since that term is easier to remember. Although the mainstream medical community only recognized leaky gut as a real health issue, there have been over 11,600 PubMed research articles written about it.
It is estimated that up to 80% of the US population has some degree of leaky gut.
That is a really large number of people, and you can see why we always start with the gut when working to restore someone to proper health.
Up Close and Personal With Your Gut
Before I talk about how your gut can have excess intestinal permeability, lets first get a basic understanding of the anatomy of your intestines. Most peoples understanding of the gut is: you put food in your mouth, it goes to your stomach, the intestines magically process the food, and it comes out your poop shoot as waste. During the process, you may burp, pass gas, feel bloated, or have gut pain. Below is a cross-section of your intestine, and as you can see, it is a very complex organ.
There are 11 different parts to the intestine that include muscle and lymphoid tissue, mucosal glands, and epithelial lining.
It is the epithelial lining of the gut that is affected when you have leaky gut.
The gut epithelium is the physical barrier between the intestinal tube and the rest of the intestinal tissues. What I find so amazing about the gut epithelium is that it is only ONE cell thick! That single layer of cells is responsible for a remarkable amount of critical functions such as communication with the gut immune system and interacting with the trillions of microbes that live in your gut. Lets take a really close look at the structure of the epithelium, because it will help you better understand intestinal permeability.
The photo below shows an exploded view of the gut wall and the first arrow points to the structure of the epithelial cells. Each of those little cells have what is called villi, which are finger-like structures that increase the surface area of the cell.
The villi absorb material such as digest food and liquids and allow them to enter the bloodstream. The second arrow pointing to the left is showing two, individual epithelial cells and what is important to note is under normal conditions when someone has proper gut permeability, the cells fit very tightly together.
OK, there is your basic anatomy lesson about the intestines.
Now that you are an expert on your gut anatomy, let’s move on to what happens when those little epithelial cells start to split apart.
In Plain English, Please, What Is Leaky Gut?
The epithelial cells naturally have a tight connection between them, but still allows for small, digested food particles, nutrients, drugs, etc. to move into the bloodstream. You can think of the function of the epithelial lining of the gut as like a window screen, that lets good air in but keeps bad things, like bugs, out of your home. In many people, the physical structure of the gut lining is compromised. Those tight junctions between the cells break down and allow larger food particles, microorganisms, and other compounds to enter into the blood stream. The picture below shows you what this looks like if you have leaky gut.
There are many reasons that people get leaky gut and it can occur regardless of your age. Increased intestinal permeability is found in people with bowel disease, celiac disease, who are on chemotherapy, and also in people who take a lot of aspirin, ibuprofen, and other anti-inflammatories. Leaky gut is very common in people who drink excessive alcohol and caffeine.
Our Standard American Diet (SAD) leads to leaky gut due to the high levels of refined sugar and food additives.
There is a compound made by the body that affects the epithelial junctions and regulates whether the space between these cells is porous or tight. Zonulin is the only know substance in the body that can affect the epithelial cells. Researchers believe the release of zonulin is a defensive mechanism by the body to flush out the intestines when they are infected with bad bacteria. Zonulin release can also be triggered by gluten-containing foods, yeast and parasite infections.
How Leaky Gut Affects Your Body
Now that the general medical community is understanding the importance of leaky gut and overall health, there is increased concern over the linkage between leaky gut and autoimmune disease. When there is increased permeability in the gut lining occurs, undigested proteins that come from harmless food can enter the bloodstream, which triggers the immune system to determine if these proteins are friend or foe. Repeated exposure to these proteins causes the immune system to treat the protein particles as foreign invaders that must be removed.
Repeated attack by the immune system to what seems to be healthy foods will cause an inflammatory reaction that leads to autoimmune disease, skin rashes, brain fog, joint pain and other chronic health issues. Below is a list of chronic conditions that you can develop when you have increased permeability of your gut lining:
- Gastric ulcers
- Chronic diarrhea
- Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS)
- Inflammatory bowel diseases (Crohns, ulcerative colitis)
- Celiac disease
- Food Allergies
- Chronic inflammatory conditions (such as arthritis)
- Obesity-related metabolic diseases (fatty liver, Type II diabetes, heart disease)
- Autoimmune disease (lupus, multiple sclerosis, Type I diabetes and more)
- Weight gain and obesity
- Cognitive dysfunction (anxiety, depression, memory problems)
Another important health issue with leaky gut is the subsequent malabsorption of many important nutrients such as vitamins, amino acids, and minerals. This is due to the chronic inflammation of the gut lining. When malabsorption occurs, people experience gas pains, bloating and cramps, and can lead to fatigue, headaches, memory loss, and poor concentration. If you have ever been told you have irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), the root cause of this is a leaky gut.
How To Determine If You Have Leaky Gut
Many people believe experiencing gas or bloating when they eat is normal, or that intolerance to certain foods is just part of the quirks of their digestive system. When I first interview a potential client, I always ask a lot of questions about their digestion. I want to find out if they have frequent burping, acid reflux, chronic diarrhea or constipation, pass a lot of gas, notice they are sensitive to certain foods, or often have bloating. I also find out if they have an autoimmune disease or if recent blood tests show that their inflammation biomarkers are elevated.
Once I am confident there is a high likelihood of a leaky gut determination, I order several testing kits to gather the data needed for a positive identification of leaky gut. The first test I ask a client to do is a lab analysis of their bowel movement. Stool testing will screen samples of the clients stool and look for presence of excess bad bacteria, yeast, parasites, and occult blood. I often use the test kit from Biohealth labs since they have the most accurate test for H. pylori bacteria which causes acid reflux. The presence of an excess amount of bacteria that is considered unhealthy for the gut is an indirect determination of leak gut. These bad bacteria cause production of endotoxins and zonulin and those chemicals break down the tight junction between the gut epithelial cells.
Here is an example report from a Biohealth stool test:
Testing for Food Sensitivities
People who have leaky gut often report that they recently developed sensitivities to certain foods. I have clients that get joint pain when they eat dairy, sometimes they will get skin rashes to certain grains, or have diarrhea when they eat gluten. Other times, a client may report feeling sluggish or having brain fog when they eat certain foods. As I talked about in this article, leaky gut allows undigested food and proteins to leak through the intestinal wall and trigger an immune reaction. Blood testing for food sensitivities is very important when determining leaky gut because it is testing for the presence of antibodies to common foods. Not only will antibody testing give a sense of the presence of leaky gut, but it can also identify which foods are causing the gut inflammation and intestinal damage.
Those trigger foods need to be eliminated from the diet to avoid further damage.
The Oxford Biomedical Biomedical Technologies Mediator Release Test (MRT) is my go-to food sensitivity test because it is a very reproducible test that correlates reactions to specific foods to body inflammation. The MRT is based on measuring the changes in the structure of white blood cells when challenged with specific foods. The MRT test is able to show the amount of inflammation that your body experiences in the presence of the foods being tested. It tests up to 170 foods and chemicals and shows the results by depicting bar graphs next to each food and chemical. This provides a much clearer picture on which foods you should start eliminating from your diet to reduce the amount of inflammation and symptoms in your body. The MRT test sends out a very comprehensive booklet that thoroughly explains the results of the test, offers specific ideas for meal planning, and provides an index of terminology used with the report.
Healing your gut is the first step for obtaining a life of vibrant health and determining if you have leaky gut is only the first phase on this journey to optimal health. Fortunately, healing your gut is very possible as long as you find out what is triggering your symptoms, eliminate those triggers, and add supplements to your diet which heal the damaged intestinal lining.
Are you interested in finding out if you have leaky gut? Gives us a call to set up an initial interview to discuss your symptoms.
Yours In Vibrant Wellbeing,