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What is Leaky Gut — And What Can You Do About It?

Stomach pain from IBS

Did you know that your biggest exposure to the outside world everyday is through your mouth? That’s why 70% of your immune system lives in your gut, lying in wait to protect you from anything that seems foreign (or “antigenic”) to the body. “Antigens” include bugs, like bacteria, parasites, or viruses. And believe it or not, they are  also in the food you eat – and the toxins and microbes that ride along with the food..

Your gut, which is essentially a tube starting at your esophagus and ending at your rectum,  has barrier walls separating the inside of your body and immune system from the outside world.  When you break down and digest your food into tiny particles, the intestinal lining serves to very selectively choose what can enter your body through a variety of mechanisms, including opening and closing gates called tight junctions.

Leaky Gut Syndrome

An intestinal barrier with damaged tight junctions, that isn’t succeeding in keeping those antigens out, leads to a condition known as Leaky Gut or Increased Intestinal Permeability.  The lining of the tube is damaged, and because of that, more and larger food molecules and gut bacteria are able to pass through to the other side (your bloodstream).  This leads to immune system activation as the body is overloaded with antigens, and this in turn can lead to inflammation and a variety of system-wide conditions.

Common Causes of Leaky Gut

Causes of leaky gut vary, but the most important might be dysbiosis, which is an imbalance of bacteria in the gut, also known as the gut microbiome. Dysbiosis shows up in a number of ways, for a number of reasons. It can be an overgrowth of harmful bacteria, yeast, or parasites, or simply a dearth of good bacteria, or any sort of bacteria growing in the wrong place in the gut.

Dysbiosis is caused by poor dietary choices, frequent antibiotic use, use of common over-the-counter medications (like antacids or painkillers), and can even be caused by stress, and chronic constipation.  A healthy microbiome helps you by interacting with the immune system in beneficial ways, and also by turning the food you eat into compounds that heal the tight junctions between your cells, protecting the integrity of the gut lining. Balanced gut microbiota leads to a strong barrier!

Leaky gut and the Connection to Chronic Disease

Studies have increasingly found that a leaky gut is associated with arthritis, autoimmune disease (like Hashimoto’s Thyroiditis or Rheumatoid Arthritis), allergies, and food sensitivities.  But why is it that leaky gut is associated with inflammatory diseases like arthritis? When the contents of your digestive tract, which includes gut bacteria and larger molecules of food and toxins, “leak” into your body, your immune system is activated, creating inflammatory chemicals that travel throughout your body and cause system-wide inflammation, especially in the joints. And this happens nonstop until your gut microbiome and the lining are repaired.

Leaky Gut and Nutritional Deficiencies

Leaky gut can also contribute to malabsorption of vitamins and minerals.  Ongoing inflammation can cause damage to the carrier proteins in the lining of the gut that are supposed to work to bring the good stuff into the body. The most common are iron, B12, magnesium and zinc deficiencies. These lead to all sorts of symptoms like fatigue, hair loss, rashes and muscle pains.

How to Heal Leaky Gut

The good news is that you can rebuild your microbiome and repair your gut, it just takes a little effort and sometimes some detective work. Here are five areas that deserve your attention:

  •      Food Choices: Food has the most influence on the diversity of the microbiome – and that is why we always recommend starting by changing your diet. Increasing your intake of foods high in fiber, mostly fruits and vegetables, is the simplest change we can make. These tend to increase that good bacteria that plays such a role in keeping the gut lining healthy and working. Removing foods that feed the bad bacteria is also important – so quitting – or at least decreasing the amounts of sugar, processed foods, alcohol, and bad fats will support rebalancing the microbiome.
  •      Food Sensitivities: Recognizing the foods you are sensitive to and removing those from your diet is an important way to help heal the gut lining. If the gut is constantly barraged by a particular food that is stressing the immune system, local inflammation at the gut barrier will create imbalance and lead to leaky-ness. A simple elimination diet is often the best way to determine food sensitivities. Food allergy testing can also guide us in helping you to figure out what to eat and what not to eat.
  •      Stressors: We all know that stress affects our gut. Think about it, when you don’t feel relaxed, you just don’t digest as well. Many people manifest emotional distress in their digestive tract, suffering from an uneasy stomach, loose stools or sometimes chronic constipation, bloating, cramping and food intolerance. Making sure that stress is dealt with, by looking into your habits and working to improve potential sources of stress – like lack of sleep, lack of exercise, or mood imbalance is essential. Your digestion benefits from 8+ hours of sleep nightly, a good exercise regimen that keeps you moving daily and a meditation or mindfulness practice that helps ground your mind.
  •      Toxins: Decreasing your  total body toxin exposure should be a crucial part of your gut healing strategy.  Eating well-sourced, non-gmo, organic foods as much as possible and avoiding common environmental exposures that further tax the system and damage the intestinal lining, helps decrease permeability and inflammation.
  •      Dysbiosis: Sometimes the imbalanced gut is really off.  So much so that improving diet won’t fix it completely.  In these cases, we usually use testing (stool, breath, urine) to help determine the best method of gut healing – or cleansing – with herbal preparations, medications, and probiotics.

Treatment options for leaky gut:

  •      Glutamine, an amino acid, has been shown to reverse intestinal mucosal damage from various insults.
  •      Marshmallow root and DGL (Deglycyrrhizinated licorice) extract are agents that stimulate protective mucus secretion in the gut.
  •      Probiotics are an essential part of healing the gut lining – a broad spectrum probiotic that contains lactobacillus and Bifidobacteria species is recommended.  Saccharomyces boulardii, a beneficial yeast, is also an important supplement to restore gut health.
  •      Fish Oil – to reduce intestinal (and systemic) inflammation.
  •      Vitamin D – at doses of 2000-5000 IU daily (get blood levels checked intermittently) supports the mucosal immune system in the gut lining.

What to do if you suspect you have Leaky Gut:

If you live in our neighborhood, make an appointment!  In my  practice at Blum Center for Health, I take a multi-pronged, holistic approach, a combination of medical and lifestyle considerations, to address, diagnose, and treat your condition.  We take your health seriously and get to the root of the problem rather than simply throwing medication at it.  For more information, please call 914-652-7800.

Don’t live nearby?  A great place to start is with our 10-Day or 30-Day HealMyGut program — it’s a total gut reset with a nutritional plan, recipes, just-right supplements, daily email support, and a private online community. Our 30-Day program includes the added bonus of a weekly chat with our Functional Nutritionist to answer all your questions. Find out which program is ideal for you: Take the Assessment

Meet Darcy McConnell, M.D.:  Dr. McConnell brings her broad expertise in prevention, mind-body medicine, and women’s health to Blum Center for Health, in Rye Brook, NY. She is board certified in Family Medicine and Integrative Medicine, with postgraduate training from the Institute for Functional Medicine. Darcy lives with her husband and three sons and enjoys the outdoors, cooking healthy meals for her family and friends and is an enthusiastic yogi.