What is Leaky Gut?
What is Leaky Gut?
In this article we’ll go over gut health, the digestive system and answer the main question: what is leaky gut.
A Healthy Gut
The digestive tract is basically one very long and loopy tube that extends from the mouth to the anus. The digestive system is composed of this tube as well as various organs that function primarily to help breakdown food and absorb nutrients the body needs to function. The digestive tract has other important functions: it serves as a barrier between the inside and outside worlds, as the major site of immunity to protect against foreign invaders, as the communication connection to the brain via the gut-brain axis, and as home to the microbiome that supports a symbiotic relationship with bacteria to promote overall health. A normal, healthy functioning digestive tract is essential to health promotion and disease prevention. Hippocrates once said, “all disease begins in the gut.” The digestive system plays such a vital role in health care, many doctors practice by the saying “when in doubt, treat the gut.”
If we were to catch a ride on the roller coaster that food takes – we’d enter the mouth, slide down the esophagus, fall inside the stomach, squeeze through the small and then large intestine, and finally exit, well you know where. The tube and everything within it are technically outside of the body – only that which crosses the digestive lining enters inside of the body. This lining is made up of multiple layers and covers more than 4000 square feet of surface area! The innermost layer, that directly contacts ingested food, is called the mucosa. The barrier function of the mucosa is maintained by tight junctions and proteins that hold its cells close together to prevent certain unwanted materials from entering. In a healthy state, the mucosal lining upholds tight control over what it allows in and keeps out, despite being exposed to heavy antigenic loads from food and microorganisms on a daily basis.
A Leaky Gut
When the mucosal lining loses the integrity of its barrier function, its tight junctions become loose (‘leaky’ or ‘permeable’) and allows molecules that are too large (such as partially digested foods) and or even toxic to enter inside the body. This is known as leaky gut, or more formally as intestinal permeability (IP). IP can have consequences both locally inside the gut and systemically throughout the entire body. IP is particularly known to overload and over-activate the immune system as it can cause multiple food sensitivities (immune cells try to protect us by creating antibodies against partially digested foods entering the bloodstream) and endotoxemia (immune cells react to endotoxins such as lipopolysaccharides entering the bloodstream) – both of which may lead to body-wide inflammation, dysfunction, and a host of negative symptoms (brain fog, fatigue, allergies, problems with the GI, skin, and moods, etc.).
What Causes a Leaky Gut?
But what causes the mucosa to become permeable? Pretty much anything that causes inflammation, damage, and/or dysbiosis (disruption of microbiota balance) inside the digestive tract. This may occur from food antigens, nutritional deficiencies, heavy alcohol or NSAID use, toxin exposures (e.g. BPA, glyphosate), intestinal infections, food allergies/sensitivities, impaired digestion (e.g. low stomach acid), psychological stress, abdominal surgeries, specific medications, and certain diseases such as celiac disease. IP is associated with many conditions including numerous autoimmune diseases, irritable bowel disease, asthma, Alzheimer’s disease, and diabetes. The bottom line is that increased permeability of the mucosal lining initiates the development of several disorders – and now that we understand all the critical functions the digestive system has and its role as our bodyguard, we can see why.
Healing a Leaky Gut
When it comes to general healing, naturopathic and functional doctors often focus on treating the gut because normalizing gut function causes the most effective clinical outcomes across all disease spectrums – now that’s a powerful statement! When it comes to healing a leaky gut, the therapeutic goals include avoiding triggers, decreasing inflammation, and healing the digestive lining. Complications of leaky gut can be addressed individually but should all improve naturally with restoration of the gut lining and return of digestive functioning. For treatment of gut disorders, the 5R gut healing protocol can be applied.
Here is a simplified example of a 5R protocol for leaky gut:
- Remove: or eliminating intestinal burden, for example avoiding food sensitivities long enough for gut healing to occur
- Replace: or restoring digestive function, for example taking immune factors specific for the gut that may be compromised
- Reinoculate: or replenishing microbial flora, for example taking a probiotic to support the growth of beneficial bacteria
- Repair: or regenerating the mucosal lining, for example giving nutrients like glutamine that feed and strengthen the cells of the digestive tract
- Rebalance: or addressing determinants of overall health, for example managing stress, getting quality sleep, and eating mindfully
This 5R protocol is a basic blueprint, however, an individualized protocol will be designed for you by one of our naturopathic doctors (ND) at LIVV based on your needs and goals. Our NDs will also be able to run appropriate lab testing for you to further tailor your treatment plan. Call us today to book your appointment and start healing your gut!
Written by Jordan Valdez, RDN
Institute of Integrative and Functional Medicine