Is Your Gut Leaking?
You are not necessarily what you eat but more accurately, you are what you absorb. If you have an inflamed gut or a leaky gut, you wont be absorbing all the nutrients from the foods you’re eating. $75 at whole foods, down the toilet, so to speak.
What is leaky gut and what causes it?
The crux of digestion occurs in the small intestine. This is where food is broken down into amino acids (from protein), fatty acids (from fats), or glucose (from carbs). Ideally these food particles are broken down and absorbed through the lining of the small intestine into the bloodstream, where they are then transported through the body for nourishment and repair. If you’re not properly digesting for various reasons (SIBO, for one) and food isn’t properly assimilated, inflammation occurs, widening the tight junctions that line the small intestine.
Proteins and toxins from undigested food particles then leak through and make it into your bloodstream due to the increased intestinal permeability. Your body sees these foreign proteins as invader and marks it as an antigen. Your immune system mounts an attack, releasing inflammatory cytokines. Now, every time you eat that food and it leaks into your bloodstream, your body recognizes the protein from that food as an invader, your immune system fires, and cytokines are released.
Toxins and oxidants are the by-products of this increased white blood cell activity that occurs as a result of inflammation (oxidants and toxins = aging more quickly). Whatever else is in your small intestine (yeast, other toxins, bacteria) can leak into the bloodstream too, adding to your toxic load and making you feel crappy. This is called increased intestinal permeability, or leaky gut.
The inflammatory response is somewhat similar to what happens when you cut your finger. It swells and turns red, right? That’s a normal inflammation response to protect your body from infection. But when inflammation occurs regularly in response to foods you’re eating and an unhappy small intestine, you begin to experience chronic, systemic inflammation throughout the body.
The majority of your immune system is in your gut, and when it’s constantly reacting to foods you’re eating, its attention is primarily spent sending forces to put out the fire in the digestive system. Therefore, you have fewer immune reserves to fight colds, viruses, bacteria, abnormal cells, cancer cells, etc.
In addition, your overactive immune system is perceived as a stress by the body, causing fluctuations in cortisol, which contribute to even more inflammation. Now you have systemic inflammation and stress hormone imbalance, and you’ve set the stage for autoimmune disease and other illnesses that result from these imbalances. See how stress and inflammation lead to a compromised immune system?
How do you know if you have leaky gut?
- an increase in foods you can’t tolerate (frequent gas, belching, bloating, indigestion, heartburn)
- constipation, diarrhea or alternating between the two
- skin rashes, acne, eczema, psoriasis
- headaches, fatigue, brain fog (symptoms of toxicity)
- autoimmune disease like chronic fatigue, fibromyalgia, Hashimoto’s, rheumatoid arthritis
- yeast infections, yeast overgrowth, dysbiosis
- deficiencies in vitamin and mineral stores (especially iron, B vitamins) because you’re not breaking down food or absorbing nutrients
What causes leaky gut?
- Poor diet, meaning too much sugar, gluten, processed/refined foods, chemicals and food additives, alcohol. These foods increase inflammation and intestinal permeability.
- Certain foods that are harder to digest (grains, gluten, cow’s dairy) increase the likelihood of leaky gut, because they too cause inflammation (and remember, an inflamed gut means the tight junctions in the intestinal wall widen, letting particles leak through). We know that zonulin, which is released when you eat gluten, contributes to leaky gut.
- STRESS. It weakens immune function, increases inflammation, jacks cortisol levels, and all these factors contribute to leaky gut.
- OTC meds, pharmaceutical drugs, antibiotics, antacids, painkillers: these irritate the gut lining and increase permeability.
- Low stomach acid and low enzyme production, so you’re not breaking down food or digesting properly. Consider a digestive enzyme with HCl. Test for h. pylori infection, which causes low stomach acid, heartburn, and indigestion.
- Dysbiosis, parasites, pathogens, yeast overgrowth: this is a chicken/egg situation. You tend to harbor gut infections like parasites and pathogenic bacteria when you have any degree of intestinal inflammation because your gut is your first line of defense for the immune system. When it’s inflamed, you are at a greater risk of picking up bugs, viruses, etc. OR, Candida (yeast) overgrowth may occur from poor diet or antibiotics, and candida causes the inflammation that leads to leaky gut. Candida also produce a lot of toxic by-products that overwhelm the liver. So either the inflammation contributes to gut infections, or the gut infections cause the inflammation. Either way, leaky gut results.
Heal Leaky Gut Naturally
- remove the following foods for at least 30 days (several months of elimination is needed usually): gluten/grains, dairy, soy, corn, eggs, sugar, alcohol, coffee. These foods have the potential to cause inflammation and irritation, and most people react to one, if not more, of any of these. Add back in one at a time after 30-60 days (except gluten, which activates inflammatory zonulin activity in the gut!) to see if you react. Remember that continuously eating foods you may have sensitivities to exacerbates leaky gut and causes continuous immune system firing. An overactive immune system increases your risk for auto-immune disease. Read here how to do a proper elimination diet. Consider food allergy testing to determine which foods you react to. I like EverlyWell— the kit comes right to your house! (this link gets you a discount on the kit).
- determine if you have yeast overgrowth, parasites, or dysbiosis. Get a stool test done to screen for these bugs. I use these tests frequently in my practice, then I’m able to design a protocol using herbs to kill off the unwanted invaders. Test also for SIBO. IMPORTANT: if you have dysbiosis or gut infections, you won’t be able to fully heal leaky gut until the underlying issue is resolved.
- heal the gut. I like GI Revive from Designs for Health as a leaky gut repair product. It contains therapeutic amounts of glutamine and soothing herbs to heal the gut. You may need a more targeted gut healing protocol.
- take high dose probiotics for at least a month to recolonize the intestines with good bacteria. Include probiotic foods like raw kraut, kvass, or coconut water kefir. Or try my probiotic dairy free coconut yogurt. Fermented foods have many healing benefits! Rotate between different strains of probiotics.
- add in gut healing foods like collagen peptides and bone broth. Glutamine (in GI Revive) is great for healing leaky gut too.
- stress relief: address high or low cortisol and adrenal health. Do some guided meditation (5 minutes is all it takes for starters); take a relaxing epsom salt bath; do some gardening; get in your zen zone! Whatever works for you. High cortisol changes the terrain in the gut, so it’s crucial to normalize stress hormone levels.
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