Why Leaky Gut Isn't Just About Food
Leaky gut syndrome is a condition that affects millions. It has become widely discussed in the world of functional health, and yet I find it is still very much misunderstood. Of course, like all relatively "new" understandings in the health realm, it takes time for full discovery and education to happen, and we are presently in that evolution with leaky gut syndrome. It has been called "one of the most significant medical concepts of our time".
Things We All Agree On About Leaky Gut
There are numerous aspects of leaky gut syndrome that most practitioners and educated people will agree upon. It expresses with damage to the lining of the small intestine causing hyperpermeability. Chronic inflammation and weak tissues cause the breakdown of the tight junctions on the outside of the membrane, allowing particles of all kinds to be able to escape from what should be a closed system. This then causes a type of autoimmune storm in the blood as the body perceives materials leaking through as invaders requiring attack.
Symptoms and associated conditions of leaky gut include:
- Brain fog
- GI dysfunction and/or IBS (irritable bowel syndrome)
- Poor nutritional absorption
- Low digestive enzyme production
- Skin conditions
- Joint pain
- Mood disorders
- Autoimmune diseases
- Food sensitivities
The well-documented and understood causes of leaky gut are:
- Antibiotic use
- Regular consumption of antigenic foods
- Stress (of all kinds)
- Zinc deficiency
- Poor overall nutrition, especially foods lacking in healthy bacteria
Food sensitivities and the removal of offending foods has become the major focal point of addressing leaky gut. While this is a very helpful management technique, in my opinion, it is only one piece of the puzzle. What I witness in practice and what I hear from clients continually is that as soon as they have tried to move back into consumption of any offending food, the problems are exactly the same as before. This indicates that the root causes of one's condition have not been addressed, and also that the membrane has not healed.
Some Lesser Known Influences in Leaky Gut
Other lesser known problems are often at play with leaky gut, and the following are several of the most common I see in clinical practice:
- H pylori and fungal infections
- Viruses and retroviruses
- Hormone toxicity
- Heavy metal and chemical toxicity
Essentially, anything that is irritating to the digestive tract on an acute or chronic level can create damage to the mucosal barrier and subsequently leaky gut syndrome. These irritants listed above are often more of the root causes of the syndrome. The responses one's body has to antigenic foods may be a more secondary issue than a causative issue. Once the body begins to be overstimulated in immune response as a result of leaky gut syndrome, foods become a likely target, especially gluten. But to efficiently heal from leaky gut, we often need to dig a little deeper into the more threatening issues of toxins and pathogens in order to get resolution. And, in the end, don't we want full resolution, being able to return to a healthy, normal diet? Researchers have established that tolerance models exemplify why food consumption does not always lead to clinical hypersensitivity and food allergies (1). The default immune response in the gut to nominal antigen is one of tolerance.
So, how is it that these offenders end up causing damage to the barrier? One of the main mechanisms in digestion is the triggering of bile from the liver and gallbladder when food enters the stomach. Bile is akin to soap, and has both the ability to help break down/digest fats, as well as to clean bad bacteria from the GI tract. It is a bit of a "garbage can", also, carrying many toxins from the processing of the liver (if we're lucky). Toxins which are stored in the bile are released with the bile at mealtime for excretion through the colon. Unfortunately, many toxic burdens (especially chemical, metal and hormonal) can prevent proper bile production and function. This is one of the reasons that many people with SIBO are unable to effectively clear the condition - low bile is allowing bacterial accumulation, and hormone toxicity may be contributing to the overall picture (please see estrogen and SIBO blog on this site for more information). We end up with toxic soup in the gut, with many toxins never being excreted but rather reabsorbed for repeated processing.
As it relates to infections and viral conditions, there are several potential contributing factors which allow damage to the gut:
- Biotoxin release
- Reduction of cellular repair from chronic ATP depletion
- Autoimmune response
- Disruption of healthy microbiome levels and diversity
In a careful, investigative therapeutic process, we can discern which of these larger threats may be at work in a leaky gut syndrome and bring final resolution in a step-by-step process. This requires not only eradication of the offending substances and/or pathogens, but effective protocols for repair of the membrane.
The Probiotic Debate and the Key to Your Health
it is my opinion that the immediate and unquestioned use of probiotics for leaky gut healing may be a risky approach. Authors Chin, Turner, Barcha, and Mullbacher state the following: "While acute stressors are known to stimulate immunity, chronic stress is believed to down-regulate immune responses. Use of immunological parameters to assess immune responses to dietary supplementation with various nutriceuticals or dietary and nutritional supplements may provide scientific validation of potential health benefits."(2) Many probiotics appear to have immunogenic effects, and could potentially contribute to an overactive immune response. Knowing whether a person's status is acute or chronic can be very helpful to understanding what type of therapeutic applications to utilize.
An important consideration in this is the difference between laboratory grown bacteria and the gut environment - the first being aerobic and the latter being anaerobic. This creates a competitive environment which makes it very difficult for probiotics to survive. Hence, often the actual benefit of probiotic supplementation is activation of the immune system around dead bacteria in the gut. Studies have actually indicated that most probiotics do not produce substantive changes in the colonization numbers of gut bacteria species. (3) Soil-based probiotics are safer and better colonizers. (4)
As with every impactful condition, the key to your healing is proper investigation of your biochemical indivdiuality. Let's begin today with finding and healing the root causes of your problems. www.truenaturehealthconsulting.com
1,2) James Chin, Bernadette Turner, Idris Barchia, Arno Mullbacher, "Immune response to orally consumed antigens and probiotic bacteria", https://www.nature.com/articles/icb20009
3) Gibson GR, et al. An evaluation of probiotic effects in the human gut. Final Technical report for FSA, G01022. 2005.
4) Bittner AC, Croffut RM, Stranahan MC, Yokelson TN. Prescript-assist probiotic-prebiotic treatment for irritable bowel syndrome: an open-label, partially controlled, 1-year extension of a previously published controlled clinical trial. Clinical therapeutics. 2007;29(6):1153-1160.