17 May Leaky Gut
Any conversation on leaky gut has to kick off with a definition of what we mean by ‘the gut’. Basically, the gut is this hollow tube that runs from your mouth to your anus. The role it plays in health and disease cannot be overstated. There’s all the obvious stuff, like digestion. All that food, all those raw materials and nutrients that every cell in our body needs to thrive must all first undergo digestion – mechanical digestion (i.e., chewing) and chemical digestion (think stomach acid).
So, the main players in the digestive process are (from top to bottom), the mouth (oral cavity), the oesophagus (the tube that runs from the mouth to the stomach), the stomach, the small intestine, and the large intestine (aka the colon). All these divisions of the digestive tract connect to create this one long tube, called the alimentary tube. This tube can actually be thought of as an external system because it protects the rest of our body from all the environmental insults that we are subjected to every day.
The Role Of The Gut
One of the critical roles of the gut is its ability to provide this protection and also its ability to convert the food we eat into simple molecules that can be absorbed into the blood and transported to our cells. Because the gut is a tube, the wall of this tube, or ‘lining’ as we like to say, is crucially important. It is the barrier that determines what is absorbed into the bloodstream. A healthy, functioning gut lining has a barrier system that allows essential nutrients, electrolytes and water into the blood, while blocking the passage of toxins, including food, environmental toxins, and other microorganisms that hitch a ride on the food we eat. Talking of microorganisms, it may not surprise you to learn that our gut is full of microbes, including bacteria, fungi, and viruses that have co-evolved with us humans over millennia. But it may surprise you to learn that there are actually more bacterial cells than human cells!
The importance of these microbes in regulating health and disease is enormous and is still yet to be fully elucidated and appreciated.
Needless to say, what we eat, what we touch, what we apply to our skin, the air we breathe, the people we interact with, the pets and animals that surround us, the greater ecosystem we’re living in – all contribute to the ecosystem within our gut. It is a carefully calibrated ecosystem comprising up to 1000 different species.
Back to the gut lining, and the topic at hand – leaky gut.
You can see in the picture above the difference between tightly knitted together cells and loose and inflamed cells. The cells line the whole of the gut (gastrointestinal tract), and the health of this barrier system is so important. These gut cells absorb the nutrients from the food we eat, and if they are shaved off and exposed, it can affect absorption and result in nutrient deficiencies.
Certain things can cause the gut lining to become leaky, these include:
- Gluten – The main cause of leaky gut for most people is gluten. Gluten has been shown to unknit those tight junctions that hold the cells together, causing gaps**
- Poor diet
- Inflammatory foods
- Non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), such as Nurofen, Advil, Voltaren, and Naprosyn
- Drinking alcohol
- Taking antibiotics (however necessary they may be at the time)
- Not getting enough sleep
This is why so many people who arrive at the clinic show signs of leaky gut and all the attendant digestive issues that go with it.
Leaky gut is not just a ‘digestive issue’
Once leaky gut is established, the door is open for bacteria and partially digested food particles to leak through the gut wall. Waiting on the other side of the gut wall is the immune system. Gut microbes are intricately connected with the immune cells. They’re neighbours, living alongside each other. If fires are breaking out in the neighbourhood, the immune system becomes very agitated. If harmful substances are constantly leaking through the gut and interacting with the immune system, it becomes overburdened and hyper-reactive. Basically, it loses ‘tolerance’ to things that are harmless to us.
We develop food sensitivities, allergies, and a host of other symptoms that many people don’t realise are related to gut health, such as autoimmune conditions affecting the thyroid, the joints, the pancreas – all body systems, including the brain (depression, anxiety, anyone?). Once the immune system becomes hyper-reactive, it can begin to attack the body’s own tissues. The thing is, we’re made up of proteins too, just like the proteins in our food, so a runaway immune system can’t tell the difference. That’s the genesis of arthritis and thyroiditis and any other -it is you care to name.
Many people I see report having had digestive issues for as long as they remember, and just thought it was the natural course of things – or the symptoms have become so ‘normal’ to the sufferer that they become accustomed to the bloating or the intermittent diarrhoea, the stomach cramps, or the heartburn. Well, none of these symptoms is normal, and all are completely resolvable. What is the price we are all paying for not listening to our gut? The downstream consequences are far-reaching, as I said above. So, listen to your gut, come into the clinic and work to address the underlying causes of your gut issues.
*for those of you who like to crunch numbers, that’s about 38 trillion bacterial cells, amounting to about 100 times more genes than our human genes. You may hear one of us refer to the ‘gut microbiome’, which describes all the bacterial cells together with their genes. What’s more, these microbes regulate how our genes are expressed!
**a now very prominent scientist Alessio Fasano first brought this concept to the public attention. He showed how a protein in gluten, called gliadin activated another chemical called zonulin, which set off a cascade of reactions that resulted in a leaky gut. Fasano went on to show this effect happened in everyone who ate gluten.
Think you might have leaky gut and want to learn more?
Contact me on 9339 1999 for a FREE 15-minute scoping session.