The idea of having a ‘leaky gut’ sounds quite out of the ordinary, and if you pay a visit to your GP mentioning that you suspect such a thing, they will probably turn you away thinking you have read an alternative medicine hypothesis for digestive symptoms. Such controversy exists with the term ‘leaky gut syndrome’, as some practitioners have blown it out of proportion, suggesting it to be a disease. In reality, it is evident that a ‘leaky gut’ is simply a term used for a permeable gut lining associated with inflammation.
What is a leaky gut?
To understand the issue of a leaky gut, it is important to know the physiological processes in your body. In a healthy digestive tract, the cells lining the intestines are plumped up and closely packed together, carefully controlling the absorption of nutrients from food. In an individual with a leaky gut, i.e. a semi permeable gut lining, the cells become inflamed and gaps appear between the cells, large enough for food particles and other toxins to enter directly into the bloodstream. If someone’s digestion is in a poor condition, undigested food particles may pass through these gaps between the cells in the intestines, and the immune system may react to this by creating more inflammation. Excess inflammation can cause further damage to cells, exacerbating the problem. A leaky gut is therefore often an ongoing issue, and frequently undiagnosed.
Diagnosis and symptoms
You may suspect that you have a leaky gut, but how do you know for certain? A digestive stool analysis can reveal this information by testing secretory IgA (Immunoglobulin A) levels. IgA is an antibody used by the immune system to identify and fight off unwanted objects such as infectious bacteria, and this specific type of antibody is produced in mucosal linings (the gut wall). As unwanted undigested food particles may pass through the gut lining, the immune reaction involving high levels of IgA antibodies may suggest a permeable gut lining.
“If you have an intolerance to a food, or several foods, you almost certainly have a leaky gut.”
If you don’t wish to fork out the money for a digestive stool analysis test, you can also usually diagnose through symptoms related to intolerances including bloating and stomach cramps after eating, or a feeling of ‘sensitivity’ to certain foods such as bread. If you have an intolerance to a food, or several foods, you almost certainly have a leaky gut. Symptoms of a food intolerance can range from the understandable digestive complaints of bloating and diarrhoea, to sinusitis, eczema, migraines, joint pains and chronic fatigue. An intolerance to a food results in an immune reaction causing excess inflammation in the body, often pain associated.
The cause of a leaky gut
There is no one simple cause of a leaky gut; a combination of chronic inflammation, nutritional deficiencies, improper digestion and high intake of commonly aggravating foods are usually to blame. If your stomach acid is low and your pancreas isn’t producing enough digestive enzymes, undigested food particles may pass into your large intestine. If there is inflammation, with resulting space between the mucosal cells protecting the lining of your gut, these undigested food particles may be absorbed directly into your bloodstream and as your immune system may not be expecting this, it may decide to react. This creates even more inflammation, and if this happens too often, your immune system will soon start remembering the foods it doesn’t like to come into contact with. If you develop a leaky gut while drinking lots of milk, for example, your body may decide to react to milk on a regular basis and it will then be programmed to do so, i.e. an intolerance to a particular food is created. Unlike an allergy, intolerances can easily come and go, so the key is not to simply avoid foods you are intolerant to, but to stop these undigested food particles getting through in the first place.
Other possible causes of a permeable gut lining can include parasites and bacterial or yeast infections. An invasion of such pathogens (the bad guys) can easily result in inflamed and irritated cells lining the gut, which can then lead to a leaky gut and also an increased level of toxins which may be released from the pathogens.
A general inflammatory diet may also be another possible cause of a permeable gut lining, or at least a factor contributing to the severity of symptoms. An inflammatory diet would consist of foods high in refined carbohydrates, in particular from grains such as white bread, and also a diet high in the omega-6 fatty acid arachidonic acid (AA). Omega-6 AA is found in grain-fed meats; a diet consisting of cheaply produced meat and processed foods is therefore most likely to either contribute to or exacerbate symptoms of a leaky gut.
Is gluten to blame for a leaky gut? Gluten is a protein found in grains wheat, barley and rye and it certainly finds its way into a lot of our foods, including baked goods and even sauces and other condiments. For some individuals, it can be very difficult to process in the body and can result in immune reactions leading to unwanted symptoms such as digestive cramps. Gluten is one of the most common food intolerances and can negatively affect symptoms of a leaky gut.
“Unlike an allergy, intolerances can easily come and go, so the key is not to simply avoid foods you are intolerant to, but to stop these undigested food particles getting through in the first place.”
Gluten is also inflammatory, so long-term intake of high gluten-containing foods may also contribute to the development of a leaky gut, especially for those who experience symptoms after eating such foods. If you are having toast or cereal for breakfast followed by a sandwich for lunch, and pasta for dinner, your intake of gluten will be very high.
Chilli peppers contain a compound called capsaicin, which, as you may have noticed, causes irritation to mucosal cells, including the lips, tongue, mouth and digestive tract. With a healthy digestive lining, it is possible to withstand a certain amount of spicy food without symptoms. Everyone has their own critical point as to how much spicy food they can withstand, but if you imagine the inflamed cells in a leaky gut, the sensitivity is high, therefore even a small amount of spicy food can result in a burning sensation in the stomach and a bout of diarrhoea. Diarrhoea is your body’s way of flushing out of your body something that is causing harm; therefore, if you experience diarrhoea the morning after a spicy curry, you are very likely to have a permeable gut lining.
Ginger and other strong foods
Certain foods, such as ginger, garlic and onions, are very pungent. Although these foods are considered to be anti-inflammatory, they can also cause irritation to your gut lining if it is already semi-permeable. This is particularly the case for someone with inflammation of the stomach lining (gastritis). Direct contact of such strong foods on already damaged cells can result in an instant burning sensation in the stomach or small intestine.
Drinking alcohol in excess, i.e. more than approximately 4 units in one day, can cause significant irritation to an already permeable gut. Alcohol is inflammatory, and therefore is only going to make the situation worse. 2-3 units of alcohol may not cause any issue to someone with a healthy gut lining, but for someone with a permeable gut lining, alcohol can be very aggravating.
How to heal a leaky gut
First you need to identify any irritating foods and eliminate these from your diet. Gluten is the most common culprit, although many other foods – such as peanuts, beans and lentils – can also cause problems in some individuals. A food intolerance test may be useful for identifying which foods your body is reacting to. Offending foods only have to be eliminated from your diet temporarily while you concentrate on healing your gut. If you have a leaky gut, you are likely to develop intolerances to several foods, therefore simply cutting these foods out is not going to address the cause. Once the gut is properly healed, these intolerances should disappear, as the undigested food particles should not be able to pass through directly into your bloodstream where your immune system could react.
Alcohol and spicy food should also be eliminated (or at least significantly reduced) during this initial stage of approximately 2 months, giving the cells on your gut lining a chance to recover properly. Drinking alcohol even once a week while trying to heal your gut can make the healing process twice as long, so if you can eliminate it completely for 2 months, this should give your body a helping hand in speeding up your gut recovery.
“Anti-inflammatory supplements which may help to calm and soothe the gut lining include omega-3 EPA, aloe vera and liquorice.”
After all aggravating foods have been eliminated from your diet, it is important to concentrate on feeding the cells lining your digestive system and to keep inflammation down in order to promote healing. Cells lining the digestive tract require the amino acid glutamine to be able to replenish themselves, so ensure you take a supplement containing glutamine. The powder form mixed with water is ideal, to maximise exposure to cells if your digestive system is not strong enough to break down supplement tablets.
To control inflammation, consider anti-inflammatory foods like vegetables and oily fish, which are rich in antioxidants and omega-3 EPA fats. Anti-inflammatory supplements which may help to calm and soothe the gut lining include omega-3 EPA, aloe vera and liquorice. Ideally you need 1000mg omega-3 EPA per day to have a therapeutic effect on reducing inflammation, such as Igennus Pharmepa: Step 1, derived from sustainable wild anchovies.
If a digestive stool analysis identifies an infection, such as a bacterial imbalance, probiotics or other supplements specific to eliminating other types of pathogens may be beneficial.
After following a 2-4 month gut healing protocol, you should be able to slowly introduce foods again. To prevent recurring leaky gut, keep inflammation at a controlled low level through diet and supplements, and limit consumption of foods or drinks that you know cause irritation to you.
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