LEAKY GUT – Could this be hindering your path to optimal health?

Leaky gut

Know anyone who has any of these?

Depression, Mood swings, Weight problems, Irritable Bowel Symptoms, Headaches, Chronic Fatigue, , Cognitive/ Learning and Behavioural issues, Period problems, Skin problems, Allergies, Food intolerances, Poor immunity/Recurrent Infections, Arthritis, Autoimmune disease (including thyroid, ulcerative colitis and type 1 diabetes) …

These are just some of the conditions where there could be a “leaky gut”. There is often a complex interplay of factors involved, not just one thing affecting something else and vice versa.

We all know that gut health is paramount to our overall health- this has been central in many traditional medical practices around the World – and so is not a new concept. Thankfully, there has been much more publicity given to the gut in recent years.

Intestinal permeability (IP) which is how permeable the gut lining is- can be altered due to many factors, causing “leaky gut”. Basically, the gut lining becomes more porous than usual (gaps between the intestinal cells widen) so that things that normally would not get through (e.g bacteria, toxins, undigested food particles) are able to – and they get into the bloodstream thus able to cause reactions potentially anywhere in the body. As these chemicals get recirculated back into the circulation, it also stresses the liver more, creating even more toxins that then contribute towards a whole variety of symptoms. In addition, nutrient absorption is  also reduced – again contributing to various symptoms. So the cycle goes on. Symptoms continue and drugs often provide a temporary “plaster”.
What can cause leaky gut?

Infections– Bacteria/ endotoxins, parasites, yeast, SIBO (small intestinal bacterial overgrowth), intestinal viruses. Gut dysbiosis (imbalance of gut bugs) can not only cause changes in IP but the increased IP itself from non-infective/bacterial causes can contribute to dysbiosis. So, it is a two-way street. An alteration in the imbalance of so called “good” and “bad” bacteria can cause the gut wall to have less integrity and this can also make it easier for yeast like candida and parasites to thrive. Indeed, these latter two conditions are a sign of poor gut wall integrity as well as bacterial dysbiosis and hence it is important to look into this. (see previous article on “gut bugs”).

Wheat – and other food intolerances, dairy, lectins (in grains, legumes), sugar, alcohol, preservatives, artificial colourings, processed foods. FODMAP foods are a common cause of symptoms in IBS (see previous article on Flat tums and FODMAPs).

Stress– increased inflammatory mediators (cytokines) released during stressful times damages the gut lining.

Low stomach acid– Adequate amounts of acid are needed for proper digestion- if too low, then undigested food particles go through the small intestine, causing a reaction as they travel through. A common reason for perpetuating symptoms of “heart burn” or “reflux”  is that the medications given (e.g. omeprazole) reduces stomach acid even further, hence less digestion and the undigested particles continue to cause symptoms- food sensitivity/allergies  is not an uncommon reason for having such symptoms in the first place and certainly worthwhile to address.

Hormonal imbalance– an imbalance in thyroid hormones as well as the oestrogen/progesterone/testosterone can contribute towards leaky gut.

Nutrients– lack of certain nutrients can cause changes in IP. Eg vitamin D, omega 3, zinc all help with gut integrity so its important to ensure adequate amounts in the diet. Vitamin D measurement would also be relevant.

Autoimmune conditions– e.g. Thyroid disease, Ulcerative colitis, Type 1 diabetes.  This is a good example of where there can be at least a  two way street in that autoimmune disease can cause increased IP as well as increased IP being  a contributory factor to the development of the autoimmune disease.

Toxins– environmental toxins (e.g. mercury)  can directly damage the gut lining, especially in the absence of sufficient antioxidants needed to keep their levels low (e.g zinc, iron, selenium).

Pharmaceutical drugs e.g. steroids, antibiotics, antacids. Some drugs may have gluten as an ingredient. Paracetamol and aspirin can irritate the lining and cause a reduction in mucus levels (protective) and this can lead to further inflammation. They can also alter the intestinal microbiome and reduce the numbers of good bugs.

What you can do?

A proper assessment should be done  where a leaky gut is likely. This includes relevant investigations such as – blood tests, stool tests (for bacteria, parasites, yeast), food intolerance testing & toxins/heavy metals. The management is dependent on the individual’s situation and there is no “one size fits all”  and therefore not simple to give an exact treatment plan here. There are often many contributory factors in any condition so it is imperative to be thorough.
However, the basic points would be:
Diet– clean up the diet! That means the usual stuff you have probably read everywhere! No processed foods/junk food/fried foods, no refined sugar, no wheat (increases IP in virtually everyone) & no alcohol. Ensure adequate protein intake (approx. 1g/kg of body weight) and healthy unrefined carbs and vegetables, fruit, nuts/seeds and adequate hydration. Time needs to be given to allow the gut to heal first. Trying to do a detox and not “patching” things up a bit first could end up making you feel worse as the toxins just keep recirculating.

Medication – may need to remove any medications that could be a contributory cause – but only under medical supervision please!

Gut healing– nutrients and herbs to assist the gut to start healing. Important nutrients (obtained from diet as well as supplements) are- omega 3 oils, zinc, vitamin A and D, glutamine. Healing herbs include aloe vera, slippery elm, curcumin (turmeric).

Probiotics– Put simply, get the good bugs in to start working on your gut – they make important nutrients and help to crowd out the bad bugs.

Digestive enzymes– these can aid digestion by breaking down food particles so they do not irritate and cause inflammation in the gut. Natural digestive enzymes include bromelain and papain (from pineapple and papaya respectively). Further, apple cider vinegar with a meal can also give that extra acidity required for digestion in the stomach.

Emotions and Stress – Last but not least, CHILL OUT!
Address any emotional issues in your own time. Do whatever helps you to relax…meditation, yoga, tai chi, prayer, going to the beach or taking a bush walk.

“Foolish the doctor who despises the knowledge acquired by the ancients” – Hippocrates