Leaky gut, or “intestinal permeability,” is a condition in which the lining of the small intestine becomes damaged. This causes undigested food particles, toxic waste products, and bacteria to “leak” through the intestines and flood the bloodstream.
The foreign substances entering the blood can cause an inflammatory response in the body. This leads to autoimmune disease, allergic reactions, migraines, irritable bowel, eczema, and chronic fatigue to name a few.
Understanding the Complexity of Leaky Gut Syndrome
With leaky gut, damaged cells in your intestines don’t produce the enzymes needed for proper digestion. As a result, your body cannot absorb essential nutrients, which can lead to hormone imbalances and a weakened immune system. The takeaway message here is that a leaky gut is the gateway to immune dysfunction.
Digestive disorders are becoming increasingly common today due to many contributing factors including (but not limited to) poor diet, autoimmunity, stress, neurological dysfunction, and hidden gut infections.
What Are The Main Causes of Leaky Gut Syndrome?
1) Neurological Dysfunction
Brain trauma, stroke, and neurodegeneration and brain inflammation are all major contributors to an unhealthy digestive tract. This is because the brain sends downstream signals to the organs that contribute to healthy digestion. These signals are sent from the brain to these organs and vice versa via a very important nerve called the Vagus nerve. The Vagus nerve carries signals from the brain that trigger critical digestive tasks including stomach acid secretion, intestinal motility, pancreatic enzyme release, and gallbladder contractions.
As you can imagine, healthy Vagal tone (or Vagus nerve function) is KEY to overall good digestion. (1) Therefore, many health problems can arise when the Vagus nerve is not properly firing into the digestive organs as illustrated below. Poor Vagal Tone Decreased Blood Flow to Intestines Leaky Gut Gut Flora Imbalances Inflammatory Cytokines Brain Inflammation
2) Foods In Diet
Foods that promote inflammation and act as a food source for pathogenic microorganisms are key contributors to a leaky gut. These include alcohol, wheat/gluten, casein, processed vegetable oils, refined sugars, refined grains, fast foods, and many processed/convenient foods purchased at the grocery store.
Research by Alessio Fasano confirms that the hybridization and deamidation of modern wheat contributes to a leaky gut. This occurs by affecting proper functioning of zonulin proteins, which are proteins that serve as a barrier by connecting your intestinal cells to one another. When zonulin proteins are malfunctioning, undigested foods and other unwanted substances escape into your bloodstream where they promote an inflammatory response.
The casein protein in dairy can cross-react with gluten (in other words, be mistaken as gluten by the body) and therefore also contribute to inflammatory responses. Alcohol, refined sugars, and refined grains are major food sources for pathogenic flora including yeast, parasites, and bacteria. Beneficial microorganisms are key in regard to maintaining a healthy gut barrier, so any imbalance contributes to an unhealthy intestinal lining.
Processed vegetable oils are typically treated with high heat/chemicals. Before you purchase them at the store and are also high in inflammatory promoting Omega-6 fats. Fast foods and convenient foods are also loaded with Omega-6 inflammatory fats in addition to gluten and dairy.
When stress is perceived by the brain, the sympathetic response (fight or flight) is triggered. The response that is needed for good digestion is the reaction of the parasympathetic (rest & digest).
Stress leads to a decrease in small intestine transit time, GERD, IBS, and dysbiosis (imbalanced gut flora). Stress also triggers inflammation via the cortisol response, which hurts the brain. This in turn, can cause more stress and consequently, more inflammation.(1)
Gut infections including H. Pylori, Yeast Overgrowth, Parasites, Intestinal Viruses, and other Bacteria overgrowths strongly contribute to a leaky gut. Think of the gut flora as the gatekeeper of the intestinal tract. Beneficial microorganisms are constantly producing enzymes, vitamins, and lactic acid to nourish the intestinal lining and keep pathogens at bay.
When the flora becomes imbalanced, pathogenic flora dominate over the beneficial flora. In this scenario, the intestinal tract is deprived of specific enzymes/vitamins that it needs to thrive, causing it to begin to malfunction.
One of the major causes of imbalanced gut flora is hypochlorhydria (low stomach acid). Stomach acid is essential for destroying pathogens in the food, pre-digesting proteins/fats/carbs, and stimulating gallbladder contractions as well as pancreatic enzyme release.
Therefore, low stomach acid allows pathogens from food to thrive in the body, compromises initial digestion of macronutrients, and slows the intestinal transit time. This happens due to the poor pancreatic enzyme release and poor gallbladder contractions. In addition to hypochlorhydria, imbalances in gut flora are also caused by neurological dysfunction, poor diet, stress, and certain medications (see below).
Certain medications also contribute to a leaky gut by several different mechanisms. These include antibiotics, antacids, NSAID’s, chemotherapy, corticosteroids, and xenobiotics.
If the word antibiotic were dissected, what would be left is the phrase: “Against-Life”. In other words, antibiotics do not just destroy pathogenic flora, they are targeted to destroy ANY flora, including your beneficial flora! Chronic antibiotic use leads to major imbalances in the gut microbiome, thus contributing to a leaky gut.
Antacids work by decreasing the amount of acid produced by your stomach. As described above, low stomach acid compromises digestion and allows pathogenic flora from ingested food to thrive in the body.
Chronic use of Corticosteroids and NSAID’s (non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs) can contribute to degradation of the GI tract, thus causing internal bleeding. Chemotherapy works by destroying the most rapidly dividing cells in the human body.
While cancer cells fall into this category, the intestinal cells are also one of the most rapidly dividing cells in the body as well. Lastly, xenobiotics (ie. Bisphenol-A or BPA found in certain canned linings and plastics) trigger inflammatory processes in the body which contribute to more gut inflammation.
EVERY cell in the human body requires thyroid hormone (T3) to function properly, including your intestinal cells! Lack of thyroid hormone causes the intestinal lining to weaken, leading to ulcerations.
Hormonal deficiencies in estrogen, progesterone, and testosterone can also contribute to a leaky gut. A lack of estrogen can cause the tight junctions that link intestinal cells to weaken, leading to paracellular leaky gut. Progesterone is needed to protect the lining of the small intestines, while a testosterone deficiency will delay healing of the intestinal lining (2).
Certain metabolic processes in the human body are known to contribute to leaky gut. These include AGE’s (Advanced Glycation End Products), autoimmune conditions, and intestinal inflammation itself! AGE’s are produced as a result of chronically elevated blood sugar levels.
When the blood glucose (sugar) is chronically high, the glucose will bind to proteins and form molecules called AGE’s. These AGE’s are very damaging and can stick to arteries, organs, and even gut tissue, thus promoting the breakdown of the gut lining. An autoimmune condition occurs when the human body mistakes specific substances (chemicals, foods, pathogens) for its own tissues.
A very common site for autoimmune attack are TTG2 enzymes (tissue transglutaminase 2 enzymes) found in the gut. TTG2 enzymes have the function of maintaining a healthy gut barrier. Consequently, autoimmunity to these enzymes contributes to an unhealthy gut lining, leading to intestinal permeability.
When the gut is inflamed, a vicious cycle is created. Gut inflammation causes the release of cytokines (chemical messengers) throughout the body. Cytokines that reach the brain can cause malfunctioning of the Vagus nerve, and thus low Vagal tone. Low Vagal tone leads to decreased blood flow to the gut and gut dysbiosis, both of which contribute to a leaky gut.
What Does Leaky Gut Syndrome Tell Us About Gut Health?
Digestive disorders or problems with gut health are common reasons for doctor office visits. In the traditional medical/gastroenterology world the solution is one of two things: medication or surgery. Unfortunately the underlying causes can be left without resolution. Tests done such as endoscopies / colonoscopies may rule out life threatening illnesses, but don’t look at the underlying function of the digestive tract.
With functional medicine, testing is done to look at bodily malfunctions such as, food sensitivities, gut infections. poor gut microbiome, pH balance, pancreatic, stomach and gallbladder function, brain-gut connection and many others. In most cases, natural therapies can be done to restore the function.
Even the father of medicine, Hippocrates, said “look to the gut there you will find the root of almost all human illness”.
Please request more information on how functional medicine may apply to your specific condition, make sure to contact us at Beyer Natural Health Solutions today.