Author: Lily Mazzarella
A leaky what?
This common condition can arise for a number of reasons. Does it affect you?
A leaky gut, defined. In order to survive, to build and repair our tissues, and to run our cellular processes, we must absorb nutrients from our broken down food across the intestinal lining, into our bloodstream (keep in mind the digestive tract is technically outside the body). At the same time, we must keep out a plethora of microbial waste products, toxins, and other undesirables. Our intestinal cells exhibit a unique architecture to help determine what comes in, and what stays out: their "cytoskeletons" are linked together by intricately regulated tight junctions which allow for selective uptake of the contents of our GI tracts.
Simply put, abnormal intestinal permeability arises when the tight junctions between these cells loosen, allowing for large, immune-confounding particles to be absorbed into the bloodstream. These can wreak havoc on many of the body's tissues, including the liver, the thyroid, the skin, the joints, and the brain itself.
- Fatty liver
- Joint pain and inflammation
- Autoimmune diseases
- Thyroid issues
- Systemic inflammation
- Mood disorders (depression, anxiety, schizophrenia)
These are all substantiated by scientific research. In my practice, I have also seen leaky gut contribute to low energy, hyperactivity, anxiety, brain fog, multiple food sensitivity syndrome, acne and boils, rashes, diffuse itching, and insomnia. When I look at the results of my clients' food sensitivity/food allergy testing and EVERYTHING comes back positive, I suspect leaky gut.
Many factors influence these tight junctions, and we're learning more about them every day. Besides genetics, there are a number of common factors that have been shown to impact intestinal integrity. (Our modern world is pretty hard on the intestinal lining!)
You may have a leaky gut if:
- You have vitamin D or zinc deficiency (both very common!)
- You've been drinking heavily
- You have been under a lot of stress
- You have food sensitivities or allergies, and are either unaware of them, or continue to eat the food
- You've had undiagnosed gluten intolerance or celiac disease
- You take Advil, aspirin, Motrin or other NSAIDs on a regular basis
- You've been on antibiotics or chemotherapy
- You have been eating foods that contain emulsifiers or food grade surfactants (very common!)
- You have been eating processed foods high in fructose and poor quality fats
- You've had an intestinal infection: eg, food poisoning, norovirus, parasites
- You have a candida overgrowth
- You have a mast cell activation disorder or histamine sensitivity
How to heal a leaky gut
A leaky gut often means you need to heal something else first. That said, the abnormally permeable intestinal lining participates in a vicious cycle, and needs to be addressed directly as well.
Ask your healthcare practitioner if a leaky gut test (available from Genova diagnostics) might be appropriate for you. I have found these to be useful in some situations, but since the condition can be transient and episodic (as with histamine sensitivity, binge drinking, and bouts of stress), the test can miss it. Often, clinical history and presentation is enough to go on.
Find out if you have a vitamin D deficiency. If you do, correct it! The low end of the vitamin D range is too low, in my opinion, and a D deficiency could undermine your best efforts to get your leaky gut under control. I like folks to aim for a blood level of 55-65. I suggest a maintenance dose of 1000-5000 IU per day depending upon your vitamin D requirements.
Consider supplementing with zinc, since deficiency is common and zinc may improve abnormal intestinal permeability. I suggest zinc carnosine if gastritis, ulcers, or H. pylori infection are present.
Take L-glutamine on an empty stomach, 2-3 x day. This amino acid is the preferred food of your intestinal cells, and has been shown to reduce gastrointestinal inflammation. I have seen great results with RepairVite™, a wonderfully soothing, glutamine-containing powder that is part of The Gut and Stress Soother Kit.
Herbal Allies: Teas of calendula, marshmallow and gotu kola, and extracts of licorice can be used to support the intestinal mucosa.
Do a "4R" gut-healing program like The Gut and Stress Soother Cleanse. Download the cleanse to read all about it. The basic premise is to remove dietary irritants, which gives you the best opportunity to repair your troubled gut lining. You also re-inoculate with friendly flora, and then re-introduce foods to see which ones provoke gut discomfort.
What to stay away from
- Avoid emulsifiers (found in nut milks and many processed and "health" foods).
- Avoid high sugar/fructose and poor quality fats that have been heated to high temperatures. Think: fast food, packaged baked goods, fried foods, soda…
- Avoid use of NSAIDs. If you have joint pain or other inflammation, try Curcumin, an anti-inflammatory extract from turmeric. It helps many people with joint and other inflammatory pain, and may help reduce gut inflammation!
- Don't drink alcohol until your gut lining is healed up. If you do, drink it with food, and in moderation. Just one night of heavy drinking can alter your intestinal permeability!
- Avoid gluten while you're trying to heal a leaky gut, even if you don't have a gluten intolerance or Celiac disease. Researchers at the University of Maryland found that gluten negatively impacts zonulin, a protein that controls tight junctions between intestinal cells, leading to increased intestinal permeability irrespective of celiac status.
Ready to start feeling better?
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