Leaky Gut Syndrome


It is now known that a prerequisite to developing an autoimmune condition is the development of Leaky Gut Syndrome (LGS).  LGS is a particularly harmful condition in which your intestinal wall becomes damaged and permeable to deadly toxins that leak out of the intestines into the bloodstream.  When this happens, your immune system recognizes these as foreign invaders and begins to fight them.  As this continually happens, your immune system becomes overworked and you become more susceptible to infection.  Additionally, the immune system loses the ability to distinguish self from the foreign invader and can start to attack your organs and tissues.

Gut Health

It seems that everywhere I go the most common questions I get have to do with Leaky Gut.  This seems fitting given that gut health is probably the biggest and most important factor for your general health and wellbeing. 

Consider the following:

  1. Your gut is responsible for up to 80% of your immune system.
  2. Your gut is responsible for protecting you against pathogens including parasites, bacteria, viruses, yeast and fungi.
  3. Your gut is responsible for the production of many neurotransmitters, therefore, affecting mood.
  4. Your gut is responsible for proper digestion and absorption of nutrients needed to supply the body with the required building blocks for energy, growth, and repair.

It is now believed that gut health is responsible for up to 90% of chronic health conditions, including autoimmune diseases.  Many people, including medical professionals, fail to make the connection between chronic disease and gut health.  I cannot overstate the importance of identifying and correcting Leaky Gut before you develop serious health conditions or disease.

So what exactly is Leaky Gut?

The intestinal lining is the first mechanism of defense for our immune system.  The outer layers of intestinal cells (epithelial cells) are connected to form tight junctions.  At the tips of these cells are the microvilli, which absorb properly digested nutrients and transport them through the epithelial cell and into the bloodstream.  During the normal process of digestion, the tight junctions stay closed forcing all molecules to be screened and only pass into the bloodstream through the mucosa cells.   When these tight junctions become damaged, they open and allow larger molecules to flow directly into the bloodstream.   Think of how a screen door keeps insects out of the house.  When the screen is cut or torn, unwanted insects can freely enter the house.

Why are tight junctions so important?

Once the intestinal lining becomes permeable (Leaky Gut), bacteria, viruses, and larger undigested food molecules can move freely from the intestines into the bloodstream.  When this happens, your body recognizes these as “foreign” invaders and the immune system goes into full attack mode.  However, since very often these foreign invaders may be foods you are eating every day, the immune system cannot keep up and these substances are absorbed into tissues throughout the body causing them to inflame.

Now that your body is inflamed and the immune system is involved, the process can lead to your body attacking itself and the development of an array of autoimmune diseases such as Chronic Fatigue, IBS, Ulcerative Colitis, Fibromyalgia, arthritis and MS, just to name a few.

Additionally, when you have a Leaky Gut, the microvilli along the intestinal lining become damaged and cannot manufacture the digestive enzymes needed to properly digest food.  This results in improperly digested food getting into the bloodstream leading to food sensitivities and intolerances.

What causes Leaky Gut?

In the last article, we gave an overview of Leaky Gut and the impact it has on our overall health.  Today I would like to cover common causes of Leaky Gut and what to do about it. 

  1. Diet: The consumption of large amounts of processed foods including refined sugars, preservatives, refined flour, chemicals and artificial flavorings can overwhelm the digestive system.  These chemicals are toxins and their overconsumption leads to toxic buildup resulting in inflammation.  (We discussed the effects of inflammation in the previous article).
  1. Inflammation: Inflammation is important in Leaky Gut since inflammation in the intestines causes Leaky Gut and once the gut becomes leaky, it contributes to inflammation in other parts of the body.  Common causes of inflammation in the gut include toxins, improperly digested food as a result of low stomach acid and/or low digestive enzymes, Candida overgrowth, bacterial overgrowth, or parasites.
  1. Chronic Stress: This is a very common cause and unfortunately one of the most difficult to address.  Chronic stress almost always results in a suppressed immune system.  A weak immune system can easily be overrun by pathogens.  Additionally, high levels of cortisol (the stress hormone) have an adverse effect on the intestinal lining.

Not only does stress affect the physiological function of the gut, but it has been shown to cause changes in the composition of the gut microbiota, possibly due to changes in neurotransmitter and inflammatory cytokine levels.   Research has found that exposure to stress leads to an overgrowth of certain types of bacteria while also reducing microbial diversity.  This can lead to GERD, peptic ulcer disease, IBS, food allergies or intolerances and the full array of Leaky Gut conditions.

  1. Medications: Many prescription and over-the-counter medications can damage the intestinal lining leading to Leaky Gut.  The most common medications that contribute to Leaky Gut include non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs like aspirin, ibuprofen and naproxen), prescription pain medicates (opiates), and oral antibiotics.
  1. Yeast: While yeast (usually Candida) is a part of our normal gut flora, it often gets out of balance and can mutate into the hyphal form which grows tentacles that penetrate and punch holes into the intestinal lining. 
  1. Nutrient Deficiencies: The most common deficiency related to Leaky Gut appears to be Zinc.  Zinc plays a critical role in maintaining a strong intestinal lining.  Once Leaky Gut exists, nutritional deficiencies become more widespread because damaged intestinal microvilli do not properly absorb nutrients.

How to Heal Leaky Gut Syndrome

In this series, we've looked at the loss of function with Leaky Gut Syndrom (LGS) and its causes. In this third Leaky Gut Syndrome article, we will discuss approaches to healing LGS.  While LGS is very common and can lead to many chronic diseases including autoimmune disease, the good news is that it can usually be healed through a four-step process.

REMOVE

To successfully heal LGS you must first remove any factors that irritate or damage the gut.  This involves identifying and removing foods you have become intolerant or sensitive to.  The longer you have had LGS, the more extensive this list will be.  While blood tests are available for food sensitivities, the most economical and reliable method is to follow a food elimination diet.  There are also foods that are hard to digest and must be avoided while healing the gut even if you may not have an intolerance to them.  These include wheat, all gluten-containing foods (ex. many commercial sauces), soy, cow’s milk/cheese, sugar and highly processed foods (ex. ones containing preservatives, artificial flavors and colors).

Other potential causes of LGS that must be identified and removed to the extent possible include toxins, harmful bacteria or yeast, and some prescription medications (like aspirin and NSAIDs). However, do not eliminate any medications you have been placed on by your physician without first consulting them.

REPLACE

The next step is to replace the foods that were irritating or damaging the gut with healing foods. The most successful approach we have used incorporates the following foods:

Fermented vegetables – Kimchi and sauerkraut are good sources as they help balance the gut flora.
Bone broth – You can make your own or purchase a quality product. Make sure to use only organic sources.
Medium-chain fatty acids – A good source is to include some coconut oil in your food. Coconut kefir is another good source.
Omega-3 fatty acids – While healing you can consume sardines or take a pure fish oil supplement but avoid salmon unless you are confident it was wild-caught.
REPAIR

This is where high-quality supplements are important.  The most important supplements for healing LGS include L-Glutamine, digestive enzymes, NAG, DGL, vitamin-A, aloe vera, zinc, and quercetin.  These ingredients have the following benefits:

L-Glutamine – This is probably the most critical supplement in healing LGS. It is an essential amino acid, an anti-inflammatory, and the primary fuel source for enterocytes of the small intestines.  This is a great supplement for the growth and repair of the intestinal lining.

Digestive enzymes – These help ensure food is fully digested, providing more nutrition and reducing the chances that partially digested foods damage the gut wall and/or feed unhealthy bacteria.

NAG (N-acetyl D-Glucosamine) – This is a mucin precursor that has been shown to increase the production of mucus in the GI tract, which has a protective effect.

DGL (Deglycyrrhized Licorice) – This helps maintain the mucosal lining and balance cortisol levels. This is important if emotional stress is a contributor to LGS.

Aloe vera – This helps promote a normal inflammatory response.

Vitamin A – This has antioxidant properties that help prevent inflammation, provide immune support, and play a role in healing and tissue regrowth.

Zinc – This has been widely recognized for its role in gut health by helping strengthen tight junctions to seal the gut.

Quercetin – Has been shown to improve gut barrier function by sealing the gut through supporting the creation of tight junction proteins. It can also stabilize mast cells and reduce the release of histamine, which is important with food intolerances.

REBALANCE

This step is accomplished through the use of probiotics. It is extremely important to take a high-quality probiotic to replenish good bacteria and crowd out bad bacteria and candida.  Many people fail at healing LGS because they either take a poor-quality probiotic, low strength probiotic or discontinue the probiotic too soon.

We have mentioned a lot of supplements to heal LGS.  The product recommendations below combine many of these supplements into a few products, making them much less expensive and easier to take. An omega-3 supplement like OrthoMega 820 or EPA/DHA Essentials is not included below because you should already have them in your core daily supplements.

This is a very effective but general guide to healing LGS.  However, please remember that every person is unique and may require a slightly different approach.  If you hit obstacles or need help along the way, don’t forget about our coaching programs.

Vitopia supplement recommendations for healing LGS include the following. All are available in our store:

  • GlutaShield – This product is at the core of strengthening the gut barrier. It includes L-Glutamine, DGL, Aloe Vera, NAG, and Zinc.
  • Quercetin
  • Digestive Enzymes Ultra
  • Ortho-Biotic – We recommend starting with this probiotic when healing LGS. While it may be lower in some strains than some other products, it contains Saccharomyces Boulardii, which is beneficial in healing LGS.

Posted by Mike Woodley, R.Ph., FAARM, ABAAHP on


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