Leaky gut syndrome: What is it?
The expression “leaky gut” is getting a lot of attention in medical blogs and social media lately, but don’t be surprised if your doctor does not recognize this term. Leaky gut, also called increased intestinal permeability, is fairly new, and most of the research occurs in basic sciences. However, there is a growing interest to develop medications that may be used in patients to combat the effects of this problem.
Inside our bellies, we have an extensive intestinal lining covering more than 4,000 square feet of surface area. When working properly, it forms a tight barrier that controls what gets absorbed into the bloodstream. An unhealthy gut lining may have large cracks or holes, allowing partially digested food, toxins, and bugs to penetrate the tissues beneath it. This may trigger inflammation and changes in the gut flora (normal bacteria) that could lead to problems within the digestive tract and beyond. The research world is booming today with studies showing that modifications in the intestinal bacteria and inflammation may play a role in the development of several common chronic diseases.
Who gets a leaky gut (and why)?
We all have some degree of leaky gut, as this barrier is not completely impenetrable (and isn’t supposed to be). Some of us may have a genetic predisposition and may be more sensitive to changes in the digestive system, but our DNA is not the only one to blame. Modern life may actually be the main driver of gut inflammation. There is emerging evidence that the modern diet, which is low in fiber and high in sugar and saturated fats, may initiate this process. Heavy alcohol use and stress also seem to disrupt this balance.
We already know that increased intestinal permeability plays a role in certain gastrointestinal conditions such as celiac disease, Crohn’s disease, and irritable bowel syndrome. The biggest question is whether or not a leaky gut may cause problems elsewhere in the body. Some studies show that leaky gut may be associated with other autoimmune diseases (lupus, type 1 diabetes, multiple sclerosis), chronic fatigue syndrome, fibromyalgia, arthritis, allergies, asthma, acne, obesity, and even mental illness.
Although it is unusual to hear the term “increased intestinal permeability” in most doctors’ offices, alternative and integrative medicine practitioners have worked on gut healing as an initial step to treat chronic diseases for decades. A common initial step some practitioners take is to remove foods that can be inflammatory and could promote changes in the gut flora. Among the most common are alcohol, dairy, processed foods, animal meats, certain medications, and any foods that may cause allergies or sensitivities. In our practice, we often see clients improve significantly when they start eating a healthier diet. Controversy still exists on whether leaky gut causes the development of diseases outside the gastrointestinal tract in humans. However, it is always a good idea to eat a nutritious, unprocessed diet that includes foods that help quell inflammation (and avoids foods known to trigger inflammation), which may, at least in theory, help to rebuild the gut lining and bring more balance to the gut flora.