Leaky gut is a slang expression for intestinal permeability. It’s gained some notoriety over the last few years, and for good reason.
I speak of it often, but it’s worth further explanation along with these useful images to help illustrate exactly what the issues are.
When we talk about the mucosal barrier we are essentially talking about the lining of the small intestine. It’s the organ between the stomach and the large intestine. It runs about 18-21 feet. It’s where 90 % of our nutrient breakdown and absorptions occurs. If there’s any disruption within the small intestine we can have significant and cascading problems in our body as a whole.
If you look at the image you’ll see we have a single layer of cells called enterocytes that line the barrier.
They are held together by tight junctions. Then there are finger like projections called villi and micro villi.
This barrier has a few functions. It provides a physical barrier between the environment and us.
It runs from the mouth to the anus, and it’s exposed to everything we drink, eat, viruses, bacteria, parasites etc. It protects our body from those things that don’t belong in your blood stream.
But it’s also responsible for breaking down our macro nutrients (carbs, fats, proteins) and breaking them down into micro nutrients so they are small enough to be absorbed through the microvilli.
Anything that is larger is not supposed to get through.
We also have an additional defense system beyond the physical barrier, we also have a chemical barrier. We have enzymes in our saliva and acid in our stomach that combat viruses and bacteria that enter our body. There’s also enzymes in the villi that allow food to be broken down and transported.
In addition, the mucosal barrier produces Segretory IGA. It’s there to protect against things that shouldn’t come into the bloodstream. Immunoglobulin A is an antibody that plays a crucial role in the immune function of mucous membranes. sIgA acts as the ‘first line of defence’ helping to protect against the entrance of foreign substances or organisms into the body such bacteria, viruses, fungi, parasites and food particles. The amount of IgA produced in association with mucosal membranes is greater than all other types of antibody combined.If things aren’t functioning properly, your immune system begins to downgrade.
There are several hidden stressors that compromise the gut barrier. Pharmaceuticals, antibiotics, parasites, environmental toxins, eating foods you have sensitivities to, chronic stress (physical or emotional). To little hydrochloric acid, and not enough digestive enzymes could also be triggers that cause inflammation and eventually intestinal permeability.
These hidden stressors lead to the tight junctions being separated. Then things that aren’t supposed to get to the bloodstream do get through. The body knows these things are not supposed to be there and they are tagged as pathogens. Once they are tagged as pathogenic, the body creates antigens against them. So even something as benign as an apple can be attacked – leading to a food sensitivity for that particular food. Each time you eat it, the body will remember it, because it’s already produced antigens against it. If the gut is not healed, this process continues, you will develop more sensitivities, and eventually autoimmune disease.
Your villi will also get blunted due to the inflammation, and shrink. Then your brush border is blunted, and you’re not able to waive freely and absorb nutrients. Picture grass after something heavy has been laying on top of it. When you remove the object, the grass is flat. So even if you’re eating a healthy diet, the nutrients aren’t getting absorbed. Then you get vitamin, and nutrient deficiencies, further leading to fatigue, aches, pains and autoimmunity if this all goes on for too long because the body can no longer distinguish between what is good and what is bad.
When you have leaky gut, you also have LEAKY BRAIN! Here’s where we see all sorts of degenerative neurological issues arise, including Alzheimers, and just plain old forgetfulness that people correlate with normal aging. It’s really not a part of “normal” aging, but it will without a doubt happen if the gut isn’t treated with the respect and love it serves. The brain is protected by the same type of epithelial cells that protect our gut lining. The brain is protected by the same tight junctions that protect our gut lining. The Blood Brain Barrier, like our Mucosal Barrier, can be penetrated, and made permeable (or leaky), buy the same factors that make our guts leaky. When this happens, your brain is exposed to toxins, heavy metals, bacteria and more – all of which are supposed be on the other side of the blood brain barrier. A study published in 2006 in the Scandinavian Journal of Gastroenterology Journal found that gliadin which is a protein present in wheat and gluten increases zonulin; when zonulin increases, it makes the tight junctions more permeable preventing it from working properly leading to a leaky gut and a leaky brain. I need to add this in because it’s a major issue for those of us who want to maintain healthy blood brain and gut barriers -even if you test negatively for a gluten allergy or sensitivity. Meaning – there’s no correlation between having a gluten allergy and sensitivity and they damage it causes the gut. It will happen either way if you routinely consume gluten.
Eliminating hidden stressors, food sensitivities, gluten, and adding in more of what the gut and brain barriers need can turn it all around. For some people they’ll notice big changes in digestion, bloating, brain fog, headaches etc in a few weeks, for others it could take a few months. If you don’t fully test to know what’s going on, it’s more difficult to heal. Parasites, and pathogenic bacteria is extremely prevalent, so if those issues aren’t addressed, the dietary changes won’t work. You have to dig deep to find these things. That’s why they’re called “hidden” stressors. It’s often why people get frustrated when they try new diets, and make major lifestyle changes but aren’t seeing or feeling results.
In the meantime, things like colostrum, aloe, glutamine, marshmallow root, and slippery elm can all help. Drinking bone broth is also very healing to the gut, as well as taking Restore for Gut Health.