Have you heard of ‘leaky gut’ syndrome? Could you have it? Squirm-worthy name aside, the condition – which has been ignored by conventional medicine for quite some time – is finally being recognised, and for good reason.
With increasing research, leaky gut is being linked to a host of chronic health issues, from digestive problems and acne, to autoimmune diseases, thyroid concerns and depression.
Leaky gut refers to a condition where the intestinal lining becomes increasingly permeable, allowing unwanted substances to enter the bloodstream. In the conventional medical world it may be referred to as, ‘intestinal hyper-permeability’, ‘compromised intestinal integrity’, or ‘LPS passage’ (LPS refers to endotoxins which can enter the body as a result of leaky gut).
“The lining of our intestines is made up of a single layer of cells that are tightly packed together – with ‘tight junctions’ between them. This lining is essential as it protects the internal environment of our body from many undesirable products that may be consumed within our food,” says Bioceuticals Dietitian and Education Manager, Belinda Reynolds.
The issue arises when the gut lining becomes damaged and these junctions are loosened. “Once ‘leaky,’ the lining begins to be less selective in regards to what it grants entry into the body,” says Reynolds. Substances that should remain in the gut – like toxins, microbes and undigested food particles – begin to pass through into the bloodstream, triggering an immune response.
“The immune reaction is often only quite mild, however if the gut leakiness persists, so too does the immune reaction. The result is chronic inflammation, which can manifest in many different ways depending upon your genetic predisposition and other imbalances/depletions that may be present in your body.”
To find out more about chronic inflammation, including its cause, effects and treatment, read here.
A diet high in inflammatory food is believed to be a culprit, and gluten certainly gets the pointed finger. Research conducted by the Mucosal Biology Research Centre found that humans are unable to digest gliadin (the protein found in gluten), which can cause intestinal permeability whether you’re coeliac or not. Studies also suggest that inflammatory compounds formed through cooking or processing foods at high temperatures, called AGEs (advanced glycation end products), may play a role.
“Having the balance in your gut bacteria out of kilter can be a big contributor to leaky gut. With the excessive use of antibiotics, the over-sanitisation of our environment, the lack of fibre in many diets, the high use of the pill, and the chronic stress everyone seems to experience, it’s no wonder that many end up with compromised gut integrity (as all of these things impact bacteria balance, thus contributing to a leaky gut),” says Reynolds.
For now there seems to be no consensus on a singular cause for increasing intestinal permeability. Instead, it may prove to be a culmination of factors as many go hand in hand and are linked to overall poor lifestyle choices.
According to Lee Holmes, author of Heal Your Gut, “the way to heal the gut involves a dual focus: improving the balance of good bacteria in the gut, and healing the intestinal walls to decrease intestinal permeability.”
This can largely be done through diet and lifestyle choices. Leaky gut treatment plans often recommend avoiding inflammatory foods including gluten and alcohol, decreasing stress, and limiting external toxins and antibiotics. Along with this, one needs to repopulate and rebalance their gut bacteria. To do so, one should eat probiotic-rich foods, follow an anti-inflammatory diet and consume only unprocessed, whole foods.