Bloating, cramps, flatulence, fatigue and sensitivity to food are all symptoms that effect millions of us on a daily basis - and there is now a medically proposed condition labelled as ‘Leaky Gut Syndrome’ or ‘increased intestinal permeability’ which could be held responsible for our discomfort. But there is so much that scientists don’t know or understand about the gut and the microbiome within it.
The main function of the gut is to absorb nutrients from food. However, the gut also has another important function – to keep harmful things such as bacteria (good as well as bad), toxins, and food antigens (inflammatory agents) out and away from the rest of the body. The intestinal barrier basically separates the gut content from the body. It is made of a single layer of cells (epithelial cells, sensing cells, and cells that produce enzymes and neurotransmitters). These are linked by ‘tight junction proteins.’
The lining of your intestines acts as a 4000 square foot barrier that walls the gut off from the bloodstream. It only lets small things pass through, like digested nutrients and water molecules. It is able to regulate this process because of a special cellular seal known as a tight junction, the outer layers of two adjacent cells fuse together.
So, what is this syndrome and what can cause it?
Leaky gut is caused when the tight junctions open and intestinal permeability increases. Some scientists think that when the gut is leaky, gut bacteria and their products may escape the gut, which could potentially produce inflammation and cause tissue damage. Similarly, food-derived antigens (proteins or partially digested proteins) could pass through the gut and promote both local or whole-body immune responses. This happens when the seals weaken, also known as intestinal permeability. The leaks are typically too small for bacteria to pass into the bloodstream.
But, some substances can pass flow through the barrier including:
o partially digested food
o toxins on their way to be excreted
o pieces of bacteria
o smaller microorganisms such as viruses (which feed on the bacteria)
These substances don’t do the damage on their own. But, when the body identifies them, they are seen as signs of an invasion or infection. The bodies response to this is to trigger a defence. The immune system jumps into action, causing inflammation throughout the body. Inflammation is the body’s way of locating and eliminating potential invaders and removing any damaged tissue. However, in autoimmune diseases, the immune system misidentifies healthy cells as foreign invaders — making inflammation dangerous to the healthy tissues in the body.
So, lets look at the effects of Leaky Gut Syndrome:
o Food Sensitivity
o Auto Immune Disease
o Skin problems (acne, inflammation etc)
o Thyroid Issues
However, none of these symptoms are specific and they can all have alternative causes. In addition, some sceptics feel that leaky gut is likely to be only a symptom of some of the conditions listed above (e.g. IBS) and not a valid medical condition.
In an article written by Biljana Novkovic, PhD, it states that ‘With an intact gut, the immune system should not be exposed to the gut content. Therefore, there shouldn’t be a
lot of antibodies against foods. By inference, if you have a lot of antibodies against various foods, you likely have some intestinal permeability’. To me this makes perfect sense, if
we look at the effects above, they are all coinciding with many intolerances involving the guts ability to process successfully.
Alcohol, diets high in fibre and low in saturated fat, and stress can all alter the microbiome. High-fat and high-additive diets change the microbiome to encourage gut permeability and inflammation, according to some studies. Research published in 2015 in ‘Autoimmunity Reviews’ suggested that the increasing use of food additives may be to blame for the rise in autoimmune conditions. “Glucose, salt, emulsifiers, organic solvents, gluten, microbial transglutaminase, and nanoparticles are extensively and increasingly used by the food industry, claim the manufacturers, to improve the qualities of food.
However, all of the aforementioned additives increase intestinal permeability by breaching the integrity of tight junction paracellular transfer.” Further studies have also explored the role of diet on intestinal permeability. A study published in the ‘American Journal of Physiology’ saw the diet effect in action by giving young soldiers in Norway special rations during a military exercise. 73 people participated in the study. They received normal rations, protein-enhanced rations, or additional carbohydrate supplements during a 4-day cross country ski march. The soldiers volunteered stool & urine samples before and after the exercise and their microbiomes were investigated. The test results found that diet, and the resulting gut microbiota, increased the intestinal permeability following the physiologically stressful exercise. The researchers concluded that “targeting the intestinal microbiota could provide novel strategies for preserving IP during physiological stress.”
As we know, non steroid anti-inflammatory drugs such as Asprin & Ibuprofen are irritants to the gut which can cause damage to the lining between the cells. But what other diseases can affect the gut? There is a long list of chronic illnesses such as Inflammatory bowel disease, Crohn’s disease, Celiac’s disease, Chronic kidney disease, HIV/AIDS, Cystic fibrosis, Type 1 diabetes and Sepsis to name just a few. Medical treatments such as chemotherapy, radiotherapy, immunosuppressants, and abdominal surgery can also cause microbiome and gut damage as well as ageing.
Can we help our Leaky Gut Syndrome with our diet? The answer is yes! The best place to start in repairing your gut in primarily by what you put in it – this makes sense right!
So, reducing alcohol intake is top of my nutritionists list, followed by cutting out processed foods and increasing your fibre intake. Try adding anti-inflammatory foods to your diet, a great example of these are berries, oily fish, broccoli, turmeric, peppers & avocados.
Lectins are proteins which are mainly found in seeds, nuts & potatoes. Although beneficial for stimulating the immune system, these are also known to bind to the surface of the gut lining cells and disturb the barrier. When this happens bacterial & dietary inflammatory agents can leak into the blood stream and activate the immune system.
In human gut cells, some dietary sources of lectins such as wheat may directly open tight junctions by increasing zonulin. However, the degree of this created intestinal permeability is much higher in gut cells from people with celiac disease compared to gut cells obtained from healthy people.
Sometimes an elimination diet is offered to identify foods / food groups which are triggers to gut related illnesses.
Research suggests that stress hormones can increase intestinal permeability and cause inflammation. A study in 23 healthy volunteers, showed that stress from giving a public speech, measured as an increase in the stress hormone cortisol, increased gut permeability. A study in France in February 2014 by Moussaoui N et al, shows that maternal separation and other types of stress increase intestinal permeability in rats. In addition, rats who experienced maternal separation in youth are also more prone to leaky gut when they experience social stress as adults.
Another possible cause for Leaky Gut Syndrome is Injury. There have been many studies exploring this and below are some shocking results.
In June 1998 A human study in 29 intensive care patients by Faries PL et al, showed that there is increased intestinal permeability 72 to 96 hours after trauma. The more severe the injury, the greater the increase in gut permeability. In the same study, patients with a larger increase in intestinal permeability were at a higher risk of whole-body inflammation, multiple organ disfunction and infections.
With the effects of modern life clearly taking its toll on our gut health – we are responsible for taking steps to help heal ourselves from the inside out. Holistic living is the perfect way to do this and making a few subtle changes here & there can dramatically increase the quality of our physical & mental health.
Mindful eating is the perfect example to this. Really look at where your food comes from, what ingredients are included (and how many of these do you recognise!). By doing this you will automatically exclude most processed foods which are high in sugar and fats. The gut walls contain over 100 million neurons which is more than the spinal cord and transmit serotonin and dopamine which control our mood – by eating mindfully we can change the way we feel and think! This also helps to reduce stress levels, thus impacting on gut health.
This can also be achieved by meditation, by doing so for just 10 minutes a day – levels of anger, stress, fatigue and anxiety are measurably lowered. That’s a win win all round!