The gut (a.k.a. digestive tract) is not just a tube that absorbs nutrients and gets rid of waste – it’s a complex alive system that’s a huge foundation of health. And not just gut health, but the overall health of our bodies and minds. We know how important it is to get all of our essential nutrients from food – and this is a big part of what our digestive tract does. But, there is way more to the story than just that.
When the gut is not working properly, symptoms can appear. Yes, typical gut and abdominal symptoms, but also other seemingly unrelated symptoms.
Did you know that things like allergies, autoimmunity, and mental health have been linked with gut problems?
Let’s look at one gut problem in particular (you may have heard about this lately) – leaky gut. This literally involves tiny “leaks” in our gut lining that can allow more than just needed nutrients and water into our bodies. Researchers are looking at this, and I want to share the latest with you, as well as give you some helpful strategies to optimize your gut health, for overall health!
What is “leaky gut” linked with?
The “gut” is part of the digestive system, mainly the intestines, which are located in the abdomen. It’s an alive and very complex “tube” that acts as a gateway deciding what will enter the internal circulation of the body, and what must not get by. It digests and absorbs nutrients and water. It prevents toxins and “bad” microbes from being absorbed. And it shuttles all the waste to continue on and be eliminated.
You may think that symptoms of a leaky gut (a.k.a. “intestinal permeability”) are felt in the gut, and you’re right…to a point. Would you be surprised to know that lots of other symptoms and conditions are linked with leaky gut?
Leaky gut has been associated with:
- Autoimmune diseases (e.g. Type I diabetes, Celiac disease, Hashimoto, etc.)
- Inflammatory Bowel Diseases (e.g. Ulcerative Colitis, Crohn’s)
- Psychological stress and mental health
- And more!
Researchers are still figuring out the exact role that leaky gut plays in these conditions. Either way, the connections are there, and there are things that you can definitely do to improve your gut health. But first, how is our gut structured, and what can promote it to leak?
Gut structure – Three layers of our gut lining
Our guts have a three-layer lining that helps to allow things we need in, and keep harmful things out.
The first (outermost) layer is just one-cell thick. It’s a barrier that absorbs the nutrients and water we need, and physically prevents undigested compounds, toxins, and bacteria from getting in. Laid out flat, this layer makes up the largest surface area between the internal circulation of our bodies and the outside world (i.e. what we eat and drink).
This layer has at least seven different types of cells, and 90% of them are one type called “enterocytes.” These enterocytes actively absorb what we need and keep out what we don’t. They also help to create and regulate the other two layers.
FUN FACT: Most enterocytes are replaced with new ones every 3-5 days or so.
Enterocytes are held together with different types of bonds. The one most studied is called a “tight junction.” These tight junctions are made up of several types of protein. When they loosen, it creates tiny holes (or permeations) in this first layer since the cells are not “stuck” together as much as they should be.
The second layer is mucus. This mucus provides physical separation between the outermost enterocyte layer and the microbes and food that are inside the centre, or “lumen,” of the gut. It also contains special proteins that help fight against invaders. This mucus and its special compounds are produced by the enterocytes.
We want that mucus layer to be nice and thick to provide a better barrier between the one-cell layer of enterocytes and protect them from “bad” bacteria that can get in there.
FUN FACT: Animal studies show that mice fed a diet low in fibre had thinner mucus barriers.
The third (innermost) layer inside our gut lining is our friendly resident gut microbes. Our guts contain billions of microbes – over 1 kg worth. Taken together, they’re sometimes referred to as a “superorganism.” These microbes include bacteria as well as other types of friendly microbes.
This layer of gut microbiota has two major functions to help promote a healthy gut lining:
- They crowd out “bad” bacteria by taking up space and eating the “good” food (i.e. fibre and resistant starch, which we’ll get into in a bit).
- They help to regulate the digestion and absorption of nutrients to nourish the first-layer enterocytes. One of the types of compounds they produce are called “short chain fatty acids” (SCFAs). These are considered to be anti-inflammatory and are also used as fuel for the enterocytes.
When the three layers aren’t working optimally, the tight junctions loosen, and leaks occur. This allows unwanted things to enter into the body’s circulation. This is how gut health affects our overall health.
Leaky Gut and our Gut Microbes
Our friendly gut microbes, the third innermost layer of our gut, include hundreds of types of microbes. Some of the main types of bacteria are Bacteroidetes and Firmicutes (e.g. Lactobacillus). We think problems with our gut microbes might actually begin the whole process of leaking guts.
According to Sturgeon and Fasano, 2016:
“It is now clear there is a symbiotic relationship between the microbiome and the host. As early as 2001, it was described that commensal bacteria have an effect on intestinal permeability.”
Here’s how we think this happens, based on the current research:
1. The third innermost layer of the gut lining, the microbiota, get out of balance.
2. Inflammatory molecules (including zonulin) are released, and fewer anti-inflammatory ones like SCFAs are available.
3. This inflammation disturbs the tight junctions in first layer of enterocytes, hence creating tiny leaks which allows passage of harmful compounds into our bodies.
It starts when the gut microbiota are in dysbiosis (an “imbalance” of “good” and “bad” microbes). This promotes an inflammatory response because some of the “bad” microbes are pushing out the “good” ones that produce the anti-inflammatory short chain fatty acids (SCFAs). SCFAs are anti-inflammatory and are also used as fuel by the enterocytes. Some of these SCFAs promote the production of the mucus layer (the second layer), and even help to improve the tight junctions in the enterocytes in the first layer. They produce the SCFAs when they eat fibre and resistant starch.
FUN FACT: One study looked at children who were at risk of developing type 1 diabetes (which is an autoimmune condition). Researchers found that some who had an increase in one of the “bad” microbes went on to develop autoimmunity months later which led to type 1 diabetes.
Another possibility that researchers are looking at is that some of these “bad” bacteria produce a toxin that mimics zonulin.
Zonulin is a protein naturally released by our enterocytes when they’re exposed to certain things we eat, like “bad” bacteria on our food and gliadin (part of the gluten protein found in wheat and other grains). Blood levels of zonulin tend to be higher in people with autoimmune conditions like celiac disease and type 1 diabetes.
All of this increased inflammation then irritates the gut, which can result in loosening of those tight junctions.
Based on the research so far, this is the way we think we develop leaky guts. But, how does this relate to autoimmunity?
Leaky Gut, Allergies, and Autoimmunity
Allergies and autoimmunity are directly linked to our immune system. They result when our immune system works a bit too hard – when our immune cells become a little too active.
Allergies occur when our immune system is activated to fight things that are not harmful, like certain foods, pollen, or pet dander. The body thinks they’re dangerous invaders that must be fought, and sends out immune cells that cause inflammation to try and eliminate the allergen.
Autoimmunity, on the other hand, is when our immune system is activated to fight our own cells and tissues. The immune system becomes “intolerant to self.” For example, type 1 diabetes (an autoimmune disease) occurs when our immune system fights the insulin-producing cells in our pancreas. After continued inflammation, enough of these cells die and we eventually need to start monitoring our own blood sugar levels and provide our bodies with external insulin. This occurs more often in people who have type 1 diabetes in their families.
Many things can contribute to autoimmunity, and leaky gut may be a bigger factor than we once thought. This is because of the impact of allowing undigested food, bacteria, etc. enter our bodies and how our immune system tries to fight them. A large part of our immune system is located just on the other side of that one-cell thick layer of enterocytes.
When our bodies detect things in our internal circulation that don’t belong (like undigested food or bacteria) our immune system kicks in. This immune response to things that “leaked” into our bodies can cause the release of even more inflammatory compounds this time inside our bodies and bloodstreams (i.e. on the other side of the first layer of enterocytes). The allergic and inflammatory responses that happen around our guts may affect the gut directly. But, once these are absorbed into the bloodstream, they can affect other parts of the body too.
This is the connection we see between leaky gut, allergies, and autoimmunity. It’s not just the leaky gut, it’s the interactions between what leaks into our bodies and our immune system’s response to them.
Having a healthy gut microbiota plays an important role in how our immune systems mature from when we were infants. Dysbiosis in our gut at an early age can promote changes in our immune response, and increase the risk of allergic and autoimmune diseases.
It seems that gut dysbiosis and “leaky gut” might be part of the chain of reactions that lead our immune cells to start attacking things they really don’t need to.
Leaky Gut and Mental Health
Stress and mental health issues are associated with inflammatory bowel diseases and leaky gut.
Stress hormones and moods can result in reduced levels of mood-boosting neurotransmitters in the brain and increase the risk of developing gut disorders, or flare ups of existing gut disorders. Several studies have found that patients with inflammatory gut conditions experienced worsening symptoms after stressful events. Chronic, or long-term, stress and depression is associated with more gut pain, leaky gut, and other inflammatory gut conditions like Crohn’s and ulcerative colitis. Stress can affect changes in the microbiota and the lining of the gut, and can further increase the gut inflammation.
In animals, studies show that being under stress increases their intestinal permeability and inflammation.
This is big news! Scary news. Just the fact that your body or mind is under stress will affect your gut health, regardless of any other inputs.
We used to think that the brain sent direction down to control all parts of our bodies. We’re learning that a lot of the communication between the gut and the brain starts in the gut and goes up to the brain. Several studies show that in about half of people studied, gut symptoms arose before the mood issues did.
People who have gut disorders have a higher risk of developing anxiety or depression. Sometimes experiencing symptoms like abdominal pain, bloating, and discomfort can affect the quality of life and moods of people who have inflammatory bowel disease.
Some animal models of the inflammatory gut condition colitis promoted behavioural changes that are similar to mood disorders in people. Also, mice given an SCFA called butyrate seemed to experience an antidepressant effect.
These links between the gut and mental health are because of the “microbiota-gut-brain axis.” This axis includes many connections between the two of them, including through our nerves and hormones.
When the areas of the brain associated with stress are activated, this initiates the stress response. The stress response is twofold. First, it includes the release of stress hormones (hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis – HPA axis) that go through the whole body. Second, it includes activation of the “fight or flight” (autonomic) part of the body’s nervous system. Both the hormones and autonomic nervous system affect the gut. And these can affect all three layers of the gut lining.
One of the key stress hormones of this HPA-axis is from the adrenal glands (the “A” in HPA). It’s the infamous stress hormone called cortisol. Cortisol is released into the bloodstream when we’re under stress. Cortisol directly affects the gut by reducing our ability to properly digest food, and instead prioritizes survival. It essentially prepares for “fight or flight” by slowing down the “rest and digest” functions.
FUN FACT: Mouse studies show that SCFAs may help to normalize the leakiness in not just our gut lining, but our “brain lining” (e.g. “blood-brain barrier”) too.
What You Can Do About Leaky Gut
The absolute #1 thing you must do before you can even begin to heal your leaky gut and affect a significant and positive change in your gut flora is to ensure that any overgrowth of bad bacteria (like candida) or any parasites are eliminated. Doing a digestive cleanse like my 30-day Candida Crush is ideal.
Eating clean and healthy is great, but if you’re not eliminating the root cause of the irritation and inflammation, it’s going to take a very long time to see results.
The majority of my clients come to see me due to digestive issues and I would estimate that 99% of them have an intolerance to probiotics.
Imagine trying to increase the good bacteria like probiotics when your body thinks they’re actually the bad guys? 😣
This is why my 30-Day Candida Crush Cleanse is so successful is because one of the steps in healing is using the BIE Process to help the body recognize the good bacteria so that it can actually start repopulating our gut flora and really heal! Sign up below for more information:
But not everyone with leaky gut has an infection. This can happen from past infections that have been eliminate but the gut not healed, or that the reason the gut is inflamed is from food intolerances.
Doing a food intolerance tasting is very helpful in undercovering the triggers for leaky gut. Through the BIE Process and my muscle testing, I go through a food intolerance test with all my clients.
Steps you can do now:
1. Clean Eating
Eat more fresh and whole foods. The higher amounts of fiber in whole foods provides the ideal food for the good bacteria to feed on and thrive. Cut out the sugars, bad fats, stimulants, and foods that are typically harder to digest for most such as gluten, dairy, and corn. They will negatively affect the good bacteria and feed the bad ones.
2. Ditch the processed foods
Extrapolating on point 1, keep your foods as close to nature as they were made as possible. So cut out the ready to eat, ready to heat, pre-packaged, convenient and fast foods. These types of foods have often been stripped of their key nutrients, sometimes attempted to be re-fortified, have also much more preservatives and food additives that can really irritate the digestive system.
3. Pay attention to potential food intolerances.
Most of us know when a food bothers us, regardless if we choose to avoid it or not. Pay attention to how you feel after your meals. Are you sleepy? Did you get sinus congestion? Does your stomach hurt? Do you have heart burn? Gas or bloating? These are all signs that your body is having a hard time processing the food you just ate or having some type of a reaction.
As mentioned above, the most common foods are gluten, dairy, and corn. The second batch of food sensitivities I tend to see are almonds, garlic, peas (incl. pea protein), coconut, and eggs.
4. Reduce alcohol (or completely eliminate it)
During my 30 day Candida Cleanse, there is no alcohol allowed. But if you want to just help your gut flora on a daily basis, reducing your alcohol intake to a minimal is very helpful. Alcohol will kill off the good bacteria and provide a good environment for the yeasts to grow, which is what you don’t want. Fermented alcohols are the worst such as beer and wine. I would recommend sticking to clear alcohol like gin or vodka but keeping it to a minimum (1-2 a month).
5. Consider Probiotics
Taking a multi strain, human grade probiotics can be very helpful. One with a lot of strains like the HMF Multi from Genestra is ideal because if your body is intolerant to some probiotics, it will most likely be able to use some of the 16 available ones in that product. So not all is lost!
Eating foods that are high in probiotics or fiber that feeds the good bacteria is also helpful. Probiotics are found in fermented foods like yogurt, kefir, kombucha, miso, kimchi, and fermented vegetables.
Looking for some recipes to help speed up the healing process? Download my 7 Soups and Stews mini recipe book. All recipes are Candida and Parasite cleanse approved and are easily digested by most.
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Leaky gut, or “intestinal permeability” is linked with many conditions of the gut, the body, and the mind. While research is still figuring out exactly how this happens and what comes first, there are definitely steps you can take today to help optimize your health.
Eat more whole, unprocessed foods, and ditch ultra-processed foods. Reduce alcohol consumption and consider probiotics. And, if you think you may have a food intolerance, be sure to speak with your healthcare professional.
FUN FACT: The type of microbes that live in your gut is established by the time you’re 3-5 years old. About 30-40% of it can be influenced by factors such as diet.
A lot of my clients that have digestive issues tell me during out intake process that as children they were either sick a lot and/or where given antibiotics at a young age. Because our bacterial blueprint if you want to call it is established under the age of 5, our childhood has a huge impact on our digestive health as adults.
There are a few supplements that are helpful with healing leaky gut such as L-Glutamine, NAG, collagen, and Probiotics to name a few. But because everyone has a different reason for having leaky gut, just taking one or all of these supplements won’t usually help. There is almost always an underlying infection or irritation happening that needs to be addressed before these products can become helpful, if at all the right choice for you. We’re all biochemically unique and what works for one person won’t always work for another. This is why I always test products with people to see how it interacts with them and how it’s interacting with the organ in question we’re addressing.
If you’re struggling with digestive issues, food sensitivities, seasonal allergies, or even have an autoimmune condition, I would highly encourage you to see a health professional, one with a Holistic approach of course ideally!
If you want to know more information on how I approach leaky gut, my testing methods, or if your health symptoms are potentially related to leaky gut, enter your name and email below to sign up for my free 30 min consultation. I’ll go over your Whole Body Health Profile and see where the main imbalances are in your body and what can be causing your symptoms.
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