Leaky gut is a condition that causes many health problems, yet it’s rarely talked about in the media or in doctors’ offices. As a matter of fact, many people have this condition but have no clue! Here’s a look at what leaky gut is, how it occurs and what you can do to create a healthy gut without the use of pharmaceuticals. Many of the doctors and health practitioners that are talking about and diagnosing leaky gut are saying that almost 80% of the U.S. population has some degree of leaky gut.
The leaky gut issue starts in a very important organ, your small intestine. The small intestine is so important because most of the vitamins and minerals in the foods you eat are absorbed there. In order for the vitamins and minerals to be absorbed, the small intestine contains microscopic pores so the nutrients can be transferred into the bloodstream. Once transferred, the nutrients are then shuttled and deposited all around the body by the blood.
The wall of the intestine is considered semi-permeable. This means it only allows certain things to enter the bloodstream and block other things from entering the bloodstream. For instance, specific molecules and nutrients are allowed to pass through but toxins and large undigested food particles are blocked. When you have leaky gut, the pores in your small intestine widen and this allows undigested food particles and toxins, that would normally be blocked, to enter your bloodstream. These particles and toxins aren’t recognized and the immune system goes into attack mode because they are not supposed to be in the blood. In essence, the immune system literally recognizes these undigested particles as dangerous. This can lead to allergies and much worse conditions. These particles that shouldn’t be there cause an immune response and build up antibodies to protect–it is just basically doing its job. The problem is the immune system doesn’t just build up antibodies to the food particles; it attacks your healthy cells, too. This is one of the ways food allergies and autoimmune disorders develop.
Keeping in mind that 70% of our immune system is in our gut, doesn’t it seem important to have a healthy one?
Let’s back up a bit and discuss some of the reasons why we are having a leaky gut epidemic? Why now? What has changed?
What has changed in the American diet over the last 25 years? We are a country that consumes much processed and fast food. The typical American diet consists of high amounts of sugar (an average of 22 teaspoons per day[i]) and many nutrient deficient foods or foods that are just void of any nutrients. We have become a society of convenience and a society of wanting it right now–and our health is paying a big price for this! Our food is processed and filled with harmful chemicals and preservatives. Is it any wonder why Diabetes is so rampant in this country? In 2012, 29.1 Million people had Diabetes which is 9.3 percent of the population[ii]. That figure has increased since then and continues to grow daily!
There are a few different ways you can develop leaky gut. For example, if you are chronically constipated, over time the toxins in your stool will irritate the lining of your intestines. This irritation leads to inflammation which will cause the pores in the small intestine to expand. If the irritation and inflammation are allowed to continue for an extended period of time it can lead to irritable bowel syndrome, Crohn’s disease, or colitis, as well as other auto-immune diseases. So why are so many people constipated? Could it be a lack of proper nutrition, clean water and stress?
The other common cause of leaky gut is an imbalance of the flora inside our gut. We all have good and bad bacteria in our digestive system. When our gut flora is in balance the bad bacteria poses no threat. But when the bad bacteria outweighs the good, irritation and inflammation occur, again, causing the pores of the intestine to open up. This creates something called dysbiosis which means that the billions of bacteria in our gut, which consists of good and bad bacteria, is out of balance. When we have too much of the bad bacteria, it literally creates holes in the lining of the walls of the small intestine and creates a leaky gut. What causes dysbiosis? Could it be stress and poor nutrition?
Something else that has changed in our diet over the last 20 years is the introduction of GMOs (genetically modified organisms). Currently, 80% of the foods in our mainstream grocery stores are genetically modified. Last year (2014), 89% of U.S. corn, 93% of U.S. soy, and 95% of U.S. sugar beets [iii] were genetically modified for tolerance to glyphosate, the active ingredient in Roundup. Repeat spraying of glyphosate tolerant (Roundup Ready) crops builds residues that can carry over into food products. Some conventional crops are also sprayed with Roundup in low concentrations to control the timing of the harvest. Roundup is used as a desiccant (drying agent) on oats, Non GMO flax, barley, wheat, edible peas, potatoes, cantaloupe, and sugar cane. Glyphosate (RoundUp) is the most widely used herbicide in the world. It is a patented antibiotic[iv] and a mineral chelator. When Glyphosate gets into our gut, it can bind the beneficial minerals that are needed to maintain that healthy gut flora and makes these minerals unavailable. This creates dysbiosis. Through dysbiosis, the bad bacteria creates holes in the lining of the walls of the small intestine and creates a leaky gut.
Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt) is a gram-positive soil-dwelling bacterium that has been used as an insecticide since the 1920s. When farmers spray their crops with this bacterium or its insecticidal proteins or spores, insects eat it and they die when their intestines explode. Now with the advent of genetically modified crops, it is difficult to avoid this dangerous toxin. This is because biotech giant Monsanto decided to profit from this pesticide by splicing the Bt gene with corn and cotton. Now these plants have Bt toxin genetically inserted in them. It cannot be washed off, and it does not degrade during the growth cycle. This means that when you ingest BT corn, you are consuming an insecticide which is engineered into every cell of this corn. Bt corn is registered with EPA as an insecticide.
In 2011, doctors at Sherbrooke University Hospital in Quebec found Bt-toxin in the blood of 93 percent of pregnant tested, 80 percent of umbilical blood in their babies, and 67 percent of non-pregnant women. The study authors speculate that the Bt-toxin was likely consumed in the normal diet of the Canadian middle class—which makes sense when you consider that genetically engineered corn is present in the vast majority of all processed foods and drinks in the form of high fructose corn syrup. They also suggest that the toxin may have come from eating meat from animals fed Bt corn, which most livestock raised in confined animal feeding operations (CAFO, or so-called “factory farms”) are. These shocking results raise the frightening possibility that eating Bt corn might actually turn your intestinal flora into a sort of “living pesticide factory”… essentially manufacturing Bt-toxin from within your digestive system on a continuing basis. If this hypothesis is correct, is it then also possible that the Bt-toxin might damage the integrity of your digestive tract in the same way it damages insects? Could this be another contributing factor to leaky gut?
Stress can be a factor in creating leaky gut. Severe emotional stress or trauma, drug use, especially antibiotic and anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) can be a contributing factor. Sometimes they are necessary, for a period of time, but overuse or extended use of antacids (for reflux or heartburn), anti-inflammatory drugs (for pain) and/or antibiotics (for infections) is known to cause leaky gut. Antacids cause leaky gut by suppressing digestion of your food, making it more likely that your immune system will be triggered by the food you eat. Once the immune system starts to react, leaky gut is aggravated each time you eat, even if it is food that you would think is good for you.
Gluten causes leaky gut by increasing levels of a protein called zonulin, which opens up the spaces between the intestinal cells, even if you don’t have gluten sensitivity.
What are some of the symptoms of leaky gut? Brain fog, anxiety, depression, emotional ups and downs, food allergies, hives, rashes, sinus issues, joint pain, food cravings for artificial fats and sugars (alcohol), autoimmune disease, weight gain, bloating, diarrhea, digestion issues, irritability, cramping, fatigue, headaches or thyroid conditions are some of the issues associated with leaky gut.
What can you do for leaky gut? It is recommended by many health practitioners that those with leaky gut eliminate all dairy, grains, sugar, legumes, GMOs, and seeds from your diet for a period of between 2 weeks to 12 weeks or longer, depending upon the severity. There are leaky gut formulas available online or in your health food stores. It’s best to abstain from alcohol which contains sugar. Also, adding a good probiotic to your daily routine can be beneficial. Fermented foods like sauerkraut and kimchi are wonderful probiotic foods that contain live cultures and they can assist in creating a healthy gut. Bone broth is also very healing for the gut. You can find recipes for bone broth online.
Another issue is that our gut or microbiome, as it is now called, is very much connected to our brain. When we have an unhealthy gut, we cannot get adequate amounts of tryptophan. Tryptophan is an amino acid that is used by the brain and is converted into serotonin. Serotonin is important because it controls feelings of hunger, depression, anxiety, thirst and sleep. Tryptophan has also been found to be an important nutrient when it comes to immune system functioning. Serotonin is one of the four main neurotransmitters that are responsible for our mood. If our serotonin levels fall off we may experience anxiety and depression. Doesn’t this make sense that a leaky gut can cause brain fog, mood swings, depression, apathy and many more brain issues? Could it be the key to having a healthy brain is having a healthy gut?
In summary, leaky gut is the root of many health issues. Now that you are familiar with some of the health issues associated with leaky gut, including common syndromes like chronic fatigue, fibromyalgia, IBS, and multiple food and chemical sensitivities, as well as asthma, anxiety, autoimmunity, diabetes, and arthritis, you can take steps to create a healthier gut which is so important to your well being and your immune system. Discuss your symptoms with your doctor if you have a doctor who is knowledgeable about leaky gut. Most functional medicine doctors fully understand leaky gut syndrome and can assist you if you have a severe case of leaky gut. I always encourage people to be their own health advocate because only you can heal you! Be well!
Products that can help heal your leaky gut:
Carol Grieve’ is a Certified Life Coach and Holistic Nutritionist, the host of the Food Integrity Now, a speaker and a writer. For more information on health and wellness coaching or speaking engagements, contact Carol at firstname.lastname@example.org or call 415-302-7100. Phone or Skype sessions are available.