What is Leaky Gut Syndrome, Really?

These days we are inundated by commercials about intestinal and digestive health, not to mention hearing all kinds of terms such as probiotoics, enzymes, leaky gut syndrome, IBS, IBD, and much more. At the end of the day, despite all the educational articles and webinars–plus commercials–many of us end up with more questions than answers.

One of the major terms being thrown around a lot is leaky gut syndrome. Most people know that a leaky gut is not healthy, but don’t really have a clue as to what it means.

What is Leaky Gut Syndrome?
So what is a leaky gut, really, and why isn’t it a healthy condition to have? Before we can answer that question, we first have to understand the function of a healthy non-leaky gut. So let’s see what the experts have to say. According to Trent W. Nichols, MD and Barry W. Ritz, BS in “Making Sense of Leaky Gut, IBS and IBD”:

“… intestinal health is the foundation of overall well being. That fact is clear. The intestinal lining is responsible for absorbing nutrients from the foods that we eat and serves as our most important immune barrier, protecting us from potential allergens in undigested food, as well as microbiological and chemical threats.”

Clearly intestinal health is important to digestive health and immune health. From this understanding, we can then answer the question, “What is leaky gut syndrome?”

In short, a leaky gut occurs when the intestinal lining becomes permeable in unhealthy ways. This intestinal permeability allows food allergens and toxins to “leak” from the intestine into the bloodstream. To understand how this intestinal permeability occurs, we first have to understand the two ways in which the gut does its job. The gut has two jobs:

1. providing immunity
2. absorbing nutrients from food

The gut does its job in two different ways:

1. through the activity of intestinal cells
2. through tiny openings (called tight junctions) between intestinal cells

With the first process, the intestinal cells facing inwards toward the intestine absorb nutrients from the foods we eat. These absorbed nutrients then pass through the same cells and exit into the bloodstream and lymphatic system. This process is called the transcellular system.

The second process doesn’t require the activity of cells. Instead, small nutrients (such as minerals and trace minerals) pass directly through tiny porous openings between the intestinal cells. These openings are called tight junctions, and the process is called the paracellular process. A leaky gut occurs when these porous openings between cells become damaged and enlarged, allowing undigested food particles and toxins to flood directly into the bloodstream. This movement of unwanted substances through the tight junctions is what is termed “leaky gut.”

While there are many possible causes of leaky gut syndrome, the most common causes include damage from infectious agents–including bacteria, viruses, and protozoan organisms–ethanol (found in alcoholic drinks and certain sugar substitutes called sugar alcohols), and NSAID (non-steroidal anti-inflammatory) pain relievers (including aspirin and ibuprofen). Other causes include aging, malnutrition, intensive illnesses, shock, and a variety of digestive disorders.

What Happens When You Have a Leaky Gut?
Because a leaky gut allows a variety of unwanted substances to be spread throughout the body, carried by the lymphatic and blood circulatory system, a number of health problems can be the result. Most physicians recognize certain chronic conditions to be the result of leaky gut syndrome, including joint inflammation, skin disorders, food sensitivities or allergies, lack of focus, hyperactivity, digestive issues, and chronic fatigue syndrome.

None of these sound good. Luckily, since leaky gut syndrome is most often caused by lifestyle factors, changing certain lifestyle habits can make a significant difference to this condition. According to Nichols and Ritz:

“Managing leaky gut is preventative medicine at its finest… Resolving leaky gut can produce very real benefits to total health.”

Pretty good news, right? If the information in this article rings any bells for you, stay tuned. In future articles we will cover a variety of lifestyle changes that can significantly affect your digestive, immune, and overall health.

Galland, L. “Leaky Gut Syndromes: Breaking the Vicious Cycle.” http://mdheal.org/leakygut.htm (accessed 5/10/13)
Nichols, T. W. and Faass N., ed. Optimal Digestion. http://www.stopleakygut.com/article (accessed 5/8/13)

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