There's a lot of talk about leaky gut and leaky gut syndrome these days, and I see a lot of it in my practice, but there is still quite a bit of confusion about what it really is. What does it mean when your gut is "leaky"? Does it mean that it's leaking stuff out that it shouldn't be? Well, sort of. Not to the extent of the poor fellow in the drawing above, but certainly to the extent that it will make a big impact on the status of your overall health.
Let's Talk About Your Guts
See these tennis courts?
Well, if you were to unfold your intestinal lining and lay it flat out on the ground, it would cover an area equivalent to two tennis courts. Crazy right? It's true! Your intestinal lining is made up of several layers and is meant to allow a peaceful coexistence with your intestinal visitors - the billions of bacteria, yeasts and other organisms that call your digestive tract home - without triggering a massive immune reaction to them, while at the same time providing a selectively permeable barrier that will allow the nutrients from your food into your blood stream so your body can be nourished and all bodily systems can function optimally.
The surface lining of your small intestine provides a strong physical barrier, abundant in mucus which helps to protect the lining from inflammation and nutrients that feed the good bacteria, and has millions of teeny tiny little finger-like projections called micro-villi which increase the surface area of the intestinal lining for ultimate nutrient absorption ability. Another layer provides the immune barrier and this is where a good 70% of your immune system lies. This interior lining contains lymphatic tissue called gut associated lymphatic tissue (aka GALT) which communicates with your immune and nervous systems, as well as with your brain. This is why inflammation in the digestive tract has the ability to not only have an effect on your immune system, but also on your mood.
The layers of your intestines are serious team players. They work together to selectively allow certain nutrients through to the bloodstream while, at the same time, preventing harmful protein particles and other fragments from bacteria and foods from escaping the intestines and making contact with the immune system and your bloodstream.
Let's look a little closer at how it all works:
Here we have a pretty basic representation of the lining of our small intestine. You can see the individual cells, the micro-villi projections and the blood stream on the other side of the intestinal lining. The left side of the drawing represents a healthy and selectively permeable intestinal lining, with the cells being held firmly together by what are called "tight junctions". On the right side of the picture we see an intestinal lining that has been damaged. The tight junctions are no longer viable, there is inflammation and the cells themselves are damaged and are allowing inflammatory particles through to the blood stream.
This is leaky gut and it happens when there is damage to the lining of the gut which can be caused as a result of many factors including:
Leaky gut (more properly called "increased intestinal permeability") allows the inflammatory particles and bacteria which would normally be eliminated through our bowel movements to instead pass into our bloodstream triggering immune reactions, first in the lining of the intestines and then in the bloodstream which is when the real inflammatory problems begin.
While bacteria can happily exist within the the small intestine, fragments from their outer "coats" are toxic to the rest of the body. The same thing applies to proteins and other particles from the foods we eat. Fine in the intestines, not so fine in our bloodstream. When any of these particles make their way through the protective barrier of the intestinal wall and into circulation throughout the body, the immune system immediately launches an attack because these particles are seen as foreign invaders and the cells of our immune system are designed to seek and destroy such invaders. With immune response comes inflammation and chronic inflammation caused by leaky gut leads to a host of symptoms including:
Sometimes, the body will get confused because some of these proteins and particles that cross into the bloodstream look similar to the tissues of certain areas of the body, so the body will also launch an attack against the body's own tissues. This is known as autoimmune disease and it is a well-established result of leaky gut. Autoimmune conditions include:
Is Leaky Gut Treatable?
YES! The integrity of the gut lining can absolutely be restored with a good dose of dedication and a lot of patience. By working to eliminate offending foods that are causing inflammation, reducing stress, re-establishing a healthy gut bacteria, eliminating environmental toxins and providing the body with the nutrients it requires to heal through proper diet and temporary therapeutic supplementation, you can be back to feeling vibrant and full of life again. Some people have even had success with putting their autoimmune conditions into remission by healing their gut. Working with a qualified and experienced practitioner is your best bet to determining the cause of your leaky gut and plotting the best and most efficient course for healing.
If you would like to explore how working with a holistic nutritionist can help you achieve your best and most vibrant health, please feel free contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org or by phone at 519.404.9919 to schedule your free 15 minute discovery session to discuss how I can help you reach your goals
Jill Taylor is a Certified Holistic Nutritionist based in Kitchener, Ontario, Canada. She is the mom of two pretty awesome teenagers, s very dramatic dog, a hedgehog and a snake (yikes!). Jill assists her clients in achieving true wellness through thoughtful and compassionate dietary and lifestyle coaching. Feel free to visit the "Contact" page to get in touch. Jill would love to hear from you!