To really understand leaky gut you have to understand one principle;
The inside of your intestines is outside of your body.
Look at the picture above as an illustration of how this works. In the picture, there is a pipe passing through an old stone bridge. The stones in the bridge represent the cells in your body. The pipe represents your intestines. The contents of the pipe pass through the bridge but don’t enter into the structure of the bridge.
Here’s another example. Let’s say your body is like a doughnut…by the way, if this rings true to you, you may want to clean up your diet a bit…but I digress. In this doughnut, the hole is your digestive tract. This nice young lady can poke her finger through the hole and never touch the doughnut. So the inside of the hole is actually outside of the doughnut. Make sense?
The intestines contain all kinds of things; some good, some bad. The cells lining the inside of the intestine form a barrier to prevent the bad things from entering the tissues of the body (poking the doughnut). In fact, when the intestine is healthy, the only way for anything to get past those cells lining its interior is to pass through the cells themselves via special receptors. So, your body likes glucose and fats and vitamins and amino acids and whatnot so there are specific receptors on the cell surfaces that bind with those things and draw them inside of the cells. They are then transferred into the blood stream and distributed to cells all over the body. All of the foods that we eat are digested by enzymes released into the intestinal contents. Starches are broken down into simple sugars, proteins are broken down into amino acids etc… The tissues of a healthy body have never seen gluten, starch, roast beef, strawberries, doughnuts or any other food. All of these things are broken down into their most essential elements prior to being permitted to pass into the cells.
Leaky Gut Syndrome
(Increased Intestinal Permeability)
Leaky gut syndrome is a condition in which the tight junctions between intestinal lining cells become compromised. The theory is that illness, inflammation, drugs, toxins, poor diet, chronic stress and other factors can cause damage to these tight junctions between intestinal cells allowing microorganisms, toxins and undigested food particles to enter into the tissues of the body. The body reacts to these foreign substances by launching an immune response. As a result, the body develops food allergies, food sensitivities and other inflammatory conditions.
Leaky gut has been implicated in a number of medical conditions including food allergies, gluten intolerance, inflammatory bowel disease, irritable bowel syndrome, arthritis, eczema, psoriasis, depression, anxiety, migraine headaches, thyroid problems, muscle pain, fibromyalgia and chronic fatigue and countless other auto immune conditions.
Interventions For Leaky Gut Syndrome
The following elements can be beneficial in resolving leaky gut issues:
Elimination Diets: Common allergens and toxins such as dairy, soy, gluten, sugar, yeast, and alcohol should be eliminated from the diet for about six weeks. Simple, unprocessed foods should replace commercial processed products. Keep a food journal and record how you feel when specific foods are added to or removed from the diet. Bone broth is a wonderful, nutrient-rich support for the gut. A three day bone broth fast will often make a big difference for folks trying to get a handle on this condition.
Changing Eating Patterns: It’s also important to manage how and when we eat. Eating should be a calm, peaceful, unhurried experience. Digestion is a function of the parasympathetic nervous system. Stress (sympathetic nervous system “fight or flight” stimulation) shuts down the processes of digestion at the level of the nervous system. Chewing your food (and your drinks!) slowly and thoroughly also really helps digestion and gut health.
Cleanse & Detoxify: A two week cleanse of the GI tract is also very beneficial.
Digestive Enzymes & Supplements: In some cases, supplementing with digestive enzymes can be beneficial. Standard Process is a good source of digestive enzymes and other digestive aids. Glutamine, quercetin and zinc also aid the gut in healing.
Herbs: Demulcent herbs such as slippery elm or marshmallow can be soothing and protective of the gut while it heals. Detoxifying herbs like plantain can help the body to eliminate toxins. Bentonite clay is also wonderful for binding and eliminating toxins. Vulnerary herbs (herbs that accelerate healing) can also play an important role in healing the gut lining. Plantain is a particularly good choice as a vulnerary for leaky gut because it also has good detoxifying properties. Licorice is also very good for leaky gut. It balances cortisol levels and helps maintain the integrity of the mucosal lining of the gut.
Pro-Biotics: Repopulating the gut with healthy bacteria is another critical step in resolving leaky gut issues. While commercial probiotics are readily available and useful, natural fermented foods containing live cultures are a better choice. Fiber-rich foods and a more natural diet also promote and encourage the growth and stability of beneficial gut flora.
Maintaining the elimination diet for 4-6 weeks while using the herbs and other things mentioned above will allow the intestines to heal. At that point, foods can be re-introduced to the diet one by one slowly over time. Most folks find they can better tolerate many previously-problematic foods after going through the protocol. Most of them also find that staying on a whole-food, “Paleo” sort of diet keeps things pretty happy.
Leaky gut syndrome is a somewhat controversial subject. Some in modern medical circles accept it as a true principle, others deny it completely. What I know from experience in my practice is that people with autoimmune issues and food sensitivities invariably benefit from following the leaky gut protocol for awhile.