If you’re like most Americans, the answer is yes.
So what does that mean? The term “leaky gut” is in reference to a condition that can occur in the small intestine in which food-related particles pass out of the small intestine to the blood stream and lymph vessels before fully processed. When all parts are functioning optimally, the gut is an amazing place. With enough surface area to cover a tennis court, the lining of the gut has many complex tasks. One such task is the regulation of which compounds and molecules are permitted passage from the digestive tract into the blood and lymph systems. When the regulation within the small intestine is not working correctly and the gut is “leaking,” significant health problems can arise.
How It Works
Even after you’ve eaten a meal, that food is not yet “in” your body. It will just pass through and out unless it is absorbed through the lining of the gut. This lining is both powerful and delicate; it serves as an ultimate barrier, but is only comprised of a single layer of cells, topped with mucus and finished with helpful microbes. When this thin layer is healthy, one layer is enough. It’s able to withstand many insults, but too many and it begins to lose integrity. The cells can become injured or die off faster than they can be regenerated. Once this happens, you officially have leaky gut.
In leaky gut, molecules, compounds, bacteria and viruses that need more time in the gut to be broken down by enzymes are allowed direct passage into the blood and lymph streams.
And here lies the main problem. Particles that were never meant to be “in” you are allowed to float freely. Let’s look at some of the consequences of this condition:
- Autoimmune diseases: When the blood stream is overrun by unidentified objects, the immune system jumps into action. The immune system “learns” these compounds, which sometimes are very similar to certain body cells – such as the protein gluten and thyroid cells. The immune system then confuses the body cells with invaders and mounts an attack.
- Allergies: The immune system is greatly affected by what goes on in the gut, but interestingly enough, the majority of immune cells are actually found in the gut. Allergic responses are immune overreactions to proteins from an immune system that is already overtaxed by damage to the microbiome, the mucous layer, and the cell layer. A variety of allergies – as well as asthma and sinus problems – can stem from leaky gut.
- Wheat or dairy sensitivities: Many people have symptoms of digestive or allergic distress when they eat wheat or dairy. There is a possibility that it is not so much the fault of the foods but more as an inability to deal with foods due to gut dysfunction. Dr. John Douillard explains that gluten specifically can “clog” the lymph vessels when leaky gut allows them in. Improving gut health can restore the ability to tolerate these foods.
What to Do
If you experience these symptoms – or if you don’t – keeping the lining of your gut intact and healthy should be a top priority for your health and vitality. Here are some steps to take:
- Eliminate processed flours and sugars. These “food-like substances” wreak havoc in the gut. They feed the harmful gut bacteria, overload the helpful bacteria and cause general irritation.
- Avoid foods with preservatives, dyes, or other chemicals. Similar to above, chemicals in food disrupt the balance in the microbiome and cause damage to the delicate tissues.
- Up your gelatin intake. Gelatin can serve as a protective lining through the gut as the tissues begin to heal. You can make your own gelatin snacks with plain gelatin – use 100% juice, pureed fruit or even coffee. Or make your own gelatin-rich bone broth by simmering bones for 24 hours.
- Soothe and coat the gut lining. Drinking tea made from slippery elm, licorice root and marshmallow root introduces a coating to the lining of the gut that serves as a protective barrier and soothes irritated tissues. Regularly supplementing with L-Glutamine is also soothing to the gut.
- Take a probiotic and eat cultured foods. When there is damage to the gut lining, the health of the microbiome is also compromised. Gut dysbiosis – the imbalance between helpful and harmful gut bacteria – has body-wide effects. This includes sinus dysbiosis and airway dysbiosis. Introducing more microbes to your diet can help balance the microbiome. Regularly add sauerkraut, kimchi, plain yogurts and cultured pickles to your meals.
- Take time to eat. Avoid eating on the run or while distracted. Sitting down and slowing down will improve your digestion and your body’s ability to produce acid and enzymes necessary to keep your gut healthy.
- Avoid NSAIDS such as acetaminophen and ibuprofen. Also applies to antibiotics, unless absolutely necessary. Over-the-counter pain medication is infamous for causing damage to the lining of the digestive tract. Antibiotics destroy bacteria indiscriminately, both harmful and helpful.
Our highly convenient and fast-paced lifestyles have taken a toll on our health in many ways. Focusing on improving food quality and digestive health can have an enormous impact on specific chronic symptoms as well as overall health and wellness.
Weatherby, D. (2006). Signs and Symptoms Analysis from a Functional Perspective. Bear Mountain Publishing, Jacksonville.
Greenfield, B. Eat Wheat: A Scientific and Clinically-Proven Approach to Safely Bringing Wheat and Dairy Back Into Your Diet with Dr. John Douillard. (2017, January 28). Ben Greenfield Fitness Podcast.