Leaky Gut Syndrome is simply a nickname for the real problem at hand which is quite common and centers around impaired digestion: increased intestinal permeability. Sounds equally as lovely, I know. Having increased intestinal permeability means that for whatever reason (and there are many factors at play here) the lining of our intestinal walls have become damaged and are allowing particles to pass through that should not. A healthy intestinal wall will only allow properly digested matter (proteins, fats, and starches) to enter the bloodstream, while at the same time keeping out foreign bacteria, undigested molecules, and any particles that should pass through without being absorbed. The walls of our intestines are lined with millions of villi and microvilli, which are microscopic "fingers" of sorts....also known as the brush border of our gut, in place to filter out the bad and allow the good (nutrients) to pass through. However, due to an array of factors with our modern day diet and lifestyle, this system is commonly impaired to varying degrees.
Below is a list adapted from Elizabeth Lipski, Ph.D, in her book Digestive Wellness, of conditions and symptoms commonly associated with leaky gut syndrome:
- Celiac disease
- Chronic fatigue
- Crohn's disease
- Eczema, hives, and skin rashes
- Food allergies/sensitivies
- Inflamed joints or arthritis
- Intestinal infections and IBS
- Abdominal pain, bloating, gas, diarrhea and/or constipation
- Poor exercise tolerance
- Anxiety and mood swings
- Poor immunity
- Poor memory and fuzzy thinking (aka: brain fog)
- Impaired liver function
And there are many more! It is important to keep in mind that the gut and brain are intricately connected, which is why we often see more mental/emotional/psychological symptoms like some of the ones listed above when dealing with leaky gut.
Now, lets take a look at the causes of leaky gut syndrome:
I have talked a lot in previous blog posts about the detrimental effects elevated cortisol levels can have on our bodies, and this is a big one. According to Lipski, "prolonged stress changes the immune system's ability to respond quickly and affects our ability to heal." When our body is constantly getting the message to be in that fight-or-flight mode, we produce less of our immune boosting hormones (like DHEA), and also slows digestion because digestion is obviously down on the list from running from a tiger (or having a work deadline, as the case may be). I know it may seem impossible sometimes, but it really is crucial to prioritize relaxation throughout our weeks, even if it is just 10 minutes in the morning and at night of deep, belly breathing.
POOR FOOD CHOICES AND ALCOHOL
Naturally, consistently putting processed, refined, and inflammatory foods into our bodies has a profound effect on our digestive well-being. Eating poor quality foods decreases our amount of good bacteria (probiotics) and increases the bad. Also, not getting enough fiber (and I don't mean from a fiber supplement or powder, I mean the real thing) slows digestion and causes toxins to accumulate and irritate the gut lining. Any processed, refined foods (think white flour, sugar, cereals, commercial milk, food products with ingredients we can't pronounce) cause severe inflammation if eaten regularly. Alcohol is a kind of anti-nutrient, as it takes nutrients to metabolize but provides us with none in return. It particularly can zap our B vitamin stores and strains the liver.
ENVIRONMENTAL TOXINS AND MEDICATIONS
Two huge factors that lead to leaky gut. Environmental toxins are all around us in the form of household products, hygiene and cosmetic products, air and water pollution, and many more. These toxins lead to impaired immune function, which in turn affects digestive function (much of our immune system is located in the gut). This manifests in the inability to absorb key vitamins and minerals, and (of course) inflammation. It all leads back to inflammation! Medications is one of the worst offenders of gut integrity, and are sadly quite overprescribed/overused in the western medical model. NSAIDS (nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs) like advil, ibprofin, aspirin, and prescription drugs have a huge impact on the brush borders that I mentioned earlier (the villi that line our intestinal wall). This in turn allows those undigested particles to enter the bloodstream, potentially leading to the array of conditions/symptoms listed above, as well as ulcers.
The best option if you think you may suffer from leaky gut syndrome is to work with a nutrition professional, as depending on the severity, there are many different things to consider in the healing process. As always, feel free to contact me with further questions, and here's to our health and wellness!