For good reason, digestive health has come into the public eye as an increasingly popular health trend in recent years. After all, a functional gut promotes whole-body health in numerous ways, including promoting nutrient absorption, eliminating harmful toxins, and reducing chronic inflammation.
When our patients approach us with a broad range of worries or complaints tied to gut dysfunction, we consider food sensitivities, the gut microbiota, allergies, infections, and stress, since each may play a role in their health condition.
When we start to speak with patients about gut health, “leaky gut” is a common starting place, so let’s explore what this means.
Your gut includes the small intestines and the colon. Food and nutrients are absorbed in the small intestine, while water, a few nutrients, and some fats are absorbed in the colon. The surface area of your gut is covered by a layer of cells so extensive that it could cover the area of two tennis courts! This layer of cells is held together by a protein that controls the movement of nutrients from your gut into the bloodstream. This gated alley way between cells is called a “tight junction.”
In a well tuned gut, tight junctions allow water and healthful nutrients to pass through while less preferred foods and chemicals are diverted into the stool. However, when tight junctions degrade, the substances that are otherwise shunted into the stool have an opportunity to leak into the bloodstream. In this case, you have what’s known as a “leaky gut.”
When unwanted chemicals, toxins, and bacteria pass into the bloodstream, they trigger an allergic response in your body. Scientists call these triggers “antigens.”
Your body has a specific defense against these unwanted antigens: the Gut Associated Lymphoid Tissue, or GALT. This defense lies beneath the cell layer lining your gut, and it acts as the front line of your gut’s immune system, primed to defend your body from harmful antigens. However, when the GALT is exposed to an antigen, the gut launches a local inflammatory immune response which weakens tight junctions. This allows even more of the antigen to leak through the lining of your gut, fueling an even larger inflammatory response that, left unchecked, can evolve into a whole-body problem impacting the joints, skin, brain, lungs, and/or cardiovascular system as a classic autoimmune disorder.
When a person suffers from leaky gut, poor digestive health, and/or autoimmune issues, signs may include the following:
- Bloating and fatigue
- Food sensitivities, including gluten
- Thyroid disorders
- Heart disease
- Malabsorption syndromes
- Autoimmune disorders such as rheumatoid arthritis, ulcerative colitis and Crohn’s disease
- Inflammatory skin conditions such as eczema and psoriasis
- Mood issues
- Migraine headache
The majority of leaky gut issues can be treated with dietary modification and attention to lifestyle over the long-term. In some patients, functional testing can help to refine a care plan and help those with signs of gut dysfunction feel normal again.
- Leaky Gut and Autoimmune Diseases
- Leaky Gut As a Danger Signal for Autoimmune Diseases
- Gut Microbiota in Health and Disease
- Leaky gut and diabetes mellitus: what is the link? (The future?)
- The gut microbiota and host health: a new clinical frontier versus Gut microbiome as a clinical tool in gastrointestinal disease management: are we there yet? (These articles are intended to provide some valuable perspective.)
- Mass, Michael, Marta Kubera, and Jean-Claude Leunis. “The gut-brain barrier in major depression: intestinal mucosal dysfunction with an increased translocation of LPS from gram negative enterobacteria (leaky gut) plays a role in the inflammatory pathophysiology of depression.” Neuroendocrinology Letters 29.1 (2008): 117-124.