In our first step in a healthy nutrition plan post we talked about the importance of gut health and the two main areas that impact it; the intestinal microbiota, or “gut flora”, and the gut barrier.  We also touched on the impacts of gluten and a leaky gut.  But what does “leaky gut” actually mean? What causes it? What are some of the symptoms? How does it impact your immune system? 

A leaky gut is at the root of many gut and health disorders. Our gastrointestinal tract is designed to play a key role in immune system function, detoxification, inflammation, neurotransmitter and vitamin production, nutrient absorption, hungry or full hormone signalling, and utilisation of carbohydrates and fats.  The gut helps determine whether we are fat or thin, energetic or lethargic. Put simply, everything about our health — how we feel both emotionally and physically is controlled by the gut.

In a healthy gut, digested food is absorbed through a well-controlled mechanism of the cellular wall.  A leaky gut occurs when the intestinal barrier, tight junctions and enterocytes (mucosal cells), in your gut do not function properly. The gut barrier is the gatekeepers between the outside world (your gut) and the inside world (your bloodstream). When these tight junctions loosen or the enterocytes are damaged, gastrointestinal issues start to occur and undigested food particles,  infectious organisms, such as harmful bacteria, parasites, and yeast get into the bloodstream, and they shouldn’t be there. The result is inflammation, joint pain and allergies which can all lead to obesity and chronic diseases.

Your gut’s bugs may as well be considered an organ in their own right. And they are just as vital to your health as your own heart, lungs, liver, and brain.

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Leaky Gut and Immune Function

Scientific research is bringing more and more credence to the notion that up to 90% of all known human illness can be traced back to an unhealthy gut. We can say for sure that just as the disease begins in the gut, so too do health and vitality.

The largest presence of the immune system exists in the gut. Immune cells serve as the first line of defence to protect us against any invaders along the length of the digestive tract. However, in a leaky gut, these immune cells are exposed to partially digested food particles,  infectious organisms, and yeast. These immune cells then signal other white blood cells to form antibodies to defend off the invaders. This increase the production of histamine, to fight off the intruders, which leads to elevated levels of inflammation.

When the gut barrier is compromised the blood-brain barrier is also compromised which can cause a number of neurological issues such as brain fog, memory loss, and migraines. Well-respected institutions around the world are discovering that to an extraordinary degree, brain health and, on the flip side, brain diseases, are dictated by what goes on in the gut. That’s right: what’s taking place in your intestines today is determining your risk for any number of neurological conditions in the future.

Hands down, the most significant factor related to the health of the gut is in the food we eat. What we put in our mouths represents the biggest environmental challenge to our genome and the microbiome. 

What Causes Leaky Gut

  1. Gluten - we talked about this in the first step in a healthy nutrition plan

  2. Poor dietary choices - eating food that are not part of our ancestral diet

  3. Elevated blood sugar - eating processed foods and high amounts of sugar, especially fructose

  4. Chronic Stress (both physical and mental) - the stressful world we live in and the stress of high-intensity training

  5. Negative Emotions - Our gut impacts our mental health and our mood, but our mood can also impact our gut

  6. Illness and infection - weakens the digestive system and the immune system

  7. Low Stomach Acid - impacts our ability to digest our food correctly

  8. Exposure to chemicals and toxins in the air, water, and food supply which kill out gut bacteria and elevate stress on the digestive system 

  9. Use of Anti-inflammatory medications, such as common OTC remedies, like Naprosyn, Ibuprofen, Motrin, and Aspirin, which essentially poke holes in the gut lining.

  10. Use of Antibiotics, which disrupt the normal gut flora

If you have a leaky gut, you probably have bad gut flora and vice versa. And when your gut flora and gut barrier are impaired, you will be inflamed. Besides the food we eat there are a number of different things that can impact the healthy bacteria balance:

  • Did your mother take antibiotics while she was pregnant with you?

  • Did your mother take steroids like prednisone while she was pregnant with you?

  • Were you born by C-section?

  • Were you breastfed for less than one month?

  • Did you suffer from a frequent ear and/or throat infections as a child?

  • Did you require ear tubes as a child?

  • Did you have your tonsils removed?

  • Have you ever needed steroid medications for more than one week, including steroid nasal or breathing inhalers (asthmatics)?

  • Do you take antibiotics at least once every two to three years?

  • Do you take acid-blocking drugs (for digestion or reflux)?

  • Are you gluten-sensitive?

  • Do you have food allergies?

  • Are you extra sensitive to chemicals often found in everyday products and goods?

  • Have you been diagnosed with an autoimmune disease?

  • Do you have type-2 diabetes?

  • Are you more than 10kg overweight?

  • Do you suffer from irritable bowel syndrome (IBS)?

  • Do you have diarrhoea or loose bowel movements at least once a month?

  • Do you require a laxative at least once a month?

  • Do you suffer from depression?

What happened is you have leaky gut?

Leaky gut syndrome may result in:    

  • Food allergies or sensitivities

  • Malnutrition

  • Dysbiosis (or microbial imbalance)

  • Toxin overload

  • Autoimmune diseases (an example is a thyroid disease known as Hashimoto’s, in which the body attacks its own thyroid proteins)

  • Depression

What are some of the symptoms of leaky gut?

  • Bloating

  • Constipation/Diarrhoea

  • Low energy levels / Fatigue (due to malnutrition and its effects on thyroid function)

  • Weight gain

  • Migraines

  • Autoimmune disease

Remember leaky gut does not necessarily manifest as digestive troubles, many people suffer from heart failure, depression, brain fog, eczema/psoriasis and other skin conditions, metabolic problems like obesity and diabetes and allergies, asthma and other autoimmune diseases. All of which can be linked back to leaky gut.

The good news is that you can rebuild your microbiome and repair your leaky gut, it just takes a little effort and sometimes some detective work.  We will talk more about this in a future post.