The Healthy Gut
Just as your skin forms a barrier to the world outside of your body, your gut forms a barrier inside your body. The surface area of your gut is 200 times larger than your skin. Laid out flat, your intestines would cover an entire tennis court. To achieve proper absorption, the gut lining is very thin: only a single cell thick!
That single-cell lining is in constant contact with nutrients, microbes, toxins, additives, and drugs that pass through your system every single day. It works as a filter that determines what should be passed from the digestive tract into the body, and what substances (like toxins, bacteria, and undigested food) should be kept out. Your immune system is constantly inspecting the border of your gut, searching for anything it does not recognize in order to prevent an invasion of pathogens.
What is Leaky Gut?
Leaky gut syndrome, also called increased intestinal permeability, occurs when the walls of your intestine begin to allow undigested food particles and toxins to leak into your bloodstream. Properly digested food is usually absorbed through the cell wall, but when the tight junctions between the gut lining cells begin to loosen, a pathway between the cells is opened up, exposing your gut-associated immune system to a wide variety of metabolic toxins. This activates an immune response that targets food particles and pathogens, but may also attack healthy body cells, as well.
Symptoms of Leaky Gut
We know that most illness starts in the gut. When substances get through the gut lining that shouldn’t, the immune response creates inflammation, and healthy body cells may be affected.
Symptoms of leaky gut include:
- Autoimmune diseases, including rheumatoid arthritis, celiac disease, lupus, or psoriasis
- Brain fog
- Chronic fatigue syndrome or fibromyalgia
- Digestive problems, including bloating, constipation, diarrhea, gas, indigestion, Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS)
- Joint pain
- Mood disorders, including ADD, ADHD, anxiety, or depression
- Food allergies or intolerances
- Hormonal imbalances, including PMS or polycystic ovarian syndrome
- Seasonal allergies
- Skin problems, including acne, eczema, and rosacea
- Weight gain (partly due to water retention)
What Causes Leaky Gut?
Because the gut lining is thinner than a single piece of hair, it is extremely sensitive to factors that may cause cell damage. Many triggering events can disrupt the gut flora, compromise the tight junctions between cells, and lead to the development of a leaky gut:
- Chronic Stress
- Frequent use of NSAIDS: aspirin, ibuprofen, Advil, Aleve
- Ingestion of emulsifiers (used in processed foods to make it thicker or hold together)
- Lack of fiber or phytochemical intake
- Lack of probiotic and prebiotic foods
- Low stomach acid
- Poor dietary choices: the SAD (standard American diet) full of starch, sugar, and processed oils
- Systemic inflammatory disease
- Toxin exposure: preservatives, pesticides (glyphosate), and environmental toxins
- Use of antibiotics
- Use of acid blockers
- Use of steroid medication
How to Heal a Leaky Gut
A properly functioning digestive system is critical to good health. Functional medicine aims to identify the root of what is causing leaky gut in order to heal the whole issue. There are 5 primary steps that help heal the digestive system and can lead to dramatic symptom improvement. These steps are recommended by the Institute for Functional Medicine.
Remove triggers that that negatively affect the gut lining, including:
- Bacteria or yeast overgrowth
- Chronic stress
- Exposure to pesticides or preservatives
- Foods that trigger intolerance, sensitivity, or allergy
- Heavy metals
- Inflammatory foods (sugar, flour, gluten)
- Negative thoughts or emotions
- Processed foods
- Toxic people
This step might involve using an allergy elimination diet to identify food triggers or a stool test to look at the microbiome and analyze the function of the gut.
When the gut is inflamed it does not secrete digestive enzymes to digest foods properly or absorb nutrients and foods properly. You can aid in your healing process by replacing digestive enzymes required for proper nutrition that may have been compromised by diet, medication, or disease, such as:
- Bile acids
- Digestive enzymes
- Hydrochloric acid
This helps improve the breakdown of proteins, fats, carbohydrates. Breaking foods down into its component parts (example: protein to amino acids) helps prevent an inflammatory immune reaction.
Your gut contains an entire world of “friendly” bacteria that help you digest food and keep the “unfriendly” bacteria at bay. You can support your digestive system by consuming probiotic foods or supplements that contain the “friendly” intestinal bacteria, such as the bifidobacteria and lactobacillus species.
Fermented foods are a good source of probiotics:
- Kombucha (no sugar added)
*Remember – pickles are preserved through the acidity of vinegar, which is different from the fermenting process. Pickles may seem like they are fermented, but they won’t be helpful in the gut healing process.
Probiotics in the colon feed on prebiotics in order to survive and grow. Prebiotics can be found in supplement form, but it is recommended to include foods high in soluble fiber and phytonutrients in your diet. Try including:
- Cruciferous vegetables
Eating a wide variety of healthy, (ideally) organic food is what the environment in our gut needs to thrive. A great rule of thumb is to eat something from every color of the rainbow every day. Going to a more plant based, high fiber diet has been shown to change the microbiome within 48 hours!
You can help your gut lining repair itself by supplying your digestive system with key nutrients that may be in missing in a leaky gut:
- Antioxidants (vitamins A, C, and E)
- Fish oil
Your lifestyle choices make a very big impact on your gut health.
- Find healthy ways to manage stress and negative emotions
- Get adequate sleep
Your gut health directly impacts every other area of your health. Start making positive changes towards optimizing your gut health today!
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