Leaky gut. You’ve likely seen this mysterious phrase from time to time, and if you are like most people, you really don’t know what to make of it. The words themselves don’t actually bring to mind the prettiest of pictures!
If you’ve been brave enough to ask your physician or other mainstream health care provider about leaky gut, you’ve likely had your question immediately dismissed as “not being real” and possibly as something that some unscrupulous people made up to hook naive people into buying a bunch of useless health products. In other words, the whole leaky gut thing is total quackery.
But is it? What’s the truth here?
Is Leaky Gut a Real Condition?
In spite of the mainstream medical community’s outright dismissal of the existence of leaky gut, there is actually a fair amount of scientific evidence to back it up. As an aside, your health care provider shouldn’t get too much blame here, as it often takes months and sometimes years, for cutting-edge research to make its way into standard medical care.
To understand leaky gut, let’s take a quick look at the anatomy of your intestine, or gut as it’s now popularly known. As you likely remember from high school or college biology classes, your intestines are part of your digestive system. They function to help break down the food you have eaten and then absorb those nutrients into your bloodstream where they can be transported and used for fuel and as building blocks for tissues and other vital compounds your body needs such as hormones and enzymes and so forth.
It makes sense that your intestines would have to have a way for water and nutrients to pass through while at the same time be able to block the entrance of any substances that might be harmful. This ability of the intestines to allow substances to pass through these small gaps, called “tight junctions” in the intestinal wall is known as intestinal permeability.
In leaky gut syndrome, these tight junctions become loose and allow an increase in intestinal permeability. When this happens, other substances besides water and nutrients can pass through the intestinal wall and get into your bloodstream. These other substances can include bacteria and other toxic substances which can cause inflammation and can also set off a reaction from your immune system.
Although to date there is no definitive proof that leaky gut is the actual cause of disease, the dysfunction in the tight junctions is very closely associated with many metabolic and inflammatory conditions, including inflammatory bowel disease, non-alcoholic steatohepatitis which is an advanced form of non-alcoholic fatty liver disease caused by a buildup of fat in the liver, non-alcoholic fatty liver disease as well as obesity. Dysfunction of these tight junctions has also recently been implicated in the development of asthma, chronic rhinosinusitis, atopic dermatitis (eczema), and eosinophilic (allergic) esophagitis which is an inflammation of the esophagus, the tube which carries food from your mouth to the stomach.
What Causes Leaky Gut?
A lot of people are quick to jump on gluten as the culprit here as gluten intolerance has become all the rage, as well as big business. In reality, there are only a relatively small number of people who have a true allergy (celiac disease) to gluten, and others have gluten insensitivity. For most people, unless they have celiac disease or irritable bowel syndrome, gluten in the diet does not increase intestinal permeability.
While at present there is no one clear-cut cause for increased intestinal permeability, there are several factors that seem to play a major role. Among these are: high sugar and alcohol intake, dietary/nutrient deficiencies, and stress, among other causes. In our next article, we’ll take a closer look at just what you can do to correct and prevent leaky gut syndrome.