When I heard the phrase “leaky gut” about a decade ago, I almost chuckled. My then holistic practitioner was explaining the root cause underlying my symptoms and as soon as he sensed my reaction, he had to look away to avoid losing his train of thoughts. While mine wasn’t an unusual reaction at the time, today this phrase has made its way into peer-reviewed medical literature.
Leaky Gut is a way to explain the compromise that occurs in your inner skin, aka epithelium. Lined by a single-celled barrier, your digestive tract begins at your sinuses and ends at the end of your colon. The entire length of this approximately 27 foot tube is lined with epithelial cells. And in-between these cells are gateways, also called tight junctions, that selectively allow things to pass from both sides.
Due to repeated exposure to toxins though, this functionality gets compromised and the tight junctions remain open when they should not. This allows things to leak into your bloodstream; things that would otherwise be either digested or discarded by your digestive tract including intestines and sinuses.
And that’s a big problem! Remember, when you put something in your mouth, it’s still outside your body. If it’s something that your body can digest then, by design, its broken-down molecular version diffuses into the blood vessels present along your small intestines. If not, it’s moved forward into colon to be discarded as a waste. It does not go inside your body until it’s properly digested and allowed to enter your bloodstream. Now for the four sure signs that you have a leaky gut.
#1: Food sensitivities
With a leaky gut, undigested food particles sneak in to your body’s inside without permission, causing a major red alert. Proteins are good for the body, but only in their digested form called amino acids. Undigested proteins are toxic because the body doesn’t know what to do with them except in the digestive tract. So it views those protein molecules as intruders, launches an attack, and remembers them for future. And that’s the beginning of every food sensitivity known to our modern society.
If you’re gluten (a protein) intolerant, you get symptoms every time you eat gluten-containing foods. That’s because your body is in a panic state trying to arrest the gluten molecule in order to defend itself. In doing so, it uses everything in its arsenal to combat the intrusion resulting in inflammation that causes symptoms like bloating, cramps, diarrhea, and more.
No matter what you’re allergic to – soy, peanuts, tree nuts, dairy – it’s essentially leaky-gut at work, making your life miserable. Even most of the dairy sensitivity blamed at lactose-intolerance is actually issues digesting casein, a gluey protein that requires strong digestibility to process. This is mostly alleviated by using raw or lightly-warmed milk from pasture-raised cows.
So if you think you are “allergic” to certain foods, consider looking into healing your gut before going any further.
#2: Seasonal allergies
The mucous membrane lining your sinuses is no different than what lines your intestines – it’s made of the same epithelial cells and tight junctions. Exposure to toxic chemicals disrupts the functionality of tight junctions in your mucosa. When you breathe in foreign particles in air they jump the compromised tight-junction barrier entering your body without permission.
These particles may include various kinds of pollens, molds, and bugs that are naturally present in clean, healthy air. When breathing through the nose, most of them are trapped by the nose-hair and little bit of mucous that lubricates your nasal passages. Others are stopped by the inner skin of your sinuses. Unless that inner skin is compromised.
The foreign airborne particles jumping into your body across compromised mucosa of the sinuses trigger a similar kind of reaction from the body’s defense mechanism. The body remembers the threat and unless the leaky-gut is healed and the body desensitized, the allergies continue to make your life difficult, especially during change of seasons.
#3: Neurological disorders
There’s a common misconception among the purveyors of institutionalized medicine which is, toxins in the bloodstream do not enter the brain because it is protected by the blood-brain barrier. Below is the Wikipedia definition of blood-brain barrier. You may also read this detailed explanation about the sophisticated mechanisms that control BBB’s integrity.1 Daneman R, Prat A. The blood-brain barrier. Cold Spring Harb Perspect Biol. 2015;7(1):a020412. Published 2015 Jan 5. doi:10.1101/cshperspect.a020412
“The blood–brain barrier (BBB) is a highly selective semipermeable border of endothelial cells that prevents solutes in the circulating blood from non-selectively crossing into the extracellular fluid of the central nervous system where neurons reside.”
However, integrative neurologist Dr. Kulreet Chaudhary describes the Leaky-Brain as a situation in which the integrity of the blood-brain barrier is compromised in a mechanism akin to Leaky-Gut. Another article2Obrenovich MEM. Leaky Gut, Leaky Brain?. Microorganisms. 2018;6(4):107. Published 2018 Oct 18. doi:10.3390/microorganisms6040107 from the National Institutes of Health repository elaborates on the same phenomenon.
The bottomline is that toxins circulating in your bloodstream can and do enter the Central Nervous System, wreaking havoc and giving you symptoms that mimic serious neurological illnesses like Multiple Sclerosis, Alzheimer’s, and Parkinson’s Disease. The sad part is that the sufferer oftentimes gets one of these diagnoses. And if the markers aren’t pronounced enough to issue a diagnosis, they are given the infamous it’s-all-in-your-head proclamation.
It’s not uncommon for discomforting neurological symptoms to be relieved after healing the leaky gut. So, work with your choice of health practitioner to rule that out before considering intrusive measures.
#4: Lifestyle diseases
It should come as a no-brainer that since leaky gut is caused by a compromise in the digestive tract, it would most readily affect digestibility. The reason is: you can’t have leaky gut without a compromised gut flora, aka your natural reserve of “probiotics”. A healthy gut flora aids in digesting your food and helps keep wastes moving along for elimination. Without a balanced flora, you could get gas, bloating, and constipation among other digestive upsets.
Ever heard of the gut-brain connection? Within the last decade or so, scientists have realized the sheer importance of what’s called Enteric Nervous System or ENS in mood regulation and brain’s reward mechanisms. These mechanisms motivate humans to act towards achieving success in life while staying happy and emotionally balanced and at peace. Imbalanced gut flora that accompanies leaky gut situation may cause good behavior to be contingent on consuming specific foods.
As not-so-friendly microbes like candida albicans, for example, overgrow, crowding out the friendly species, they also hijack our brain-reward mechanism. They use our ENS to release neurotransmitters that make us want to have foods that would maintain an environment favorable for them to thrive. That’s what drives the sufferers toward addicting foods usually containing sugar and caffeine.
The first step in overcoming food addictions should be resolving the leaky gut. Without that it’s an upstream battle – we all know how far the New Year’s resolutions go! When you fix your compromised gut and regain a balanced microbiome, the addictions drop off. Why? Because your reward mechanism is now fixed and you only need a little bit of sweetness that’s naturally present in food, to derive the satisfaction and stay motivated in life. You no longer depend on the foods you were addicted to before. So avoiding them becomes a choice rather than a chore.
It’s a common misunderstanding that stress mostly comes from mental work or exposure to negative emotions. The fact is that poor food choices contribute to a significant amount of stress which gets even worse with a leaky gut.
Stress is determined clinically by looking at the blood-cortisol levels. Elevated levels of cortisol in the blood indicate stress.3Stress Level Test: Blood Tests and Diagnosis By Walkin Lab. Published on November 13, 2014: https://www.walkinlab.com/blog/blood-tests-diagnosing-stress-levels
Stress is a natural part of life. When the body is under stress, your brain signals the adrenal glands to release adrenaline into the bloodstream. However, when the stressor stick around too long, the adrenals are signaled to secrete cortisol.
Cortisol is the choice of hormone during times of prolonged stress. Whether the cause of stress is an abusive relationship, long work hours, or body’s defenses being up due to leaky-gut, the longer a stressed state is maintained the longer cortisol remains in the bloodstream.
The effects of stress are talked about plenty but healing the gut as one of the resolutions is rarely discussed. Yet we find a dramatic reduction in stress levels as a common consequence of fixing the leaky-gut situation.
If you’ve read this far, you should now appreciate how important it is for the body to maintain the integrity of your gut. The gut is literally an almost 30 foot passage intended for nutrient absorption including food, water, and air. It’s the only barrier you have, along with your outer skin, that separates your insides from the outside world. It’s designed to selectively take in the beneficial and discard the waste. Any holes in its fabric invariably allow things to enter the body causing it to put its guards up. That’s where majority of stress and inflammation comes from in a person with a leaky gut.
This situation presents a myriad of symptoms that may seem completely unrelated to what you’d consider as compromised gut. Keeping a healthy gut is the first step in improving your overall health. And this can’t be emphasized enough for those with what’s commonly known as the Leaky Gut Syndrome.
- 1Daneman R, Prat A. The blood-brain barrier. Cold Spring Harb Perspect Biol. 2015;7(1):a020412. Published 2015 Jan 5. doi:10.1101/cshperspect.a020412
- 2Obrenovich MEM. Leaky Gut, Leaky Brain?. Microorganisms. 2018;6(4):107. Published 2018 Oct 18. doi:10.3390/microorganisms6040107
- 3Stress Level Test: Blood Tests and Diagnosis By Walkin Lab. Published on November 13, 2014: https://www.walkinlab.com/blog/blood-tests-diagnosing-stress-levels