Do you have longstanding problems with digestion, headaches, food allergies, trouble focusing, skin conditions, or extreme fatigue? These are some of the clues hinting of chinks in the walls of your small intestine.
Digestive specialists regard leaky gut as a “syndrome,” a group of symptoms that occur together, associated with more than one medical diagnosis. Most often, the condition is linked to autoimmune and digestive disorders, such as celiac disease, ulcerative colitis, irritable bowel syndrome, and Crohn’s disease.
However, the intestinal injury underlying this syndrome can birth other medical problems. Here’s an explanation of leaky gut and how to go about repairing it.
The small intestine of your digestive tract or “gut” is designed to break down food and direct nutrients through its walls, into the bloodstream. In a healthy gut, these walls are “semi-permeable,” like a filter. Working selectively, they let small molecules like nutrients pass into the blood, but keep large, harmful molecules out, to be eliminated from the body.
This protective function is the role of epithelial cells, lining the intestinal walls. Normally, the epithelial cells are held together by adhesive proteins. These bonds are called “tight junctions.” If the proteins are destroyed, gaps form between the cells, allowing harmful substances to enter blood vessels. In this impaired state, the intestinal walls are no longer semi-permeable, but “hyper-permeable.”
Then, weak and leaky, the walls enable pathogens to freely circulate through the body. In this way, junction disruption is the physical mechanism of leaky gut, medically termed “intestinal hyper-permeability.”
Hazards that can pass through damaged tight junctions include parasites, bacteria, fungi, undigested food particles, and toxic waste. Immune cells like antibodies eliminate perceived invaders by disabling them. If dangerous elements reach high levels, antibodies get overly defensive. Then, suspicious of even healthy cells, antibodies attack them, too.
Such aggressive immune responses inflame and destroy body tissues. Constant assaults produce autoimmune disease. Any organ can be a target. For example, antibodies can strike the intestines, triggering ulcerative colitis, Crohn’s disease, and celiac disease.
However, headstrong antibodies aren’t entirely off-base. Many foreign substances keenly resemble body tissues, especially infectious bacteria, fungi, and parasites. So, antibodies have a plausible reason for becoming overzealous.
In fact, there’s a medical term for the similarities between foreign entities and human tissues, by which antibodies malfunction. Scientists call this phenomenon “molecular mimicry.” Foods that antibodies can easily mistake as threatening are gluten and dairy.
Digestive problems traceable to leaky gut are gas, bloating, constipation, chronic diarrhea, and irritable bowel syndrome (IBS). Associated malabsorption results in nutritional deficiencies. Some people battle cravings for carbs and sugar or struggle with food allergies and intolerance.
Poor digestion, malabsorption, and inflammation can also produce headaches, confusion, difficulty concentrating, memory loss, and chronic fatigue. Brain chemicals called “neurotransmitters” can be affected, making people prone to anxiety and depression.
Skin may reflect inflammation in the form of rosacea and eczema. Along with ulcerative colitis, Crohn’s, and celiac disease, misguided antibodies can prompt other autoimmune disorders, such as lupus, psoriasis, and rheumatoid arthritis.
Scientists are still working on identifying the roots of intestinal hyper-permeability. Various factors appear contributory, many of which you can control.
One is the high intake of sugar, alcohol, and non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), which can irritate intestinal linings. You’re more vulnerable to leaky gut if your diet is deficient in magnesium, iron, zinc, and vitamin B12. Genes also play a role.
Epithelial tight junctions are broken by infectious bacteria, yeast, and intestinal parasites. Being under constant stress disrupts normal immune function.
Five lab tests can help diagnose intestinal hyper-permeability. Your gastroenterologist will advise which are indicated in your case.
- Zonulin Test – This blood test reflects the extent of gut hyper-permeability by the level of zonulin, a protein secreted by epithelial cells. Excess zonulin destroys tight junctions. Epithelial cells crank out large amounts of zonulin in response to harmful bacteria, candida yeast, intestinal parasites, and gluten, in people sensitive to this wheat protein.
- Lactulose-Mannitol Test – Another measure of permeability is a urine test of lactulose and mannitol, large sugar molecules that can pass through the gut lining.
- IgG Food Intolerance Test – Food allergies can signal immune cells in overdrive, reacting to large molecules escaping through broken tight junctions. Food sensitivities can be subtle, producing low-grade, body-wide inflammation. This test pinpoints the causative foods you should eliminate.
- Stool Test – Fecal matter reveals inflammatory markers and pathogenic microbes. For this test, two stool samples are collected on separate days.
- Organic Acids Test – This urine test discloses high levels of organic acids, identifying nutritional deficiencies, yeast overgrowth, toxin buildup, and low digestive enzymes.
Thankfully, intestinal hyper-permeability can be remedied with the “4R Method.” This term refers to a four-step Action Plan – Remove, Replace, Repopulate, and Repair.
First, eliminate all foods inflaming your small intestine. Start by omitting the most common sources, namely dairy, gluten, eggs, soy, corn, alcohol, and caffeine. Cut back on refined sugar, by which harmful bacteria thrive.
Here’s a science-proven fact! Fast food, high in fat and refined sugar, makes your immune system more aggressive, treating the molecules like a bacterial infection. This is the finding of a 2018 study by the University of Bonn in Germany, published in the journal Cell.
So, when food shopping, bypass carbonated beverages, baked goods, and junk food. Also, avoid eating processed meats, including ham, corned beef, salami, bacon, hot dogs, cold cuts, sausages, beef jerky, and canned meat.
Keeping a food diary can help isolate any other problematic foods. Our staff dietician can guide you in this process, along with preparing tasty and nutritious meals, toward optimizing your gut health.
This “Remove” step includes treating bacterial, parasitic, and yeast infections. Also, if you regularly take anti-inflammatory medication, such as Aleve, Motrin, aspirin, Advil, or corticosteroids, discuss alternative symptom management with your gastroenterologist.
Swap harmful foods with healing ones, which help sustain your friendly gut bacteria. Note that these microbes need fiber to flourish. In your daily meals, include foods from each of the following categories:
- vegetables – broccoli, spinach, arugula, kale, Swiss chard, mushrooms, beets, carrots, sweet potatoes, turnips
- raw fruits – apples, berries, grapes, cherries, oranges, pineapple
- gluten-free grains – amaranth, millet, buckwheat, oats labeled “gluten-free”
- healthy fats – extra virgin olive oil, avocado
- nuts – almonds, walnuts, pistachios
- beverages – herbal teas, nut milks, water
Raise your levels of friendly bacteria or “probiotics” by taking a supplement. The live microbes will promote tight junctions, digestion, nutrient absorption, and efficient elimination. Boosting your probiotic colonies will also curb bad microbes and the toxins they produce. For the benefits of probiotic supplementation and how to choose a quality product, see this blog.
To aid nutrient absorption and intestinal healing, your gastroenterologist may recommend taking digestive enzymes. The doctor may also suggest supplemental glutamine, an amino acid that helps mend severed tight junctions. If testing reveals nutrient deficiencies, your doctor will advise ways to shore up the deficits.
Also, support your body’s repair mechanisms by reducing tension and stress. You’re better equipped to manage challenges by exercising regularly, relaxing daily, and getting seven to eight hours of sleep each night. Especially helpful for unwinding are yoga and meditation, which you can learn from qualified practitioners at libraries and community colleges.
At Digestive Care Physicians, our gastroenterologists have in-depth knowledge, skill, and experience in treating leaky gut. Each of our five doctors is board-certified, with a caring bedside manner and utmost professionalism. You’ll find all our staff members to be patient, friendly, and accommodating.
For your scheduling convenience, we have four North Atlanta offices, located in Lawrenceville, Cumming, Alpharetta, and Johns Creek. We also serve residents from neighboring towns, including Sandy Springs, Canton, Milton, Roswell, Duluth, Suwanee, and Marietta. To arrange an appointment, please call us at (770) 227-2222 or (470) 210-7766 for the Lawrenceville office.
Befriend your small intestine, and you’ll feel better soon!
Note: The information shared here cannot substitute for professional diagnosis and medical care. To remedy symptoms of leaky gut, contact Digestive Care Physicians.
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