Leaky Gut: What it is and how it can affect your health
by Sue Hughes, MSEd, HHP, CNC
The “gut”. Another term for the digestive tract. This part of the body that was once deemed significant only for the digestion of food to produce energy now is also known for its HUGE role in overall health and immune function. This is exciting news on many fronts and confirms my belief that the gut must be addressed at the very onset of any healing journey.
Gut health must come first.
It’s important to address gut health prior to talking about vitamin and mineral supplements so you can avoid wasting your money as you try to get yourself healthy! The situation is this: your gut must be capable of absorbing nutrients into the bloodstream in order for them to be used by the body to influence good health and healing. So first and foremost, we have to assure that the digestive tract can do that; that it is ready and willing to allow nourishment to reach the rest of the body.
Not only must we be concerned with the ability of the intestines to absorb nutrients properly, but we also must assure that the contents of the gut – undigested food particles – aren’t leaking out through the gut wall into the bloodstream, the lymph system or the surrounding immune cells (LEAKY GUT!) Once this happens, and it is pretty common these days due to poor diet, stress and nutrient deficiency (I’ll explain in more detail in the coming paragraphs), the immune cells do their thing and mount an attack on the leaked “foreign invaders”. So you can see how an issue that would seem to be isolated within the digestive system ends up wreaking havoc throughout the body as the immune system is triggered to protect us.
Before I dig further into leaky gut, let’s take a quick look at how digestion should work.
How digestion should work.
To gain a better understanding of the ins and outs of gut health in general, let’s take a look at exactly what is supposed to happen during the digestive process:
The Mouth, where it begins.
Digestion actually begins with that first bite of food. When you begin to chew (or sometimes even smell) the food, glands in your mouth do their thing by producing lots of saliva as your teeth grind up the food into manageable pieces. Even before you swallow that piece of food, an enzyme called amylase, present in your saliva, goes to work to begin the breakdown of any starch into sugar.
… to the Esophagus
Once your food is of a manageable size, your tongue pushes it to the back of your throat where muscles now take over and squeeze the food down through your esophagus, a conveyor-belt-like tubular structure leading to your stomach. This is an automatic process called peristalsis that, believe it or not, takes only about 3-6 seconds.
… to the Stomach
A valve at the end of the esophagus opens and allows the food to pass through to the stomach where it is sloshed back-and-forth incessantly. Here it mixes with an enzyme known as pepsin which helps to break down protein, and hydrochloric acid which kills off bacteria and other nasty stuff. The stomach is like a muscular sack of sorts that contracts and folds over on itself repeatedly, crushing and churning the mush into chyme, a creamy mixture that is suitable for gradual movement into the small intestine. This process can continue for a few minutes to a few hours.
… to the Small Intestine
So the chyme has now made its way into the first section of the small intestine – the duodenum – where it is diluted with bile salts from the gallbladder and pancreatic juices from the pancreas. The bile that I refer to is made in the liver and stored in the gallbladder. It is responsible for making fat easier to break down by an enzyme called lipase.
The pancreatic juices that I mentioned above are a mixture of sodium bicarbonate, used to neutralize any hydrochloric acid that may still be present from the chyme’s journey through the stomach, and additional digestive enzymes that continue to break down carbohydrates, proteins and fats.
The lining of the small intestine is covered in finger-like structures called villi that help the intestine get the most absorption bang for its buck. These tiny projections increase the surface area of the small intestine to about the size of a tennis court! So this is where the nutrients from the food you eat are absorbed into the bloodstream along with water, alcohol and sugar and what remains of any proteins and fatty acids. Once the nutrients are in the blood they travel to all of the cells of the body to supply energy or to repair and regenerate the cells.
… to the Large Intestine (Colon)
So now we’re down to the leftovers – parts of that bite of food that your body can’t use. These are pushed into the large intestine whose main function is to extract water from the food and send that water to the bloodstream. The colon is also inhabited by lots of bacteria that ferment dietary fiber and produce fatty acids, gas and certain vitamins that are absorbed into the blood. At this point that bite of food has now deteriorated into a watery, brown residue about a third of its original size, called feces. It is stored in the rectum to await excretion through your anus. This trip through the colon takes about 12-24 hours.
The main contributors to a healthy gut
So it’s clear that the gut is responsible for getting the nutrients out of our food and into our bloodstream where they can work their magic on our cells. Energy, cell repair, immunity and therefore disease prevention are the results of the successful absorption of these nutrients. In addition, when functioning as it should, the gut defends against invaders like germs and viruses, contributing more than we often realize to our overall immune function. Let’s look more closely at how these things happen:
Gut Bacteria (also called gut flora)
Remember how I mentioned that “lots of bacteria” are present in the colon? These bacteria include both good bacteria and bad bacteria; simplistically, the former has the goal of making us well while the latter has the goal of making us sick. So the obvious key to good health is to make sure the good bacteria outnumber the bad and that lots of different types of good bacteria are part of the mix.
So what do these “good bacteria” do that is so … well … good?
You may as well sit back and relax because the list is longer than you might expect!
- They produce digestive enzymes to help us break down proteins, carbohydrates, and fats.
- Assist in the movement of minerals, vitamins, water, and other nutrients through the wall of the colon into the bloodstream.
- Specific types (also termed “strains”) of bacteria are capable of making nutrients for us. The B vitamins, Vitamin K2, folic acid and a variety of amino acids are among those produced by gut bacteria.
- The bacteria also feed the cells of the intestinal wall that are responsible for the breakdown and absorption of our food. Without good bacteria, these cells would malfunction and become unable to meet the demands of this significant duty. So if your gut flora become imbalanced, you will become malnourished no matter how much you eat or how many supplements you take! This often manifests as intolerance to certain foods.
- Some health professionals actually consider our good gut bacteria an actual “organ” because, if you’re healthy, you will have an entire layer of this bacteria covering your digestive tract. This bacterial layer acts as a sort of barricade that protects you from bad bacteria, viruses, parasites, toxins, and food that hasn’t been completely digested. It does this by creating acid that lowers the pH of the intestinal wall, making it a totally undesirable environment for disease-causing pathogens.
- If unwanted toxins or cancer-causing carcinogens do happen to make it into the body, the gut bacteria can neutralize or inactivate these substances, rendering them harmless. Research has determined that gut flora can actually suppress the growth and development of cancer cells!
- Certain tissues of the lymph system (a filtering system that helps our immune function) are located in the gut wall and are stimulated by gut bacteria to produce white blood cells that fight infection. These cells produce antibodies that will inactivate and destroy harmful invaders that cross their path.
- Finally, our gut bacteria assists with the creation and function of a whole host of other immune system cells with far-reaching, body-wide implications. In fact, autoimmune disorders may very well be a result of insufficient numbers of good gut bacteria, as these disorders result from an imbalance of regulatory T-cells, a type of white blood cell that continuously scans the body for invading pathogens. It makeup of the gut bacteria directly affects the types, amounts, and balance of these T-cells.
So it turns out that having a less than adequate population of good bacteria in the gut is not only detrimental to our digestive health, but to the health of our entire body.
As we followed that bite of food through the digestive tract, it was evident that the body releases a bunch of enzymes at different points along the way in the digestive process. These enzymes are a necessity for complete breakdown of the foods we consume. Unfortunately, their production can be compromised by several factors including the types of foods we eat and the amount of time we put into chewing our food.
Let’s say you are one to wolf down your meals, swallowing much of your food without chewing it up sufficiently (ideally the goal should be to chew your solid food to the point that it becomes a liquid). In this case, the enzyme that typically begins the process of digesting carbohydrates – amylase – is not produced in sufficient amounts. The result? Most of the energy burden of digestion is placed upon the rest of the gut, potentially leading to incomplete breakdown of food and tummy discomfort.
Hydrochloric Acid (HCl)
We typically tend to think that we have too much of this so we pop some Prilosec for relief, when in fact, most of the time we don’t have enough Hydrochloric Acid. This refers to our stomach acid. It helps digest proteins by “melting” them down and it triggers the production of an enzyme called pepsin which further breaks down the protein we eat.
Hydrochloric Acid also acts as an antiseptic in the stomach, protecting us from harmful bacteria in our food due to unsafe handling, insufficient cooking time, or rancidity. It prevents foods from fermenting in the gut, helping us avoid common sources of digestive issues like food-poisoning, yeast overgrowth, viruses, and parasites.
Lastly, HCl assists with the absorption of minerals into the bloodstream. Without sufficient amounts of it, serious nutrient deficiencies can occur. So can you guess what happens when you pop those acid-blocking medications? You are blocking the production of one of the most important substances involved in the proper nourishment of your body – key nutrients that are a necessity for healing! If you do have issues with acid reflux, the addition of a supplemental probiotic and digestive enzymes will likely help you feel a whole lot better. There is also an amazing herb that actually helps to heal the esophagus and increase the mucosal layer that lines and protects the gut – DGL Licorice. Read more about that here!
And what about the food we consume? Does that play a role when it comes to digestion? It sure does. Whole foods (foods that don’t have a list of ingredients because they are the ingredients!) like fruits and veggies, actually come from nature “packaged” with their own enzymes. When we eat these amazing foods, they give our own system some help with digestion, requiring less energy from the body to do its thing. Pineapple, for instance, contains an enzyme called bromelain that helps breaks down proteins. The cool thing is that enzymes like this have benefits well beyond making your tummy feel good! Check out my article on bromelain to learn more about how it can benefit your health.
At this point, you’ve probably seen many TV commercials touting the health benefits of yogurt. There’s a bit of truth in that marketing, but you have to be careful. Fermented foods like yogurt can be chock full of good bacteria, but watch out for added sugar and not-so-healthful additives and preservatives in the list of ingredients. You have to do some searching but there are some very healthful brands of yogurt out there including my favorite, Seven Stars Farm Organic Plain Yogurt. Similarly, other foods like sauerkraut, kefir, kombucha, pickled beets and even traditional sourdough bread can support gut health with their beneficial probiotics when added into your diet.
What is Leaky Gut? How a digestive-tract issue becomes a whole-body emergency.
This is what can happen if the key players mentioned above aren’t being addressed: Leaky Gut. Let’s dig further into this issue.
Much of our immune system is actually in the tissues that surround the gut. This is the body’s way of protecting itself from invaders like nasty bacteria, viruses, toxins, spoiled food, and so on, and it works to our benefit if everything is functioning properly. As I pointed out previously, digestion includes key players, like enzymes and hydrochloric acid, that assist in breaking down the food we eat into the smallest of particles like amino acids, fatty acids and simple sugars. These are nutrients that our cells need for energy so they must be small enough to cross the intestinal wall and make it to the bloodstream. Particles of food that haven’t been broken down into their simplest forms are not supposed to be able to cross that barrier! If they can, well, the label for that condition is Leaky Gut.
How does the gut wall get to the point where it becomes compromised . . . or leaky?
One of several things may occur that allows larger particles to breach the intestinal barrier. First, the cells that line the gut and are responsible for the absorption of water and nutrients – enterocytes – can become damaged or even destroyed. This can occur if these cells are exposed to an overload of toxins, pathogens or certain dietary proteins coming from grains, legumes and nightshade vegetables like potatoes, tomatoes, and peppers, to name a few. Once these enterocytes are not able to function properly the gut wall becomes a revolving door.
Also playing a role in the development of leaky gut are tight junctions. These closely bind together the cells that line the gut so that there is little to no space between them. The tight junctions are not completely locked into place, though, as there has to be give and take so nutrients can pass through. Problems arise only when the tight junctions open inappropriately. One mechanism that stimulates this unhealthy action is a protein called zonulin. It is believed that zonulin is secreted in excess with exposure to gluten and other grain-based proteins, alcohol, elevated stress hormones, and certain pathogens.
The consequences of Leaky Gut
So any time the lining of the gut allows things to pass through that aren’t supposed to, the immune system mounts an all-out attack and we have inflammation. With inflammation comes decreased ability of the gut to absorb nutrients, which, in and of itself can be the cause of a whole host of health issues. Remember, our cells need nutrients to function properly. And if cells can’t function properly, that trickles up to every system of the body, disallowing their proper function. So the result can be autoimmune disease, allergies, chronic conditions like hypertension, hormone imbalances, nervous system and mood disorders, and of course, digestive problems like gas, bloating pain and food sensitivities (the latter can be a cause or an effect of leaky gut – it’s a vicious cycle).
All of this is why I believe that the gut must be the first part of the body addressed when embarking on a health program!
Preventing Leaky Gut
Believe it or not, simply making sure you chew your food well and that you create a stress-free eating environment can be two very powerful precursors to healthy digestion. As stated earlier, proper chewing gives digestion a sort of jump-start, lessening the chance of incomplete breakdown. In addition, take care to eliminate processed foods and sugar from your diet. Cut back on (or even eliminate) those foods, like grains (even whole grains) and nightshade vegetables, that tend to promote an inflammatory response. Steer clear of added ingredients like carrageenan, that have been implicated in digestive disorders (View my article on this troublesome ingredient.)
Supplementing with a high quality probiotic and possibly hydrochloric acid and digestive/pancreatic enzymes will also help the whole digestive process run smoothly and give your body the best chance of actually absorbing whatever targeted healing nutrients you ingest.
And once you’ve addressed the basics of gut health, it’s important to uncover nutrient deficiencies and replenish what may be missing. Not all bodies are the same! We are all very unique when it comes to how we metabolize or break down, our food into nutrients. Not to mention the huge differences in how our bodies react to physical and emotional stress, causing nutrients to be burned as fuel just to cope. So consider working together with a naturopathic nutrition counselor who can help you determine the needs of your own specific body and assist you with building a healthy digestive system.
Some helpful resources . . .
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For a comprehensive account of the importance of the gut to overall health, take a look at a few of my other articles on the subject:
- Probiotics: The Amazing Front Line of Optimal Health
- An Uneven Playing Field: Bacteria at Birth
- Intestinal Dysbiosis: The Root of All Illness?
- It’s Never Too Late to Heal Your Gut! (and the results may surprise you)
Thank you for stopping by and reading about digestive health and leaky gut. If you have any questions or would like some help with your specific situation, go ahead and set up a phone consultation below. I’d love to chat with you and help you feel your best!
Best of health,
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