Have you ever heard (or said) “You are what you eat”?
This is true now, more than ever.
Intestinal hyper-permeability, or “leaky gut”, is a term that’s commonly tossed around these days and many people conclude that it is the culprit of their symptoms.
So, what is leaky gut?
I am no professional artist, but I have attempted to draw a picture of leaky gut for you. On the left side you can see healthy “tight junctions” holding the cells of the gut barrier together. You can see plenty of Pac-Mans (AKA enzymes) breaking down foods. On the right side, those tight junctions are now “leaky” and food proteins are not well-digested by the enzymes.
These large proteins (yes, those are cows, eggs and bread) that should have been broken down into amino acids now being absorbed into the bloodstream, causing a systemic immune reaction a wreaking havoc all over your body. This is inflammation gone wild!
What causes leaky gut?
The causes of leaky gut can include:
Ingesting allergenic foods
Medications (including NSAIDs, antibiotics)
Celiac, inflammatory bowel disease, cystic fibrosis
What are the symptoms of leaky gut?
Of course, digestive symptoms can be present- inflammatory bowel disease, gastritis, acid reflux, gas/bloating, constipation, diarrhea, etc. Leaky gut becomes a systemic problem, though, as food proteins are absorbed into the bloodstream and our immune system reacts.
The list of symptoms that can be associated with leaky gut (and food allergies) seems endless… chronic ear and sinus infections, asthma, swollen lymph nodes, chronic colds and congestion, puffy eyes, bed wetting, interstitial cystitis, eczema, hives, acne, skin itching, arthritis, fibromyalgia, unexplained fluid retention, high blood pressure, arrhythmias, depression, anxiety, ADD/ADHD, OCD, oppositional defiant disorder, irritability, brain fog, seizures, etc.
If left untreated for long enough, it can contribute to the development of autoimmune conditions
How is leaky gut diagnosed?
First of all, if you think you have leaky gut, I wouldn’t recommend heading to your conventional gastroenterologist for the diagnosis. Seek out a naturopathic doctor or functional medicine doctor to help arrive at the diagnosis.
Your provider will likely run some tests. A few tests are available to directly test for leaky gut. I don’t usually use these, though, because they don’t tell me what is causing the problem. Some of those tests include urine lactose and mannitol (following ingestion of these two sugars) or blood occlutin and zonulin levels.
I think its more important to know the cause, though, so I tend to use stool testing, food allergy testing and adrenal testing to help guide me with treatment.
On a food allergy panel, if a handful of foods are reactive, that person probably doesn’t have leaky gut (but should avoid those foods, anyway). If 15+ foods are present, we suspect leaky gut.
On a side note, we use different tools to diagnose food allergies than conventional medicine. Whereas conventional medicine typically looks at only IgE (or immediate) reactions, we also look at IgG (or delayed) reactions.
A stool test in a person with leaky gut will likely show too much pathogenic bacteria or yeast, not enough healthy flora, low digestive enzymes, and levels of intestinal mucus and secretory IgA. Having the diagnosis of leaky gut is somewhat helpful, but understanding the cause is key!
How is leaky gut treated?
Again, don’t go to your conventional gastroenterologist for this. They will likely send you away with more antibiotics, anti-diarrheals or laxatives, or antacids- or they may offer you nothing and leave you discouraged.
In our world, addressing the cause is imperative. In addition to addressing the cause of leaky gut, we must also heal the leaky gut. We often refer to the 5-R Program:
1. Remove: eliminate the factors that negatively impact the GI tract (allergenic foods, parasites, pathogenic bacteria/yeast)
2. Replace: add back in digestive enzymes and other nutrients that support proper digestion
3. Reinoculate: replenish the GI tract beneficial bacteria and food sources for those bacteria (prebiotics)
4. Repair: help the GI tract repair by providing key herbs and nutrients (vitamins, minerals, zinc, antioxidants, amino acids, essential fatty acids)
5. Rebalance: maintain a healthy lifestyle with sufficient exercise and sleep, and tools to handle stress
This certainly is just a quick overview of leaky gut, and it can get more complicated. On a final note, if you have any unexplained symptoms that are persistent, look into getting evaluated for leaky gut (especially food allergies). You will want seek out a registered/licensed naturopathic doctor or a functional medicine doctor for more guidance.
Jodi Kunkel, ND
Between the Bridges Healing Center