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Dealing with gut disorders can be complicated and exhausting, especially if you’re trying to figure it out all on your own. A quick online search will reveal endless answers for your digestive woes, what’s causing them, and how to be cured once and for all. Leaky gut is just one of the answers you might stumble upon if you’ve done some research of your own.
Before we get into leaky gut, being familiar with the basics of digestive function and the gut microbiota will be helpful. Read our post “3 Things You Need to Know About Your Gut” to get caught up. Feeling up to speed? Great! Now we are going to get into a little more detail about the lining of the digestive tract, or the intestinal barrier, to help us put the pieces together and grasp this ‘leaky gut’ concept.
The intestinal barrier
The digestive tract is protected by a barrier which regulates absorption of nutrients as they flow through the small and then large intestine, and into the bloodstream where they are circulated throughout the body. The main component of the barrier is a single layer of different specialized cells that makes up a large part of our immune system! Amazing, right? This barrier only allows the passage of certain molecules into the bloodstream. In a healthy and well-functioning body, this barrier prevents the entry of pathogens, toxins, and undigested nutrients (all the things we don’t want!) into the bloodstream.
Photo credit: Solving the IBS Puzzle
What is leaky gut?
Think of all of these substances making their way through the digestive tract as cars on a highway – the highway being your intestines. How does your body regulate the flow of contents in the digestive tract out into circulation? Well, the specialized cells that make up the intestinal barrier are joined together by junctions, and it is these junctions which determine how permeable the intestinal barrier is. There are three types of junctions, but we will be focusing on one type called tight junctions. These tight junctions direct the traffic on the digestive tract highway, and are responsible for keeping the flow of traffic safe at the intersection between the intestinal barrier and the blood stream. Leaky gut occurs when these tight junctions become weakened. Going back to our highway metaphor, this means that traffic is no longer closely regulated, and substances that maybe weren’t supposed to leave the digestive tract can now sneak out into the blood stream.
What causes leaky gut?
Inflammation (possibly from infections and stress) is thought to be a potential cause for the weakening of the tight junctions, leading to leaky gut. Low grade inflammation can be caused by a variety of things, including a diet high in fat and refined sugars. There is also research looking into the use of industrial food additives that may interfere with tight junctions. So, much like IBS, there does seem to be a connection between diet and leaky gut. We don’t yet know enough to say whether food causes leaky gut, or whether food can help treat or manage the disorder.
We do know that food DOES NOT cause IBS, but that it can be successful in managing symptoms using the Low FODMAP diet. Sign up to get a copy of the free guide that will help you adopt this diet and potentially help you significantly improve digestive symptoms:
How is leaky gut treated?
So, if the underlying problem of leaky gut is inflammation, how do we reduce inflammation to tighten up those tight junctions and regain control of that intersection? Much like SIBO, leaky gut is fairly new to the scene of digestive health disorders. Although we are starting to get an idea of what causes it and how it might be improved, we don’t have conclusive evidence on how to cure it. However, here are a few proposed treatments:
Proteins and fats. The intestinal barrier is made up of lots of different fatty acids and proteins. Certain fatty acids (like omega-3s), as well as butyrate (produced by certain species of probiotic bacteria found in the gut), and proteins such as glutamine and tryptophan have all been associated with reducing inflammation of the intestinal barrier and restoring normal permeability by strengthening tight junctions.
Zinc. Similar to the way that certain proteins and fatty acids may help repair the intestinal barrier and restore normal permeability, zinc may also help in this area. This trace element is used for cellular repair, and has been shown to help strengthen tight junctions in the small and large intestine of Crohn’s patients.
Probiotics. Several trials have tested probiotic supplements and their potential to treat IBD, however results so far have indicated more success in preventing flare ups rather than treating the disease. There is however, potential for probiotics to help restore a healthy balance of gut bacteria. Probiotics may have anti-inflammatory effects which could help strengthen the intestinal barrier. Since an imbalance or disruption of gut bacteria may have a part to play in disrupting the intestinal barrier and increasing permeability through weakening of tight junctions, scientists are exploring the possibility that probiotics may be an effective treatment for leaky gut.
Vitamin D. This sunshine vitamin is involved in maintaining the intestinal barrier by inhibiting inflammation. Further research needs to be done to understand if and how vitamin D could potentially treat leaky gut. The effects of vitamin D deficiency (common during the winter months in places like Canada amongst those who do not take a vitamin D supplement) also need to be determined. Could vitamin D deficiency contribute to the development of leaky gut? This is just one of the many questions we have still to answer about this gut disorder.
Now that we’ve covered the basics of leaky gut, we can delve deeper into what this all means for those suffering from IBS and IBD. Could they be connected?
Join me in the free Facebook group Beyond FODMAPs where you can connect with others, get advice and support to help you improve your digestive health and better manage symptoms.
Yours in health,
Stephanie and The Team
References for this article
Rapin JR, Wiernsperger N. Possible links between intestinal permeability and food processing: a potential; therapeutic niche for glutamine. Clinics. 2010;65(6):635-43
Odenwald MA, Turner JR. Intestinal permeability defects: is it time to treat? Clin Gastroenterol Hepatol. 2013;11(9):1075-1083.
Fasano A. Leaky gut and autoimmune diseases. Clin Rev Allerg Immunol. 2012;42:71-78.