Is Leaky Gut the cause of your health problems?

The name may sound strange, but leaky gut, medically known as increased intestinal permeability can indeed be connected to a myriad of health issues.  Have you ever thought about the fact that the contents of the gut are technically outside the body? The intestinal barrier, with a surface area of 300-400 m2, is the largest interface between the body and external environment.  In healthy people, the barrier is tightly regulated, only allowing important nutrients to pass through the gut, and protecting the body from harmful substances such as toxins, undigested foods and pathogens.  When the digestive tract mucosa is inflamed, the tight junctions of the intestinal mucosa are compromised or become loose, which eventually leads to ‘leaky gut’ syndrome. When this happens undigested food particles, bacteria, and other pathogens leak into the bloodstream. Your body must then deal with these foreign invaders or undigested foods and does so by creating antibodies against them. You can now see how leaky gut can lead to food allergies and intolerances. Unfortunately it does not stop here. The integrity of the gut barrier has further impact on your immune system and in a leaky gut state can leave you vulnerable to environmental allergies (pollen, dust and moulds) and inflammation of your whole body creating further symptoms of ill health.  If not corrected quickly the immune system becomes more stressed, it is then less able to attack pathogens and invaders with precision.  Eventually, the body’s own tissues end up on the receiving end of the attack, which can then lead to an autoimmune disease.

Interestingly babies are born with a ‘leaky gut’ but if breastfed with antibody rich breast milk this ‘leaky gut’ is actually advantageous and important for their intestinal and immune development. However if mum doesn’t have plenty of microflora (good bacteria) in her digestive system, or perhaps breastfeeding may not be possible or effective for baby to get enough nutrition, she won’t be able to pass on healthy bacteria to her baby. In these cases using probiotics are essential in supporting the establishment of a healthy gut microbiome.  Microbiome is a term that describes the collection of microorganisms in the gut that aid digestion, metabolism and immune system function and which also have a crucial role in creating neurotransmitters that affect behaviour and brain function!

What are the signs and symptoms of ‘leaky gut’?

Leaky gut may result in digestive symptoms like bloating, gas, constipation or diarrhoea, but often presents itself as more complex symptoms, these include;

Food Allergies and Sensitivities – Because the tight junctions are more permeable in people with leaky gut, undigested food slips through the gaps and their immune systems are in overdrive-producing various antibodies, which makes their bodies more susceptible to certain foods (especially gluten and dairy). 

Inflammatory Skin Conditions – First described over 70 years ago, the gut-skin connection theory has described how leaky gut can cause many skin conditions; including eczema, acne, rosacea and psoriasis. 

Mood Issues and Autism – Studies have shown that leaky gut can trigger the release of pro-inflammatory cytokines and other chemicals which can cross into the brain and contribute to depression and autism. 

Thyroid Problems – One of the autoimmune diseases that leaky gut may directly affect is Hashimoto’s or Grave’s disease. 

What causes ‘leaky gut’?

There is no one thing that causes leaky gut, but rather a number of factors that contribute to increasing intestinal permeability.  I like to use the analogy of a ‘tank’. The more stressors that are placed on the body, the more the ‘tank’ fills up, when it is overflowing  there will be tell tail signs and symptoms.

Things that fill the ‘tank’ include:

Stress– a major factor.  Stress prevents healthy digestion.  It decreases our production of stomach acid, which leads to inadequate enzyme production, bile release and slows movement of food through the digestive tract. 

Maternal health– what was the mother’s health like when she was pregnant? Was she under a lot of stress? Did she have antibiotics during pregnancy or during labour? Did she suffer with recurrent thrush/candida? (there is so much l could say here about the importance of preconception care but l’ll save that for another article).  All of these factors have an impact on the tight junctions of the intestinal lining.  

Medications- such as antibiotics, some common pain medications (non-steroidal anti-inflammatories) or medication for reflux (proton pump inhibitors) have been shown to increase the permeability of the gut. 

A diet high in gluten, dairy and sugar.  These foods create inflammation in the body. Inflammation is bad for the body over long periods of time as it damages a lot of cells and tissues.  Studies have shown that gluten can cause gut cells to release zonulin, a protein that can break apart tight junctions in the intestinal lining. Dairy containing A1 casein has also been shown to damage the gut. 

Formula feeding-studies show that babies who are formula fed have a higher risk of developing autoimmune diseases later in life due to increased intestinal permeability. 

Eating foods that have been genetically modified also contributes to leaky gut.

Heavy metals like mercury from amalgam fillings or aluminium from vaccines also irritate the lining of the intestines causing inflammation.

Chemicals, pesticides, herbicides BPA, roundup-organophosphates break down the tight junctions of the intestinal lining as does alcohol and coffee.  

Can you heal ‘leaky gut’?

Yes! It is definitely possible to repair the lining of the gut.  Ideally this can happen reasonably quickly when the correct steps to healing are committed to, occasionally the healing process will take a bit longer and patience is needed to allow the body the time that is needed to get back to its best functional state.

Things you can do include

Eliminate gluten containing grains from your diet these are wheat, oats, rye, barley, spelt, kamut. However this is where I add that eliminating foods without the advice of a health professional is not really a great idea. Please check with me first!

Eliminate sugar and dairy from your diet

Take probiotics daily-this can be through diet via fermented foods such as sauerkraut, kimchi, kombucha, miso or supplement with probiotics.

Stress management techniques-meditation, exercise and yoga. 

Incorporate dietary herbs like turmeric into your daily diet. Turmeric, is an anti-inflammatory herb that helps heal the intestinal lining by decreasing inflammation.  Add to stir fries, drink ‘golden milk”, smoothies, scrambled eggs, curries and soups.   

Increase your intake of collagen and/or gelatin (cooked collagen). It’s important to note that l am not talking about commercially available jelly from the supermarket which has refined sugar and colours and preservatives.  I’m talking about gelatine that comes from pasture raised cattle.  

Gelatin contains amino acids such as glycine which strengthens the gut lining and therefore lowers inflammation.  It also enhances gastric acid secretion and a healthy mucosal lining in the stomach.  When you can effectively break down and absorb the food you are eating, you reduce the amount of inflammation in the gut.

Incorporate bone broth into your diet daily

Broth contains collagen, which nourishes the intestinal lining and reduces inflammation. Plus, it’s easy for a damaged gut to digest.  It’s important to use organic pasture fed bones. There is a recipe for broth on my website.

Supplements such as L-glutamine and slippery elm also assists in repairing the tight junctions of the GUT.   Digestive enzymes, hydrochloric acid (the main acid found in the stomach), pepsin, probiotics and zinc also play important roles in repairing leaky gut.  

Gummies Recipe

These are a great way of getting the gut healing benefits of gelatine into kids at the same time they think they are getting a treat.  

1 cup of frozen berries-raspberries, blueberries, blackberries (I use frozen organic Oob berries)

1 cup of filtered water

Place in a blender until pureed

Pour through a sieve into a saucepan 

Add 2.5 tablespoons of grass fed gelatine (I use great lakes)

1-2 tablespoon of pure maple syrup or honey.   (Depending on how sweet you like them)

Whisk until honey and gelatine have dissolved.

Pour into silicone moulds.

Place in the freezer for 20 minutes or until set.

I use the silicone moulds from Kmart as they come in cute shapes that the kids love.

This recipe fills approximately 3 trays

They can stored in an airtight container in the fridge for a few days (if they last that long).

Katherine Knott

Katherine is a certified naturopath and the founding director of Acorn and Oak.   She began studying Naturopathy when she was 18 years old and has practiced in both Melbourne and rural Victoria.  She has also studied 2 1/2 years of nursing and midwifery, but decided that she was happier to work with women as […]

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Alyce Beaton

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Brett is a certified counselling practitioner and holds membership with The Psychotherapy and Counselling Federation of Australia (PACFA).  He has counselling experience in healthcare, education, and crisis-centred settings.  He can help you you reduce distress and increase calm. If you feel distressed from the challenges that life has thrown at you, and sense this needs […]

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