by Dr. Will Cole
Research suggests that many chronic and autoimmune diseases have their roots in gastrointestinal problems, and a large part of that research is centered around damage to the intestine’s protective lining. This is called leaky gut syndrome and it happens when that gut lining permeability allows bacterial toxins and undigested food particles to pass into the bloodstream where they don’t belong. The intestinal security breach can cause inflammation cascades throughout the body and could even trigger chronic autoimmune disease.
But where does leaky gut begin? Here are some of the most common causes and how to address them to prevent leaky gut or heal your gut and reclaim your health:
Everything you eat either helps or hurts your gut health. The worst offenders are processed and sugary foods, devoid of nutrients. These lead to inflammation that can damage the integrity of your intestinal lining. There’s also evidence that in some people, gluten can cause inflammation to the gut and increase gut permeability. Alcohol can also increase gut-lining permeability according to research.
What to do: An elimination diet is a great way to uncover which foods aren’t working for your body and start healing your gut. I go over the plan in detail in my mindbodygreen video course.
Every medication has side effects. It amazes me how many people take medications every day and don’t know what the side effects are. For example, NSAIDs – common pain relievers like ibuprofen – antibiotics, and antacids have all been linked to increased intestinal permeability and inflammation.
What to do: Whenever possible, use natural alternatives to pharmaceuticals that won’t damage your body. Curcumin, for example, is a great natural anti-inflammatory. It’s important to remember to consult with your doctor before changing any medications.
3. Microbiome imbalances
Chronic gut infections and overgrowths of bacteria or yeast can contribute to low-grade, systemic inflammation that can lead to leaky gut syndrome. You don’t have to be experiencing digestive symptoms to have these underlying microbiome problems. You may be experiencing symptoms in other systems in your body and not be feeling anything in your gut, even though your microbiome balance is off.
What to do: Probiotics are one of my favorite tools for assisting in balancing the microbiome. A combination of bifidobacteria, enterococcus and lactobacillus has been shown to have a positive effect on small intestinal bacterial overgrowth (SIBO) and IBS symptoms.
4. Hormone imbalances
Hormonal dysfunctions involving estrogen, progesterone, testosterone, thyroid, and cortisol have all been linked to a lowered intestinal healing time, which could lead to increased gut permeability or failure to heal existing permeability despite “clean” dietary efforts.
What to do: Correcting the hormonal dysfunctions with functional medicine healing tools can stop the ongoing offense to the gut. Here are the labs to have run if you think hormonal issues might be at play.
Stress affects your health in many different ways, not the least of which is your gut. Many of my patients noticed their health declining during a difficult time in their life, but stress may not be obvious. Things you may overlook, like poor sleep or overtraining at the gym, can be stressful to the body.
Chronically high cortisol levels, suppressed secretory IgA (your gut’s immune system,) and decreased oxygen to your gut are all possible ways that stress can damage your gut.
What to do: Consistent mindfulness meditation and yoga are some of my favorite stress-reducing tools.
6. Autoimmune disease
The majority of your immune system is found in your gut, produced by your microbiome. Gut permeability may be both a trigger to autoimmune conditions as well as a symptom of the runaway inflammation that autoimmune conditions can cause.
Autoimmune diseases lead to increased levels of pro-inflammatory cytokines and nitric oxide, which can destroy intestinal tight junction proteins and contribute to leaky gut syndrome. This is all part of the storm of inflammation that is common with autoimmune spectrum problems.
What to do: There is no cure for autoimmune diseases, but you can help naturally balance the immune system and manage the condition, drastically reducing symptoms. Read my article for more information about inflammation and balancing nitric oxide.
7. Blood sugar problems
According to some estimates, 40 percent of Americans will develop diabetes at some point in their lives. This metabolic disease can harm the gastrointestinal system through the action of advanced glycation end products, or AGEs. These harmful compounds can become elevated when blood sugar goes and stays too high, creating the potential to damage the intestinal junctions.
What to do: Natural medicines such as alpha-lipoic acid, chromium, and cinnamon are some of my favorite blood sugar stabilizers.
8. Neurological problems
Your gut is sometimes called the “second brain” because it has a direct line of communication with the brain through the gut-brain axis. Because of this connection, brain problems can lead to leaky gut syndrome. Did you know that the gut and brain actually form from the same fetal tissue in the womb? That group of cells split when the baby is growing, forming both the GI tract and brain. The cells stay in communication throughout your life via the vagus nerve and the gut-brain axis.
Damage to the brain such as strokes, head traumas, and neurodegenerative conditions can hurt the gut-brain axis, decrease intestinal immunity, and trigger other health problems.
What to do: Find a qualified functional neurologist to rehab your brain function. You can learn more about brain inflammation in my article.
What to do if you think you might have leaky gut:
One way to find out for sure if you might have leaky gut syndrome is to have a blood test run to measure antibodies.
- Zonulin and Occludin Antibodies: These are the proteins that control gut permeability. Antibodies could indicate damage to the intestinal tight junctions.
- Actomyosin Antibodies: This could indicate there was destruction of healthy gut lining.
- Lipopolysaccharides (LPS) Antibodies: LPS are bacterial endotoxins in your gut. If antibodies are found in blood this could indicate leaky gut syndrome.
Now what? This is when the real work begins. Because every case is different and leaky gut syndrome can cause many different factors throughout the body, there are no quick fixes or magic pills. Generally speaking, I typically use natural medicines like L-glutamine and bone broth to heal the gut, but I also recommend working with a functional medicine doctor to address your individual physical response to your leaky gut.
If you want to learn more about your own health case please check out our free health evaluation. We offer in person as well as phone and webcam consultations for people across the country and around the world.
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