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What's Going on With My Gut? Part 1

More and more people are being left frustrated with a diagnosis of irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) for their numerous painful, uncomfortable and often very debilitating gut symptoms, with no real understanding of what is actually going on and how properly to address their symptoms. There are numerous underlying root causes of IBS, one of which is ‘Intestinal Permeability’, commonly referred to as ‘leaky gut.’ Today ‘leaky gut’ is one of the most overlooked health conditions in the world, yet is often the underlying cause of gas, bloating, thyroid problems, food sensitivities and even many autoimmune conditions.

What is leaky gut?

Your digestive tract is designed to separate the 'inside world' from the ‘outside world’. When you eat food, it embarks on a journey through your gut, breaking down along the way into nutrients to be absorbed and assimilated by your body. Digestion (i.e. the breaking down of food particles) starts in the mouth, continues in the stomach (with the aid of stomach acid and digestive enzymes) and is completed in the small intestine.

In the small intestine, the nutrients are absorbed into the bloodstream to be transported where required and the toxic waste products make their way into the large intestine to be ultimately excreted.

Your digestive tract is home to trillions of bacteria, many of which perform important functions in digestion, synthesising of vitamins and strengthening your immunity. What you do not want are any undigested food particles, toxins, bacteria or other pathogens escaping the digestive tract and making their way into your bloodstream. 'Leaky gut' is a condition where you begin to develop larger openings in the intestinal gut lining, allowing undesirable large molecules to ‘escape’ into the bloodstream, opening the doorway for the development of inflammation, disease and numerous autoimmune conditions such as rheumatoid

arthritis and Hashimoto’s disease.

'Leaky gut' is a condition where you begin to develop larger openings in the intestinal gut lining, allowing undesirable large molecules to escape into the bloodstream.

The easiest analogy to help you understand this is comparing your gut to a sieve, allowing micronutrients, vitamins, minerals and amino acids (individual components of protein molecules) to move slowly through the sieve and into the bloodstream. If the holes of a sieve become big, they allow unwanted particles to get through, as happens when the fragile gut lining tears or becomes more permeable. This allows unwanted macromolecules (as opposed to micromolecules) and unwanted microbes to get through, causing the body to activate an immune response to molecules it does not recognise and considers ‘the enemy.’ This response involves an increase in inflammatory messages throughout the body and, if left unchecked, can spiral out of control. Today there is accumulating research and health expert reports which consider inflammation to be one of the root causes of all disease.

What causes ‘leaky gut'

The two most common culprits, according to Professor Alessio Fasano, MD, from Harvard Medical School, are gluten and an imbalance of the gut microbiome. According to Fasano’s research, gluten stimulates the protein zonulin which causes the gut lining to become more ‘leaky’. An imbalance in gut microbiome, dominated by pathogenic microbes or lacking in diversity, may contribute to an overall inflammatory environment, which can lead to ‘leaky gut.’ Some microbes, such as candida albicans, are known to ‘burrow’ into the gut lining causing holes. Whenever there is serious digestive distress after eating, especially foods such as nuts, seeds, legumes, grains, wheat/gluten, there is a strong possibility of a ‘leaky gut’ condition. Toxic overload, chronic stress and a bad diet can also lead to leaky gut.

Warning signs that you may have leaky gut

If you suffer from:

  • Food sensitivities or allergies;

  • Gas, bloating, cramping;

  • Inflammatory bowel disease such as Crohn’s disease or ulcerative colitis;

  • One or more autoimmune diseases. Once the gut linings open up proteins like gluten or casein leak into your bloodstream causing inflammation. If left unchecked, over time this can lead to an autoimmune response and the development of issues such as Type 1 diabetes, rheumatoid arthritis, Graves’ disease, Hashimoto’s, lupus, fibromyalgia or chronic fatigue. Autoimmune disease is a big warning sign that you may have ‘leaky gut’[1];

  • Thyroid and adrenal issues;

  • Joint pain or rheumatoid arthritis;

  • Any type of malabsorption issues. Vitamin and/or mineral deficiencies indicate there is possibly a malabsorption issue which can be a sign of ‘leaky gut’;

  • Skin issues such as acne, rosacea and dry, flaking skin are often linked to leaky gut and often once the gut is healed, these skin issues will clear up;

  • Mood issues such as anxiety, depression, bipolar and other behavioural issues like ADHD have been linked to leaky gut, with more and more research coming out on the connection between your gut and your brain health.

How to find out you have a leaky gut

Currently, the only reliable test for leaky gut is a 'blood zonulin test'. Zonulin is a protein that affects the gatekeepers of your gut lining (ie the things that decide what to let through into your bloodstream and what to keep out).

Zonulin can change the size of the openings in your gut lining. Some zonulin is necessary to ensure that certain nutrients get into the bloodstream. However too much zonulin can lead to leaky gut and a blood test can determine whether your zonulin levels are too high. Generally, gluten plays a big role in increasing zonulin, as do candida / yeast, harmful bacteria and parasites. Celiacs tend to have high levels of zonulin, even without one of these. This test is most valuable when a person is symptomatic. If you feel that you would like this blood test, the best option is to consult a nutritional therapist or qualified functional medicine practitioner. Testing can give valuable cause information, it can be a personal preference and cost can be a factor. Regardless of getting tested or not, changes to diet and lifestyle are the most effective ways to address a leaky gut.

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