Imagine trying to identify an “illness” about which medical schools never teach. Leaky gut syndrome falls into such a category and as of late, has gotten much attention. Experts have even gone so far as to wonder whether it really exists. According to Dr. Linda A. Lee, a gastroenterologist and Director of the Johns Hopkins Integrative Medicine and Digestive Center, “In the absence of evidence, we don’t know what it means or what therapies can directly address it.”
Leaky gut syndrome commonly associated with bloating, cramps, and food sensitivities, remains somewhat of an enigma in the medical field, but is generally understood as increased intestinal permeability. Problematic increases in intestinal permeability or intestinal hyperpermeability top the list of possible culprits in the onset of a leaky gut and the ensuing malabsorption of vital nutrients. The cells lining the intestines (epithelial layer) form a porous barrier. The normally secure, tight gut junctions function as the gate-keepers of which substances pass through the small intestinal lining.
This passage enables the body to absorb ingested nutrients from the foods we eat. When these junctions become enlarged in size, unwanted substances can enter the bloodstream, often leading to bothersome inflammation. Under conditions where the permeability of this lining finds itself compromised, toxins and bacteria can enter the blood stream… hence the term “leaky” gut. The leak leads to inflammation, bloating, stool changes, nutritional deficiencies, and fatigue.
In individuals with such a genetic predisposition, a leaky gut allows entrance of environmental factors, thereby initiating the cascade of events that can bring about autoimmune diseases (celiac disease, irritable bowel syndrome and Crohn’s, to name a few). Some studies show a correlation between leaky gut and autoimmune diseases occurring outside of the digestive tract, such as lupus, type 1 diabetes, fibromyalgia and arthritis.
Once the immune system gets activated, its cells travel from the gut and begin attacking tissues and organs randomly, including the brain/CNS. This leads to the common complaints of so many individuals who suffer from leaky gut syndrome: a feeling of “brain fog”, lack of focus/concentration, fatigue, anxiety, and depression.
Lifestyle Likely to Blame
The medical profession does acknowledge, to a certain degree, that today’s lifestyle may play a significant role in the development of leaky gut syndrome. Our typical Western diet, laden with sugars and saturated fats plus notoriously lacking in fiber, figures prominently. Seeking out a gastroenterologist with a strong background in gut-related nutrition, or even a skilled nutritionist that can perform micronutrient testing, can make a big difference for many sufferers.
Chronic stress also contributes to a large percentage of leaky gut cases. Dr. Lee suggests trying meditation before medication as a means of mitigating life’s daily pressures. When combined with diet modifications, holistic treatments fit the bill, especially when more invasive tests fail to identify any underlying pathology. Proponents hope that such measures can at least lessen the effects of an unhealthy and frenetic lifestyle.
The Path Toward a Healthier Gut
A great amount of attention these days focuses on the “superpowers” of both apple cider vinegar and lemon water for promoting a healthy gut. Do the products live up to the hype?
Unfortunately, a very small amount of evidence exists to cause much of a stir; still, proponents extoll the virtues of sipping lemon-infused hot water or apple cider vinegar mixed with warm water first thing in the morning as a panacea for gut ailments.
The polyphenols, enzymes, and beneficial bacteria contained in the so-called “mother” of apple cider vinegar may foster a better microbiome in the gut. The fiber (most notably pectin), as well as the abundance of vitamin C, found in lemons can potentially lessen gut inflammation. However, one must weigh this against the possibility of acidic erosion of tooth enamel with overconsumption.
While green tea leads the pack in antioxidants, a new contender in the hot beverage family might just work better towards alleviating leaky gut syndrome. Blue tea, the centuries-old gem from Southeast Asia, resembles traditional tea but comes under the classification of “tisanes”, beverages not actually prepared from tea leaves but rather made by infusing leaves and flowers from the Clitoria ternatea plant.
A study appearing in the International Research Journal of Pharmacy revealed that the antioxidant level found in blue tea shows great promise in the treatment of both external and internal (gut-related) inflammation. Another research study, the data of which appeared in the prestigious Journal of Pharmacology, Biochemistry and Behavior, points to evidence that regular consumption of blue tea can positively affect stress-related mood swings and the central nervous system in general. Once again, the potential for relief by sipping hot tea underscores the importance of finding ways to deal with the symptoms of leaky gut, even in the absence of a definitive diagnosis.
The Gut and Glutamine
Many web sites offer information on treating leaky gut, despite a lack of research on the subject. Believers extoll the virtues of taking L-glutamine supplements to strengthen the lining of the small intestine. Glutamine, considered “the fuel of the intestinal cell lining”, helps regenerate the cells, which incidentally heal faster than the majority of tissues anywhere else in the human body. However, such claims remain largely anecdotal, based more upon theory than scientific data.
As we have come to understand, anything that causes irritation of the intestinal epithelium can potentially trigger leaky gut syndrome. Doctors note the following as the most common causes:
- Food sensitivities (especially gluten and dairy)
- Overuse of NSAID’s
- Environmental toxins
Although still considered unusual to hear the term “increased intestinal permeability” in most doctors’ offices, alternative and integrative medicine practitioners have worked on gut healing as an initial step to treat chronic diseases for decades. We can only hope that future studies help elucidate the problem. Still, when speaking with patients, physicians will always stress the current lack of reliable information on this mystifying ailment.