Hippocrates told us 2000 years ago that “bad digestion is the root of all evil.” In the early 20th century, Nobel laureate Elie Metchnikoff (who won the Nobel Prize for Medicine for his work on intestinal milieu) said: “Death begins in the colon.” Ongoing research confirms that the root cause for many undesired immune reactions originates in the Gastrointestinal (GI) tract.
Abnormalities in the GI tract can, over time:
- Compromise the integrity of the gut barrier and increase intestinal permeability. This is known as Leaky Gut Syndrome (LGS).
- LGS occurs when the tight junctions of the intestinal mucosa become compromised. They become widened and permeable so that large, undigested compounds, toxins and bacteria can pass through the intestinal mucosa and into the circulatory system.
- These compounds and organisms are reacted upon by the immune system which sees them as antigens (foreign and harmful invaders) that need to be broken down and destroyed. These antigens challenge the immune system and trigger the production of antibodies to neutralize the antigens.
- Reaction to these antigens activates powerful immune responses, resulting in the production of pro-inflammatory cytokines.
- Cytokines are immune protein cells that are produced by our immune cells when the system is under stress. Huge amounts of pro-inflammatory cytokines can flood the system leading to accelerated destruction of the GI tract and other organs and tissues of the body.
- Increased cytokine and antibody production increase intestinal barrier permeability.
- A vicious cycle can ensue due to an exaggerated immune response both within the gut and systemically.
- LGS can lead to systemic inflammation resulting in autoimmune disease
Intestinal Barrier System
The epithelium are the cells that line the hollow organs and glands in our bodies. Most produce mucus or other secretions. This single cell lining of the intestines form an amazingly large surface area, about the size of a tennis court.
Our intestinal mucosa provides a barrier against the massive load of dietary antigens and microbes passing through our digestive system each day. An average human consumes between 3 and 7 tons of food in a lifetime. Much of this food carries potentially antigenic material (bacteria, molds, yeast, viruses, etc.). An intact intestinal barrier is critical to normal physiological function and the prevention of disease.
Major causes of Leaky Gut Syndrome (LGS):
- Gluten: In genetically predisposed people, a single dose of gluten, a dietary protein found in wheat, can cause increased intestinal permeability.
- Casein: It is found in large quantities in cow’s milk protein.
- Fast Foods: Chemicals in processed foods are extremely irritating.
- Alcohol: Promotes intestinal bacterial growth and permeability.
- Antibiotics: Dramatically upset the intestinal environment.
- Antacids: They upset acid levels in the stomach necessary for good digestion.
- H Pylori: This extremely common bacteria is the major cause of gastric and duodenal ulcers.
- Intestinal Dysbiosis: This is a condition where microbial imbalances develop in the gut. In small amounts, microbial colonies found in the gut are usually benign or beneficial. When the balance is disturbed due to factors like antibiotic exposure or alcohol misuse, an overgrowth of one or more of the disturbed colonies can develop into a chronic and pervasive imbalance allowing pathogenic microbes to take control.
- Yeast overgrowth
- Intestinal viruses
- Stress: Even normal life stress can predispose us to gut inflammation.
- Blood Sugar Imbalances: They can alter our stress response and trigger multiple pathways leading to leaky gut.
- Hormone Imbalances: They have a major influence on GI Function.
- The thyroid hormones T4 and T3 have been shown to protect the intestinal mucosal lining from injury.
- Low levels of T4 and T3 can cause decreased stimulation of gastric and intestinal cells leading to ulcers and intestinal permeability.
- Low levels of T4 and T3 lead to decreased levels of HCL and pancreatic enzymes, impair gallbladder function and decrease bowel motility.
- Decreased HCL can allow parasites and bacteria to pass through the stomach into the intestines.
- Proper levels of Estradiol decrease colonic permeability.
- Progesterone protects the intestinal lining.
- Lack of testosterone delays intestinal healing.
Health Conditions Associated with Leaky Gut
Increased permeability of the intestinal barrier is associated with a variety of local and systemic inflammatory conditions.
- Gluten Sensitivity and Celiac disease
- Food Allergies/Multiple Food Sensitivities
- Inflammatory Bowel diseases: such as ulcerative colitis and Crohn’s disease
- Chronic Yeast Overgrowth
- Autoimmune Disorders: These include diseases like hashimoto’s hypothyroid, graves disease, multiple sclerosis, rheumatoid arthritis, and type 1 diabetes
- Chronic Fatigue Syndrome
- Depression: Gram negative bacteria in the intestine, called Lipopolysaccharides, elicit strong immune responses when they get into the bloodstream. They are able to pass through the Blood Brain Barrier and play a major role in depression.
- Chronic Pain/Fibromyalgia
How to Test for Leaky Gut Syndrome?
The main method for testing LGS was developed over 40 years ago. This test measures the absorption of lactulose and mannitol, which are small molecular sugars, into the bloodstream. Elevated levels indicate a leak in the gut barrier. However, in LGS, we are mostly concerned with the passage of large molecules.
In the past year, a new more conclusive test was approved. This test measures antibody reactions against specific, large molecular gut proteins, along with lipopolysaccharide endotoxins. An antibody response occurs when these proteins and endotoxins have passed through the gut barrier.
Treating Leaky Gut Syndrome
Treating LGS can be quite difficult. All of the factors involved must be addressed. The over-zealous immune responses causing the dramatic increases in antibodies and cytokines and the resultant inflammation must be moderated and balanced. Dealing with these factors is beyond the scope of this article. However, with persistence, proper laboratory testing and the aid of a knowledgeable practitioner, most cases can be significantly improved or fully resolved.
A successful LGS program, however, must include (for a period of time) a restricted diet, designed to reduce intestinal inflammation, along with targeted nutritional supplements and herbs. The program length depends on the severity of the condition and may need to be followed for anywhere between ten days to possibly six months or longer in more severe cases.
A word of advice, any dietary indiscretions during the program can stimulate an inflammatory response and ruin the outcome. It takes time for an ailing gut to heal.
Foods to Avoid
- Remove all potentially irritating foods and potential allergens
- Processed Foods: including canned, boxed and bottled foods
- Sugars: including corn syrup, molasses, honey, chocolate, candy
- High Glycemic Fruits: like watermelon, mango, pineapple and raisins
- All Grains: including wheat, oats, rice, soy, corn, wheat germ, quinoa etc.
- Gluten Containing Compounds: such as processed salad dressing, ketchup, soy sauce, barbecue sauces, mayonnaise, condiments and modified food starch
- Cow’s milk products: including whey, cheeses, creams, yogurt
- Soy: including soy milk, soy sauce, soy protein, etc.
- Alcohol: including beer, wine, etc.
- Lectins: including nuts, beans, soy, potatoes, tomatoes, eggplant, peppers, peanut oil and soy oil
Foods to Eat
- Most Vegetables: except tomatoes, potatoes and mushrooms
- Fermented Foods: like sauerkraut, kimchi, pickled ginger, kombucha tea, homemade coconut yogurt and pickles
- Meats: including fish, chicken, beef, lamb, etc.
- Low Glycemic Fruits: including apricots, plums, apples, peaches, pears, cherries and berries
- Coconut: including fresh coconut, coconut oil, coconut milk
- Herbal teas, olives, olive oil
Natural Substances to Treat Gut Pathogens and Provide Intestinal Support
The following are a list of substances to consider taking in a LGS program. I am not suggesting that you take all of these, but to use this list as a guideline for treatment:
Olive Leaf Extract
Golden Seal Root Extract
Oregano Oil Extract
Oregon Grape Root Extract
Coptis Chinensis Extract
Yerba Mansa Extract
Intestinal Microbial Support
Restoration and Healthy Maintenance of the Intestinal Mucosa
Aloe Leaf Extract
Gluten Sensitivity is a systemic autoimmune disease with diverse manifestations. Gluten, a long-chain protein found in many grains is a key factor in most GI and autoimmune conditions. Many of you have undiagnosed Gluten Sensitivity. In the vast majority of cases, resolution of the issues that we have addressed in this article are impossible if Gluten Sensitivity is not handled.
It is essential to learn what foods contain gluten.
Gluten Containing Grains
- Oats (technically not a gluten, but usually gluten contaminated when not from gluten-free farms)
Hidden Sources of Gluten
- Soy Sauce
- Food Starches
- Food Emulsifiers
- Artificial Food Coloring
- Malt extract, flavor and syrup
There has been an explosive increase in Gluten Sensitivity in recent years. The main factors causing this increase include:
- Genetically modified grains: Although not required to state this fact, most wheat has been genetically modified.
- Gluten Deamidation: The food processing industry uses an acid or enzymatic treatment method designed to make gluten soluble when mixed with other foods, like milk. This process has been shown to cause severe allergic reactions in many people. The extensive use of deamidated wheat isolates in the food industry may be the major cause of hidden food allergies.
- Gluten is stored in bins for long periods of time leading to enterotoxin contamination.
- Leaky Gut Syndrome
- Chronic Stress leads to a breakdown of immune tolerance.
Gluten Sensitivity Testing
For the most part, Gluten Sensitivity testing is insufficient and misses many cases of Gluten Sensitivity. Most lab testing, (whether it be of the blood, saliva or stool) measures only antibodies to Alpha-Gliadin (one specific component of wheat protein). However, wheat protein consists of other components, all of which have the capacity to challenge the immune system.
A new, state-of-the-art test from Cyrex Labs, measures immune reactions to 24 different components found in gluten-containing grains, including the deaminated glutens found in processed wheat and wheat germ.
Wheat Germ Agglutinins (WGA) are lectins, the carbohydrate-binding proteins found in all grains, seeds, legumes, dairy and nightshades. They have the capacity to bind to cells in the immune system and induce toxic damage, inflammation and autoimmunity. WGA is found in highest concentrations in whole wheat and in sprouted wheat. It is ironic that the types of wheat we have long considered the most healthy, are the most toxic and inflammatory forms for many people.
If sensitivity to gluten or any of its components is discovered, total abstinence is necessary. The inflammatory responses to even a single portion of gluten, in a sensitive individual, can set forward a cascade of immunological reactions that can last upwards to eight months.
In this article, I have covered just several key areas involved in GI Function. I hope that reading this will motivate you to learn more about this important topic. I want to reiterate that healing your gut is essential to all aspects of health. If “bad digestion is the root of all evil” as Hippocrates taught us and “death begins in the colon” as Dr Metchnikoff expressed, it goes without saying that a healthy GI tract is essential to life.
Heal your gut and be well.