Some think that Leaky Gut is the latest catch phrase for which we can blame all of our ills. My intestine is really far away from my face, so how could what I eat possibly be causing my acne? Others, who have done their research, will realize that decreasing intestinal permeability (AKA Leaky gut) may be the solution to many health problems: From annoying acne, to painful arthritis, to life threatening autoimmune conditions and even psychological disorders. Depressed? Your diet might have everything to do with it.
Our intestinal lining is the barrier between everything that we put in our mouths, and the rest of our insides. The chocolate chip cookie that we eat is not just absorbed by our stomach, it has to be broken into microscopic pieces that can then be allowed to pass through our small intestinal wall and used for energy. If some kind of evil bacteria hitches a ride through with the nutrients of the cookie, our immune system is posed to attack and quickly get rid of the intruder. In fact, a huge percentage of our immune system is hanging out in our intestines on guard for potential problems. Over ⅔ of our immune system lives in our small intestine alone (bet you didn’t know that). When only a few intruders make their way through, our body is able to quickly take care of them without further incident. It is when more of these bad guys breach the front lines that our immune systems declare full on war.
So what has to happen to cause this war? There are many possible contributing factors: irritating foods, NSAIDS (aspirin, ibuprofen and many other over the counter painkillers), alcohol, parasites, genetic predisposition, and even food allergies. Any or all of these factors over time can irritate the lining of our intestine causing “holes.” These “holes” make it easier for bacteria, pathogens and food particles to leave the intestine and sneak through to places they don’t belong (like our blood stream). As the bad guys start to get through in greater quantities, our immune systems can no longer eliminate them individually and go into attack mode.
Our immune system uses inflammation to fight against the bad guys. When you have an infected cut, it gets all red and hot, right? That is your body responding. If the cut gets really infected, the response becomes general and manifests as a fever. In the case of leaky gut, when our immune system can’t eliminate the individual bad guys it causes inflammation in places that aren’t the gut. This inflammation can manifest as: allergies, acne, chronic fatigue, arthritis, depression and many other common ailments such as “brain fog” and poor memory. Is it possible to have leaky gut without having any digestive symptoms? Yes. As my first Gastroenterologist used to say, “You can’t feel your organs, you can feel the inflammation.” If your immune response is causing inflammation in general you will feel it where you are most susceptible. You might be feeling your leaky gut as inflammation in your sinuses!
I suffer from Crohn’s disease, characterized by bleeding ulcers in my intestine, so for me it was really easy to make the connection between my food and my illness. For others with autoimmune skin or thyroid disorders the connection seems a little more far fetched, but here I will explain why it is not. In autoimmune disease our immune system mistakenly targets our own organs instead of the bad guys. We are genetically predisposed to develop auto-antibodies. Normal antibodies are like little red “attack me” flags that attach to the bad guys and signal for the immune system to obliterate them. Auto-antibodies are antibodies that get confused and instead of red flagging the bad guys, they red flag our own cells. They cause the immune system to attack our thyroid, skin, intestine or other organ depending on the disease. Not all people with auto-antibodies have autoimmune disease, but all people who have autoimmune disease have auto-antibodies. Recent research is causing scientists to believe that leaky gut could be the trigger for people with auto-antibodies to develop autoimmune disease. Why? When “leaky gut” causes an immune system war these formerly inactive auto-antibodies jump into action wrongly “red flagging” our own cells and causing autoimmune disease flares.
How do I know if my gut is leaky? While there are actual tests you can do to find out if you have increased intestinal permeability, I think the best test is to try avoiding the most common triggers for 30 days. If you have a leaky gut, these 30 days should go a long ways towards healing it and solving health problems you might not even know you had. If you don’t have a leaky gut, you will just be eating super healthy food for a month which isn’t a bad idea anyway. If you are ready to go all in and change your health a great place to start is with a Whole 30. If you are overwhelmed by this or think that it is unrealistic for you right now, you will probably notice improvement by cutting out the following things for at least a month:
*Grains (wheat, corn, oats, barley, and rye etc.)
*Legumes (beans, peanuts, cashews)
Sugar/ Artificial Sweeteners
Seed oils (replace your canola/vegetable oil with coconut, avocado, and olive oils)
*I personally feel that small quantities of white rice are usually acceptable for people who don’t have more complicated health problems. Whole fat dairy may be digestible for some people after the initial one month period, as well as some legumes and limited alcohol consumption.
Healing your leaky gut can also reverse food sensitivities and allergies. When I did a blood test for food allergies before changing my diet I was allergic to everything! Of course, my immune system was in hyper-attack mode. After avoiding everything irritating for several months I was able to reintroduce some foods that had formerly caused allergic reactions. My next allergy test came back and I was no longer allergic to anything. However, just because you don’t test positive for a wheat allergy doesn’t mean that you can eat it whenever you want. Some foods can cause leaky gut without giving us an allergic reaction.
If you have autoimmune disease, your gut is leaky. According to Doctor Sarah Ballantyne, leaky gut is present in every autoimmune disease that has been tested thus far. You might find that the 30 day challenge I suggested above will help you, or you might need further adjustments to reach true remission. I would encourage you to read about my food and look for someone who can help you find the solution to your individual health problems.
If you have any questions about the information I shared above post your question in the comments below and I will get back to you as soon as possible!
Note: I intentionally wrote this article as a simple, accessible, easy to read guide about increased intestinal permeability. There are many scientific terms and aspects that I did not include. If you want more detailed scientific information you can continue your research using some of these links.
Huffington Post Article (with detailed references below)
The Paleo Approach, By Dr. Ballantyne (her blog and book are both fabulous resources)
Arizona Center for Advanced Medicine- Leaky Gut (with detailed references and clickable links below)
For even more information go to PubMed and search for “increased intestinal permeability” you will find astonishing research confirming the link between leaky gut and many health conditions.