Considerable medical research is aimed at an evolving concept in medicine called “Leaky Gut Syndrome” or “Intestinal Permeability”. This concept is very important for patients and physicians to understand, as it has been linked in medical literature to a host of problems, including arthritis, autoimmunity, chronic fatigue, eczema, psoriasis, food allergies, irritable bowel syndrome, and ulcerative colitis. The list of associated problems continues to grow as we further develop an understanding of the link between the immune system and the gut.
Learning about Leaky Gut Syndrome starts by explaining the inner workings of the gastro-intestinal tract.
More than one hundred trillion bacteria live together in our digestive system. There are 10 times more intestinal bacteria than there are cells in the entire body! These bacteria live in a state of harmony or antagonism, depending on the type of organisms that reside in the individual’s tract. They form a community that is constantly changing and adapting to the external factors that we introduce into the system. The most common bacteria found in the intestinal tract are bacteroides, lactobacillus, bifidobacterium, and streptococcus – these are commonly found in commercially available probiotic supplements. These bacteria manufacture substances that modulate our immune system, allow for breakdown of nutritional products, control oxidation in our bodies, and keep the fragile intestinal walls healthy. As a result of the barrage of artificial substances constantly entering our bodies, researchers are finding that this delicate balance is being disrupted in many individuals. This disruption, or “Dysbiosis”, is brought on by the ingestion of manufactured chemicals, poor food choices, painkiller medications, and most importantly – antibiotics.
The other important fundamental to understand is the highly structured process of breaking down food products to allow for their adequate digestion. This process starts in the mouth where saliva moistens the food and breaks down certain starches, while the teeth grind the food into pieces small enough to enter the system. The next very important aspect of digestion occurs in the stomach, where a combination of stomach acid, and an enzyme called pepsin break down proteins into their amino acid constituents. One requires sufficient amounts of stomach acid and pepsin to continue the process of digestion. It is the presence of acidic stomach contents that stimulates the release of further digestive enzymes from the pancreas to continue the digestion process. Only those foods that are adequately broken down into their basic molecular structures are allowed to pass through the intestinal walls and be absorbed into the body. Any breakdown along the chain of events will lead to undigested foods in the intestines, and the sensation that many people know of as “indigestion”. These indigested foods sit in the digestive tract for the bacteria to ferment, leading to unwanted by-products of fermentation. These by-products aggravate and inflame the delicate intestinal walls.
This basic physiology of the digestive tract acts as a helpful introduction to understanding how easy it can be to disrupt the internal workings of the digestive tract. A barrage of undesirable foods and environmental toxins enter the digestive tract, leading to dysbiosis and digestive enzyme disruption. The presence of undigested food becomes a feeding frenzy for bacteria/parasites/yeast residing in the gut, which ferment the undigested food. The combination of fermented food products, abnormal gut bacteria/parasites/yeast, and the presence of foreign chemicals in foods all lead to damage of the fragile intestinal walls. The intestinal walls are normally comprised of desmosomes, which are tight junctions which do not allow large molecules to pass through. Normally, large undigested molecules will not pass through the desmosomes, and will make their way into stool to be excreted. In Leaky Gut Syndrome, however, the damaged intestines have developed cracks in the walls, and now the larger molecules have a portal of entry into the body.
What is interesting to know is that over 80% of our immune system resides along the walls of the gastro-intestinal tract. The body has evolved in this fashion because it knows that the most common portal of entry for foreign invaders is through the intestinal system. The immune system will check all substances that enter the body. If the molecule is compatible with our system, it will pass safely. If an unwanted large molecule is allowed to pass through the leaky gut walls, the immune system will create a response to deal with that molecule, which involves a process of inflammation. As more and more of these molecules pass through, the immune system becomes further burdened, and the body evolves into a constant state of inflammation. Given that inflammation is the underlying cause of the majority of medical illnesses, you can now see how conditions such as psoriasis, eczema, arthritis, and autoimmunity often start in the gut.
There are tests that can be done to assess for Leaky Gut Syndrome, as well as the state of the internal environment of the intestines. Once the physician understands what is happening inside your intestinal walls, he can then set up a program to start the process of healing your gut.
As Hippocrates said, “Let food be thy medicine, and medicine be thy food”.