What even is a Leaky Gut?  Lesson #1

You hear about it all the time but what actually is it? And more importantly is it affecting you?

Your small intestine has a very thin layer of cells constructing its walls and creating its border.  These are called epithelial cells and they are equipped with tight junctions that allow them to stay tightly connected with each other, forming a bridge that only lets very small molecules pass through.  These cells are protected by a layer of mucous in the small intestines called the mucosal layer, which is normally full of beneficial bacteria that provide protection against:

  • undigested food particles,
  • toxins,
  • and parasites,

and these beneficial bacteria offer constant nourishment to the epithelial cells, otherwise keeping us healthy.

So far we have the thin layer of epithelial cells and the protective mucosal layer that houses our beneficial gut flora. Let’s look at each of them individually first.

The beneficial bacteria in the mucosal layer are working constantly to ward off invading pathogens, protecting and feeding the epithelial cells. They produce anti-bacterial, anti-viral, and anti-fungal substances to stop pathogen in their tracks, they elicit our immune system for help, and they create an acidic environment that is generally too harsh for the pathogens to survive. These beneficial bacteria even help to further digest protein, carbohydrates, fats, and fiber; proper digestion of some foods such as fiber can only happens with a healthy mucosal lining.   Normally the beneficial bacteria are constantly surveying the scene allowing only properly digested molecules of food in the form of amino acids, vitamins, minerals, and other nutrients into our bodies.

Certain factors damage the mucosal layer such as:

  • improper digestion of foods,
  • too many carbohydrates, food intolerances,
  • toxins from the environment,
  • an overgrowth of opportunistic and transitional flora,
  • antibiotic use,
  • stress,
  • and nutrient deficiencies from an improper diet.

Once the beneficial flora are weakened or out numbered a breakdown of our protective mucosal layer results, starting a chain of events that leads to a leaky gut wall.

First thin epithelial cell lose their protection and get bombarded by anything that comes along:

  • undigested food particles,
  • pathogenic bacteria,
  • viruses,
  • fungus,
  • and parasites.

This causes inflammation on the intestinal wall and the tight junctions between the epithelial cells begin to break down.

Next the epithelial cells are left without an essential supply of nutrients from the beneficial bacteria further degrading their ability to digest and absorb nutrients properly. A normal epithelial cell is lined with tiny hair like structures called villi that are full enzymes (brush border enzymes) offering the final stage of digestion and thus proper absorption of nutrients from food.  Without nourishment or protection from the beneficial bacteria these cells lose their ability to function as our gatekeepers, the tight junctions between them widen, and the villi degrade allowing large food molecules and various pathogens and toxins to enter into our bloodstream.  The results are nutritional deficiencies, food intolerance, inflammation, and a multitude of symptoms.

It is true that all disease begins in the gut.

What are some symptoms of a leaky gut?  I’ve listed some but please realize this list is incomplete.

  • Low energy, chronic fatigue, and fibromyalgia
  • Multiple food allergies and intolerances,
  • Arthritis and joint problems,
  • Skin irritation such as acne, eczema, and rashes
  • Digestive distress (belching, reflux, gas, bloating, pain, gastritis, colitis, IBS)
  • Brain Fog, difficulty concentrating
  • Hyperactivity, learning disorders
  • Anxiety, depression, and other mood disorders
  • Difficulty remembering things,
  • Headaches and migraines
  • Heightened seasonal and environmental allergies
  • Autoimmunity

Let’s look at some of these causes and symptoms in more detail.  Read this article to learn more about factors leading to a leaky gut and this article to understand the GAPS diet as a way to heal.