Intestinal permeability, also known as leaky gut, is a condition that affects adults and children alike. Irritation and inflammation in the gastrointestinal tract causes the cells in the lining to open ever so slightly. This loosening of the cell junctions is called leaky gut. These openings allow undigested food particles to enter into the bloodstream and cause systemic inflammation in the body. This leads to a vicious cycle that just repeats itself over and over again and can make tackling leaky gut difficult at times. To heal leaky gut you have to look at several things at once.
First, you must remove the source of irritation. Food allergies/sensitivities, chronic stress, infections, poor diet, toxins, chronic alcohol, certain medications and medical treatments such as chemotherapy can all promote gut inflammation by producing inflammatory chemical messengers or cytokines in response to the irritation. The irritation creates inflammatory cytokines, which lead to intestinal permeability, which in turn creates more inflammatory cytokines, leading to more intestinal permeability and so on. This feedback loop can be hard to break and near to impossible if the source of irritation continues. The irritation that leads to the loosening of the tight junctions must be found and removed in order to end the cycle of inflammation.
Once the source of irritation is removed, a three-pronged approach to healing is the best way to tackle leaky gut. True gut health depends on three factors: the gut microbiome (bacteria,) the mucin layer, and the gut lining itself. If any of these three areas are inflamed then the balance begins to tilt toward the inflammatory state associated with intestinal permeability.
Our gut bacteria have a dramatic impact on our immune, metabolic, and digestive health. Maintaining a healthy balance of bacteria helps support overall health. Feeding the bacteria in your digestive tract a diet rich in a variety of fiber is the first step to cultivating a healthy gut microbiome. Gut bacteria thrive on the fiber we eat, fermenting the resistant starches in the fiber creating butyrate which fuels the cells in our gut lining. A diet rich in fiber is essential. Recent research demonstrates a change in fiber can dramatically change the make-up of your gut microbiome even over the course of 3-4 days. (1) Making sure your diet is rich in probiotics from fermented foods and supplements is also an important step in achieving a balanced gut microbiome. Eating beneficial probiotics help to keep the balance between the beneficial bacteria and harmful bacteria healthy. We are what we eat and this is particularly evident in the gut microbiome.
Nurturing the gut lining is another step in tackling leaky gut. You want the cells that line the gut to be strong with tight intercellular junctions so that the barrier is intact. The cells that line the digestive tract use butyrate as their primary source of fuel. A diet rich in fiber, as mentioned above, is a great way to fuel the epithielial cells that line the gut. Coconut milk and oil contain short chain fatty acids that can also provide butyrate to fuel the gut lining. L-glutamine is a wonderful amino acid that promotes intestinal integrity and dramatically reverses intestinal permeability. (2) A diet rich in anti-inflammatory foods like curcumin, ginger and eating a rainbow of foods helps provide the phytochemicals that help to combat the inflammation that damages the lining the gut. (3,4)
Maintaining a healthy layer of mucin in the gut is the last, but not least, step in addressing leaky gut. Mucin is the mucous substance that lines our intestines. Not only does it physically act as a barrier to the epithelial cells from the contents of the intestines, but it also provides housing for the bacteria of the gut. Cultivating a rich mucin layer helps protect the lining of the gut as well as promotes a healthy population of gut bacteria. Without a healthy, thick mucin layer the lining is more easily irritated and the bacteria have a decreased environment to thrive in. It also promotes chemical messengers to lessen the immune response to foreign substances in the gut, helping prevent inflammatory responses to “good” gut bacteria and food. (5) Mucin production is upregulated by healthy bacteria, amino acids, clove extract and flavonoids. (6,7)
Leaky gut can be a difficult condition to treat. Without looking at all the components needed for healing the inflammation that’s causing the intestinal permeability continues. By addressing all four pieces to a healthy gastrointestinal tract we can begin to heal from leaky gut. Talk with your healthcare provider today if you suspect you are suffering from leaky gut and need help treating it.
– Dr. Catherine Clinton
(6) Scientific Reports 5, Article number: 9253 (2015) doi:10.1038/srep09253