In a healthy person, the lining of the intestine acts as a very effective filter, allowing only certain molecules, such as vitamins and minerals to pass across into the bloodstream, while large molecules (e.g. microbes and toxins) are kept out. The term ‘leaky gut’ or ‘intestinal permeability’ refers to a situation where the tight junctions between the cells that make up the intestinal wall become inflamed and weakened resulting in undigested food particles and bacteria etc being able to escape into the blood stream.
Although some medical doctors dispute the link between leaky gut and health conditions, other health care professionals believe this is a major cause for many negative effects on our wellbeing. It is believed the immune system reacts in response to the escaped particles by producing antibodies and inflammatory chemicals.
There are now various studies on intestinal permeability and its link to disease. Although more research is needed, recent reviews found that ‘compromised intestinal barrier function is associated with an array of clinical conditions.’
Leaky gut is suspected to cause a range of symptoms such as:
One typical sign that you have leaky gut is that you suddenly become ‘intolerant’ or start to react to many different foods (you may have had a food intolerance test that shows lots of trigger foods). This happens because food particles are escaping undigested into the blood stream. It is not the case that you are allergic to these foods. Once the gut is healed these foods can usually be reintroduced again.
There are quite a number of substances that may aggravate a leaky gut by causing irritation to the gut lining including:
Although drugs that may mediate barrier restoration have been proposed, none have so far proven effective.
However there may be other solutions. Below are some supplements that are commonly used to help ease symptoms.
Glutamine is a common amino acid that is found in many protein containing foods. It is one of the most common nutrients used for leaky gut syndrome because it is the preferred 'fuel' for the cells lining the mucosa of the small intestine (enterocytes).
Aloe naturally contains vitamins, minerals and enzymes. Aloe juice has been used for centuries as a tonic to better digestion and to soothe gut symptoms.
A diet high in oily fish containing high levels of omega 3 is linked to a reduction in inflammation in the body. Fish such as sardines, mackerel and anchovies should be eaten 2-3 times per week. If you prefer to take a supplement, look for one that is certified from sustainable fish and contains omega 3 from the body of the fish (not just the cod liver).
Apple cider vinegar is packed with nutrients and often a favourite for the gut and digestion. Choose one that contains what is known as the ‘mother", a natural compound formed during fermentation, this is rich in amino acids, enzymes and phytonutrients. Apple cider vinegar might be appropriate if your leaky gut is caused by issues such as poor breakdown of food, low stomach acid or Candida overgrowth.
Supplementing with live bacteria or ‘probiotics’ have been shown to improve the intestinal barrier and since these bacteria species provide an undesirable environment for pathogens they can protect from further damage.
There are studies that support the use of zinc and show that it can help ‘Improve intestinal barrier function’. Sufficient zinc is essential for the immune function located in the gut. Foods high in zinc include shellfish, meat, pumpkin seeds, nuts and eggs.
Leaky gut creates lots of extra work for the liver. When it cannot cope, the liver pushes the toxins back into the bloodstream and the circulatory system then dumps them in the tissues to keep them out of harm’s way. There are many nutrients that help support liver detoxification, Brassicas, such as broccoli, spinach and sprouts, are particularly good for the liver as they boost both stages in the detoxification process. Lecithin that aids breakdown of fats, can be sprinkled onto food or mixed into smoothies. The liver needs specific nutrients to carry out its many tasks successfully. B vitamins are particularly important, as are vitamin C and minerals such as copper, zinc and magnesium.
The understanding of the connection between the gut and brain is evolving. We now understand the detrimental effect stress and negative emotional states can have on the health of the GI tract. One of the major physiological reactions to stress is the diversion of blood away from the digestive system to the skeletal muscles in readiness to either fight or flee. Effectively, the digestive system is shut down. Without the normal flow of blood, the digestive system is deprived of oxygen, glucose and essential nutrients. Chronic stress therefore leaves the tissues of the digestive system starved of the things it needs to maintain a healthy intestinal wall and produce adequate amounts of protective mucus. For more information for help with stress click here: Natural Stress Solutions | Higher Nature
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G Sturniolo et al 2001 Zinc supplementation tightens "leaky gut" in Crohn's disease inflammatory bowel diseases Zinc supplementation tightens "leaky gut" in Crohn's disease - PubMed (nih.gov)