What is a leaky gut?
A leaky gut affects your intestines, and this condition has gained increased attention in recent years. We will look at the causes, symptoms, and possible treatments for this condition.
The gut (also known as the gastrointestinal or GI tract) is the long tube that starts with the mouth and ends at the anus. The gastrointestinal tract includes all the organs that food (solid and liquid) moves through as it’s digested or eliminated from the body as feces.
These organs include:
- The small and large intestines
You may be surprised to know that the human intestine can have a surface area of over 4,000 square feet. This is because the organ twists in several places, although it takes up only a small portion of your body. Research has shown that the combined length of the small and large intestines in humans is roughly 25 feet (around 8 meters).
The intestine is an enclosed space, and one of its main functions is to regulate what gets absorbed into the bloodstream. A leaky gut is a condition where the intestine has gaps that allow partially digested food, toxins, and microbes to escape the enclosed barrier.
This condition is also known as intestinal permeability and may cause inflammation. It can also affect the gut flora, the colony of healthy bacteria that reside there. This in turn could cause other issues in the digestive tract and other bodily functions.
A body of modern research is focusing on the impact of gut health and the gut microbiome, which consists of trillions of bacteria, fungi, and other microbes. This is because the gut microbiome plays a vital role in many essential physiological functions such as aiding digestion and enhancing immune functions, and studies suggest that any modification in the gut flora in humans could lead to several chronic health conditions.
Although research suggests that our gut is not completely impermeable (as it’s not supposed to be), in some people, it may become overly permeable or sensitive. Some of the causes for these changes could reflect the modern diet, which contains unhealthy amounts of sugar and saturated fats. Other factors like alcohol and high levels of stress also contribute to the onset of this condition.
There is still debate about how much a leaky gut can impact other functions of your system. Other conditions such as Crohn’s disease, inflammatory bowel disease, and celiac disease can cause many of the same symptoms as leaky gut and are connected in some way to chronic inflammation. Sometimes, it is difficult to know how or even if they are connected.
Symptoms of leaky gut
Although there are no symptoms that can be directly linked to intestinal permeability, this condition typically occurs when there’s a change in the intestinal lining that may cause symptoms. Some of these symptoms include:
This is caused by the loss of mucosa in the intestines. The mucosa is the moist inner lining in the stomach, made up of cells that produce sticky mucus. When the gut loses its mucosal content, nutrient absorption is reduced, thus causing indigestion.
Low energy levels
A leaky gut leads to the loss of solids and fluids from the GI tract and also causes the loss of mucosa that’s vital for nutrient absorption. An inadequate supply of nutrients caused in part by limited mucosal absorption leads to lower energy levels.
One of the major causes of bloating is bacterial overgrowth. This typically occurs when there are a lot of bacteria in the gut that ferment the food present there, which leads to increased production of intestinal gas.
This usually occurs due to the ulcers in your gut.
Causes of leaky gut
When the intestinal barrier breaks down, that’s usually a sign that it has gone through some major stress, and in most cases, this has occurred over time rather than just due to one incident. Some of the most common causes of intestinal permeability include:
- Certain health conditions like HIV/AIDS, which cause damage to the intestines
- Chemotherapy or radiation therapy that damages the intestinal mucosa
- Chronic conditions such as inflammatory bowel disease and celiac disease
- Allergic reactions to specific foods
- Alcohol abuse or overuse of non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) like aspirin and ibuprofen
How to fix a leaky gut?
The best and only way to treat and cure leaky gut is to identify and address the primary condition that has led to this situation. There are specific treatments for conditions like inflammatory bowel disease and celiac disease that are linked to leaky gut. These treatments have successfully restored the intestinal lining in individuals with such conditions.
On the other hand, treatments that are focused on repairing only the intestinal lining without attending to other factors have not been successful and have been ineffective in preventing a recurrence of leaky gut.
Other precautions to take with this condition
There’s constant research being done on the benefits of specific practices to improve gut health. Though these methods may not help in severe conditions, they can reduce the harmful effects of common factors such as your diet, bacterial overgrowth, and chronic stress.
These factors lead to general wear and tear of the gut lining, and if they’re not taken care of right away, that could lead to serious consequences. In some cases, these practices may even reduce the symptoms of certain gastrointestinal conditions.
Eating a healthy diet that includes all the essential nutrients that your body needs to function properly plays a vital role in maintaining good gut health. Your body needs both macronutrients (proteins, fiber, and carbohydrates) and micronutrients (vitamins and minerals) to work properly. Micronutrients like vitamin D and L-glutamine are especially critical for restoring the gut lining.
At the same time, reducing the intake of certain foods like fats and sugars is also crucial for gut health. Diets that contain high amounts of fat and sugar support the growth of harmful bacteria in your gut that could lead to inflammation.
The scientific definition of prebiotics includes any compound that benefits the host while also serving as a food source for the good bacteria present in the host’s system. Although dietary fiber is widely considered one such source, other molecules such as polyphenols can also act as prebiotics.
Microorganisms feed on prebiotics to produce short-chain fatty acids that are released into the bloodstream and have a positive impact on the GI tract. Leafy green vegetables are a great source of prebiotics.
Probiotics are a group of microorganisms that have beneficial effects on your gut and overall health. Fermented foods such as yogurt are rich in probiotics. These probiotics have different health benefits depending on the type of bacteria they contain. Certain bacteria improve the production of vitamins in your body while others aid digestion. Specific groups of bacteria also break down disease-causing molecules.
There’s a lot of research being done on probiotics to measure their impact on restoring the gut barrier. Some probiotics also prevent the growth of harmful bacteria in your gut (specifically, the small intestine) which keeps your gut lining healthy.
FODMAP means fermentable oligosaccharides, disaccharides, monosaccharides, and polyols, which refers to certain types of carbohydrates that your small intestine cannot easily absorb.
A low FODMAP diet is usually recommended for those with gut conditions like irritable bowel syndrome or other food sensitivities. Following such a diet is a way to keep your gut safe from harmful molecules and allow it to rest and carry out any necessary repair work.
A low FODMAP diet also allows you to identify specific foods that trigger a reaction. This is done in a three-step process.
- In the first step, you completely stop eating foods with high FODMAP content
- The second step involves eating these foods in very small quantities to identify which ones trigger a reaction
- The third step involves avoiding or limiting the foods that you’re sensitive to
What to do if you have a leaky gut
Many doctors and medical experts don’t recognize leaky gut syndrome as a condition that can be diagnosed, but there’s increasing evidence that it is a real condition that may lead to many other serious medical conditions.
That’s why it’s important to identify any underlying conditions and treat them right away. You can also take some simple steps to improve your general gut health. These include eating a balanced diet rich in micro and macronutrients, improving your intake of foods rich in probiotics and prebiotics, and reducing your intake of foods that aggravate your gut.
Foods that trigger illness differ from person to person. If you feel that the food you eat constantly disagrees with you, notify your doctor about the problems you’re facing to explore potential causes. Your doctor can then advise you about the type of food that is suitable for your system.
American College of Gastroenterology: "Belching, Bloating, and Flatulence."
Canadian Digestive Health Foundation: "What is Leaky Gut Syndrome?"
Center for Academic Research & Training in Anthropogeny: "Small/Large Intestine Length Ratio."
Cleveland Clinic: "Leaky Gut Syndrome."
Foods: "Prebiotics: Definition, Types, Sources, Mechanisms, and Clinical Applications."
Frontiers in Cellular and Infection Microbiology: "The Role of the Gastrointestinal Mucus System in Intestinal Homeostasis: Implications for Neurological Disorders."
Harvard Medical School: "Leaky gut: What is it, and what does it mean for you?" "Putting a stop to leaky gut."
International Scientific Association for Probiotics and Prebiotics: "Prebiotics."
John Hopkins Medicine: "FODMAP Diet: What You Need to Know."
National Cancer Institute: "Gastrointestinal Tract."
National Center for Comprehensive and Integrative Health: "Probiotics: What You Need To Know."
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