The Fuss About Leaky Gut: An Overview of Intestinal Permeability
Apr 30, 2016 07:55PM
● By Dana Elia
Hippocrates, the father of modern medicine, famously founded the “food as medicine” philosophy. One of his other notable quotes is “All diseases begin in the gut.” Amazingly, over 2,000 years ago, the digestive system was recognized as being the key player in whole body health and having a primary role in disease. Yet, many allopathic providers fail to recognize the role one’s digestive health can contribute to the person’s overall health status.
The term “leaky gut” may seem like an alternative medicine term; however, the more clinical term of intestinal permeability is the subject of an ever-growing number of evidence-based research studies, and is slowly changing the way conventional providers are looking at disease treatments and management. Evidence-based literature has linked intestinal permeability to a variety of chronic illnesses with a particular focus on role in autoimmune diseases such as rheumatoid arthritis, celiac disease, Crohn’s disease, atopic dermatitis, thyroid disease and Type 1 diabetes.
In order to understand why leaky gut is a potential player in one’s health, there are a few facts to review.
The gastrointestinal (GI) tract, or digestive system, is responsible for far more than simply digesting, absorbing and eliminating the foods we eat. The surface area of the intestinal lining is approximately 4,305 square feet long. Within this system also resides our gut flora, which comprises our individual microbiome, as well as roughly 70 percent of the body’s immune system, serving as a protective barrier against microorganisms and antigens. Antigens influence our body’s reactions to foods, and therefore play an important role in the development of food sensitivities, inflammatory conditions and chronic diseases.
Additional functions of the intestinal lining are to protect against fluid and electrolyte loss while allowing molecules to be exchanged from within and outside of the GI tract, such as nutrients from food. This exchanging of molecules occurs between the tight junctions of the cells that line the surface of the gut—the enterocytes. These cells function as the gatekeepers of what should pass across the gut lining and into the body.
So our gut lining is meant to be selectively permeable. How, then, does this process go awry and result in a leaky gut? Think of the GI tract like a doorway; in good condition, a door can open or close tightly when appropriate. A leaky gut is like a drafty doorway, the door may be closed but the doorway has been weakened by any number of factors and thus, air is passing through when it’s not intended to.
The leaky doorway of the GI tract becomes weakened by factors such as an imbalance of gut bacteria, poor diet, antibiotic use and other gut irritating medications. The resulting “drafty” gut lining sets the stage for protein fragments and bacteria to pass out of the GI tract where they do not belong. These particle escapees are viewed as foreign bodies and antigens when discovered outside the GI tract, and the immune system is stimulated, antibodies are produced and the inflammatory cycle begins.
However, this cycle can be mended. Those who suspect that their GI health is not at its best should seek out the advice of a qualified practitioner knowledgeable in intestinal permeability and the appropriate protocols geared to one’s individual set of circumstances. Avoid the temptation to substitute an online search for the advice of a trained provider. Remember, all disease truly does begin with the gut—so take good care of it and it will take care of you.
Dana M. Elia, MS, RDN, LDN, is the owner of Fusion Integrative Health & Wellness, LLC, located at 270 Granite Run Dr., in Lancaster. Connect at 717-917-5259 or FusionIHW.com.