what is a leaky gut?

Protecting our intestinal barrier

Chances are you’ve heard the term “leaky gut,” but do you really know what that means or why it happens?

Under normal, healthy circumstances, we eat a meal and our digestive tract does an amazing job of breaking down foods into particles small enough to be transported from the small intestine to the blood stream. These small particles and nutrients are then whisked off to perform various assignments to keep the body running smoothly.

In a healthy environment, the gastrointestinal (GI) tract, or the gut, acts as a gate keeper and tight junctions between the intestinal lining and the bloodstream regulate what is allowed and not allowed to cross the intestinal barrier. If this protective barrier is damaged, irritants and potentially toxic substances may pass or leak into the bloodstream. This is referred to as “leaky gut syndrome” or increased intestinal permeability.

Why would this happen? What would cause the gut to begin leaking potentially harmful substances into the bloodstream? Many theories have been proffered and much research is being done to unravel this medical mystery. One thing most scientists agree on is that leaky gut is real and more complex than originally thought. Some believe leaky gut is a result of dysbiosis – a disruption to the beneficial bacteria, the normal flora – that naturally inhabit the digestive tract and maintain intestinal health.

So what causes this disruption to the good bacteria? A list of potential reasons for the disruption include poor diet, nutritional deficiencies, chlorine in drinking water, food poisoning, infections, viruses, antibiotics, medications, stress, or anything that may irritate and inflame the lining of the GI tract.

If toxins begin to cross over the gut barrier into the bloodstream, the body’s immune system goes on high alert and reacts with an inflammatory response. The result may be gastrointestinal symptoms of abdominal pain, gas and bloating, as well as aches and pains, fatigue, food sensitivities, autoimmunity, and a host of other possible consequences.

However, keep in mind that understanding the complexities of leaky gut is still in its infancy. Much more research is needed to fully understand the mechanisms involved in the breakdown of the gut’s lining, the cascade of events that follow, the long-term outcomes that arise, and, most importantly, what can be done to prevent and treat a leaky gut.

If you think you may have leaky gut syndrome, your best bet is to find a doctor and a dietitian who specialize in gastroenterology and will take time to listen to you and take your concerns seriously. Beware of those offering diets and supplements for the treatment of leaky gut. Some of these treatments may one day prove beneficial, but no current research data supports these claims. The other very important recommendation is to monitor your daily habits and potentially modify your lifestyle. This includes eating a nutritious diet that supports a healthy digestive tract, reducing stress, and exercising.

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