Leaky Gut – Do You Have It?

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Escherichia coli (public domain)

Hippocrates, the physician known as the father of western medicine, knew it years ago when he said, “All disease begins in the gut.” Today, having a “leaky gut” is more common than you think. Also known as intestinal permeability, leaky gut occurs when the lining of your intestinal track is compromised and allows toxic food particles, environmental chemicals, and bacterial waste to leak through the gut lining, causing problems in other parts of your body. Below we will look at the common triggers of a leaky gut as well as the many health issues that can result, including autoimmune disease which is closely linked to having a leaky gut. The good news it that a leaky gut can typically be corrected if you are willing to make the necessary changes. Included below are some steps you can start taking today.

Leaky Gut Triggers
Leaky gut can be triggered by a number of factors. The most common include:

  1. Environmental Toxins – There are tens of thousands of known chemicals in our environment and 600 more are being introduced every year. Environmental toxins include mercury fillings and heavy metals, pesticides and herbicides, plastic chemicals like BPA, cleaning products, and fire retardants, just to name a few.  We are exposed to many toxins on a daily basis in the water we drink, the air we breathe, the foods we eat, and the things we touch. Like the straw that broke the camel’s back, one extra exposure can trigger a negative reaction that can start a cascade of health issues.
  2. Food Sensitivities – Certain foods are considered toxic to our bodies, especially processed and fast foods that are full of chemicals, additives, dyes, and inferior ingredients like processed vegetable oils and fake sugars such as Aspartame and Splenda. Other common trigger foods are gluten, dairy, soy, and genetically modified (GM) foods, all of which are more difficult for our bodies to digest. Alcohol and caffeine can be triggers as well as eggs, nuts, and legumes.
  3. Underlying Infection – You may have an underlying infection somewhere in your body that is keeping your immune system at a disadvantage. You may have a parasite, bacteria, virus, fungus, etc. that needs to be resolved. If your body is constantly fighting an infection (one you don’t even know you have), it has less energy for other things.
  4. Medication Use – Chronic use of certain medications such as antibiotics, NSAIDs (non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs), birth control pills, and chemotherapy will affect your gut. All of these can kill the good bacteria in the gut and put your “microbiome” out of balance. (Newer evidence shows that long term use of antibiotics can do even more damage, causing oxidative stress at the cellular level, damaging DNA and mitochondria, etc.) If your child was born as a result of a labor that required medications and/or a c-section, this can also create a trigger in both the mother and the child.
  5. Genetic Vulnerability – You may have a genetic disposition to a particular autoimmune disease. However, just because you have a particular gene does not mean that you will get that disease. It only means that you are more susceptible to getting that disease. (If you study Epigenetics, genes can be turned on and off by a number of factors.) Like the chain in a bike, wherever the weak link is located in your body (skin, heart, pancreas, thyroid, etc.), that is where you are most likely to have health issues if you are not proactive.
  6. High StressStress can include mental stress such as loss of a loved one, divorce, or loss of a job. It can also include physical stress such as too much exercise (high intensity training, marathon running, etc.) and/or not enough sleep, where the body is not allowed adequate time to recover. Stress causes the body to release the hormones cortisol and epinephrine. Too much over time can cause damage to the gut lining.
  7. Traumatic Brain Injuries – The brain and gut are closely connected. Damage to the gut can affect your brain and visa versa.

These triggers put additional stress on your body. Too many triggers at one time or accumulated over time can result in intestinal permeability (leaky gut) and other health issues.

What is Your Gut?
Your gut is officially known as your gastro-intestinal (GI) tract. It is one continuous tube 20 to 25 feet long that starts at your mouth and ends at your anus and also includes your esophagus, stomach, small intestine, and large intestine. This tube is filled with villi (think shag carpeting) and different areas of the villi in the gut will absorb different molecules. For example, certain villi absorb magnesium, others absorb calcium, others absorb good fats like fish oils, others absorb amino acids from proteins, etc.

When your gut is compromised, certain nutrients do not get absorbed. When you have a leaky gut, it also allows foreign particles to leak through the intestinal lining and into the blood stream. These toxins (food particles, chemicals, bacterial wastes, etc.), which normally would be eliminated through the GI track, travel to different areas of your body where they trigger an immune response, promoting inflammation.

The good news is that your intestinal lining rebuilds itself; it is making new cells all the time. In fact, every 3 to 7 days you have a whole new intestinal lining. The problem occurs when you continually expose yourself to one or more of the triggers listed above, not allowing the gut to heal and rebuild itself.

Let’s use gluten (a common trigger) as an example: You eat whole wheat toast for breakfast and you cause some damage to your gut and then it heals. You have a rye sandwich for lunch and you cause some damage to your gut and then it heals. For dinner you have a pasta and you cause some damage to your gut and then it heals. The next day you have a bagel. . . . This can go on for only so long. Depending on the overall condition of your body you could go on and on for years this way and then suddenly one day you see the affects. Or, another trigger, like an unexpected exposure to a chemical toxin, pushes you past your threshold. At some point your gut stops healing because your cells are so worn out.

Leaky Gut Symptoms
Many people wrongly assume that if they eat a culprit food, they will get stomach pains, bloating, gas, acid reflux, or constipation – something directly linked to the stomach or intestines. Interestingly, not all resulting leaky gut symptoms are directly related to your gut. In fact, 30% of people with leaky gut do not have noticeable digestive issues.

Common symptoms can actually include many of the following:

  • Stomach pain/cramps
  • Bloating/gas
  • Constipation and/or diarrhea
  • Fatigue after eating
  • Acid reflux and/or heartburn
  • Duodenal ulcers
  • Bad breath and/or body odor
  • Tooth decay and/or canker sores
  • Food and/or seasonal allergies
  • Chemical sensitivities
  • Hypoglycemia
  • Inability to lose/gain weight
  • Itchy anus
  • Candida
  • Poor complexion or skin rashes
  • Depression or mood swings
  • Behavioral issues and/or ADHD
  • Headaches/migraines
  • Insomnia
  • Chronic ear infections
  • Sinus infections or nasal congestion
  • Bladder infections
  • Joint pain and/or swelling

Where Does Autoimmune Disease Fit In?
Eventually, if you do not correct the triggers, you wear out your body. The constant bombardment of toxins and lack of nutrient absorption results in pathogenic intestinal permeability, creating symptoms like those listed above and sets you up for an autoimmune disease. Unfortunately, because of the state of the food and our environment today, the effects are being seen at much earlier ages.

Your immune system is your main defense against toxins (bad food, chemical exposure, etc.) and infections (bacteria, parasites, etc.). However, when you have a leaky gut and all these extra toxins are getting through the intestinal lining, where they are not suppose to go, your system gets out of balance. Often called molecular mimicry, the immune cells get confused and start attacking healthy tissues instead of the foreign invader it is meant to attack.

The healthy tissue that gets targeted is often your genetic weak link – could be your liver, your kidney, your joints, your brain, etc. This healthy tissue becomes compromised, resulting in inflammation and, ultimately, an autoimmune disease.

Some examples include:

  • If your joints are your weak link, you may end up with Rheumatoid Arthritis.
  • If your thyroid is already compromised by fluoride and/or chlorine, Hashimotos or Graves disease are a possibility.
  • If skin problems are common in your family, you may end up with Eczema, Psoriasis, or Vitiligo.
  • If your lungs are usually affected when you are feeling run down, respiratory issues may occur, including Asthma and allergies.
  • If your pancreas is compromised, Diabetes may result.
  • If you have adrenal issues (which is not uncommon in our stressful world), Addison’s disease and/or other hormone issues are a possibility.
  • If your large intestine is compromised, you may end up with IBS or Crohn’s disease.

All immune diseases are similar, Cancer and Alzheimer’s too, in that you do not get these diseases overnight. It typically takes years. That is why it is so important to be proactive with your health. You can’t just eat and do anything you want and assume you will remain healthy.

How to Heal Your Leaky Gut
Once an autoimmune condition occurs, it can be more difficult to turn it around, but it is possible. It is best to be proactive when you first start seeing some of the leaky gut symptoms mentioned earlier. Studies actually show that if you ignore a leaky gut, you will end up with more than one health issue and/or more than one autoimmune disease.

The first step to healing your leaky gut and your immune system is to determine and eliminate the triggers. Relook at the list above, but, remember, no two people are the same. Your trigger or combination of triggers will be different from the next person.

Here are some steps to consider as you work toward better gut health:

  1. Support the Gut – Food is usually the first thing to look at. However, adding extra support as you determine your trigger foods can be very helpful. Add probiotics, fermented foods, and possibly digestive enzymes to your daily regimen to help support your gut as you make the other changes described below. Talking to your health practitioner about adding natural remedies to reduce inflammation and/or boost your nutrients may also be beneficial.
  2. Change Your Diet – Foods like gluten, dairy, soy, and GMOs are the more common food triggers. Sometimes a food trigger can be obscure, like conventional strawberries or certain phenol foods. Often it is best to work with a health practitioner to determine your culprit foods. A Bio-energetic Assessment can be useful as well as certain lab tests. Eating as natural as possible, using good quality meats, eggs and produce that are fresh, organic and local whenever possible is a great start. (Some of you may have to eliminate quite a bit for the initial healing but can add certain foods back in over time.)
  3. Look at Your Environment – You may have had a recent toxin exposure. Examples include being near a golf course while they are spraying chemicals on the grass or sleeping on a new mattress that contains high amounts of fire retardants. Other environmental toxins are less obvious, like long term use of the wrong body products, Teflon pans, air fresheners, microwaves, plastic containers, etc. Amalgam fillings are also a big culprit. These toxins accumulate over time. Eliminating as many as you can will free up your immune system to work where it is more needed. (Actively detoxifying a specific toxin may also be required.)
  4. Reduce Stress – Look at your life and see if there are stressors that can be removed or relieved: reorganize your schedule so it is less hectic, start deep breathing exercises, add regular meditation and/or prayer to your routine, change your perception of your situation, go to bed earlier, get a weekly message, change your job/career, etc.
  5. Reduce EMF Exposure – Electromagnetic frequencies (EMFs) and wireless radiation from cellphones, Wi-Fi and other devices put additional stress on the body and can directly affect the gut on a physical level. Learn more here.
  6. Resolve an Underlying Infection –  For some people, a chronic infection is the main trigger. Examples include an unresolved exposure to salmonella or e. coli, a strep bacteria that has been suppressed deep in the body (often by antibiotics), and Lyme Disease or one of its many co-factors. There are many natural antimicrobial remedies available to help fight these infections and strengthen your immune system.
  7. Review Your Family History – Many people do not realize that knowing your family health history is key to keeping yourself and your children healthy. If you know where your “weak links” are, you can pay extra attention to those parts of your body, giving it the extra support it needs (nutritionally, physically, etc.) so that history does not repeat itself.

You don’t have to do everything at once. If you have a leaky gut, it took a while to get there and it may take some time to recover. Stressing about the process will not help. As you implement some of the steps above, however, you will start to feel better and it will motivate you to do more. Over time, as you incorporate more into your routine and go deeper, true healing can occur.

Working with an alternative health practitioner and/or incorporating Bio-energetic Assessments, can help you pinpoint your specific triggers so that you can customize your healing plan to your specific needs. You can determine which culprit foods to eliminate first, what nutrients your body requires most, and if other strategies need to be incorporated for healing. It is usually a multiple step process. Contact me to learn more.

. . . Hippocrates was a smart man. He also said, “Let food be thy medicine and medicine be thy food.” He knew how important good quality food is to the body. However, in today’s world with many less than optimum food choices as well as medications and environmental toxins, we need extra support. You need to be proactive in making good healthy lifestyle choices to keep your gut and your body healthy!

This article was written by Sharon K. Harmon, PhD, founder of Life Design for Health. As a “Health Designer” and an advocate for EMF safety she has a passion for helping people find their way back to optimum health by looking at the body from a unique perspective. Please contact her if you would like to know more. There is a great deal of health-related information in her blog articles and on her website, including a healing foods and pantry list and recipes that are gluten-free, dairy-free and GMO-free.

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