What is Leaky Gut?

 In General Health, Guelph Naturopathic Doctor

What is Leaky Gut?

Leaky Gut….What the heck is that?  It’s a common term that is being thrown around a lot in the media these days but not many people know what it is or how it happens.   However, leaky gut in my opinion is one of the key health issues that is plaguing our health care.   Acne, eczema, food & environmental allergies, fatigue can be caused by leaky gut.  Poor sleep, migraines, asthma, joint pain can be caused by leaky gut.   Those are just a few and the list goes on!   So if you’re suffering from a array of health issues, it may be due to an unhealthy gut and leaky gut syndrome.

Fist we need to understand how the digestive system works:

You and Your Digestion 

Your digestive tract runs all the way from your mouth to you anus and is responsible for the proper break down of food stuffs.  Even though it sometimes doesn’t get enough credit, your brain helps to initiate digestion.   The first smells and mouth tastes of food initiates the body’s digestive forces and tells the rest of the digestive organs to get ready, food is coming.

The first part starts in the mouth where chewing and salivary enzymes start food break down.  Once swallowed, the food moves into the acid bath known as the stomach.  This powerful organ is in charge of mixing and churning food down and initiating protein and continued carbohydrate breakdown. Once complete, the stomach contents are slowly released into the small intestine.  This is where all the magic happens. The small intestine is 7 feet of complex hollow tubing broken down into 3 segments called the duodenum, jejunum and ileum. With food break down assistance from the liver and pancreatic enzymes, the small intestine is the powerhouse of digestion and absorption.  The body’s main focus is to break food items down into their smallest units; amino acids  from proteins, mono-saccharides or single sugars from carbohydrates and fatty acids from fats.  The simple breakdown foods are then moved down the intestine by  peristalsis and put into contact with the brush border.  The brush border is like a sponge and all the nutrients are soaked up and absorbed into the blood stream which is then delivered to the rest of the body to either be used for energy or for storage.  After the small intestine, food moves into the large intestine where water is removed to form waste products and stool is formed.  So what can go wrong? It sounds like a simple linear process right?

The Leaky Gut 

So what’s happening with your digestion when you have a food sensitivity? (Don’t know if you have a food sensitivity? Check out this post)  Let’s go back to the small intestine again.  If we looked at a cross section of the small intestine, we would see the the mucous membranes folded into projections called villi.   To increase the surface area for nutrient absorption, the villi’s are lined with a brush border of  cells called enterocytes that also have small projections called microvilli protruding into the lumen of the intestine.  The enterocytes and their linking together is where leaky gut initiates.



When foods stuffs are broken down they can be absorbed two ways.  One, by being shuttled from one side of the cell through to the opposite side, a process called the transcelluar absorption.  Or they can be absorbed by a paracellular route, whereby nutrients go around cells and through gates called tight junctions.  It is the integrity of these gates or tight junctions that allow only the smallest of food particles past their gates.  Think of these tight junctions as a screen door.  Just like screen doors keep debris and animals out of your house, your tight junctions make sure no large food particles pass through into the blood stream. When you are suffering from leaky gut or intestinal hyperpermeability, the integrity of your tight junctions or “screen doors” are compromised.  The enterocytes start to separate from each other and the “screen doors” are now open allowing large particles such  as big pieces of protein and sugars to flow past their gates.

Behind the brush border we would see the blood stream and sandwiched between the two is your GALT (Gut Associated Lymphoid Tissue) .  Your GALT is the hub for immune function in the gut and is responsible for 60-80% of your immune function.   The GALT is packed with immune cells and takes it’s job of discriminating ‘self’ from ‘non-self’ very seriously.  For example,  if it saw a virus, bacteria, fungus or parasite, the GALT would sound the alarms and create an immune reaction to these foreign invaders.  The GALT which is only trained to identify the smallest units of food,  rings the bell when it doesn’t recognize these ‘foreign’ large food particles passing through the tight junctions.   The immune system is put on high alert and an inflammatory cascade begins causing symptoms of gas, bloating, maldigestion, madlabsorption and digestive discomfort.    Constant exposure to foreign food particles in the blood leads to chronic inflammation and an immune system running on overdrive.  This is why many people with leaky gut experience more colds, flus, illness and allergies.  If the body’s immune system is pre-occupied fighting a battle in the digestive tract, the immune system has no other troops to send out when other problems arise such as infections, allergies, cancer, diabetes and heart disease.  When the body lives in a constant state of inflammation and suppressed immunity it can result in myriad of chronic inflammatory conditions such as:

  • Acne
  • Allergies
  • Asthma
  • Autoimmunity
  • Chronic Fatigue Syndrome
  • Crohn’s Disease
  • Dermatitis
  • Eczema 
  • Endometriosis
  • Fibromyalgia
  • Gallbladder Disease
  • Gastric Ulcers
  • Heart Disease
  • IBS
  • IBD
  • Infertility
  • Joint Pain
  • Kidney Disease
  • Migraines
  • MS

In my practice, I do a lot of work with patients to help heal their gut and support their digestion. So if your ready to get healthy and feel awesome again, stay tuned for my next post on 5 Ways To Heal Leaky Gut.  

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