The lining of your gut is directly related to the health of your whole body. This lining forms a crucial barrier between you and the outside world. In a sense, everything inside your gut is outside of you. Only a few very specific substances are normally allowed through, and the lining of your gut is what controls what gets through and what doesn’t. New research is showing that if the wrong things get through, you can wind up feeling tired all the time, experiencing depression symptoms, irritable bowel syndrome, food allergies, and more.
The gut lining is not a passive barrier. It actively senses what’s going on inside your gut, responds to what it senses, and even secretes various compounds that go on to control other bodily functions. The primary purpose of your gut lining, with all of its sensing, responding, and secreting, is to determine what nutrients get absorbed and what toxins, allergens, and microbes are kept out. Even though this lining is only one cell-layer thick, it protects your immune system and your entire body from the toxic environment in your gut by filtering out the good molecules from the bad molecules.
What is leaky gut syndrome?
Leaky gut syndrome refers to an abnormal increase in the permeability of the small intestine. Increased intestinal permeability, or leaky gut syndrome, is a pathological condition that occurs as part of many different diseases and syndromes, such as irritable bowel syndrome, chronic fatigue, and autoimmune diseases. If the lining of the small intestine is damaged, foreign compounds can escape from inside the small intestine into your bloodstream, making your immune system hyper-sensitive and even triggering auto-immune reactions.
What causes leaky gut syndrome?
Any irritation to the gut lining can contribute to increased permeability and leaky gut: examples would include inflammation, imbalances of intestinal organisms, food allergies, maldigestion, and exposure to non-steroidal anti-inflammatories (NSAIDs), and alcohol.
5 Reasons You Might Have Leaky Gut Syndrome:
- You have irritable-bowel symptoms. Gut permeability is frequently increased in people with irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), especially if they suffer from diarrhea-predominant IBS. People with IBS who also have allergy symptoms like eczema, asthma, or hay fever have also been found to have leaky gut syndrome. The current working hypothesis is that the balance between “good” and “bad” gut bacteria gets disrupted, which activates the immune system and increases gut permeability. Probiotics can help restore a healthy balance of gut bacteria.
- You are tired all the time. Certain inflammatory compounds, called cytokines, are increased by leaky gut syndrome and are directly associated with fatigue. If you have chronic fatigue syndrome, your body likely produces high levels of immune cells directed against the toxins given off by unhealthy gut bacteria—a sign of leaky gut syndrome and a cause of inflammation. The severity of chronic fatigue symptoms has been found to directly correlate with blood levels of immune cells directed against toxin-generating gut bacteria. In plain English that means the more your unhealthy gut bacteria permeates through your leaky gut, the greater will be your feelings of extreme tiredness and chronic fatigue.
- You have food allergies or intolerances. The link between food allergies and leaky gut syndrome is a vicious, two-way street. Increased passage of undigested food particles through the leaky gut leads to the development of food allergies. Conversely, allergic reactions to foods cause a transient increase in intestinal permeability. If this happens frequently, it may increase the number or severity of food allergies. In other words, leaky gut syndrome can cause you to become allergic to foods you may normally be able to digest perfectly well.
- You have depression symptoms. In depression, it is now known that leaky gut activates the intestinal immune system to produce chemicals called cytokines that spread inflammation through your body. Inflammation is an important trigger for depression symptoms as well as other maladies such as fatigue, malaise, and pain.
- You have an autoimmune disease. Leaky gut syndrome allows bacterial antigens capable of cross-reacting with your own tissues to escape the gut and enter your bloodstream, leading to auto-immune processes. The passage of certain antigens through the leaky gut barrier has been associated with autoimmune disorders such as rheumatoid arthritis, ankylosing spondylitis, thyroid disease, myasthenia gravis, multiple sclerosis, inflammatory bowel disease (Crohn’s), and celiac disease.
Testing and natural treatment for leaky gut syndrome is available
How do you know if you do have a leaky gut that might be making you tired all the time or contributing to your depression symptoms, irritable bowel symptoms, or other chronic symptoms? Lab test are available, (and we will discuss these in Part 2 of this series) along with proven natural treatments for healing leaky gut syndrome and returning your gut barrier function to normal (Part 3 of this series covers leaky gut syndrome treatments). Naturopathic and integrative physicians have been successfully treating leaky gut syndrome for years, and now, more than ever before, there is research available confirming the effectiveness of a number of natural therapies for leaky gut syndrome.
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This post originally appeared in 2012 and has been updated.