Leaky gut refers to a health condition that is triggered by food allergies or sensitivities. Basically, a person suffering from a leaking gut is eating foods to which he or she is allergic. These foods damage the lining of the digestive tract, which then allows undigested food particles to “leak” out of the gut into other parts of the body. These undigested molecules trick the body’s immune system into attacking itself, which results in all kinds of health issues, including organ damage and inflammation. Doctors call it a problem with intestinal permeability.
How Normal Digestion Works
In a healthy human digestive system, the cells lining the intestinal tract are tightly fitted together and act as a barrier that allows only properly digested fats, proteins, and starches to pass through and enter the bloodstream.
The process of passing food molecules to the bloodstream works via several methods. Diffusion, which is a passive process, and active transport, which actively carries vitamins, minerals, and normal nutritive molecules to the bloodstream from the hollow tube of the digestive tract. These transport methods work through the cells lining the intestine and are tightly regulated.
What Happens When Digestion Breaks
However, substances can also pass beyond the intestinal wall through the spaces between the intestinal wall cells. Normally, these spaces are sealed tightly, but when the intestinal lining is irritated by some external trigger, the spaces between the cells get wider and looser and begin to “leak” undigested, larger protein molecules from the intestines into the blood.
Since the proteins are undigested and unexpected, they seem foreign to our immune defenses, and the immune system reacts by creating aggressive antibody cells to attack these foreign invaders.
To complicate matters, these leaked protein molecules may act as “mimics” or mirrors of normal body proteins.
In a process called “molecular mimicry”, parts of these foreign proteins may look chemically similar to normal tissue proteins found in the body. When activated to attack the foreign proteins, the immune system antibodies mistake these similar tissue proteins as also foreign and attack them as well.
As the intestinal wall is compromised by the external trigger and becomes increasingly irritated, it becomes more permeable or “leaky” and a condition is known as “leaky gut syndrome” develops. It is this leaky gut condition which is causing the health problems associated with food sensitivities, and the resulting autoimmune antibody reactions and disorders which develop.
Current Research on Leaky Gut Syndrome
Alessio Fasano, M.D. directs the Mucosal Biology Research Center and the Center for Celiac Research at the University of Maryland School of Medicine. Much of his research focuses on the relationship between intestinal permeability and the problems associated with it.
He and his research team have discovered a molecule, which they named zonulin. Zonulin is involved in the regulation of the spaces between intestinal cell walls (the permeability of the intestinal wall).
“Discovery of zonulin prompted us to search the medical literature for human disorders characterized by increased intestinal permeability…much to my surprise.. many autoimmune diseases – among them, celiac disease, type 1 diabetes, multiple sclerosis, rheumatoid arthritis, and inflammatory bowel diseases – all have as a common denominator aberrant intestinal permeability”.
In other words, many diseases start or are worsened by a leaky gut. Increasing the levels of zonulin increases the permeability of the intestinal wall.
Other factors are also involved, but the autoimmune response seems to be triggered by gut permeability and the leakage of foreign proteins that mimic self-proteins into the bloodstream.
What Increases Zonulin in the Gut?
Several studies have identified the factors which increase zonulin in the gut and loosen intestinal cell wall permeability.
One of the factors is grain consumption, especially wheat, rye, and barley. The consumption of wheat introduces a protein called gluten into the gut. Gluten contains a smaller protein called gliadin. Gliadin has been shown to cause an increase in zonulin and this increase in zonulin results in an enlargement of the spaces between the cells in the intestinal wall. Voila, the gut begins to leak, and the foreign gluten proteins get out into the body cavity and cause damage.
In fact, I believe that most people would feel much better if they avoided all grain products, especially those containing gluten.
Healing a Leaking Gut
Healing a leaky gut is a multiple-step process:
- Find out what foods are causing allergic reactions, and remove them from your diet. You can do this by just keeping a food log in which you record what you eat and how you feel afterward. You have to pay attention, because sometimes the symptoms may be delayed by a day or two. For example, you may have wheat today, and be constipated two days later. This method is free, easy and it should help you pinpoint the offending foods. Then you can simply stop eating them and see if you feel better.If you want to have a blood test to check for autoimmune reactions in your body, there’s a test called the ELISA (Enzyme-Linked Immunosorbent Assay) test, which is a blood test that looks for food-related antibodies. Stephen Wangen discusses this in his excellent book Healthier Without Wheat: A New Understanding of Wheat Allergies, Celiac Disease, and Non-Celiac Gluten Intolerance…
- Replenish the good bacteria in your gut by starting a regimen of probiotics supplementation or eating Lacto-fermented foods. There are also tests that will give an assessment of gut health based on the types of bacteria found in the stool. See Dr. Wangen’s book for more info.
Resources for Further Reading
- Early effects of gliadin on enterocyte intracellular signaling involved in intestinal barrier function a study done by Alessio Fasano’s team in which they concluded that gliadin causes an increase in zonulin from the intestinal cells.
- Gliadin, zonulin and gut permeability: Effects on celiac and non-celiac intestinal mucosa and intestinal cell lines another study from Dr. Fasano’s team
- The Dark Side of Wheat by Sayer Ji. Good article on how gliadin causes body damage.
- One Cause, Many Ailments Leaky Gut Syndrome: What It Is and How It May Be Affecting Your Health