In researching and writing this series, I recognize the challenge I face in cleanly separating the interrelated subtopics I laid out last week. So I’m taking one step back to explain the role of the gut as “Gate Keeper” before jumping into the rest. Giving you this visual aid will help you understand the interconnectivity of everything that happens inside our digestive tract with respect to our health, and it will also impress upon you the importance of keeping the gut lining intact.
Because gut health is the cornerstone of overall wellbeing and vitality, what happens in the gut can beget a cascade of symptoms and ailments throughout the body and mind. All the subtopics I laid out for you last week overlap with each other because the source for all of them is arguably the same: leaky gut and the resulting inflammation. So to start, let me explain what those mean and why they matter.
When What’s Outside Comes Inside
The digestive tract (along with our skin) is our main interface with our environment. It acts as a vital barrier to unwelcome invaders and breaks food down into absorbable nutrients that pass through the gut walls and into the blood stream. It’s essential that what we introduce from the outside world that travels inside the gut does not pass through the gut lining until it’s been properly broken down. This is why I call the gut lining your body’s “Gate Keeper.”
When the Gate Isn’t Locked
The barrier function of the gut is one of the most critical aspects of our health. The gate should remain locked and impenetrable until the food inside has been adequately broken down into parts that the rest of our body recognizes as friendly. When that lock is broken, partially digested food particles can enter the blood stream and set off a cascade of negative physiological reactions; the first of which is inflammation.
Inflammation is a healthy, normal part of our immune response. When we have a fever, that’s our immune system ramping up the heat to kill off a foreign invader (a cold or flu). When we eat something that wasn’t cooked properly, we expel it rapidly and experience burning pains in the abdomen — that’s our body keeping us safe from a food-born pathogen. When we scrape our ankle, the area around the cut becomes red, inflamed, as the white blood cells come to clean up the mess and bring in the platelets to scab over the opening. This type of inflammation is part of our Adaptive Immune System — it targets specific invaders and wipes them out, and when it’s working properly it keeps us healthy and alive. Indeed, inflammation is meant to protect us, but when it’s chronic — when our immune system is always turned on and we’re constantly fighting, inflammation can cause serious health problems.
How Chronic Inflammation becomes Chronic Disease
The food particles allowed into the blood stream as a result of an inflamed, leaky gut are made up of partially broken down proteins (short amino acid sequences).
What else is made up of short sequences of amino acids? Pathogens (bacteria, viruses, fungi). These microorganisms actually share some characteristics with partially digested food particles.
So what happens? Our immune system attacks the food — food sensitivities and allergies in the making. Because our immune system creates antibodies that will view this food as a threat going forward, we will now become inflamed when we eat it.
What else is made up of these amino acids? For one, the cells in our own bodies. What about our myelin sheath (the protective coating around the axons of our nerves)? Our joints? Our skin? What if our immune system is so overactive and chronically inflamed that, not only does it start to see the cells of our own bodies as invaders, but the safety levers we have in place to block this auto-immunity are too hot and fatigued to notice? What if our Adaptive Immune System begins to see us as harmful to ourselves??
Answer: Autoimmune diseases like Crohn’s, MS, Rheumatoid Arthritis, Psoriasis, and Lupus. Find me a person with an autoimmune disease without digestive issues, and I will find you a live unicorn with a rainbow mane.
Having a leaky gut will most definitely create chronic inflammation, and chronic inflammation begets chronic disease.
What Causes a Leaky Gut?
We don’t know the extent to which genetics are involved in creating a greater susceptibility for a leaky gut, but we do know that environmental factors play a huge role, and that the effects are reversible if you catch it and address it early. We also know that children who were born of a C-section and not breast-fed are more vulnerable than those born of vaginal birth and breast-fed (source). The list below represents the most significant reasons your gut can become inflamed:
1. Gut dysbiosis — an overgrowth of bad bacteria and/or fungus in the gut.
There will always be a percentage of “bad” bacteria in the gut, but they are (or should be) kept in check by the probiotic population — the beneficial bacteria that aid in nutrient breakdown and absorption, mood regulation, and immune response. Taking antibiotics kills both the good and the bad bacteria in the gut, and it can take up to 8 weeks to recolonize after a course. It can take just as long to recover from a food-born illness. If you’ve ever experienced a yeast infection after a round of antibiotics it’s because the good bacteria that were keeping the candida at bay were all killed off by your prescription. You can restore your probiotic colony by eating a diet rich in fermented food and low in sugar, choosing organic, and exercising regularly. And of course these are important to do on a regular basis. We’ll dive more deeply into probiotics in the coming weeks.
2. Food Sensitivity or Allergies
Our body begins to see certain foods as pathogens and creates cytokines (antibodies) to protect us from them, setting off an inflammatory response every time they enter the body. This particular one is a bit confusing, because it’s a chicken/egg problem. Did the leaky gut come before the allergy or did the allergy cause the leaky gut? It’s a commonly identified pattern that patients with one food sensitivity will develop others down the line if measures aren’t taken to throw water on the fire. What causes the initial sensitivity could be genetics or an exposure early in life that excited the immune system before it was strong enough to recognize friend from foe. Children who are born of C-section and not breast-fed are more likely to have both food and environmental sensitivities/allergies than those born through the vaginal canal and fed breast milk. We’ll go more in-depth about why that is and how to take steps for better outcomes later in this series.
Were you waiting for this to come up? Stress, whether it’s emotional or physical, causes leaky gut. I’m going to dedicate a whole post to this one, but suffice it to say that the physiological stress response itself weakens our immune system, promotes inflammation, and creates a hostile environment for beneficial bugs in the gut, which brings us back to the first thing on this list.
What does Chronic Inflammation Look Like?
What should we look for to indicate that we might be struggling with a gut problem that has led to chronic inflammation? How can we prevent it from sending us into full-blown auto-immune disease? I had some readers ask questions about bloat and puffiness, distended belly after eating certain foods, foggy-headedness, and general weight gain. I also had a few people ask me about eczema and acne, chronic yeast infections, middle body weight, and IBS. Yes, these are all signs of chronic inflammation and leaky gut.
But something no one asked about was mood. If you have been diagnosed with a mood disorder like anxiety, depression, bipolar, or OCD, you are experiencing a symptom of leaky gut and chronic inflammation. Find me a person with anxiety and no digestive problems, and I’ll find you a fire-breathing dragon with tiny purple wings at your local pet store. In a future post, I will show you why a leaky gut = a leaky brain, but for now I’ll share that 80% of total serotonin in the body is located in enterochromaffin cells in the gut lining, which means that if we don’t have gut integrity, we are likely short on serotonin.
Wondering what you can do about some of these symptoms right now? Check out my kombucha recipe to get started adding fermented foods into your diet, and stay tuned for Friday’s post to learn how to make another probiotic-rich food. I’ll also explain a little bit more about why that matters. In the meantime, I’d love to know what you’d like to learn about next in this series. I’m deciding between stress and mood — the two are obviously intimately linked. Let me know your thoughts and questions below, and I’ll get the final touches on the next installment of Why Gut Health Matters.
Sources for this segment of this series include a 6-credit continuing education seminar presented by Merrily Kuhn, RN, CCRN (r), PhD, ND, PhD and the Institute of Brain Potential (bibliography and references can be viewed here), and information from the following journals and experts:
Dr. Tom O’Brian: http://thedr.com/
Dr. Mark Hyman: http://drhyman.com/
Chris Kresser: http://chriskresser.com/
Dr. Sara Gottfried: http://www.saragottfriedmd.com/
Jordan and Steve from the SCD Lifestyle: http://scdlifestyle.com/