6 Things I’ve Learned About Leaky Gut
Leaky gut is something I’d never heard of until I received the diagnosis several doctors down the line. I was used to hearing things like this:
“Are you sure it’s not psycho-somatic?”
– a well-meaning osteopathic doctor
“Back in my day we use to call it OLD AGE. Now everybody’s got myalgia this and myalgia that!”
– a bitter person on Facebook
“We don’t believe in autoimmune diseases.”
– western medicine
So, what exactly is Leaky Gut? Is it all in my head? Is it a catch-all like an IBS diagnosis at the gastroenterologist?
1. Leaky gut is currently a hypothetical condition, unrecognized by mainstream western medicine.
THAT DOESN’T MEAN IT’S NOT REAL.
All it means is there is not enough money to fund the clinical studies needed to reach a medical consensus on diagnosing and treating the condition (it took 60 years to medically recognize AIDS). Despite this, there are many studies and there is plenty of evidence to support the condition, which is why most functional and integrative medicine MD’s recognize and treat it. There are currently no marketed drugs to cure it, but, no doubt, when a pharmaceutical company develops one, we’ll see a large increase in funding for research. And flashy packaging. And stock footage families frolicking in meadows on our TVs, while the soothing voiceover tells us to “ask your doctor about Healergutrizol (or whatever), despite possible side effects of permanent damage to the gut, probably.”
2. Leaky gut is damage to the protective barrier on the intestinal wall.
The small intestine does 90% of the digestive work through two major jobs: It moves nutrients from the food you eat into the bloodstream so your body can circulate it to the appropriate organs. It also contains the bad stuff, or “anti-nutrients,” within the digestive tract so it can be eliminated as waste.
How does it contain the bad stuff? There’s a thin layer of mucous along the intestinal wall, made up of a single layer of cells held tightly enough together to only allow the smaller things through–the nutrients. If this thin layer of mucous is damaged in any way, though, the “junctions” pull apart, allowing the bigger, badder stuff–mainly undigested proteins called lectins–to enter the bloodstream.
3. Leaky gut is the root cause of autoimmune disease.
If something damages our gut barrier and the undigested stuff in our food gets through to our bloodstream, our immune system attacks it. The problem is, these “bloodstream invaders” mimic the cells in our healthy organs, confusing our immune system into attacking our own healthy body. Unfortunately, the immune system is capable of attacking just about anything in our body:
- adrenal glands (Addison’s disease)
- thyroid gland (Grave’s disease and Hashimoto’s disease)
- lining of the small intestine (Celiac’s disease)
- brain and spinal cord (Multiple sclerosis)
- skin (Psoriasis, eczema, hives, acne)
- circulatory system (Raynaud’s Phenomenon)
- joints (Rheumatoid arthritis)
- connective tissue (Scleroderma)
- tear and saliva glands (Sjoegren’s syndrome)
- insulin producers (Type 1 diabetes)
- FULL BODY (Systemic lupus erythematosus)
These are merely a handful of autoimmune diseases. People often get one or more of these conditions at the same time.
4. It takes years, or even DECADES, for us to recognize the effects of leaky gut.
The body doesn’t attack itself overnight. Symptoms can be present long before anything shows up abnormal on a blood test. The problem is everyone’s body is unique, so leaky gut will not manifest itself the same exact way in two people. Your immune system is a product of genetic, environmental, and medically historic factors, so there’s no telling how each person will respond to foreign substances in the bloodstream.
5. The cause of leaky gut will take a while to prove.
There hasn’t been enough research to determine a direct cause of leaky gut. There is, however, evidence to suggest what may be causing it. It’s one of those things that may take decades to prove, and, by that point, it will be too late for most of us:
- the “American” diet high in whole grains, corn, soy, and animal protein
- chronic stress
- hormonal imbalance
- overuse of antibiotics, NSAIDS (aspirin, naproxen, ibuprofen), and PPIs (Nexium, Prilosec)
There are two points, especially, that scientists will need to prove beyond a shred of a doubt, because we can expect lots of dissent from companies who profit from these things. Nearly every packaged food item has corn, soy, wheat, or all three. If that’s what’s slowly destroying our guts, we’ll need people to prove it in court.
6. There is no quick fix (yet).
There is no conventionally recognized test for diagnosing hyper-permeability in the gut lining, which means there is no test for knowing whether it’s repaired. The treatment for leaky gut is a diet free of foods that our immune system would attack, if present in the bloodstream. If you have leaky gut, you must assume that everything you ingest will enter your bloodstream. This means only eating those foods which humans have been eating for millions of years (i.e. lots of greens, plants, roots, some seeds, berries, and occasional wild animal protein).
There’s no telling if you’re “cured,” though. I have slowly come to accept that I may have to eat lectin-free for the remainder of my life. I’ve had a funeral for ice cream and pizza. I’ve stowed away all of my bread-baking supplies for the time being. I was sad, and I resisted for a while. But the way I feel when I eat the right things overshadows any temporary euphoria from ingesting creamy, sugary goodness. I’m still figuring it out. I still have bad days that make me want to give up, but then I think how bad my days used to be. I know that, though it’s a rough journey, it’s worth it to keep trying.