Research is starting to direct attention towards the health of your gut and how it relates to autoimmune disease. A condition called leaky gut has been linked to many autoimmune conditions such as celiac disease, multiple sclerosis, lupus, Crohn's disease and many others. The intestine is lined with single layer of cells that allow the transport of small molecules (vitamins, minerals) into the bloodstream to be used by the body. When this layer of cells is inflamed or damaged, larger molecules (like bacteria, undigested food particles, viruses) that would normally be blocked can enter the bloodstream and interact with the immune system. This is called leaky gut or more formality known as increased intestinal permeability.
For many years it was believed that between these cells were "tight junctions" that never opened. A protein has been discovered called Zonulin. It helps regulate leakiness in the gut by opening and closing the spaces or "tight junctions". Much of the research on leaky gut syndrome is focused on zonulin, that to date is the only thing known to regulate intestinal permeability. (1)
Inside the small intestine there are billions of bacteria (as much as 3 1/2 pounds!)
The small intestine is 20 ft long and if you laid it out has the surface area of a tennis court!
Bacteria in our gut outnumber our own cells 10:1.
Is Leaky Gut Real?
Leaky Gut has been proven real but there is a lot of misinformation out there. Dr. Alessio Fassano, someone who has done extensive leaky gut research has said "The term "leaky gut” has for decades been “used and abused” by some alternative medicine practitioners who—without scientific evidence—cited it as the cause of everything from autism to cancer. There is a link to autoimmunity but there is no proof as of now that leaky gut is the cause of any disease.
How Does Leaky Gut Happen?
Zonulin is believed to be the protein that opens and closes the tight junctions and therefore it may be what triggers leaky gut. Two of the most powerful triggers of the release of zonulin are harmful intestinal bacteria and gluten, via gliadin, a glycoprotein present in wheat, in the small intestine. (2) It's important to note that some diseases like celiac disease and irritable bowel syndrome can affect intestinal permeability making it difficult distinguish between cause and effect(3). Meaning it's impossible to tell if leaky gut caused the disease or was simply a result.
What Causes Leaky Gut?
Chronic stress can lead to a weakened immune system, affecting your ability to fight off invading bacteria and viruses and worsening the symptoms of leaky gut. Medications like aspirin and non-steroidal anti inflammatories (NSAIDs) that can damage the lining of your gut, as well as antibiotics that kill off your essential good bacteria are also associated with increased intestinal permeability. An imbalance between beneficial and harmful species in your gut called dysbiosis is one of the theories about what causes increased intestinal permeability. Excessive alcohol consumption, infection with parasites, radiation and chemotherapy can damage the lining of the intestine and have also been linked to leaky gut.
What Conditions are associated with Leaky Gut?
An increasing number of diseases are recognized as involving changes in intestinal permeability including autoimmune diseases like type 1 diabetes, celiac disease, multiple sclerosis, rheumatoid arthritis, and Crohn's disease. High stress levels have been linked to increased intestinal permeability (4).
Will healing your gut relieve autoimmune symptoms?
It's important to recognize that while leaky gut has been connected with autoimmune disease that doesn't mean it's the cause. That being said many of the proposed solutions to leaky gut are sensible recommendations that can lead to improvements in your overall health, whether or not you have increased intestinal permeability.
While evidence based treatments for leaky gut are limited it's important to remove any potential root causes of the problem. To help improve gut health it's important to remove any potential underlying roots of the problem (eg, gluten, alcohol, and NSAIDs).
- Get tested for infections to see if they are the root cause of your health symptoms.
- Eat an anti-inflammatory diet that eliminates refined sugars, dairy, gluten, alcohol and artificial sweeteners.
- Consume anti-inflammatory essential fatty acids in fish and nuts, and eat plenty of green leafy vegetables, high-fiber and fermented foods that help to promote the growth of good bacteria.
- Get tested for Celiac Disease
- Eliminate any potential food sensitivities via an elimination diet
- Minimize alcohol intake
- Avoid NSAIDs if possible
- Reduce Stress
A lot still needs to be learned about leaky gut but improving your digestive health will only benefit your overall health with or without leaky gut.