by Francesca Orlando, NTP, CGP
Leaky gut is not recognized by mainstream medicine. Yet, it is a chronic debilitating condition that affects the small intestine and is accompanied by a wide variety of symptoms, ranging from food allergies, to malnutrition, to liver toxicity, to candida overgrowth, and more.
Our digestive system is an intricate collection of organs that work synergistically to digest food, assimilate nutrients, and remove waste. The digestive tract is a long tube going from mouth to anus, aided by accessory organs (the pancreas, the liver, and the gallbladder).
The physical and mechanical breakdown of food begins in the mouth, but digestion really starts in the brain. The sight and smell of food triggers a series of chemical reactions brought about by hormonal activity. The though, sight and smell of food (even just chewing gum) trigger the brain to signal the stomach that food is on its way. The brain does so through a neurotransmitter called acetylcholine (ACH), which signal the stomach to start stretching to accommodate food and to start producing acids and pepsin necessary for the breakdown of protein.
One important concept that only few doctors consider, and very few patients know, is that digestion is a north to south process. Dysfunction north of the GI tract will affect organs located south of the GI tract.
Leaky gut is a condition that affects the small intestine, but if always has its root causes north of the organ and repercussion all over the body.
As a Nutritional Therapy Practitioner I see a lot of clients affected by leaky gut in my practice. While some people would be tempted to work on the small intestine exclusively, it is important to recognize that that would be a short lived band-aid approach. As a holistic practitioner, I focus on finding the root causes of the condition and only then can I create a dietary and supplemental plan specific for my client’s needs.
Leaky gut, as any kind of digestive dysfunction, can only be healed by removing the stressors, while working on nourishing the cells of the small intestine back to health.
Often times, the primary dysfunction is traced all the way to “the brain.” As a culture, we are stressed all the time. We eat while driving or working at a desk; we eat when angry, sad, frustrated, etc. Physiologically speaking, the digestive process requires the body to be in the parasympathetic dominant state (you can read about it and the Automatic Nervous System here).
It goes without saying that the first step to ensure appropriate digestion is missing, and repercussions will be experienced south of the GI tract. In addition to this, when we are busy doing other things during a meal, we tend to “forget” to chew and wash down our food with liquids. This stresses both stomach and small intestine, as the first steps of mechanical (mastication) and chemical (salivary enzymes) digestion is missing, and too much fluid dilutes stomach acids. The stomach will now have to work harder in order to break down proteins and to mechanically churn our food. Also, if the brain did not signal the arrival of the food, stomach acids are produced in the right quantity and the digestive process is halted all together.
This is going to affects several organs. The stomach is now hosting rotting, putrefying, rancidifying material that is not ready to be released in the small intestine. These putrefying foods create caustic acids that erode the stomach lining. The body tries to get rid of the gases through burping and belching, which can in the long run give rise to heartburn and acid reflux. Heartburn and acid reflux are caused in 99% of cases by low stomach acid production, not the opposite, like big pharma has convinced you. But this information is probably best suited for another article…
This rotting food paste, called chyme, will eventually be dumped in the small intestine, and with time, it will cause the lining to become leaky.
In order to explain how this happens, allow me to describe briefly the small intestine. Its surface is as big as a tennis court.
This picture on the left shows the intestinal lining with its millions of villi and microvilli. These tiny protrusions complete the breakdown of food and it is also in the small intestine that 80% of assimilation takes place. You can imagine how important the health of these little structures is for our health. The villi and microvilli produce enzymes, called brush border enzymes, which are necessary to breakdown food molecules.
The small intestine also hosts tiny lymph nodes that scan every single food particle before allowing it to be absorbed in circulation. In a healthy digestive system, nutrients are first extracted from food molecules that have been properly broken down. They are then “analyzed” by the lymph nodes and allowed in the circulatory system, which will shuttle nutrients to every cell of the body. If the food is sitting in the small intestine, rotting, putrefying and rancidifying, it will a) destroy villi, microvilli, brush border enzymes, b) will create holes in the gut lining. Both give rise to leaky gut. The junction of the small intestine is very tight and selective as to what passes through. Once that tightens is lost and the gut has become leaky, maldigested food particle are allowed to pass through the damaged barrier and go into circulation. This wreaks havoc in the entire body. The immune system cannot recognize what once was a nourishing food and it mounts an attack. This is how food allergies are born. At the same time, toxins are produced in the gut and they also escape into the circulatory system, creating all sort of dysfunction: brain fog, depression, aggressive behavior, as well as ADD/ADHD, even autism, have all been linked to leaky gut and toxic buildup from putrefying food. To these symptoms, we add maldigestion, malnutrition and nutrient deficiencies, diarrhea and flatulence.
As the food rots in the small intestine, its gases kill the good bacteria that inhabit the small intestine and it can also cause a condition called SIBO (very frequently associated with leaky gut). SIBO stands for small intestine bacterial overgrowth, and it is linked to Crohn’s disease and IBS. It doesn’t stop here though, as the digestive system continues south, dysfunction will be present also in the large intestine. The large intestine deals with the leftover of digestion. In the presence of leaky gut, these leftovers keep putrefying in the colon, weakening the cells of the colon, causing loss of tone, and killing beneficial bacteria. The body is now deprived of precious vitamins and nutrients produced by the bacteria living in the colon, and a host of other symptoms add to the ones caused by leaky gut.
Leaky gut can manifest itself with a variety of symptoms that are often difficult for the untrained person to trace back to the gut. If you are experiencing depression or other mood disorder, weight gain, fatigue, autoimmune disease, consult a nutritional therapy practitioner to assess the health of your gut.
Francesca Orlando is a Nutritional Therapy Practitioner in private practice in San Diego, CA. She is a certified GAPS practitioner and a Lead Instructor for the Nutritional Therapy Association Inc. Her expertise in traditional diets comes from a family background in biodynamic farming, wine making and the Slow Food movement. She is a follower of the works of Dr. Westin A. Price and Dr. Francis M. Pottenger, Jr. and believes that food is medicine and that through proper nutrition the deleterious effects of the standard American diet can be reversed. You can reach her with questions or comments at firstname.lastname@example.org, or visit her Website, www.healthfullivingsd.com.