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  • Writer's pictureMegan Vardeman, PA-C

What is a leaky gut?

Updated: Apr 17, 2023

Gut health forms the foundation of one’s entire well-being. Our gut is the point of contact between the inner workings of our body and the external nourishment we take in to fuel it. It needs to be receptive and supported enough to make use of what our bodies need while maintaining sufficient integrity to defend us against potential enemies like unfriendly bacteria and toxins. To accomplish this optimal level of permeability and defense, our gut relies on “tight junctions,” which are the contact points between each individual epithelial cell in our stomach and intestines, knitted together to create a sort of regulatory pass-through system that can recognize what should and what should not be making its way from the outside to the inside. When these tight junctions lose their integrity due to insult and injury, we are left with a leaky gut and a whole host of consequences, or symptoms. When you think about it, the GI mucosa is one of the few parts of our body that has a direct interface with the outside world. It might help to imagine what happens when our skin loses its integrity, either because of a burn or a cut—we are at high risk for infection and need to attend to the wound, dressing it and allowing it to heal before re-exposing it to the potential threats of the outside world. A leaky gut cannot be bandaged, and we cannot cease to eat and drink while we wait for it to heal. While our gut is wounded, we are at greater risk of inflammation and illness.

What causes a leaky gut?

One common culprit that leads to leaky gut is unchecked food sensitivity. The standard American diet is rife with pro-inflammatory foods and enhanced modern hygiene practices have refined our natural environmental exposures, leading to an increase in the rates of food intolerances, allergies, and sensitivities. When the body encounters an offending food, it will first respond protectively with inflammation of the gut. If the inflammation persists, day after day, meal after meal, it will inevitably tax the gut and lead to a breakdown in tight junctions. This occurs most significantly in the small intestine, where most of our nutrients are absorbed. The increased permeability allows unwelcome proteins and other substances to enter our bloodstream. Our immune system recognizes the intruders to be out of place and responds with systemic, widespread inflammation, an escalation of defense and attack. Chronic inflammation leads to chronic disease.

Other common causes of leaky gut includes low levels of stomach acid, infections and toxins, medications (including antibiotics and acid-blockers), systemic disease, and, of course, stress. It might require a bit of detective work to determine which elements are playing the lead roles in any one individual’s presentation.

How do I know if leaky gut syndrome could be impacting my health? And how can I fix it?

There are many physical symptoms that can manifest from a leaky gut. Many people think that only “gut” symptoms would indicate a potential problem. This is false! Of course, gut symptoms indicate gut issues; therefore, bloating, cramping, gas, reflux, and irregularity are important signs and need to be addressed. And, there is an entire array of additional symptoms that can point to problems with gut permeability, such as headaches, autoimmune conditions, rashes, eczema, itching, fatigue, and joint pain. If you have any of the risk factors listed above as common causes and have been struggling with vague symptoms or general poor wellbeing, chances are you would benefit from taking a closer look at the integrity of your gut.

Here at YWP we take a “5 R’s” approach to help you optimize gut health: Remove (pathogens), Replace (digestive support), Re-inoculate (syn-biotics), Repair (leaky gut), and Rebalance (lifestyle factors). In the case of food sensitivities, “removing” the offending agent is part of the first step, a prerequisite to set the stage for repair of a leaky gut. We will talk with you about specialized food sensitivity testing and help you determine what scope of testing might be right for you based on your symptoms, or whether moving straight to an elimination diet with guided food reintroduction makes more sense. We can also talk with you about options for stool testing to get a more complete picture of any potential pathogens that could be residing in your GI tract, like unfriendly bacteria, yeast, fungi, or parasites that need to be removed to allow for healing and repair.

Further along the path, we work with you to ensure that your gut is resourced with all that it needs to do its job well, including a healthy microbiome, micronutrients, and antioxidants that can help repair the damaged mucosa. In the longer term, we support you in leaning into a lifestyle that protects your newfound and hard-earned sense of wellbeing.

We understand that beginning a journey like this can feel overwhelming at times, and we would love to be your resource whenever you decide you are ready. We are here to help!

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