01.08.2012 Naturopathy

Maintaining Gut Integrity

Leaky gut syndrome can lead to chronic ill health, says Lyn Craven

Maintaining gut integrity is so important for optimum gastro intestinal function and your entire health status. The old herbalists understood this and would state that "the seat of disease lies in the stomach". If your digestion fails to work properly then the large intestine and bowels will be affected - it is a ripple effect as every body system will suffer from acute to chronic states of ill health.

Your gastro intestinal tract has the following functions:

  • to digest foods
  • to carry nutrients such as minerals and vitamins across the intestinal lining and into the bloodstream
  • to absorb products of digestion to be converted into energy and proteins
  • to play a major role in chemical detoxification of the body, and
  • to produce antibodies that protect the body against infection

When you have a healthy gastro intestinal system, it will absorb only the small molecules, that is the products of complete digestion. These molecules are the amino acids, simple sugars, fatty acids, minerals and vitamins the body requires for optimum health. The intestines, especially the small intestine, allow only those substances to enter the body since the cells that contribute to the intestinal wall are tightly packed together. The intestines contain special proteins called 'carrier proteins' responsible for binding certain nutrients and transporting them through the intestinal wall into the bloodstream.

However, when the system is functioning poorly, the intestinal lining can become hyper-permeable, which means there are spaces developing between the cells in the gut wall that allow bacteria, toxins and food to leak through. This is the condition referred to as leaky gut syndrome (LGS).

What is Leaky Gut Syndrome?
Food should be contained within the gut lining to be fully metabolised and allow the body to make use of minerals, vitamins and proteins, carbohydrates and fats. Approximately 70% of the immune system is located around the digestive system so in a healthy person the small intestine allows the breakdown products of digestion into the bloodstream. Nutrients and digested proteins, fats and starches are then ready to enter into the bloodstream while large molecules, microbes and toxins are kept out.

In a strong, healthy immune system leakage of toxic substances is prevented. However, if the immunity is weak, then toxins leak into the liver, which, in turn, will put additional burdens on the liver. This would require us to treat the liver with relevant herbs. The connection between a healthy immune system and the gastro intestinal system is apparent here - people with poor digestion will often have compromised immunity and vice versa.

The stomach lining contains nerve endings so when people experience ongoing stress in their life this can be counterproductive to the efficient functioning of the digestive system and contribute to leaky gut syndrome. Stress is a huge contributor to all gastrointestinal malfunctions, and today' s high pressure world plays a large role in in the increasing prevalence of digestive bowel disorders.

In the intestinal tract, we have what are called villi. They are very tiny finger-like projections off the lining of the intestinal tract and they have little hair-like cell membrane extensions called microvilli. They serve to assist in the absorption of nutrients. Tiny carrier molecules carry various nutrients such as amino acids, glucose and electrolytes across the cell membrane. Leaky gut syndrome causes the intestinal lining to become irritated and inflamed which, in turn, damages or alters the microvilli. The damaged microvilli cannot then produce the necessary enzymes and secretions that are essential for healthy digestion and the absorption of nutrients.

All your mucous membranes have a mucus layer to protect them; otherwise, the membranes would become constantly irritated and inflamed. When leaky gut syndrome is present, the digestive tract (which has a mucus layer protecting it from toxins and other 'foreign' substances), develops a much weaker mucus layer. In severe cases, the mucus layer may not be present due to inflammation allowing bacteria in the intestine to start spreading to other parts of the body due to the intestinal permeability.

Smaller 'between' cells called desmosomes join adjacent cells together to form a strong, sturdy structure, which prevents large molecules from passing through. If inflammation is present it will weaken the structure of the desmosomes and larger molecules can escape through. This will then trigger the immune system to produce antibodies to fight off the molecules, as they are perceived as antigens. Antigens are proteins the immune system uses to locate and attack foreign objects. This process produces toxic oxidants that cause allergic reactions and more inflammation throughout the entire body!

So now you can see how the problem can worsen if undetected over time. The longer you dismiss the disorder, the more likely you are to encounter more complex and possibly more chronic and serious health issues.

If leaky gut syndrome is not treated in the early stages, the liver can become extremely overloaded and then expel more toxins back into the bloodstream. The bloodstream propels toxins into tissues, such as the connective tissue and muscles, where it is then stored. The body in its cleverness stores the toxins in the tissues and muscles to prevent organ damage, but then the toxins cause problems where they are stored - a no win situation. This cascade can lead to such conditions as bloating, allergies, bowel problems, gastric reflux, abdominal pain and others. This syndrome is not recognised or tested by conventional lab testing or medical doctors, but a number of relevant symptoms and accurate testing using live blood analysis can ascertain the state and function of your gut lining.

What triggers leaky gut syndrome?

Pharmaceutical drugs play a role and the worst offenders are non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs or so called NSAIDs - an irony since they are meant to combat inflammation, yet they contribute to LGS! Other offenders are antacids, which often contain aluminum and other irritant additives, and various pain medications, such as ibuprofen and aspirin. Alcohol and caffeine when consumed excessively or even daily over some years can irritate the gut lining. Candida and gut dysbiosis are often triggered by antibiotic use. Other common triggers are a diet of highly refined carbohydrates, food additives, environmental contaminants, inadequate digestive enzymes, and exposure to chronic stress (especially mental/emotional) which reduces blood flow to the gut leaving it unable to repair itself. Other contributors can be pre-existing gastrointestinal disease and poor liver function, perhaps from fatty liver, hepatitis or alcohol or substance abuse, resulting in inflammatory toxins being excreted into the intestines in the bile.

Resulting disorders and symptoms
Leaky gut syndrome is a very common problem and must be addressed for a sufferer to experience optimum health and vitality. If your digestion is inefficient your energy levels will be low and you will become malnourished due to inefficient absorption of nutrients. Allergies can and will manifest; bloating, bowel problems, thrush overgrowth, gastric reflux, abdominal pain, heartburn, gluten intolerance, muscle cramps and pains, auto immune disorders, anxiety, depression and even insomnia are all symptoms that can be the result of a leaky gut. Many of these disorders are treated conventionally but the source of the problem is often overlooked, that is the intestinal permeability lacking integrity. Nutritional advice is rarely offered. The good news is that leaky gut syndrome is quite easy to resolve. The key thing is consistency and perseverance with your remedies and a holistic approach so that the treatment focuses on treating the whole person, not just the stomach. We'll discuss that in more detail next month.

Sydney-based Lyn Craven is a practitioner of naturopathy, nutrition, medical herbalism, Bowen therapy, Reiki energy healing and meditation, and is a corporate health presenter/consultant with 17 years' experience in natural therapies.

Lyn Craven

Lyn Craven is a practitioner of Naturopathy, Bowen Therapy, Energy/Reiki therapist, meditation teacher and Corporate Health Consultant. She is also a health researcher/writer and has produced a meditation CD assisting people to manage anxiety and stress. She runs a private practice in Sydney and can be contacted on +61403 231 804