What do you need to know about the digestive system and leaky gut? Part 1
All disease begins in the gut — Hippocrates
We are finally starting to understand how the gut plays a role in health and disease. We are not only what we eat, we are what we absorb and digest.
Most of us even won’t realize this until we start to feel strong symptoms. If you have low energy, joint pain, or even slow metabolism and increasing weight gain, there might be a connection with leaky gut — which essentially means increased intestinal permeability, and the degree of leakiness of the tight junctions. But when you have these symptoms you’ll probably try to figure out the cause without thinking of the gut.
There are more than 200 over-the-counter drugs for gastrointestinal problems, many of which are most likely to create even more digestive issues. However, the gastrointestinal dysfunction is equally just a dysfunctional pattern in our food intake.
The digestive tract contains around 20 feet of small intestine, and from the moment food enters the mouth, the chemical and mechanical digestive processes are directed toward changing food into forms that can be absorbed by the body. So in a healthy system, foods enter the mouth, nutrients are absorbed, and waste is excreted. Depending upon what foods were eaten, this process can take one to five hours to empty in the stomach, and complete bowel transit time is 24 to 48 hours, for some foods even longer. When fecal transit time is increased there is an increased risk of many conditions including cancer, hemorrhoids, allergies, and auto-toxicity (which is self-poisoning by bacteria, toxins and metabolic waste that leaves the body imbalanced, sick, and diseased). The skin, kidneys, lungs, and lymphatics can all help the body rid itself of toxins, but the paramount organ is the intestine.
Everything has to be absorbed by the gut, and the community of bacteria living there is very important for us in order to extract all the good things from our diet. But if these bacteria are not fed in the right way, they can be dangerous. So we have to feed the gut microbiota correctly with good, healthy food, and avoid foods that can cause an imbalance.
Inside our bellies, we have an extensive intestinal lining covering a surface area of more than 4,000 square feet. When working properly, it forms a tight barrier that controls what gets absorbed into the bloodstream. An unhealthy gut lining may have large cracks or holes, allowing partially digested food, toxins, and bugs to penetrate the tissues beneath it. This may trigger inflammation and changes in the gut flora (normal bacteria) that could lead to problems within the digestive tract and beyond.
When the gut is not healthy, this can quickly lead to diseases such as inflammatory bowel disease, irritable bowel disease, liver disease, multiple sclerosis, rheumatoid arthritis, celiac disease, and gluten sensitivity. The gut barrier is a very complex system, and it’s also the real interface between the internal and external body, so problems with the gut can quickly affect many other systems in the body. What appears to be happening is that many people have the wrong bacteria in their gut and/or gut permeability control has been lost. This results in unhealthy metabolites (“toxins”) from gut bacteria entering into circulation — research has shown that up to one-third of the small molecules in the blood come from bacteria in the gut.
The composition of the gut microbiota is dynamically influenced by several host factors, including diet, lifestyle, antibiotics, and genetic background. If you have a bad diet, you have to control the diet, for example to eliminate all the food that can somehow be responsible for the leaky gut. For example, eating foods with gluten grains releases zonulin, which opens up the tight junctions allowing free entry into the gut. Over the last decade there has also been a rise in protein consumption, and it’s the digestion of protein by bacteria that produces the most toxic metabolic waste. Intestinal putrefaction produced by high protein diets can affect many other organs in the body too. Stress can also disrupt the digestive process, as can antibiotic misuse. Reducing stress has been shown to successfully improve several digestion-related disorders.
Not only does the colon metabolically affect other organs, it may also do so reflexively. So digestive issues in the colon can have a huge effect on almost all other parts of the body. Signs and symptoms of autointoxication and intestinal toxemia include headaches, back pain, depression, inability to concentrate, bloating, fatigue, abdominal pain, sinus problems, nausea, indigestion, bad breath, body odor, diarrhea, constipation, flatulence, endocrine disorders, ear nose & throat disorders, arthritis, appendicitis, fibrocystic breasts, tumors, acne, itching, posture alterations, inflammation, and wrinkled skin.
Dr. Bernard Jensen labeled constipation as the “greatest present day internal danger to health” and likened it to a modern day plague, lowering the body’s resistance to illness and leading to chronic degenerative diseases. Constipation is caused by an improper diet, lack of exercise, inadequate water intake, stress, toxins and medications. Even with daily bowel movements, when individual foods take longer to travel through the intestine their elimination can be delayed, causing putrefaction and leading to many potential problems.
We need to change our lifestyle! We should follow a proper diet including lots of fruits and vegetables, raw or lightly steamed, not over-consuming, eating early in the evening with time to digest before sleep, taking regular exercise, including some vigorous exercise, chewing food completely, and eating or drinking fermented/cultured foods like kefir or kombucha. Minimizing stimulants such as coffee, chocolate, caffeinated teas and peanuts is also crucial, as is eliminating refined sugars, sodas, fried foods, lunch meats and pork, reducing grain-fed red meat consumption, and drinking room temperature liquids.
And we have to shift from generalized medicine, to personalized medicine! Really, I think that physicians of the future have to absolutely recognize leaky gut and try to treat it. We may look like each other, however we all have a unique structure, so what works for one person may not work for another.
In part 2 I will look at how to heal a leaky gut.
Until then you might like to watch this short animated video to learn more about to leaky gut: https://www.functionalmedicineuniversity.com/public/481.cfm