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The Leaky Gut Syndrome

This article was written by Sherry Rogers, M.D. of Northeast Center for Environmental Medicine, Syracuse, NY. She can be reached at P.O.Box 2716 Syrcuse NY 13220. Phone 315-488-2856. This article was reproduced with permission.

If the gut is not healthy, neither is the rest of the body. It is the point of fuel and nutrient entry that runs the body. If healing is at a standstill and you are at an impasse, look at the gut to see if it is holding you back from getting healthier. Chemical sensitivity, fibromyalgia, and escalating food allergies are among the many problems caused by the leaky gut.

If gas, bloating, abdominal pain, indigestion, alternating constipation and diarrhea are symptoms, you may be headed for the development of new symptoms and new diseases.

If you are taking over-the-counter medications for pain, you may be at high risk for developing leaky gut syndrome. The purpose of the gastrointestinal tract, or gut, is multifold. Basically, it 1) digests foods, (2) absorbs small food particles to be converted into energy, (3) carries nutrients like vitamins and minerals attached to carrier proteins across the gut lining into the bloodstream, (4) contains a major part of the chemical detoxification system of the body, and 5) contains immunoglobulins or antibodies that act as the first line of defense against infection.

The leaky gut syndrome or LGS is a poorly recognized, but an extremely common problem. It is rarely tested for. Basically, it represents a hyperpermeable intestinal lining. In other words, large spaces develop between the cells of the gut wall and bacteria, toxins and foods leak in. This might sound good, but it is actually a double edged sword.

How does the gut become leaky? By inflammation. And once the gut lining becomes inflamed or damaged, - then this impairs the five functions above. The spaces open up and allow large food antigens, for example, to be absorbed into the body. Normally the body sees only small, tiny food antigens. When it sees these new, large ones, they are foreign to the body's defense system. So the attack results in the production of antibodies against once harmless foods.

Once you have antibodies to foods, they can do many things, like attach to a joint space, for example. This then turns on an inflammatory reaction where you suddenly have arthritis that is induced by ingesting a food that used to be harmless. Or if antibodies are in the lungs, suddenly you have asthma and unsuspected food allergy can be one of the triggers.

Food allergy can precipitate symptoms in literally any organ at any time, once the gut develops these large, leaky spaces. And if that were not enough, these large spaces allow the absorption of toxins that normally would not penetrate the protective barrier of the gut. These toxins then overload the liver so that chemicals cannot be detoxified. Now you have food and chemical sensitivities.

It might sound good that the gut can become leaky, because it would seem that the body would be better able to absorb more amino acids, essential fatty acids, minerals and vitamins. For the body to absorb a mineral, it does not just slowly diffuse across the gut membrane. It must be attached to a carrier protein. This protein hooks onto the mineral and actually carries it across the gut wall into the bloodstream. But when the bowel lining is damaged through inflammation, these carrier proteins get damaged as well, so now the victim is vulnerable for developing mineral and vitamin deficiencies.

What types of things can cause the inflammation that leads to the leaky gut syndrome? Many things that are very common in the 21st century. Examples include abnormal flora (bacteria, protozoa, yeasts, like Candida, parasites), items that irritate the gut (foods, alcohol, food additives), food allergens, toxins, and genetic enzyme deficiencies (like lactase deficiency, celiac disease). For example, when we take antibiotics we are at risk of developing an overgrowth of antibiotic resistant
yeasts or fungi, like Candida. Likewise, it has been known for a long time in medicine that antibiotics can cause the overgrowth of Clostridia difficile, an organism which can then go on to cause a relentless colitis.

Likewise, a diet high in sweets (sodas, cookies, cakes, pies, candy bars), alcohol, and caffeine can irritate the gut lining or if a person has a lactase deficiency and ingests dairy products these can trigger a leaky gut. If a person has celiac disease and eats wheat, rye, oats, or barley this can cause an inflammation of the gut lining. Some people are sensitive to fermented foods such as bread, cheese, alcohol, vinegar, catsup, mayonnaise, salad dressings, or anything that has been aged, pickled, or fermented and contains mold allergens. Others are irritated by processed foods and the chemicals that are contained in them.

Some intestinal linings can be inflamed by the use of prednisone and other steroids and, of course, the gut can become inflamed because of food or water poisoning with such organisms as Giardia lamblia, Klebsiella, Citrobacter, or Helicobacter.

Last, but not least, one of the main causes of the leaky gut syndrome is a classification of medications called "non steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs" or NSAIDs. This includes a large number of prescription medications which are used for PMS, arthritis, fibromyalgia, and various types of aches and pains. There are many over-the-counter non-prescription drugs in this classification as well. These include Advil, Motrin, ibuprofen, aspirin, and the new Aleve, which is the old prescription Naprosyn. NSAIDs are a direct and major cause of the leaky gut syndrome, because they inflame the intestinal lining and cause a widening of the spaces between cells, i.e. the leaky gut syndrome.

Let's review the five-fold result of this inflammation of the gut. (1) When the gut is inflamed it does not absorb nutrients and foods properly and so fatigue and bloating can occur; (2) As stated above, when large food particles are absorbed there is the creation of food allergies and new symptoms with new target organs like arthritis or fibromyalgia; (3) When the gut is inflamed, as stated above, the carrier proteins are damaged so nutrient deficiencies occur which can also cause any symptom, like magnesium deficiency-induced muscle spasm or copper-deficiency-induced high cholesterol; (4) Likewise, when the detox pathways that line the gut are compromised, chemical sensitivity can arise. Furthermore the leakage of toxins overburdens the liver so that the body is less able to handle everyday chemicals; (5) When the gut lining is inflamed the protective coating of IgA is adversely affected and the body is not able to ward off infection and becomes more vulnerable to bacteria, protozoa, viruses and yeast like candida; (6) When the intestinal lining is inflamed bacteria and yeast, of which there are hundreds of species in the intestine, are able to translocate. In other words, they are able to pass from the gut lumen or cavity, into the bloodstream and set up infection anywhere else in the body. But, (7) the very worst symptom is the formation of auto-antibodies. For sometimes the antigens that leak across look similar to antigens on our own tissues. So when an antibody is made to attack it, it also attacks our own tissues. This is how nasty autoimmune diseases get started. Rheumatoid arthritis, lupus, multiple sclerosis, thyroiditis and many others are members of this ever-growing category of "incurable" diseases.

So a common scenario runs something like this: a person might be very healthy and then have an antibiotic for a sore throat. The antibiotic does not go only to the throat, but goes through the whole system and in doing so it kills off many good bacteria that normally inhabit the intestines. When these bacteria are killed, the normally antibiotic resistant fungi that remain have no competition and they grow in large numbers and can inflame the intestinal lining and cause the leaky gut syndrome. From there the person can develop new food allergies for example, resulting in arthritis, headaches, asthma, or any symptom. They can start having gas, bloating, pain, alternating diarrhea and constipation which is often labeled "irritable bowel syndrome" or "spastic colon." They can have poor absorption of minerals which then leads to fatigue, inability to concentrate, multiple chemical sensi
tivities, and many other symptoms or they can develop further infection with these fungi and other organisms as the gut lining becomes more debilitated and then there is absorption of toxins from these organisms. These toxins overload the liver detox pathways and suddenly the person is chemically sensitive.

So what does a person do who has headache, arthritis, asthma, irritable bowel, chronic fatigue, brain fog, chemical sensitivities, and much more? They usually go to various doctors, few of whom will do the test for the leaky gut or hyperpermeable gut. To diagnose the leaky gut syndrome, one merely needs to perform the intestinal permeability test. This is an easily performed urine test.

So, how does one treat the leaky gut syndrome? Treatment is done in three phases. (1) You must remove the cause, 2) improve the gut function and then (3) heal the gut.

Removing the cause means getting off non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs, caffeine and alcohol. Then change the diet so that you are not eating foods that you are allergic to. The rare food diagnostic diet (described in Tired Or Toxic?) is a tool to help you identify foods you are sensitive to. Sometimes the treatment involves taking anti-fungals or anti-microbials to kill organisms that have overgrown, infected, and inflamed the gut. These can be diagnosed through a comprehensive digestive and stool analysis.

Next, you must improve the function of the gut. This is done by thorough chewing of food, increasing fiber, using probiotics such as acidophilus and bifidus organisms which have many beneficial properties in the gut, and by using digestive enzymes, if they are indicated, to help improve the breaking down of food into smaller, less antigenic particles.

Lastly, the gut must be healed and there are many entities which are useful for this. Fructo-oligo saccharides, better known as FOS, are a special class of sugars which do not foster yeast growth but which the intestinal lining can preferentially use to heal. Likewise, an amino acid L-glutamine is important in healing the gut wall. Short chain fatty acids, aloe vera gel, flax teas, permeability factors, anti-oxidants, kudzu, bioflavonoids, pycnogenol, detox herbs, correcting nutrient deficiencies, and many more things are beneficial. And often, just like anything that is sick or ailing, sometimes the best thing to do is just rest the gut or fast.

A major step however, in the right direction is first to even know that you have the leaky gut syndrome. For without understanding that it exists, there is no chance in healing it and keeping it healed.

In summary, the leaky gut syndrome is prevalent because of the 21st century lifestyle. And it can lead to the development of any number of symptoms and diseases. Unfortunately it is rarely looked for. So if you are at an impasse with any symptom and cannot seem to rally, you may find you need to heal from the inside out.

There is more about the diagnosis and treatment complete with scientific references contained in Dr. Rogers' newly released, 6th book, Wellness Against All Odds, available through Prestige Publishing, P. O. Box 3161, Syracuse NY 13220, (1-800-846-6687).


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