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  • Courtney Cheah

LEAKY GUT SYNDROME - what is it all about?

What is it?

Our gut is home to about 3 or 4 kilos of gut bacteria, making up our microbiome. If our gut bacteria gets out of balance, we experience ‘gut dysbiosis’. This can lead to disruption in the tight cell junctions in our intestinal wall, which control the movement of substances from the intestine to the bloodstream. Usually this process is tightly controlled, with only water, vitamins and other nutrients making it through; but when the integrity of the tight junctions is compromised, other particles can sometimes get out, such as microscopic, poorly digested fragments of food.


When this happens, the body recognises that something has made it through the tight junction into the bloodstream that should not have, and mounts an immune response. This can create inflammation, and be a potential mechanism by which adults develop food sensitivities and autoimmune conditions.


What causes it?

There are a number of things that can cause Leaky Gut Syndrome. Stress is cited as a major factor by Dr Libby Weaver in her 2015 book Exhausted to Energised: “The chronic production of stress hormones can compromise the integrity of the gut cells and signal to them that they need to move further apart so that more nutrition can get through to the blood, as nutrient requirements increase during times of stress”.


Other factors that can contribute are:


- Infection (eg. Stomach bugs)

- Inflammation

- Drugs, especially antibiotics, anti fungal medication, the oral contraceptive pill and pain medication

- Gliadin – a protein in wheat

- Stress and mood disorders (these can also be caused by Leaky Gut)

- Increase in Zonulin

- Xenobiotics (synthetic oestrogens from plastics, parabens and phalates)

- AGE’s (advanced glycation end products)

Signs and Symptoms

- Chronic diarrhoea/constipation

- Bloating

- Fatigue

- Nutritional deficiencies

- Headaches

- Brain fog/confusion/difficulty concentrating

- Joint pain

- Inflammation throughout the body

There have also been associations made between Leaky Gut Syndrome and what is known as ‘Leaky Brain’. The blood-brain barrier, which is responsible for deciding which substances move from the blood into the brain, is suspected of becoming more permeable in cases where the gut has become so. ‘Leaky Brain’ has also been linked to a number of neurological conditions, such as autistic spectrum disorder, dementia, Alzheimer’s disease, depression and schizophrenia.


Weaver (2015) also talks about the ‘opioid effect’, by which some food fragments that escape into the blood through dysfunctional tight junctions permeate the blood-brain barrier, and because they have a similar molecular structure to opioids, are able to bind to opioid receptors in the brain. Beta-casomorphine and gluteomorphine, which are partially digested fragments of casein and gluten, are among these molecules which can bind to opioid receptors in the brain.

The possible effect of this is that the opioids from food (or exorphins – endorphins from an outside source) give us a subtle mood boost, and may become something that we subconsciously or consciously crave, or feel we need. The foods they are derived from, being cow’s milk (casein), and grains such as wheat, rye, barley and oats (gluten) can be addictive for some people, possibly because of this mechanism.


This opioid effect has also been found to be a factor in the expression of symptoms in neurological conditions such as autism and schizophrenia.

Treatment

The major aims of LGS treatment are to decrease stress and inflammation, encourage the closure of tight cell junctions, repair the microvilli and intestinal mucosal layer, and balance good bacteria in the gut. Treatment for LGS would be best overseen by a qualified practitioner to optimise outcomes; but reducing stress would be a great place to start. Things such as learning to eat slowly and mindfully, and ensuring a relaxing and calm environment while eating, could help significantly. More general stress management principles would also be indicated, such as engaging in regular meditation and/or other restorative practices, such as yoga or Qi Gong.

If you think you might have Leaky Gut Syndrome, or are suffering any other gut issues, it would be recommended to seek the help of a naturopath, dietitian or nutritionist who specialises in gut healing.



References

Weaver, Dr Libby 2015, Exhausted to Energised, Little Green Frog Publishing, Auckland.

Eske 2019, ‘What to know about leaky gut syndrome’, viewed 21st Oct 2019, <https://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/326117.php>

Course notes from ‘Happy Gut Happy Mind’ workshop, written by Sarah Nankervis (Naturopath), 2019.

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