Leaky gut: What is it and what it might be telling you about your health
  • April 6, 2016
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    Society places an undeniable emphasis on the human gut. Don’t believe me? Google “gut quotes” and see how many hits you get. One of my favorites is “Don’t be afraid to go with your gut. It’s there for a reason, and it’s usually right.”

    We’re constantly told to rely on our gut or trust our gut instinct. Obviously, one’s gut can’t give advice or tell one what to do. But its prevalence in modern society is likely because the gut is crucial to one’s overall wellbeing. In fact, TheBark.com dubs the gut “the key to health.”

    What is the gut, exactly? Otherwise known as the gastrointestinal — or GI — tract, the human gut encompasses a lot of our innards, including the stomach, large intestine and small intestine. As the biggest immune system organ, it only makes sense that the gut helps process and digest food.

    Within the human gut, there’s a host of bacteria, some of it good and some of it bad. These 100 trillion bacteria play a large impact on how a person feels. “These bacteria and the compounds they excrete can have positive and negative effects on a person’s health,” said Stanley Hazen, MD, PhD, from Cleveland Clinic, according to CNN. “To have a healthy gut, one must avoid eating foods that foster the growth of bacteria that create unhealthy metabolites.” In other words, too much bad bacteria isn’t good for you, and will likely give you gas, diarrhea, bloating and the like.

    That’s where leaky gut comes in. Leaky gut: Just the name sounds disgusting, bringing to mind an unending flow of gross images, many of which — for me — involve slimy green or yellow pus oozing out of my gut.

    A precise definition of leaky gut is still a little murky, even according to medical professionals. “From an MD’s standpoint, it’s a very gray area,” said Donald Kirby, MD, a gastroenterologist from Cleveland Clinic, according to WebMD. Lisa Lee, MD, director of the Johns Hopkins Medicine Integrative Medicine and Digestive Center, agrees. “We don’t know a lot, but we know that it exists,” she said, according to WebMD. “In the absence of evidence, we don’t know what it means or what therapies can directly address it.” Others — like MindBodyGreen.com — have attributed leaky gut syndrome to toxins and certain foods, particularly gluten.

    Regardless of the discrepancy, one consensus seems to stand: Leaky gut may be caused by intestinal permeability or intestinal hyperpermeability. That means the cells on the inside of one’s intestine aren’t working right. These tight junctions are supposed to regulate what gets through the small intestine. But when the junctions are broken down, bad things — like toxins — get leaked into one’s bloodstream (hence the name “leaky gut”).

    Symptoms of leaky gut vary widely, but include food sensitivities, thyroid issues, inflammatory skin conditions, chronic fatigue, an autoimmune disease diagnosis and mood issues, according to DrAxe.com and MindBodyGreen.com.

    Sounds pretty awful, huh? It is, and a potential diagnosis of leaky gut syndrome could be saying a lot about your health. Visiting your physician is one of the first steps you should take if you think you might have leaky gut syndrome. Unfortunately, physicians “are in the infancy of understanding what to do” about leaky gut, according to Dr. Lee.

    Still, there are numerous options out there for leaky gut sufferers. For one, take a look at your diet. Reevaluate what you’re eating, cut back on fatty and toxic foods and visit a gastroenterologist who’s knowledgeable about nutrition. Additionally, examine your lifestyle and mood. Are you stressed out? Heightened stress could play a role in your leaky gut syndrome. Another option is to look into L-glutamine supplements, which help strengthen the lining of the small intestine. However, such supplements aren’t a surefire cure. “There’s no evidence that if I give you a pile of glutamine pills, that you will improve,” said Dr. Lee.

    The words “leaky gut” will never sound pleasant, nor will a diagnosis of the syndrome ever be enjoyable. But a little insight into the topic can eliminate its mysterious nature and help you determine what leaky gut syndrome might be telling you about your health.

    About Erin Dietsche

    Erin ran track from an early age, but it wasn't until her parents "forced" her to join her high school cross country team that she fell in love with running. Since then, she's become an avid runner and learned how to balance her running with her interest in eating chocolate. After graduating from the University of Iowa, Erin began her job as a writer for a healthcare publication. Outside of her job, she enjoys playwriting and checking out everything the Chicago theatre scene has to offer. When she's not writing, reading or running, Erin likes listening to rap music and playing the piano.