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Written By Nicole Crane, BS, NTP
More often than not, the kind of digestive problems that significantly affect your quality of life begin in the intestines. It is the stomach’s job is to break down food so the intestines can properly absorb the vitamins, minerals, phytonutrients, and other components of the food we eat – but the intestines do much more than just that! Your intestines house about 70% of the immune system!
Within the intestines is an entire world of microscopic bacteria, both healthy and unhealthy, which is called the “microbiome” of the gut. We have trillions of healthy strains of bacteria in the GI tract called probiotics. These probiotics outnumber our own body’s cells by about 10:1 and can weigh nearly 3-4 pounds!1 There will always be a small amount of unhealthy bacteria in the gut, but that’s okay – it might even be helpful, since it keeps the healthy bacteria strains active and well-functioning. However, it becomes a problem when this “bad” bacteria reaches a number that the healthy bacteria cannot easily handle. Bad bacteria strains are like playground bullies – once they take over, they don't like to give up control. This includes control of the food supply, warmth, and protection of the GI tract. Unfortunately, there are many diet and lifestyle factors that can do major damage to this inner ecosystem by allowing in too much unhealthy bacteria.2 Using antibiotics, regularly eating meat from animals that have been fed antibiotics, drinking, smoking, stress, poor stomach acid, a diet high in fructose (especially high fructose corn syrup like soda and candy), a diet high in grain-based foods (bread, pasta, pastries) and/or too much corn oil, canola oil, soybean oil, and other inflammation-inducers are among the most damaging to your digestive wellness. Restoring digestive health can be very difficult, because too much bad bacteria in the gut often leads to more cravings for these sweet foods and making it even tougher to give up the sugar and flour-based foods. When you’re working to clean up your diet, it is so important to read food labels. Unhealthy ingredients hide out everywhere, even in “all-natural” products. Better yet, abandon the packaged foods and eat whole, unprocessed foods in their natural state!
If you have recurrent heartburn, do you also have: constipation, diarrhea, gas or bloating, bad breath, food and/or environmental allergies, osteoporosis, anemia, UTI’s, yeast infections, migraine headaches, fatigue, or a disorder such as Fibromyalgia, Rheumatoid arthritis, or another autoimmune disease? While it can be hard to imagine any of these conditions are related to heartburn, one of the common threads is a highly insidious disorder called Leaky Gut Syndrome. Leaky gut, otherwise known as intestinal hyper-permeability, can develop from several different causes including stress, inflammation, overgrowth of bad bacteria, poor muscle integrity, nutrient deficiencies, and even certain foods like grains and dairy. Leaky gut often begins with lack of probiotics in the gut, which may be caused by several different factors. These include certain foods (especially bacteria-contaminated animal proteins or eating meat from animals that have been fed antibiotics), taking antibiotics yourself, chronic stress, prescription medications, and lifestyle factors that damage our health in general like drinking, smoking, and recreational drug use.
We have evolved into a symbiotic relationship with the probiotics in our gut, so they can protect us from the infinite amount of these bacteria and other microbes that are always present in our environment and in our food. There are 300-700 trillion strains of probiotics in a healthy GI tract, and about 75% of those are different types of lactobacillus and Bifidobacterium. The principle job of probiotics is to find and kill any bad bacteria that enter the microbiome of the GI tract before it can lead to an infection. These good bacteria also help to inhibit the toxins that are released by bad bacteria. Probiotics help to create and activate many of the nutrients, antioxidants and other phytochemicals that we consume. Unless we have enough healthy bacteria in the GI tract, the maximum health-boosting benefits of food and supplements may not be properly activated. Vitamin D, several B-Vitamins like B6 and B12, Vitamin A and Vitamin K all require probiotics for production or activation. It is estimated that a probiotic-rich GI tract makes up nearly 40% of our daily Vitamin K needs. These healthy bacteria are sometimes called “gut flora” and can weigh 3-4 pounds. Probiotics help to support healthy digestion and can help provide relief from diarrhea and constipation as well. These amazing healthy strains of bacteria play a role in the production of digestive enzymes, especially lactase for digesting dairy. If you have developed lactose intolerance but were not dairy-sensitive when you were young, probiotics might help you digest dairy once again later in life. Probiotics work directly with the immune system and help it function properly.
As stated earlier, 70-80% of the immune system is found in the GI tract – this number refers to probiotics and how they communicate with the immune system, having a significant influence over how it behaves.3 Probiotics even affect our brain health, since 80-90% of the “feel-good” brain chemical serotonin and about 50% of dopamine, another feel-good chemical, exist in the GI tract. In fact, many of the brain chemicals, or neurotransmitters, found in the brain are also found or made in the GI tract. Adequate probiotics are needed to support healthy GI tissue, so these vital chemicals that deeply effect our mood, memory, sleep cycle, focus and much more can be properly produced. If you have ever had a “gut feeling”, that could be the brain chemicals in your GI tract communicating with the same chemicals in your brain!4 It is important not to underestimate the many beneficial effects that probiotics can have for your health. Their name comes from the Greek translation for “to give life,” after all.
When foods are not digested properly, the amino acids (broken down proteins) cannot be used to build a healthy body, but instead they trigger an immune reaction. The immune reactivity in the gut may lead to hyper-permeability of the intestinal lining due to chronic inflammation, or leaky gut. Once the intestinal lining becomes too porous, these food particles leak into circulation and are called food-immune-complexes (FICs). These FICs cause an elevation in the IgG class of antibodies, which are a very important part of our immune system. IgG is a type of immunoglobulin which binds to pathogens to prevent infection.5
Immunoglobulins are also known as antibodies, and the immune system naturally creates them to identify and remove perceived threats such as bad bacteria and viruses. The antibody recognizes a part of the potential invader called an antigen. The antibody and antigen fit together like a lock and key, and go on to initiate further immune response. Undigested food particles leftover from poor and incomplete digestion appear to the body like an antigen – the body thinks they are invaders and triggers an immune response to what it perceives as a major threat. The more the immune system is triggered, the more hyperactive it becomes. This hyper-alertness and the inflammatory cycle that undigested food initiates in the body is what causes so many problems, and its effects can have consequences that many of us may not attribute to gut health. Another problem is that the immune system has a memory for antigens, and once an antigen has activated an antibody, the body will continue to believe it is a threat and act accordingly. The body does not realize that the gluten protein in the bread you ate or the proteins found in dairy, tree nuts or shellfish are relatively harmless, unless you are leaking these proteins into your blood and develop an allergy or food sensitivity. I am not stating that all food allergies are the result of leaky gut – for example, when someone eats a peanut or shrimp and they have an anaphylaxis type of response, a different part of the immune system is at work. These allergies tend to be present from birth and are nearly impossible to get rid of. The offending food must be avoided, because it can have life-threatening consequences. However, when the gut is leaky and the body develops immune responses to things that should not pass through the GI wall but make their way through anyway, healing and rebalancing the immune system is very possible with time, effort, the right foods, and the right supplements.
The most common causes of leaky gut syndrome that cause physical damage to the lining of the GI tract are -
Antibiotics kill the good bacteria in the gut, leaving us vulnerable to bad bacteria and other pathogens. Bad bacteria are also a major contributor to increased gut wall permeability. There are many prescription medications that can make the gut’s lining overly porous, thereby increasing the risk of developing leaky gut.6 Nutrient deficiencies damage the lining of the intestines, increasing damage to the digestive system. Damaged microvilli causes an underproduction of digestive enzymes, like lactase for dairy, peptidases for proteins, and a variety of enzymes for carbohydrates. This is a major interest of the bad bacteria, because when you are not properly digesting, this food ferments in the intestines at a much faster rate, providing the bad bacteria with lots of food and nutrients. If you have recurrent gas that occurs frequently after a meal, you may not be producing enough enzymes to properly digest your food. Enzyme deficiency also entices the production of food-immune complexes, to which the immune system responds with antigens as if it were a pathogen, causing even further damage to the intestines. Even healthy people experience changes to their intestinal lining with a diet high in gluten, sugar, and refined foods. Once stress, antibiotics, and even simply social drinking are added, you may be doing significant damage to the gut, even if you don't feel it just yet.7 The more the GI tract becomes damaged, the more inflammation develops, and the GI tract becomes increasingly porous and permeable. In the GI tract, we have a part of every cell known as “tight junctions”. These serve as a barrier between the intestinal cells and the inner cellular space, or the space between the cells. When these junctions have a healthy level of permeability, anything inside the intestines does not come in contact with anything outside of the GI tract. The more of a particular food you eat when you have leaky gut, the more the immune system can react to that food in an incorrect way. This is often how individuals develop allergies or sensitivities to their favorite foods! Microbes can also leak into the blood and move into other parts of the body, leading to infections, inflammatory responses and even increasing the risk of developing into an auto immune disorder, where the body mistakenly attacks itself.
There are other consequences of undigested food particles leaking into the bloodstream. The immune system is not used to seeing foods, especially proteins, in this state. When the body sees them in this predigested state, an overreaction occurs. The immune system becomes activated, and when our immunity is activated on a daily basis it reaches the state of hyper-alertness. However, when it is food that the body is confusing for a pathogen, the immune system is forced into being overactive – this it will be screening everything you come in contact with for something harmful, and it will react to benign factors as if they are dangerous. When you come into contact with something irritating but harmless, like dust, mold, pollen or fragrances, the body will react as if that pollen is trying to invade the body and take over – hello chemical sensitivities, progressive food intolerance's and seasonal allergies!8 And these are ALL because the gut wall is leaky! Once the immune system has communicated to the body that it may be under attack, it is very hard to reverse that response. Helping the body respond properly requires many steps and might be a long path to optimal wellness. This involves sealing up and repairing the gut wall so the offenders are no longer leaking into the blood where they do not belong.
Sometimes when things go wrong in the body, it can be hard to trace them all the way back to the origin. This can be especially true when the body part that is suffering is nowhere near the intestines. When the gut is leaky, the immune system is hypersensitive – your immune responses are in a state of hysteria and paranoia. The immune system believes everything is out to attack the body, and it begins to react to irritating but harmless factors. These factors often include dust, pollen, mold, smoke and other environmental elements that contribute to hay fever, or seasonal allergies. When these irritants enter our sinuses and lungs, the immune system reacts to them as if they were pathogenic bacteria or viruses. The stronger you react to these harmless substances, the greater your level of inflammation and gut permeability. The longer the intestines are permeable, the longer the immune system is in this state of panicked hyper-stimulation. There are many different factors at play, but food sensitivities and seasonal allergies are often due to the immune system reacting to benign factors as if they were causing major infectious damage to the body. The immune system and our inflammatory responses are tied together, and both need to be calmed down and normalized. The medications used to treat allergies often do more damage than good, especially to the GI tract.9
If it is the gut causing problems for the rest of the body, healing the intestines is essential. Dr. Jeffrey Bland has established a healing protocol called the 4 R’s – Remove, Replace, Re-inoculate and Repair. First, you remove the offending food. In this case, remove any foods you are sensitive or allergic to. Replace the impairment to the intestines with digestive enzymes and other supplements for digestion. Re-inoculate the gut with probiotics and other gut friendly foods. Finally, repair the gut mucosa with supplements and healing, highly nutritious, unprocessed foods.10 Sometimes food just isn’t enough and supplemental support is needed, especially if you’re not sure what foods are causing allergies or sensitivity. It can be very helpful to keep a detailed food diary for a few weeks to see if you can pinpoint reactions to specific foods. For many people, an elimination diet where common allergens are avoided for AT LEAST six weeks may be very helpful. Foods to avoid with an elimination diet include gluten (wheat, barley, rye and processed foods not specifically labeled gluten-free), dairy (butter, milk, yogurt, etc.), nuts like almonds and walnuts, peanuts, shellfish like shrimp, citrus fruits, soy and corn (read ingredients on all packaged food), eggs, and alcohol. After six weeks, you reintroduce these normal foods one by one with a 3-4 day window before another food is reintroduced. During the six-week avoidance period, the immune system has not seen the protein that is causing the antigen-antibody reaction – therefore, after not seeing it for so long, the body will have a major reaction to it. While this can be temporarily unpleasant, the knowledge you gain from it is priceless. An elimination diet is likely the simplest, least expensive way for your own body to give you all the answers in determining the best diet for your unique nutrition needs.11 If you plan to do an elimination diet, it is important to research it thoroughly to become familiar with what to eat, what to avoid and how the body may react. Consider working with a holistic health professional who can guide you through the process – focus on non-allergenic fresh fruits and vegetables, clean protein sources, healthy fats, and avoid all packaged foods as much as possible!
Any healing process requires therapy, and there are several nutrients which have significant therapeutic effects. First and foremost, a multivitamin (preferably a liquid) is essential during the healing process. With rampant malabsorption, a multivitamin is critical to assist in healing the body and ward off deficiencies. Taking a multivitamin can significantly help heal the body, since it provides so many nutrients that are hard to absorb or are deficient in the average diet. Probiotics are an army of healthy bacteria in the gut essential for a healthy GI tract – these beneficial bacteria crowd out and kill the bad bacteria, working with the immune system to support digestive wellness. Probiotics also create certain digestive enzymes, make and/or activate various vitamins and phytonutrients, balance digestive function, and generally make the environment in the intestines healthier. A digestive enzyme supplement taken with every meal also helps supplement what the body may not be creating naturally. This supports proper digestion in the stomach, nutrient absorption in the intestines, and efficient gut function. Taking a digestive enzyme with every meal can make a huge difference for not only nutrient absorption, but also for overall quality of life – often, these help to ward off much of the discomfort, gas, bloating, and general indigestion that occurs when the GI tract is not functioning normally. Omega-3 fatty acids such as Fish Oil or Krill Oil are also important for the healing process. Omega-3 fats are vital to help the body regain control of its inflammatory processes and get the inflammation under control. Omega-3’s also help to repair cell membranes and provide energy to the intestinal cells. They can have a great impact to support the healing and sealing of a leaky gut! The amino acid L-Glutamine is an effective healer as well, repairing and fueling the intestinal muscles and the GI tract’s mucosal lining. Nearly as important as probiotics, glutamine preserves lean muscle mass and is often the most important nutrient in the process of intestinal repair. Glutamine can undo gut damage and slow down the vicious cycle of a leaky gut. Glutamine supports gut health, enhances nutrient absorption, and supports effective detoxification and oxidation rate. The intestinal tract is made of both a muscle layer and a mucosa layer. Glutamine supports the structural integrity of the entire intestinal tract by helping to regenerate intestinal mucosa and repair the gut muscles. The basic function of an amino acid is growth and repair of all cells. However, glutamine is unique, as it also serves as a major source of energy for the intestinal tract. When the gut cells have enough energy, gap junctions regain strength, leaky gut membranes start to heal, mucosal layer integrity is supported, the intestinal barrier is strengthened, and the amount of toxins that enter the body are reduced. The body’s exposure to gut microbes is normalized, the microvilli regain health and the gut muscles can perform peristalsis (contractions) for healthy elimination and optimal function. Glutamine is a gut powerhouse nutrient!12
There are some other nutrients you may also consider. N-Acetyl Glucosamine, NAG, is very beneficial for the formation of the mucosal layer and the underlying connective tissue that lines the GI tract. NAG also protects the intestinal muscle from acids, enzymes and pathogens. Again, every individual has unique needs. Your body may need other nutrients, especially minerals like Calcium and Magnesium, in order to supplement what your body is not properly absorbing. Zinc Picolinate acts as a natural antibiotic for the gut, and it’s also great for acne and other skin conditions. Zinc is critical to recycle the cells, and it helps in the rapid turnover of the GI tract lining. Vitamin C is another super antioxidant required for healthy blood vessels and other connective tissues. This nutrient also boosts the immune system and acts as a natural histamine regulator, controlling allergic responses. Natural Vitamin E is one of the most active antioxidants, as it helps heal tissues and neutralize oxidative damage. B-vitamins are also crucial for energy production and healthy nerves. It’s best to take all the B-vitamins together, since they work together and depend on one another for optimal functioning. Vitamin D3 is necessary for healthy immune response and can help calm overactive immune responses. Vitamin D3 also plays a role in muscle development along with over 1,000 other crucial body functions. This essential nutrient should never be disregarded – it supports immunity, muscle health, and nerve health in a way that no other vitamin can. It is critical in healing the gut and so many people, especially people who struggle with immune dysfunction, are deficient in Vitamin D.13
Antibiotics have been mentioned several times as a big negative for gut health, and you may be wondering why they are so bad. In the U.S. alone, 6-7 million POUNDS of antibiotics are taken per year. According to the Center for Disease Control (CDC), another 30 million pounds of antibiotics are fed to livestock each year! The CDC estimates that about 50% of the antibiotics given to humans are unnecessary or used incorrectly, such as giving an antibiotic to kill a virus, which is ineffective to say the least.14 The problem on a larger scale is that antibiotics are used to kill ALL the bacteria in the GI tract, including the good bacteria which are essential for proper immune system function. In most cases, taking a probiotic or a natural antibiotic is likely to be more effective, especially in the long run. Instead of attacking only harmful factors, antibiotics seek to destroy all life. The meaning of the word can even be traced back to the Greek word meaning, “against life.” They create a sterile environment in the GI tract when instead, there should be trillions of probiotic (good bacteria) cells. Wiping them out completely sets you up for further infection, and these infections will get worse and harder to treat as each dose of antibiotics wipes out more of the beneficial colonies of bacteria that directly affect how the immune system responds.15 An antibiotic is a powerful toxin, in the same way as a pesticide or insecticide – except the target is the bad bacteria in the body. When you are the host, the consequences for your liver, kidneys and the GI tract itself can be astronomical. Even worse, using antibiotics to this degree creates drug-resistant bacteria that put us all at risk, creating stronger and more deadly bacteria for which we have no medications to fight. The CDC also estimates that over 2 million illnesses and about 23,000 deaths per year are directly related to antibiotic resistant bacteria and yeasts. For the individual, it is almost always better to build health instead of break it down, especially from a holistic, whole-body perspective. So if you have a cold, try to build your own immunity up and work to figure out why your immune responses are weak – try to save the antibiotics for more serious infections as much as possible.
GI tract health significantly impacts the health of the entire body. The GI tract affects how well we absorb and use nutrients, how much energy the body has, the immune system reaction to food and irritants in the environment, and the body’s healing response to inflammation. If you take care of your GI tract, you are actually taking care of your entire body. In turn, it will give your body overall health, vitality and wellness. What’s most important is to think outside the box – treat the body as a whole. If you have seasonal allergies or are simply not experiencing the overall vitality you believe you should have, take a careful look at the health of your GI tract. This will only broaden your understanding of your own health and accelerate your journey to optimal health!
1. Gates, Donna, The Body Ecology Diet, Hay House Publishing, Carlsbad, California: 2011
2. Taylor, John, The Wonder of Probiotics St Martin's Publishing, Ney York, NY: 2007
3. Grshon, Michael, The Second Brain, Harper Publishing, New York, NY: 1998
4. Lipski, Elizabeth, Leaky Gut Syndrome, Keats/McGraw Hill Publishing, Chicago, Il: 1998
5. Lipski, Elizabeth, Leaky Gut Syndrome, Keats/McGraw Hill Publishing, Chicago, Il: 1998
6. Lipski, Elizabeth, Leaky Gut Syndrome, Keats/McGraw Hill Publishing, Chicago, Il: 1998
7. Lipski, Elizabeth, Leaky Gut Syndrome, Keats/McGraw Hill Publishing, Chicago, Il: 1998
8. Lipski, Elizabeth, Digestive Wellness, Keats Publishing, Chicago, IL: 2012 (4th edition)
9. Bland, Jeffery, The 20 Day Rejuvenation Program, Keats Publishing, Lincolnwood, IL: 1999
10.http://global.oup.com/us/companion.websites/9780195371109/pdf/00_Mullin_Appendix_3.pdf 11.Pirisi, Angela, “Glutamine: The Conditionally Essential Amino Acid” Life Extensions Magazine, August 2013
12.Murray, Michael, The Encyclopedia of Nutritional Supplements, Prima Publishing, Roseville, CA: 1996
14.Lipski, Elizabeth, Digestive Wellness, Keats Publishing, Chicago, IL: 2012 (4th edition)
Assisting Jerry Hickey, R.Ph is a team of nutritional professionals - a group of hand chosen, dedicated experts, available at each and every InVite® Health retail location - there to provide you with a FREE, personalized, and professional nutritional consultation. Visit an InVite® Health retail location near you for assistance in selecting the correct nutrients to address your health concerns.