Down in the bowels of leaky gut

Re-posted from Fall 2017

With the fall season’s cooler temperatures and shorter days, many people experience more illness. The resilience of the immune system dictates how easily one catches a virus or how severely he or she may be affected. Because the gut and diet are intimately linked to the immune system, the quality of our food impacts not only our resilience during flu season but our overall health. Most of you are arming yourselves with more Vitamin D and perhaps herbals like Echinacea extract as we head into the fall. This is good (although be careful with Echinacea if you have an auto-immune disorder). The most important step that I see people over-looking when it comes to supporting a healthy immune system in cold weather is what they are eating. The holidays are coming which typically include excess sugar, dairy, and gluten (not to mention alcohol). These foods will wear down your gut and your immune system and increase inflammation; they are a recipe for coming down with a cold, developing depression, and many other issues.


The gut and immune system are intimately linked. According to an article published in 2008 in Clinical and Experimental Immunology, over 70% of total immune system cells are located in the gut. According to a Seminars in Immunology publication in 2009, this includes over 80% of some anti-body secreting cells in the body. When activated too often, these gut immune cells trigger pro-inflammatory chemicals to be released. Just like it sounds, such chemicals promote inflammation. Under acute stress, the pain and inflammation in a healthy individual is quickly resolved by anti-inflammatory compounds. However, when the gut is under stress all the time in a common condition known as leaky gut syndrome, or hyperpermeable intestines, the immune response promoting inflammation can go on much longer and become chronic.


Leaky gut means the tight junctions in the gut lining have become “lax” and the integrity of the digestive tract as a filter declines. Foods and viruses that should not get into the body’s bloodstream do and this is why the immune system becomes more activated resulting in chronic inflammation and auto-immune activity. The name “leaky gut” sounds gross but in fact, experts believe most people experience it at some point in their lifetime. Leaky gut syndrome can manifest in many different ways that may seem un-related to digestion at first glance according to findings published in Neuroendocrinology Lettersin 2008: frequent illness (viral and bacterial infections), auto-immune conditions, blood sugar disorders, allergies, skin problems, gastro-intestinal disorders, joint pain, nervous system and mood disorders, even coronary heart disease as written about in Journal of the American College of Cardiology, Volume 63.


Experts believe that leaky gut is a pre-cursor to the development of auto-immune activity. Leaky gut develops when the level of a key anti-oxidant, glutathione, is depleted. Glutathione depletion occurs with aging, through poor food choices, exposure to toxins, and chronic stress. Once leaky gut develops, the anti-body secreting immune cells flag un-digested food protein segments from the food crossing the gut membrane into the bloodstream. They can also flag our own tissues. Some foods trigger stronger anti-body production and pro-inflammatory chemical release than others. Preliminary studies demonstrate that the larger a food peptide or protein is, the more likely it is to be flagged and perpetuate an inflammatory cascade in the body. Gluten, dairy and soy are examples of common foods that have larger peptide structures than most other foods like fresh vegetables and fruits. Eliminating these big peptide foods leads to a reduction in chronic pain and inflammation.


Experts also think that the levels of lectins or toxic compounds in a food correlate with the level of inflammation perpetuated by the food when digested. This may be another reason why “elimination diets” low in cereal grains and high in vegetables, natural fats, and wild or free-range animal-based proteins appear to relieve chronic inflammation when followed for an extended period of time (at least several weeks in duration) as published in the Neuroendocrinology Letters article in 2008. Processed sugars, or too much sugar in the diet also perpetuates pro-inflammatory chemical release through the presence of insulin. Therefore, any approach towards dietary improvement needs to include sugar reduction.

 Many people will say that eliminating foods like gluten, dairy, and soy is too challenging as most fastfood or pre-prepared foods are loaded with them. It’s true that it does take more planning and cooking time to make nourishing meals yourself than to purchase pre-made foods. However, I’d say it is easier to eliminate these foods than to live with disease, and once you invest some time in learning new recipes and snacks, you’ll find it gets much easier as time goes on just like any other healthy habit. If you can’t start at once, start by increasing the amount of vegetables you eat. Then, increase fats like olive oil, olives, avocados other cold-pressed oils or animal fats from grass-fed animals. Finally, focus on proteins like eggs from free-range hens, wild-caught seafood and meats and poultry from free-ranging animals to round out the diet.