What is a leaky gut?
Leaky gut is a term that has only become familiar to many of us in recent years. Regarded as somewhat of a grey area by doctors, it is a condition that is not officially recognised as a medical diagnosis. It is more commonly defined as intestinal permeability.
A healthy intestinal lining creates a barrier that controls the things that get absorbed into the bloodstream. When that barrier forms cracks or holes, allowing toxins, partially digested food or bugs to penetrate it, this causes inflammation and changes to the gut bacteria. This is known as leaky gut, or increased intestinal permeability.
The major causes of leaky gut are an imbalance between the good and bad bacteria in your gastrointestinal tract; poor diet; extended periods of stress; and excess toxins, like antibiotics and pesticides.
Symptoms can vary and may include bloating, gas, cramps, food sensitivities, joint pain, hormone imbalance, skin problems, fatigue, diabetes, non-alcoholic fatty liver disease and even autoimmune conditions.
According to Harvard Health, clinical studies into leaky gut remain limited, and it has not yet been established if leaky gut is a symptom or a cause. However, increased intestinal permeability has been linked with celiac disease, Crohn's disease and irritable bowel syndrome (IBS).
Research into treatment for intestinal permeability is also in its early days, however one recent study showed that a herbal formula containing curcumin, aloe vera, slippery elm, guar gum, pectin, peppermint oil, and glutamine assisted in overcoming the condition.
SoulAdvisor naturopath on the NSW mid north coast, Rebel Tucker, considers the term leaky gut ‘old school’ and prefers to call it, like many others in her field, intestinal permeability.
“When people are really clued into their own bodies they’ll notice their gut is feeling ‘off’ first,” she explained.
“Their initial symptoms might be wind, irregular bowels or discomfort in the tummy which are pretty generalised so it’s important to consider these symptoms with a full case history first.”
Testing and detecting the condition has improved in the past five years, and Rebel uses the GI map test, a comprehensive analysis of a stool sample to determine the root causes.
“I always treat the patient rather than the diagnosis, so I look at all the possible drivers - things like diet, being sedentary (which is a huge factor) stress levels, anxiety as part of the whole picture,” Rebel said.
“Gut health is fundamental and is usually a symptom of everything else going on in your life. So it’s important to look at everyone as unique and assess their contributing factors first even though their treatment in the end might be the same.
Rebel checks for dietary deficiencies and often prescribes nutrients like partially hydrolyzed guar gum (PHGG) or acacia fibre which are both low FODMAP nutrients and indicated in dysbiosis, or glutamine, which is considered a healing element for the gut lining.
Freya Lawler, a SoulAdvisor naturopath based in Melbourne, said diagnosing leaky gut can be a little frustrating.
“There is no gold standard test that is 100% reliable to determine the condition. The GI map test measures zonulin - a protein secreted by the intestinal cells if they become permeable - but its only limitation is that 15 - 20% of the population doesn’t produce zonulin. However this test is excellent for looking at the microbes and seeing what is happening in the gut,” she said.
Many of Freya’s clients have mildly permeable intestinal cells or inflammation, however she estimates only 15 - 20% have full blown leaky gut.
“My treatment is usually to bring in high dose, isolated nutrients that are shown in research to improve epithelial cell turnover - these are Vitamins A, D, Zinc and glutamine. Standard supplements are usually too low in dosage to have any decent impact.
“It’s important to assess the whole ecosystem in a person though, as they may have a parasite that is driving the inflammation or they may have SIBO, for example.”
Freya’s advice is that if your gut-related symptoms are chronic, to seek out advice from a functional medicine practitioner.
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