Leaky Gut? Eeew!

When I was told I had “leaky gut” several years ago, I was aghast. It was the first time I had heard that term and it made me feel so damaged. I pictured my intestinal tract as a corroded old pipe, leaking foul-smelling, dirty liquid. Eeew! But my doctor was quick to explain what it meant and, more importantly, how we would set about restoring my intestinal health.

The digestive tract is a complicated system. It’s tough. The hydrochloric acid in a healthy stomach can destroy pathogens that slips in on your food. But it is also delicate and prone to dysregulation on a variety of levels, which I’ll point out shortly.

Leaky gut, also known as intestinal permeability, is a condition involving the lining of the small intestine. In a healthy intestinal lining, the cells are packed tightly together and transfer of food particles from the intestinal channel (called the lumen) into the blood stream is strictly regulated. When that process is compromised, leaky gut results and food particles that are not adequately broken down enter the blood stream.

Here, the immune system kicks into high gear because it views these improperly digested food particles as invaders. As the immune system would naturally attack an invading bacteria, virus or parasite, it attacks these food particles as well. Food-immune complexes form in the blood, causing inflammation and delayed reactions throughout the body.

These reactions can take many forms, including headache, sinus problems, sore throat, eczema and rashes, joint pain, bloating and diarrhea, among others. And these reactions can take up to seven days to appear, which makes it difficult to pinpoint which foods are particularly problematic.

What causes Intestinal Permeability?

There are several lifestyle factors and dietary conditions can lead to leaky gut. Here are some of the most common:
Antibiotic use
NSAID use (Advil, Motrin, etc.)
Chronic stress
Alcohol abuse
Lactose intolerance
Gluten/gliadin allergy
Abnormal gut flora (bacteria, parasites, yeasts)
Poor digestion of proteins, carbs and fats

Detecting Intestinal Permeability

The most definitive way to determine if you have intestinal permeability is for your doctor to order a food sensitivity panel. Your blood will be analyzed for antibodies to approximately 100 common foods. If multiple foods form food-antibodies complexes, intestinal permeability is indicated.

Healing Intestinal Permeability

It’s tempting to think simply removing the offending foods from the diet will fix the problem. But it’s important to understand that it is not the foods that are the issue. It is the intestinal permeability that is the underlying problem. Simply removing the items that your body is exhibiting sensitivity to will ultimately result in a different set offending foods – usually the foods eaten most often. This is because improperly digested food particles are still reaching the blood and eliciting an immune response.

The Four “R” Protocol for Intestinal Health

REMOVE – It’s important to identify any bacterial, viral, fungal or yeast infections and take steps to remove them. Natural antibiotics such as goldenseal and olive leaf extract may be appropriate interventions for moderate bacterial overgrowth while pharmaceutical antibiotics may be needed for severe bacterial overgrowth. Carbohydrate restriction is often a successful component in treating fungal infections such as overgrowth of Candida. Wormwood, black walnut, clove and oregano oil are particularly effective with parasitic infections.

Identifying food sensitivities and temporarily removing the offending foods is another important step in healing intestinal permeability. Typically, foods that elicit an immune response are avoided for 3-4 months while additional healing efforts take place.

REPLACE – Digestive factors like hydrochloric acid (HCl), pancreatic enzymes and bile may be deficient and in need of temporary support. HCl is required for the proper digestion of protein in the stomach. Pancreatic enzymes breakdown carbohydrates and bile assists in the digestion of fats. Proper digestion of food particles is critical to stopping the body’s overactive immune response.

REINOCULATE – Repopulating the gut with favorable microbes helps establish health in the intestines. Probiotics – specifically those with the beneficial lactobacillus and bifidobacterium species – are particularly useful. If antibiotics are prescribed, probiotics are definitely recommended and should be taken 3-4 hours after taking the antibiotics to avoid interference.

REPAIR – L-glutamine (an amino acid) is particularly helpful in repairing the damaged intestinal cells and supporting a healthy small intestinal lining. Herbs such as licorice (glycyrrhiza) and marshmallow can also help heal the intestinal lining by forming a protective coating.

This healing process is admittedly rather slow – often taking several months. But it’s worth the effort. Saying goodbye to chronic fatigue, sinus issues, rashes, headaches and joint pain in addition to the GI distress is definitely worth the effort. All of this also supports a healthy immune system. And in these days of the COVID-19, our bodies can use an immune system boost.

Navigating GI distress and restoring gut health can be confusing and frustrating – and needs to be individualized. It’s often helpful to work with an integrative or holistic nutritionist or a naturopathic doctor to help with the process.

My Story: The Teachers & the Lessons

I’m often asked how I came to nutrition as a second career. I’ve spent some time reflecting on that question and am grateful for all the nudges – small and large – that the Universe has presented. Contemplating my journey, I am reminded of my mentors. I’ve had many teachers along this path toward nutrition and wellness. There were the traditional university professors. There was my own, abundantly gifted and patient naturopathic doctor. And there was the most unlikely of teachers, my first dog, Charlie.

Charlie, a German shepherd-husky mix, was an incredible teacher on so many levels. But none more so than her gift of launching my journey into nutrition and wellness – for myself and for helping others. Charlie

Charlie arrived as a not-quite-weaned
puppy. And when I think back to that Sunday afternoon, Providence was clearly at work. My then-husband and I had bought a house the previous winter when the snow in Fairbanks was deep. And now in May, with the snow melted, we took stock of the mess that was our backyard. First to go was a sagging mesh wire fence. This was my job that afternoon, but just before I began to dismantle the fence, two little girls showed up with a puppy. They told a sad story about why they couldn’t keep her and asked if I wanted to buy the puppy for $20. It was the best $20 investment I ever made. But if I had begun my fence dismantling task, I know I would have turned down the offer.

Charlie taught me how awesome
communication between species can be, that brushing is love and that trust is a
wondrous thing. We traveled many miles together around town and throughout

When she was nine, she developed a
condition called EPI – enzymatic pancreatic insufficiency. Pancreas? I knew we had one but I couldn’t tell you quite where it was or what its function was. And enzymes? What are those and what do they do? Although it was absolutely unclear to me at the time, this was the beginning of my nutrition and wellness journey.

Fast forward a couple of years. I had a rather annoying rash on my face. Had it been anywhere else on my body, I probably wouldn’t have sought medical attention. But it was on my face, right? The dermatologist put me on a month-long course of antibiotics. She didn’t mention the need for probiotics and I didn’t yet know of the importance of repopulating the gut with beneficial microbes after the antibiotics swept through destroying all the microbes present. I quickly developed a bacterial infection called Clostridium difficile, that wouldn’t be diagnosed for nearly a year. With treatment, I recovered. Life went on, but I could no longer tolerate glutinous grains (wheat, barley, rye and spelt) and dairy had become problematic, too. These sensitivities remain with me today.

It would still be nearly a decade before I would make a 180° career shift and return to graduate school to earn my Masters in Human Nutrition. There I would learn the mechanisms by which antibiotics predispose the gut to colonization by the C. diff. bacteria (among a host of other digestive ailments) and the subsequent setup for food sensitivities. I will admit that I spent some time (years actually) harboring anger toward that dermatologist.

But in time, I found myself being gently reminded from various people, books and conversations that every experience is
a gift. I began to reframe my story of being “wronged” in my mind. It was not immediately apparent what the “gifts” were though. But I persisted in considering that there were gifts and slowly they came into focus for me.

Being intolerant of wheat presented me with some challenges that I rather reluctantly embraced. It allowed me to learn about alternative flours and experiment with them. My culinary repertoire expanded. I became aware of the nutritional benefits of nut and bean flours vs. traditional wheat flours and I became good at gluten-free baking. I now teach gluten-free baking and cooking classes at the local community college. This is a role I cherish.

The experience of being gluten and dairy intolerant also presented me with the opportunity to ask for what I wanted. This was in contrast to a belief I took away from my childhood – one in which it was not acceptable for me to really ask for what I wanted. I’m not sure whether I intuited this belief as a teaching or I incorporated it on my own. But it became clear that it was an unconscious belief that needed restructuring as it became a necessity for me to ask for what my body needed. This was especially the case when dining out at friends’ homes or in a restaurant. And this aspect of asking for what I wanted began to extend to other aspects of my life as well.

So, my journey into the role of nutritionist and wellness coach was a slow but persistent one. A journey filled
with indelible teachers in the forms of professors, doctors, a canine and some unproductive beliefs. Do I ever wish I could just eat wheat and dairy again? Sure! It can be challenging and rather inconvenient having to adhere to and insist upon these dietary restrictions. But growth is an ongoing process. And I am grateful for the continued opportunities daily life and my clients present.

What special gifts have your life events contributed to your experience?

In wellness,