“Leaky gut” is a term used by some to describe generalized symptoms pertaining to an undiagnosed gastrointestinal disorder. While little is actually known about this condition, research is showing that “leaky gut”, or intestinal hyperpermeability, may actually be a unique condition that has the potential to cause and/or aggravate other harmful conditions in the body.
Leaky gut is hard to diagnose because symptoms that present with this condition are often vague and generalized. People with leaky gut often have gas, bloating, diarrhea or constipation, intestinal cramps, abdominal pain, or overall discomfort in the abdomen. Many of these people are diagnosed with multiple food allergies and/or sensitivities or may have difficulty digesting and absorbing foods. Many people can have a leaky gut picture with no abdominal symptoms but instead have vague systemic symptoms (such as fatigue, anemia, brain fog, or muscle pain) due to difficulty absorbing nutrients in the intestines.
So what causes leaky gut to occur, and why is it linked to so many seemingly unrelated problems, including autoimmune diseases? Leaky gut is thought to be a condition in which the tight junctions (spaces) between intestinal cells become loose and don’t work properly. Our intestinal cells, called enterocytes, are incredible cells when healthy. They are tightly bound together in the intestines and are responsible for regulating what is absorbed into our body and ultimately into our blood stream. This is important, because it keeps harmful substances out of our body and allows only the safe nutrients that we can use and metabolize in. When there is a leaky gut picture, these cells lose a lot of their ability to regulate what comes in to the body from our digestive tract, which can further cause damage to the cells. This also leads to poor digestion and absorption of the important nutrients that our bodies need to function.
The connection between leaky gut and autoimmune diseases is an important one. There are more immune cells in and around your intestinal lining than anywhere else in your body. They are responsible for regulating any potentially harmful things that we ingest and keeping them out of the body. When there is a leaky gut picture, substances that are not broken down properly or not absorbed properly are exposed to the immune system; this causes the immune system to react to the larger foreignparticles, leading to inflammation. Think of it as a castle wall, where the intestinal cells are the actual wall itself, and the immune cells are the soldiers inside the walls. When pieces of the wall break off, more aggressive intruders can now invade the castle, which causes the soldiers to take up more arms and fight much harder than they were before. Suddenly these immune cells are having to fight off things that they may never experience in a healthy intestinal tract.
When the immune cells are exposed to new substances to fight off (called antigens), they have to create new mechanisms to adapt to these new invaders. This can create an autoimmune response. When the antigens (most commonly various foods we eat) are similar in structure to our own cells, the new mechanisms that the immune cells create to fight them off will often also recognize other cells in our body. The immune cells may mistakenly attack the healthy body cells, creating an autoimmune reaction.
In our clinic, all of our patients with autoimmune diseases are checked for leaky gut and other intestinal diseases, even if there are minimal abdominal symptoms present. Sometimes, treament can be as simple as healing the cells and decreasing those factors causing damage to the intestinal cells that can bring antibodies down and help people start feeling better faster. While there are many factors that contribute to autoimmune diseases, considering a leaky gut needs to be included in all treatment plans. If you or someone you know has an autoimmune disease and has had difficulty improving your symptoms, call our office today to speak with one of our knowledgeable physicians about what you can do to start feeling better today.
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