It may be leaking. How serious a leak is hard to tell. No, we are not talking about your roof, the pipes under the kitchen sink, your aging bladder or an infamously rough and tumble media. We are talking about your gut.
Leaky gut syndrome is a poorly understood health condition. Dismissed by many wellness professionals in the past as quack science, this last decade has seen animal and human research unfold. While much still needs to be learned, and skepticism remains justified, the understanding of how this mechanism works is growing.
Our digestive system does so much more than just absorb nutrients from food. It is a complex organ and highly influenced by the food, nutrients and environment we give it. The “gut” is home to 70 to 80 percent of the body’s immune cells. One hundred million neurons make up the enteric nervous system. It is home to the microbiome and includes more cells than our entire body. These microbes, and the hormones and chemicals they produce are all part and parcel of this highly dynamic organ.
Like our skin, a key role of the gut is to serves as a protective barrier between all this “stuff” in this “tube” and the rest of your body. It works to let the good stuff in and keep the bad stuff out. It does this heavy lifting through a sophisticated mechanism that creates an intestinal barrier only one cell thick.
The cells and the spaces between these cells serve as gatekeepers to allow good molecules to pass through while keeping out unwanted visitors.
Leaky gut refers to abnormal or variable permeability of this system that allows unwanted gut contents to enter the blood stream potentially kicking off an immune response with inflammation. This chronic low-grade inflammation may itself cause increased gut permeability continuing a vicious cycle.
We do not fully understand all the many health implications but we do suspect that breaching the gut barrier may additionally affect the blood brain barrier and the barrier that protects our blood vessels and ultimately our cardiovascular system.
Many questions exist about the role leaky gut syndrome and leaky brain syndrome play in health and disease. Some research suggests there may be an association with autoimmune disease and psychiatric disorders, including major depression, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia and autism. Some research has found a compromised blood brain barrier to be a feature in several diseases including multiple sclerosis, brain cancers and Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s disease.
It is not known how or which foods influence the gut barrier. Some research suggests certain eating patterns can help support a healthy intestinal barrier. These include flavonoids (found in many vegetables and fruits), probiotics, prebiotics, glutamine, curcumin and gluten avoidance by those with celiac disease and non-celiac gluten sensitivity as well as avoiding foods triggering allergies and sensitivities. Likely, these findings will need to be individualized and much still needs to be learned.
Cathy Moore is a registered dietitian-nutritionist and agriculture program leader at Cornell Cooperative Extension. Contact her at 315-788-8450 or email@example.com.