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Leaky Gut – The Syndrome Linked to Many Autoimmune Diseases
“Leaky Gut” Syndrome
Hyperpermeability or “leaky gut” syndrome is the name given to a very common disorder in which the cells lining the intestines become “leaky” due to inflammation. The abnormally large spaces present between the cells of the gut wall allow the entry of toxic material into the bloodstream that would normally be eliminated.
The gut becomes leaky in the sense that bacteria, fungi, parasites, undigested protein, fat and toxic waste normally not absorbed into the bloodstream in the healthy state, pass through a damaged, hyperpermeable gut membrane. This can be verified by special gut permeability urine tests or microscopic examination of the lining of the intestinal wall.
- Infections – fungal overgrowth, parasitic infections
- Drugs like
- NSAIDS, chemotherapeutic agents
- Crohn’s disease or Ulcerative Colitis
- Celiac disease
- Chronic alcoholism
- Strenuous exercise
- Food allergies
Leaky Gut and the Connection to Autoimmune Disease
Leaky gut syndrome is almost always associated with autoimmune disease. In fact, reversing symptoms of autoimmune disease depends on healing the lining of the gastrointestinal tract. Any other treatment is just symptom suppression. An autoimmune disease is defined as one in which the immune system makes antibodies against its own tissues. Diseases in this category include lupus, alopecia areata, rheumatoid arthritis, polymyalgia rheumatica, multiple sclerosis, fibromyalgia, chronic fatigue syndrome, Sjogren’s syndrome, vitiligo, thyroiditis, vasculitis, Crohn’s disease, ulcerative colitis, urticaria (hives), type 1 diabetes and Raynaud’s syndrome. Fortunately doctors are beginning to realize the essential role that the gut plays in these disease. Understanding the leaky gut phenomenon helps us see why allergies and autoimmune diseases develop and how to design therapies to restore intestinal integrity and reverse leaky gut.
Inflammation is a key trigger for leaky gut
Inflammation causes the spaces between the cells of the gut wall to become larger than usua. Then protein molecules are absorbed before they have a chance to be completely broken down. The immune system starts making antibodies against these larger molecules because it recognizes them as foreign, invading substances. Antibodies are made against these proteins derived from previously harmless foods. The immune system becomes hyperstimulated and over-reactive to substances that are not necessarily supposed to be dangerous.
Human tissues have proteins & antigens very similar to those on foods, bacteria, parasites, candida or fungi. The antibodies created by the leaky gut phenomenon against these antigens can get into various tissues and trigger an inflammatory reaction in that tissue when the corresponding food is consumed or the microbe is encountered. Autoantibodies are thus created and inflammation becomes chronic. If this inflammation occurs in a joint, autoimmune arthritis (rheumatoid arthritis) develops. If it occurs in the brain, myalgic encephalomyelitis (chronic fatigue syndrome) may be the result. If it occurs in the blood vessels, vasculitis (inflammation of the blood vessels) is the resulting autoimmune problem… and so on.
If the antibodies end up attacking the lining of the gut itself, the result may be colitis or Crohn’s disease. If it occurs in the lungs, asthma is triggered on a delayed basis every time the individual consumes the food which triggered the production of the antibodies in the first place. It is easy to see that practically any organ or body tissue can become affected by food allergies created by the leaky gut. Because the foods can trigger delayed reactions, it can often be very hard to pinpoint the triggering entity.
Leaky gut may cause increase risk of infection and sensitivity to environmental chemicals
This ongoing inflammation also damages the protective coating of antibodies normally present in a healthy gut called IgA. Since IgA helps us ward off infections we become less resistant to viruses, bacteria, parasites and candida. These microbes are then able to invade the bloodstream and colonize almost any body tissue or organ. In the clinic we often find patients with leaky gut or autoimmune disease also have microbial infections ongoing in the gut.
Not only can leaky gut create food allergies as the proteins we consume are activating antibodies, but the microbes in the gut can cross over into the blood stream creating a toxic burden that overwhelms the liver’s ability to detoxify. Often in severe cases of leaky gut, patients will develop sensitivities to perfume, cigarette smoke or other environmental chemicals. Common complaints are also “brain fog”, confusion, poor focus/concentration, or memory loss.
Leaky gut also causes malabsorption and nutritional deficiencies
Finally, leaky gut may contribute to a long list of mineral deficiencies because of the ongoing inflammation and damage to carrier proteins. The most common are iron deficiency, vitamin B12 deficiency, magnesium deficiency which can lead to fatigue, neuropathies or muscle pain. Zinc deficiency due to malabsorption can result in hair loss or baldness as occurs in alopecia areata. Copper deficiency can occur in an identical way leading to high blood cholesterol levels and osteoarthritis. Further, bone problems develop as a result of the malabsorption of calcium, boron, silicon and manganese.