As a clinician who has lived through the days of doctors claiming there was “no such thing as a leaky gut” and others stating emphatically that the concept was “complete hogwash”, it makes me smile that the term ‘leaky gut’ has a stable and proud presence in highly acclaimed medical journals and in the vocabulary of world renowned researchers.
I am constantly learning new things and I always want to share those with you. While I have spoken of and treated leaky gut issues for many years, I recently learned some new aspects about the condition that I think you’ll find quite interesting and will hopefully assist you in your continued journey toward better health.
And, by the way, Happy New Year!
Ok, let’s get into it. In this post I’ll review the following:
- Why humans developed a leaky gut in the first place. There was/is a legitimate reason and it was survival-based.
- The ‘illegitimate’ food that also causes a leaky gut… in everyone! Yes, I said everyone.
- The degrees of a leaky gut and what dictates how severely the body reacts.
- The known disease states associated with a leaky gut. They are not all digestive diseases, although some are, and they run the gamut from cancers to autoimmune diseases and more.
Why Humans Developed a Leaky Gut
The genetics underlying a leaky gut are human only. Even primates, who some think we are closely related to, do not carry this gene. Yet 80% of all humans do – 50% have one copy of the gene and 30% have two copies. By the way the protein’s name is haptoglobulin-2 and it comes from a precursor protein called zonulin. “Zonulin” was coined by Dr Alessio Fasano and his team.
Here’s an interesting tidbit: A leaky gut is felt to be associated with autoimmune disease. The primates who do not possess the gene for leaky gut don’t develop autoimmune disease. Seems like the corollary holds strong – no gene for leaky gut = no autoimmune disease and of course the reverse seems to hold true as well.
And if this gene is associated with these nasty autoimmune diseases that are becoming more and more prevalent in our society, what pray tell was the body ‘thinking’ when it developed this silly gene? It turns out that the gene has a nice survival intention. When a bacteria such a E. coli or Salmonella or even Cholera enters the small intestine and is residing there long enough to start ‘stealing’ the hosts nutrition, the body takes action. After all, it can’t have this foreign organism eating the food designed for the body, that’s just not going to lead towards survival long-term. So the cells lining the intestine cause a strong release of zonulin with the result being the influx of large amounts of water flooding into the gut. This water will flush out the bacteria, cause diarrhea and rid the body of the infection hopefully.
That makes sense. How very intelligent of our body to create this smart gene. It protects us from dying of a bacterial infection.
Unfortunately, there is another stimuli to the release of zonulin. Gliadin, one of the fragments of gluten found in wheat, also stimulates this same release of zonulin. But in the case of gliadin, it doesn’t just result in water flooding IN to the gut, it also results in substances flooding OUT of the gut – microscopic organisms, partially digested food, etc. This ‘leakiness’ created by gliadin is where the correlation between disease and leaky gut occurs.
What did a legitimate survival response turn into a potentially disease causing reaction? Wheat. Gluten. If we didn’t ingest it this reaction would never occur. Dr Fasano’s words, not my own. But it does give one pause. We cannot digest the protein found in glutinous grains. We review this often. Gluten, a very large protein is truly indigestible for humans. Should we be eating it? What do you think?
Does Everyone React to Gluten in the Same Way?
Dr Fasano states that gliadin creates a leaky gut in everyone – that’s right everyone. But the degree of that leaky gut varies depending upon your genetics. If you’re genetically predisposed to celiac disease, you’ll suffer the worse case scenario – a large production of zonulin and a gut that remains open and leaky for a long time.
Those with gluten sensitivity, according to Dr Fasano, will also experience a leaky gut, just not for the duration as that of someone with celiac disease. But the leakiness IS enough for gluten to leave the gut and generate an inflammatory response. What that inflammation then creates is highly variable. As we know, gluten sensitivity can create symptoms and diseases in hundreds of different ways, affecting, potentially, every organ and system in the human body. Gluten isn’t called the ‘great masquerader’ for nothing. It has many, many faces.
And for those who seem to have neither condition, what happens for them? According to Dr Fasano they too will develop a leaky gut, as mentioned before everyone does, but it will be fleeting (a matter of minutes) – it won’t last long. And, the substances that leave the gut will be acted upon in a manner dependent on one’s immune system. In other words, someone with a leaky gut will develop autoimmune disease while another will develop cancer and another will be ‘seemingly fine’. (If the ‘seemingly fine’ individual is truly fine with absolutely no long term ill effects, is not completely established yet.)
What Diseases are Associated with a Leaky Gut
Depending on the degree of leakiness and the predisposition of one’s immune system, the following conditions and diseases have been proven to be associated with a leaky gut that is created by the upregulation, or increased production, of zonulin.
Type 1 diabetes
Glioma, a brain tumor
Diseases of the nervous system including,
After 20 years of working in this field, I didn’t think much could surprise me about gluten. But the more information that is discovered the more it seems that wheat, in particular, is truly not the friend of man. In this day of fast food, processed food, GMOs, hormone and chemical infested animals, excess sugar and artificial ‘Frankenfoods’, do our bodies need MORE stress? Do we really need to promote the ingestion of a food that is impossible to digest and causes a leaky gut reaction associated with life-threatening diseases?
What do you think?
What to do About a Leaky Gut
Fist of all you should determine if you have one. There is no 'perfect' test but there are options out there that we use here at HealthNOW. Sometimes, to be quite honest, an initial determination of a leaky gut is not actually needed as it is pretty obvious that one exists. A newly diagnosed celiac or gluten sensitive patient with many symptoms DOES have a leaky gut. I don't need them to spend their hard earned money to confirm that.
Better to wait often and once we feel that their gut is healed, confirm that with a test.
Eliminate the factors that would keep a gut leaky. These include:
- eliminating gluten from the diet
- eliminating dairy foods from the diet, as applicable - more common than you'd think.
- destroying any inhospitable organisms that have taken up residence in the intestine. They will cause the leaky gut to persist.
- restoring a healthy balance of probiotics in the gut.
- isolating any nutritional deficiencies that are preventing the gut from healing
- diagnosing any toxins or hormonal imbalance that can create inflammation and prevent gut healing.
I hope you found this informative. Please share this post with family and friends whose health could stand improving. It turns out that it’s not that difficult to get healthy. There’s no magic wand, I grant you, but that doesn’t make it difficult. The correct steps, properly taken is all you need.
If you would like assistance achieving a greater level of health, consider calling us for a free health analysis – 408-733-0400. As a destination clinic we treat patients from across the country and internationally. You don’t need to live local to us to receive assistance. We are here to help!
Yours in health,
Dr Vikki M Petersen, DC, CCN
Founder of HealthNOW Medical Center
Co-author of "The Gluten Effect"
Awarded Gluten Free Doctor of the Year 2013-2014