Many of us are familiar with that post-meal feeling of “that food didn’t agree with me”, but most leaky gut symptoms are much less obvious and can be difficult to pinpoint without the proper tools. Food intolerances can cause a vast range of symptoms, from skin issues, to digestive upset, to joint pain, and anxiety. In order to understand how food can affect all these things, we have to examine the gut.
What is “leaky gut”?
The gut should act as a protective barrier between food and our bodies. Generally, the spaces between the cells of the gut lining are closed and the gut selectively chooses what it absorbs from the gut into the bloodstream. However, with inflammation, stress, yeast and bacterial overgrowth, medications like the birth control pill and antibiotics, and eating inflammatory foods, a molecule called zonulin is released.
Zonulin causes gaps in the barrier of the gut lining, allowing “uninvited” food proteins into the bloodstream. When your body sees these uninvited guests, it mounts an IgG delayed-type immune response.
I want to be clear – this is a different type of immune response from an anaphylactic reaction (like a peanut allergy), or from a celiac disease reaction. These are referred to as food intolerances, not food allergies.
This IgG delayed-type immune response attacks the food protein, and forms an immune complex. This complex exists in the blood stream, and causes a cascade of inflammation wherever it goes. This is why we can see skin issues in one person and joint pain in another: it depends on where the immune response and inflammation occur.
Hints that you might have a leaky gut
If you experience any of the following symptoms, food intolerances and leaky gut might be at the root of the problem:
- Skin conditions: acne, eczema, psoriasis, hives, rashes
- Digestive conditions: bloating, loose stools, constipation, digestive upset
- Autoimmune conditions: Crohn’s, colitis, RA, hypothyroidism
- Pain: headache, migraine, joint pain, arthritis, joint swelling
- Neurologic: anxiety, depression, OCD, autism, ADHD
- Other: inability to lose weight, infertility, fatigue
How do I know which foods are the problem?
The first method is called the Elimination Diet. In this diet, you remove all inflammatory and generally reactive foods from your diet. This should be done with the assistance of a Naturopathic Doctor to ensure you’re doing the diet safely, effectively, and for the correct period of time.
The second method is to do a food intolerance test. A Naturopathic Doctor can order this test, which uses a finger prick to draw a few drops of blood. The test results provide you with a range from “no reaction” to “very high reaction” for 95 different foods, including yeast. This tests directly for those IgG immune responders for each food. The benefit of the blood test is that it removes the guess-work and is typically less restrictive than the Elimination Diet, but the draw back is that it is more costly and it’s not considered a perfect test due to some food cross-reactions and the ever-changing nature of the immune system.
How do I heal leaky gut?
- Restrict inflammatory foods through either the Elimination Diet or using more customized results from your Food Intolerance Test.
- Remove unhealthy gut flora, typically yeast and overgrowth of non-commensal bacterial strains, using antimicrobials. Think of this like an eviction notice for bad microbes. They need to move out before healthy microbes can move in! *Note: Please do not take supplements or herbs without the supervision of an ND, as many of these are dosed inappropriately and can either not work or do more harm than good, or can interact with medications and worsen some health conditions.
- Repopulate with healthy flora. It’s important to note that not all probiotics are healthy for everyone. Many strains in formulations are not necessarily part of a healthy gut biome, and some can worsen certain conditions (especially autoimmune conditions).
- Repair the gut lining using l-glutamine or collagen (which contains glutamine). Glutamine is a type of protein that has been shown to repair the gut lining. Think of it like building blocks to patch up the holes in the gut wall. When we suspect more extensive damage to the gut wall (in IBD patients or people with high overall reactivity on a Food Intolerance Test results), we will also use anti-inflammatory nutrients and herbs to further support the gut healing process.
- Reintroduce foods. It’s important to re-try each inflammatory food one by one to see if it is causing any of your original symptoms. First, because we live in real life and most people can’t and shouldn’t avoid these foods forever (there are exceptions!) and we want to have an understanding of how that food may impact how you feel. Knowledge is power: it allows us to make informed choices about the way food may make us feel. Second, we need to see if steps 1-4 were effective. If the gut lining is healed and the flora is healthy, you shouldn’t react as readily to foods.
This process is effective in most people, but it’s important to remember that other factors may be involved, including heartburn or GERD, digestive enzyme function, stress, autoimmune disease, small intestinal bacterial overgrowth (SIBO), constipation, and more.
Book an appointment with Dr. Chambers to determine if leaky gut is affecting your overall health, and develop a customized plan to heal your gut lining.