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Leaky Gut and Bloating

Posted 6 years ago by Brendan

Leaky gut is often mentioned when considering the underlying gastrointestinal issues that may contribute to digestive upsets such as abdominal bloating. So what is a leaky gut and what can you do about it?

The gastrointestinal wall 

The primary function of the gastrointestinal (GI) wall, is to selectively allow nutrients to pass into the bloodstream (absorption), while preventing unwanted material from flowing into the body’s internal environment (protection). Like the skin separating us from what we touch, the GI wall is the barrier separating the body from the hostile environment of the gastrointestinal lumen

The toll of this barrier function is evident by the rapid turnover of just a few days for cells lining the small intestine, compared to that of certain cells within the pancreas for example, which may last a year or more before wearing out. Mucosal secretions, the gut flora and a large portion of the body’s immune system help to maintain the health, integrity and function of the GI wall. 

Leaky gut 

The healthy GI wall is arranged in such a way that the absorption of nutrients is selective. Structures known as tight junctions are responsible for holding together the epithelial cells that line the lumen of the GI tract, preventing material passing between them. The absorption of nutrients is left to the microvilli - tiny hair like projections on the tips of epithelial cells, that essentially sift through the GI contents deciding which properly digested nutrients to allow into the body.

Like the mortar holding bricks together, tight junctions are the structures responsible for holding epithelial cells firmly next to one an other. When these fail to maintain a firm grip, the spaces between individual cells form passages, allowing material to flow directly from the GI tract into the blood, without a screening process. This increased permeability and loss of barrier function is referred to as leaky gut. 

Leaky gut syndrome describes a range of problems that develop as a result of material the body would not ordinarily absorb, finding their way into the circulation. These include fragments of food that have not been properly broken down, material left over from the digestive process, the many different types of potentially pathogenic microorganisms found living within the GIT, their waste products and other toxins.  

Symptoms commonly associated with leaky gut syndrome include:  

  • Abdominal bloating, gas, distention or belching  
  • Indigestion, cramps, gripping or discomfort 
  • Chronic diarrhoea, constipation or IBS
  • Adverse reactions to food 
  • Fatigue and lethargy 
  • Joint pain, muscle weakness or exercise intolerance 
  • Skin rashes, irritation or eruptions (acne or boils) 
  • Sinus problems or congestion
  • Impaired immunity or frquent infections 
  • Nutritional deficiencies 
  • Headache, migraine, brain fog, memory loss, irritability, depression or apathy 

Leaky gut and food intolerance

Some degree of food intolerance or sensitivity often develops with prolonged leaky gut. As the immune system continues to respond to problems triggered by the presence of undigested food where it shouldn’t be, antibodies are produced recognising these foods or the compounds within them as harmful. When eaten in future, the immune system responds producing an adverse reaction such as bloating, cramps, diarrhoea or a headache. These reactions only worsen existing GI lining damage creating a cycle of inflammation. For many of those with multiple food intolerances, particularly those that developed later in life, leaky gut is often involved. For more on food intolerances see Food Intolerance and Bloating

Causes of leaky gut

A combination of factors affecting the GI lining and the secretions, gut flora and immune cells protecting it, appear to be involved in the development of leaky gut. These most commonly include:

Treating leaking gut

The process of repairing a leaky gut and restoring barrier function, essentially involves allowing the lining sufficient time to heal without obstruction. With many factors involved however this generally requires a multi-faceted approach, that can take some time. This may involve: 

  • Modifying the diet to include easy to digest healthy food
  • Avoiding reactive or irritating foods
  • Reestablishing a beneficial balance of microbes within the gut flora with pre and probiotics 
  • Correcting nutritional deficiencies 
  • Reducing inflammation 
  • Supporting the cellular repair of the GIT lining 
  • Improving digestion with digestive enzymes 
  • Limiting the use of alcohol, coffee, NSAID’s and other GI irritants
  • Managing stress - read Stress and Bloating for more on how stress can negatively affect digestion 

Heal your gut 

With a typical western diet, busy, stressful lifestyle and sensitive digestive system that often reacts to certain foods, there is a good chance frequent bloating may be part of a larger problem associated with a damaged GI lining. Talk to a nutritional therapist, naturopath of doctor who is interested and has experience treating leaky gut, about how best to go about repairing the problem. Check back for our next post - Healing Leaky Gut - all about the most effective complimentary medicines for helping support correcting leaky gut. 

About Brendan O'Loughlin

Brendan is a integrative naturopath, nutritionist and yoga teacher. He has completed training in Naturopathy, Nutrition, Herbal Medicine, Yoga, Iridology and Live Blood Analysis.

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