With Halloween right behind us and the holidays fast-approaching, you may be thinking of ways to avoid packing on those extra pounds this fall and winter. But one thing we often neglect to consider during this time of year is the effect that eating more sugar and other highly processed foods can have on our digestive and overall health, not just our waistlines.
Research on the importance of “gut health” and how it’s related to overall wellness has taken off since the discovery of what’s known as intestinal hyperpermeability, or “leaky gut syndrome.” This occurs when the tight junctions within the lining of the small intestine, which are meant to act as a barrier between the contents of the intestines and the bloodstream, begin to break down. Needless to say, this is not a good thing!
The Role of Leaky Gut in Digestive Disorders
Zonulin. This is the name of the protein that acts as the “gatekeeper” within these junctions of the small intestine to ensure that only small particles get through. When working correctly, the gut wall lining is semi-permeable. But when this breaks down, large molecules such as partially digested proteins (from food) and pathogens (like bacteria and fungi) can escape into the bloodstream. This causes digestive problems, as well as systemic problems, because the body does not recognize these proteins and begins to attack them. Leaky gut has now been linked with most of the most common digestive complaints and disorders in the population today. In other words, though many digestive issues are multi-factorial, it is likely one of the main causes is one or more of the following:
Many people suffer from a sensitivity to or have difficulty digesting certain foods. This is different than a food allergy, which is mediated by IgE antibodies in the blood. Food intolerances, however, are mediated by IgG antibodies. Some of the most common offenders are wheat/gluten, dairy, and eggs. It is also possible for people to be intolerant to a group of foods, such as FODMAPs, which contain high amounts of fermentable carbohydrates. Lactose (milk sugar) and fructose may also cause problems for certain individuals. Symptoms of a food intolerance can include gas/bloating, cramping, loose stools or constipation, joint pain, skin issues, fatigue, and headaches.
Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS)
There are several different types of IBS – constipation dominant, diarrhea dominant, mixed, and unsubtyped. It is generally characterized by changes in bowel movement (both frequency and consistency), abdominal tenderness, and bloating. There are no definitive tests for diagnosing IBS, but often tests are run in order to rule out other digestive disorders. The cause of IBS is most likely a combination of factors, including food intolerances, SIBO (small intestine bacterial overgrowth), and problems with the enteric nervous system (the brain-gut connection). Those with IBS may respond well to a low FODMAPs diet.
Whether leaky gut is a cause or an effect of these factors is unclear, but it is most definitely involved. Even though IBS does not typically cause extensive damage to the gut lining like some of the following conditions, it can greatly affect a person’s quality of life – especially since sufferers often have several chronic conditions at the same time. Common co-morbidities are chronic fatigue syndrome, fibromyalgia, anxiety, depression, and/or TMJ (temporomandibular joint) dysfunction.
Inflammatory Bowel Diseases (IBD)
Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis are two of the most common inflammatory bowel diseases that are also considered autoimmune conditions (meaning the body attacks itself). Depending on which IBD someone has, different parts of the digestive tract are affected and symptoms vary. The most common symptoms are abdominal pain/cramping, bloating, diarrhea (sometimes with blood), anemia, and weight loss. These conditions are associated with multiple nutrient deficiencies due to malabsorption. They are thought to be caused by a combination of genetic, environmental, lifestyle, and infectious contributors. In fact, newly published research has linked Crohn’s disease with a particular fungal infection for the first time. Leaky gut is also thought to be involved in IBD.
Celiac disease is another autoimmune condition related to the gastrointestinal tract. An affected person has an immune response to gluten-containing foods which can result in damage to the villi of the small intestine. They may or may not be symptomatic, but children are more likely to experience symptoms. Many people are surprised to learn that celiac disease can also cause problems outside of the digestive tract (extra-intestinal) such as poor bone density and fertility issues. Like IBD, it is also associated with nutrient deficiencies due to malabsorption. Those with celiac disease are genetically predisposed, but it does not develop unless they are exposed to certain triggers. Leaky gut, early exposure to gluten, and other environmental triggers are thought to play a role.
Leaky Gut, Sugar, and Immune Function
Since intestinal hyperpermeability involves proteins and substances unrecognizable to the body entering the blood stream, the immune system is activated and attacks them as if they are foreign invaders. Unfortunately, sometimes these proteins closely resemble the body’s own tissues and the immune system gets confused, ultimately attacking these tissues as well. This phenomenon is known as molecular mimicry and is thought to be a major underlying cause in autoimmune diseases. This whole process is why intestinal hyperpermeability can cause widespread harm in the body, not just problems within the digestive tract. It has been linked to all of the following conditions:
- autoimmune disorders (ie. rheumatoid arthritis, Hashimoto’s thyroiditis)
- chronic sinusitis
- urticaria (hives)
- fungal disorders
So where does sugar come into play in all this? Well for one, sugar and highly processed foods have an inflammatory effect on the body. Inflammation in the body releases substances that can lead to leaky gut. Sugar also feeds pathogens such as yeast and bacteria, which can also contribute to leaky gut when out of balance. Finally, sugar also weakens the immune system and depletes nutrients, both of which are predictive factors in falling prey to both chronic disease and acute illnesses.
Healthy Gut, Healthy Body
At this point you might be saying to yourself, “The link between gut issues and health is understandable, but what if I think I already have leaky gut? What can I do now?” The good news is that there are many effective strategies to heal the lining of the intestines and in turn also heal digestive issues and other chronic diseases related to leaky gut. A good place to start is to begin to cut back on or completely eliminate sources of added sugars. Some other helpful steps to take include:
- switch to an all-organic diet if possible
- determine and remove foods you are intolerant to (can be identified through testing or an elimination diet)
- eliminate other inflammatory foods (ie. cooking oils made with vegetable oils, highly processed foods, alcohol, etc.)
- consider drinking homemade bone broth several times per week (contains powerful nutrients for healing the gut lining)
- supplement with probiotics (may need to start slowly)
- reduce stress (ie. meditation, biofeedback, yoga, etc.)
- keep use of antibiotics and NSAID drugs to a minimum, as they can contribute to leaky gut
Since many of the diseases associated with leaky gut are multifactorial and can be complex to treat, you many need to consult a knowledgeable health care provider if you continue to have symptoms. They can determine if you need additional nutritional support, such as supplementation with glutathione, L-glutamine, zinc, vitamin D, or B-6. These nutrients help to repair the lining of the digestive tract, modulate the immune system, act as antioxidants, and are typically depleted in those with sub-optimal digestion. They can also do testing to determine if you have an overgrowth of yeast, bacteria, or parasites that needs to be treated. It is important to remember that leaky gut is not a medical diagnosis, but an underlying mechanism that can occur in many different health conditions and can increase in severity over time. It is suspected that most people now have some degree of intestinal hyperpermeability. So be kind to your body and look for healthier alternatives to the candy this holiday season. Your gut (and its gatekeeper) will thank you!