Picture a tree – a big, strong, beautiful tree. How did the tree get so magnificent? The most important requirement for it to grow strong and healthy, is the soil it is planted in. Along with the sun, the soil is the source of life for the tree. It is where water and nutrients are absorbed from. It hosts microorganisms which convert decaying matter into life-giving nutrients and pull nitrogen out of the air so the plant can utilize it. It is what provides the foundation for the tree to spread its roots and grow tall and strong. If the soil is sub-optimal, the health of the tree will be as well. If the soil is infected with pathogenic microorganisms, the tree will die. If the roots are damaged, it will not be able to absorb the nutrients from the soil, and the tree will die.
The digestive tract is the soil in which the rest of our body is planted.
By healing the digestive tract, you set the stage for healing every other part of the body. The very first thing we do with every client who comes into our office is heal the gut. Without proper absorption and delivery of nutrients, there is simply no way to heal the rest of the body. Heal the gut and everything else starts to fall into place. Oftentimes individuals see a complete recovery by focusing on gut health, but sometimes more work is required. In those cases, we still focus on the gut first, because regardless of what condition you are suffering from, your body requires nutrients to heal, recover and build new tissue. A damaged digestive lining = poor nutrient absorption = poor or nonexistent recovery.
On top of this basic understanding about the important role of the digestive tract in overall health, there has been a lot of fascinating research coming out lately about the power of healing the digestive tract to heal the body on all sorts of levels – from malnutrition and allergies to autoimmune disease. With the term “leaky gut” becoming increasingly common, I wanted to take the time to explain what exactly it means and why it is so dangerous.
Leaky Gut 101
Our gastrointestinal tract (sometimes referred to as digestive tract, GIT or simply “gut”) is a long tube that runs right through our body. It begins in our mouth, continues down our esophagus, into our stomach, through the small intestine, then large, into the rectum and finally out. While it may seem like it is inside our body, the inside of our GIT is technically still the outside of our body. Think of it like a long straw running through our entire torso. Or for another slightly bizarre analogy, think of the human body like a funny-shaped donut!
When we eat food, a complex chemical process is set in motion. Simply, it starts in our mouth, where we mechanically break down large pieces of food into a paste. Chemical digestion also begins here by the presence of amylase, an enzyme required to break down starch. In our stomach food is further broken down by stomach acid and pepsin, enzyme which breaks down protein. The mass of partially broken down food and stomach acid is called chyme. Once enough stomach acid is present in the stomach, it triggers the pyloric sphincter to open up and allow the chyme to move into the small intestine. The presence of the stomach acid effectively turns on all of the machinery (i.e. activates pancreatic enzymes) our body needs to break down the food into its smallest particles so our body can utilize it. Once broken down into the smallest parts, receptors pull these food particles into the cells in the gut lining, and then transfers them into the bloodstream via capillaries surrounding the intestinal lining. This is the most important part. You know that old adage “you are what you eat”? Well it is only partly true. The lining of our GIT is designed to be very tightly regulated. It only allows the smallest pieces of food to get across and into the body. When it recognizes a fully broken down food particle, it absorbs it directly into the GIT lining, where it then gets transferred into the blood stream and delivered to the rest of the body. If food isn’t broken down into its base components, absorption won’t happen. So what that saying should be is “you are what you absorb”.
This is how it is supposed to work.
As you can see, there are many steps to this process, so there are many places it can go wrong. Here are a few examples of how and where things can go wrong:
Mouth: If food is not chewed properly, there is not enough surface area for the stomach acid to do its job, which in turn will make the digestion and absorption in the small intestine very challenging. Food that should be utilized by the body, goes undigested, moves into the large intestine where it ferments, causing digestive distress (among other more serious concerns) before it is excreted.
Stomach: If insufficient stomach acid is produced by the body, food can’t be broken down entirely. Since stomach acid is needed to transition the chyme into the small intestine, food will stay in the stomach longer than it should, where it ferments. Bubbles are forced out through the mouth, splashing the little stomach acid that there is up the esophagus causing pain and irritation. When it eventually moves into the small intestine, the enzymes are not able to be properly turned on, so incomplete digestion and absorption occurs. Additionally, we rely on stomach acid to protect us from pathogenic microorganisms, most of which cannot survive the acidity of our stomach. If there is insufficient stomach acid, or if we intervene medically and eliminate stomach acid altogether, you significantly increase your risk of getting sick.
Small Intestine: If the body does not have the building blocks it needs to create digestive enzymes (which it obtains through optimal nutrition and digestion), they will not be present in sufficient amounts to break down the food into its smallest parts. As a result, absorption and utilization of nutrients by the body will be sub-par. One of the most dangerous effects of incompletely digested food in the small intestine, aside from malnutrition, is the structural damage that can occur to the gut lining. Undigested food feeds bad bacteria, which in turn overgrow and start releasing nasty toxins. These toxins, as well as certain types of foods and undigested food particles, start to deteriorate the gut lining. The cells in the lining start to separate, allowing direct transit from the inside of the gut to the bloodstream. This is technically called increased intestinal epithelial permeability but is referred to casually as leaky gut. Undigested food particles, pathogenic bacteria and environmental toxins suddenly are able to bypass the strictly regulated absorption process and go directly into the bloodstream, where they do not belong.
Why is leaky gut so dangerous to the rest of the body?
1. Decreased Immune System Function. When foreign particles enter the body, your immune system turns on and sends all of its forces to protect the body from these invaders. The result? A fatigued immune system. If the immune system is always turned on due to leaky gut, what will happen when a virus infects the body? It won’t be able to fight it! What about over a long period of time? Cancer cells are accidentally created in the body on a daily basis, and our immune system diligently destroys them to protect us. If our immune system is too burnt out from fighting foreign invaders, it won’t be able to do this job either. Finally, certain foods have actually been found to trigger an over-active immune system, which can lead to autoimmune conditions.
2. Inflammation. Some of the unfriendly bacteria and environmental toxins that get into the bloodstream will trigger an inflammatory response in the body. While our liver is supposed to take care of these toxins for us, it is often overburdened by chronic exposure to toxins in our food, air, water and cleaning/personal care products, so its function is sub-optimal. What does this mean to the body? Well it depends. Every body is unique, so where chronic, low-grade inflammation attacks varies from person to person. Common areas are:
- joints (stiffness, pain, arthritis)
- muscles (soreness, poor recovery from workouts, cramping)
- skin (acne, eczema, psoriasis)
- brain (brain fog, emotional liability, ADHD, depression, anxiety, headaches, migraines)
- cardiovascular system (elevated cholesterol, plaques, subsequent elevated blood pressure)
- endocrine system (bad PMS and menopause symptoms; thyroid, adrenal and sex hormone imbalances)
- inability to lose weight (can be caused primarily by inflammation, or secondary to hormonal imbalances)
As you can see, leaky gut sets the stage for disease, so maintaining proper gut health is crucial for optimizing your body’s function. So, what can you do to take care of your digestive tract? The good news is by making some simple dietary and lifestyle changes, you can begin to heal your leaky gut within days! In part 2 I discuss what specific things (food and otherwise) to avoid to protect your intestinal tract!