Have you sprung a leak? The impact of leaky gut syndrome

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by Barb Jarmoska

Arthritis. Asthma. Food allergies. Fatigue. Digestive disorders. Crohn’s. Cystic acne. Eczema. Attention Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder. Inflammatory bowel disease. Sjogren’s syndrome. Psoriasis. Fibromyalgia. Diabetes. Thyroiditis. Multiple sclerosis. Alopecia. Abdominal distention. Chronic diarrhea. Osteoporosis. Depression. Autism. Acid reflux. Rashes/hives. Schizophrenia. Multiple chemical sensitivities. Migraines. At first glance, this very extensive list of health challenges appears to be completely unrelated. Such is not the case.

Linked to the leak
The one thing that each of these health challenges can have in common is the significant likelihood of a tie-in to an often-undiagnosed problem known as “leaky gut syndrome.” The name may sound a bit foolish, but leaky gut is an apt description for what is medically classified as hyper intestinal wall permeability.

Ponder for a moment the process of digestion and absorption. How does the beta-carotene in your cantaloupe, the magnesium in Swiss chard, the amino acids in broiled salmon and the essential fats from that handful of walnuts make its way to the cells where these nutrients are needed?

The answer to that question may seem fairly simple, but in truth is incredibly complex. Your digestive system provides the most intimate contact with your environment. End-to-end, your digestive tract is a 25- to 35-foot-long hose responsible for turning the food you eat into microscopic particles that your cells can use for energy, maintenance and repair. Your intestinal tract provides a barrier between what you come in contact with and what actually enters your body.

Spread out flat, your digestive system would cover a tennis court. Because of the large surface area and constant exposure to all manner of substances, this system is your body’s first line of defense. About 85 percent of your immune capacity is directly dependant upon these critical digestive organs with a mucous lining that repairs and replaces itself every 3-7 days.

Think about it. When you take a bite of food, digestion begins in your mouth where the process of slowly and thoroughly chewing the food causes the release of enzymes that begin the process of breaking down the nutrients before that bite even hits your stomach. (Gulping and/or failing to chew your food thoroughly always compromises digestion.) Your stomach acts like a chemical and mechanical blender, churning and mixing the food with hydrochloric acid, water and enzymes; creating the liquid substance known as chyme.

When chyme comes in contact with the lining of the next section of the gut, the challenge of leaky gut can arise. After exiting the stomach, digested food enters the small intestine, where the all-important task of sorting and selection occurs. The function of the small intestine (which, at 15- to 20-feet long, is hardly small) is somewhat paradoxical. The small intestine must allow nutrients to pass through its wall into your bloodstream while at the same time preventing the passage of toxins, parasites, microbes and molecules that are too large to be properly absorbed. Nutrients are absorbed through hundreds of small, finger-like folds called villi. The villi are each covered with millions of micro-villi. Imagine an expensive terry cloth towel with hundreds of small, finger-like loops—now add millions of smaller threads projecting from each loop. Although that is not an accurate image of a towel, it is precisely the structure of your intestinal lining. Each of these trillions of villi and micro-villi should be covered with thin mucus and friendly bacteria, both of which are necessary to their proper function. A healthy intestinal lining allows only properly digested nutrients to pass through this barrier that is about the thickness of your eyelid.

The problem of leaky gut arises when the intestinal wall lining becomes inflamed, begins to break down and can no longer do its job properly. When the gut’s ability to function and filter is compromised, it literally starts to leak. What is supposed to be a microscopically fine sieve or tea strainer now becomes a colander. Particles that should be filtered out now pass directly into your bloodstream, triggering a vast array of immunological reactions. It is these immune reactions to unwanted substances circulating in your bloodstream that contribute to the wide range of symptoms and diseases listed at the beginning of this article.

Top four leaky gut triggers
Why do so many children and adults have leaking intestines? The foods that are the foundation of the Standard American Diet are primarily to blame. It is estimated that 75 percent of the calories in the Standard American Diet come from the two most common food allergens: cow’s milk and wheat. Soy and corn join dairy and wheat to comprise the top four triggers for leaky gut syndrome. Most Americans are eating these four foods every day and thereby setting the stage for many of the health challenges that will befall them. In addition, 90 percent of prepared foods have hydrogenated oils and 60 percent have monosodium glutamate (MSG). Throw in chemicals like aspartame (a known brain toxin and MSG’s evil twin), tons of sugar and salt, preservatives, chemicals, xenoestrogens and pesticide residues, and the self-induced nature of our suffering becomes readily apparent.

Why are dairy and wheat the No. 1 and No. 2 human allergens?” The answer is simple. There are substances in these foods that can do physical harm to the intestinal tract, thereby eliciting an array of immune responses. In cow’s milk the culprit is casein, a powerful glycoprotein that is also used to make waterproof adhesives. Casein not only works on your child’s art project, it sticks to his gut and keeps it from functioning optimally.

In wheat, another glue-like protein is to blame. Even its name sounds sticky—gluten. This same protein is found in other grains, including barley, rye, spelt, kamut and oats. As with casein, gluten, at best, will coat the villi, and at worst, will damage and destroy them altogether.

The most severe form of gluten intolerance is known as celiac disease. In the past, celiac was typically considered a pediatric diagnosis; but the medical community now realizes that the disease can appear after years of silent intestinal wall damage. As with celiac, so with gluten intolerance. Following years of eating wheat-based products, symptoms of intestinal wall damage can show up in your skin, brain, joints and other organs.

The potential harm these foods can cause is evidenced by the fact that they are all used to make powerful adhesives. Casein, gluten and soy are the strongest, stickiest, and most powerful glycoproteins, with corn easily capturing fourth place. The auto industry puts cars together with super-glues manufactured from soy proteins. Waterproof adhesives made from casein and gluten provide the glue on stamps and envelopes as well as stronger bonding agents that can hold metal. Corn glue most often holds cardboard boxes together and is also used to make non-petroleum (and thus less toxic) plastic containers.

Uncovering the culprits
How do you know if any of these four foods could be contributing to your arthritis, fatigue, eczema or inflammation? How can you tell if your autistic or hyperactive child would be better able to focus or socialize if he didn’t eat spaghetti and drink milk? Short of expensive and sometimes inconclusive medical tests, eliminating the foods from the diet for a period of 10 to 15 days is the most effective plan. Although this brief period of time is certainly not enough to heal the intestinal lining and reverse the problem, it can be enough to carefully track symptoms and see some positive change. As symptoms improve, the need to eliminate these foods on a more permanent basis will become increasingly evident. It’s the old cost/benefit ratio in action—when big health dividends are paid, the challenge of dietary changes is greatly minimized.

The elimination of wheat and dairy (all gluten and casein) is not as complicated as it may seem. With the recent and significant rise in gluten-sensitivity has come a plethora of foods that are gluten-free. Freshlife has made it easy for you to identify these foods throughout the store. A large display case provides samples of all our gluten-free products. Ask for the handout listing each of these foods by category (pasta, flour, cereal, cookies, crackers, breads, etc.) and finally, look for shelf labels with bright orange color bands indicating a gluten-free product.

For many people, eliminating dairy foods is not a significant challenge. However, the more milk, cheese, yogurt and ice cream you consume, the more diligent you will need to be in removing those foods from the diet and seeking substitutes that are not apt to trigger a response. Try milk substitutes made from rice or almonds. If you use a whey protein powder, make the switch to one derived from goat’s milk.

The primary requirement for elimination of the potential culprits is methodical label-reading. Beyond the obvious milk, bread, pasta and cereal, gluten and casein as well as soy and corn can show up in a number of other foods. Read the fine print and hone your detective skills!

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