Believe it or not, we are born with a leaky gut – out of necessity! “Leaky gut” is a case of increased permeability of the intestinal lining. Our intestines are designed to allow important nutrients from our food to pass through its lining into our blood while keeping out dangerous chemicals and organisms that can be toxic to us if they get into our blood. Our intestinal lining has extra permeability when we are born to allow the large immune cells from mother’s milk to pass through and into our blood to help protect us from illness.
Our inner intestinal lining (which is only one cell layer thick!) can be damaged and start to leak from exposure to anything inflammatory, such as the chemicals in processed foods, antibiotics, pesticides and certain proteins in grains, such as gluten. One of the important jobs of the friendly microbes in our gut is to protect this permeable lining from damage so that it does not become “leaky”. Hence, if you don’t have the proper gut flora, you will most likely develop leaky gut.
Anti-oxidants from fruits and vegetables can provide wonderful protection for the cells of our gut lining, but, regrettably, we can no longer rely solely on fresh produce to stop the inflammatory cascade. Fruits and vegetables get their nutrients from the soil, and since our soil has been depleted through improper farming methods and sterilized by pesticides, the consequence is depleted nutrients in our foods. Lab analysis shows that the nutrient density of foods today is dramatically less than 50 years ago.
It is beginning to dawn on the scientific and medical community that the key to preventing and healing most of the degenerative diseases prevalent today is a healthy gut lining and an abundance of healthy microbes. Chronic inflammation, widely touted as the root cause of all disease, can be instigated by the failure of the membranes of our body to keep irritating chemicals out of our tissues, and most of this “leaking” happens in the gut.
Another interesting fact about babies is that they are not born with the protective microbes in their intestines. They get their gut bacteria from their mother – both from the birth canal and from mother’s milk. So, if mother doesn’t have a good microbiome, neither does baby … unless it is given to the infant through another means such as probiotics. Once babies are big enough to explore the world, they can start getting their healthy microbes from nature.
From studying healthy, primitive tribes who are free of chronic disease and have not been exposed to antibiotics or processed foods, we know that we probably should have 20,000 to 30,000 different species of bacteria in our colon. Conversely, Americans typically have only about 2000-3000 species. Getting probiotics through supplements does help but does not replenish this level of diversity.
We are dependent on bacteria for our health and well-being and for our very survival. It is imperative that we stop trying to eradicate them from our environment. We have caused much devastation to our microbiome through human and livestock antibiotic use, pesticides and herbicides. Hopefully, as we learn more we will be able to repair the damage we have done and learn how to live in harmony with our environment and the array of creatures co-habiting with us.
In case you are wondering what can result from “leaky gut” and the subsequent inflammation, the long-term consequences include not only digestive problems and allergies, but also such devastating diseases as heart disease, cancer, diabetes and a host of autoimmune diseases. If your main question is, “What can I do about it?”, I want to assure you there is much you can do to heal a leaky gut. You must restore the gut lining integrity and replenish the friendly bacteria in the colon. This is the first thing I help most of my functional medicine patients do, no matter what they have come to me for. Without a healthy digestive tract, we cannot properly address any other health issues.