The buzz around gut health is certainly drawing our attention to the connection between a compromised gut environment and many of our modern-day health challenges. You may have even heard the term ‘Leaky Gut Syndrome’ to describe one of the contributing factors for this increase in chronic disease. I’m not a fan of that term ‘leaky gut’. I’d rather refer to it as impaired intestinal permeability. The gut is designed to allow for the passage of nutrients through the gut lining, through the ‘tight junctions’ between the gut lining (epithelial) cells. These tight junctions are also designed to prevent the intrusion of unwanted food particles, environmental chemicals and pathogenic microbes (and their byproducts) through into general circulation. What this means is that the gut lining, by way of its tight junctions, is designed to be selectively ‘leaky’, hence the term leaky gut is a bit amiss. The issue here is when the integrity of these tight junctions become disturbed.
Issues with the tight junctions can then trigger a number of seemingly unrelated health complications, including the development of autoimmune disease. If you’re not familiar with impaired intestinal permeability, here’s what you need to know about what it is, and why it happens.
Factors involved in impaired intestinal permeability
One of the underrated roles of the gut involves its function as a barrier between the intestines and the rest of the body. Normally the one cell thick lining of the intestinal tract is strong and well-functioning, but factors such as infections, inflammation and food sensitivities can change this, leading to the tight junctions between these cells to function less optimally.
When this occurs, toxins, bacteria and undigested food particles can pass through the tight junctions between the cells, triggering a response from the immune system cells that sit right below the intestinal lining. Here, these toxins, bacteria and undigested food particles are seen as foreign threats, leading the immune system to mount an attack. This leads to further inflammation, and a range of seemingly unrelated symptoms, and diagnoses.
Impaired intestinal permeability goes hand in hand with many symptoms, many of which aren’t even related to the gut. These can range from brain fog to low immunity to joint pain, along with many other debilitating signs and symptoms.
What can cause impaired intestinal permeability?
There can be a pretty long list of underlying causes. A few common factors can include:
An unhealthy gut microbiome:
If your gut health is already poor and you have low diversity of gut bacteria, it can make you more prone to experiencing impaired intestinal permeability.
Poor diet can be a trigger for issues in and of itself, as vitamin deficiencies. Vitamin A and Vitamin D are two nutrients that are important for maintaining a healthy gut barrier. In rats, vitamin A deficiency has shown an impact on the gut barrier and in mice, a lack of vitamin D had similar effects. Zinc is also important, as is the amino acid glutamine, and various plant-based phytochemicals.
Even people who eat a healthy, balanced diet can have impaired intestinal permeability. Gliadin, which is a type of gluten, is well known for its role in decreasing the integrity of the tight junctions in the gut lining. Gluten can raise levels of a protein called zonulin, which is important for maintaining healthy tight junctions in the intestines. When zonulin levels are high, the tight junctions are more likely to be compromised, along with increased gut permeability. If you have Celiac Disease, there’s even more potential for impairment. Alcohol, hops and coconut oil can also trigger similar decreases in tight junction integrity.
Existing health problems:
Certain health conditions, includes inflammatory bowel disease, irritable bowel syndrome, asthma and cancer have shown strong links to impaired intestinal permeability. In patients with chronic fatigue syndrome, impaired intestinal permeability is thought to be a contributing factor leading to symptoms. It may even be a factor in obesity, with several studies showing a link between obesity and increased gut permeability.
Infections including candida and H.pylori can be involved in increased intestinal permeabilty, as both have the potential to compromise the integrity of the gut barrier.
Steroids, over-the-counter painkillers, protein pump inhibitors (prescribed to reduce stomach acid) and antibiotics are just a few of the medications that can contribute to compromised gut integrity. Taking these types of medications for long periods of time can create problems with the gut lining. With NSAIDs, such as Ibuprofen, the gut can become compromised within 24 hours.
According to research, stress also increases the potential for impaired intestinal permeability. Studies on rats have shown a strong link between stress and intestinal permeability. Keeping stress levels under control is an important factor in reducing the risk for compromised gut health.
Regular exercise is important for keeping the gut healthy but there is a fine balance. Strenuous exercise can have the opposite effect and increase the potential for impaired intestinal permeability. Several studies have shown a link between exercise intensely and increased intestinal permeability, even for athletes. In a study involving cyclists, exercising at 70% of maximum capacity led to a “leakier” gut with more food proteins entering the bloodstream. Moderate exercise is a great move for a healthy gut barrier. Just don’t overdo things!
If you are wondering if you have impaired intestinal permeability, the best way to know is to pay attention to your health symptoms. I have a quick quiz you can download here that can help you understand the health of your gut, and tell you if your gut needs a ‘little more love’.