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What is impaired intestinal permeability, and why does it matter?

What is impaired intestinal permeability, and why does it matter?

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. Reason being, the gut is designed to allow the passage of nutrients across the gut lining through the ‘tight junctions’ between the cells that line the gastro-intestinal tract. In addition to allowing for the passing of nutrients, these tight junctions are designed to prevent the intrusion of unwanted food particles, environmental chemicals, and pathogenic microbes along with 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’, but the issue occurs when the integrity of the tight junctions become disturbed and is no longer selective about what it allows to pass. When this occurs, it can trigger a number of seemingly unrelated health problems including the development of autoimmune disease.

If you’re not familiar with impaired intestinal permeability, here’s what you need to know about it and why it happens.

Factors involved in impaired intestinal permeability

One of the underrated roles of the gut involves forming 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, and allow 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 and trigger 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 creates a vicious cycle of ever-increasing inflammation, which can trigger many seemingly unrelated symptoms, many of which aren’t even related to the gut. These can range from brain fog to low immunity to joint pain to metabolic dysfunction.

What can cause impaired intestinal permeability?

There is a pretty long list of underlying causes. A few of the more common contributing factors 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. 

Diet: A poor diet can be a trigger for issues in and of itself, as vitamin deficiencies can be involved in impaired intestinal permeability. Vitamin A and Vitamin D are two nutrients that are important for maintaining a healthy gut barrier. In rat studies, vitamin A deficiency had 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, along with various plant-based phytochemicals.

Even people who eat a healthy, balanced diet can have impaired intestinal permeability. Gliadin, which is a component of the protein found in 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 has an impact on the tight junctions in the intestines. When zonulin levels are high, the tight junctions are more likely to be compromised with increased permeability in the gut lining. For those with Celiac disease, there’s even more potential for impairment. Alcohol, hops and coconut oil can trigger similar decreases in tight junction integrity. 

Existing health problems: There is a strong link between conditions like inflammatory bowel disease, irritable bowel syndrome, asthma and cancer and 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: Infections including candida and H.pylori can be involved as both have the potential to compromise the integrity of the gut barrier.

Medications: Steroids, over-the-counter painkillers, protein pump inhibitors (PPI’s) 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 of ingestion.

Stress: According to research, stress increases the potential for impaired intestinal permeability. Studies in rats have shown a strong link between stress and impaired intestinal permeability. Keeping stress levels under control is an important factor in reducing the risk for compromised gut health and its negative flow in effects.

Intense exercise: Regular exercise is important for keeping the gut healthy but there’s 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 exercising intensely and increased permeability, even for athletes. In a study involving cyclists, exercising at 70% of maximum capacity led to a “leakier” gut and more food proteins entering the bloodstream. Moderate exercise is fine, 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 downloadable questionnaire that helps you consider your symptoms and gives you an idea of whether your gut needs a ‘little more love’. Click here to download the quiz.

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