Leaky Gut, or the Hyper Permeable Intestine
The gut plays an incredible role in the immune system. It’s there to protect you. Every substance that enters the body from outside must go through the gut’s intensive selection process.
The epithelial cells which line the walls of the intestine are selectively permeable. They discriminate between those substances which benefit the body, and those substances which are damaging. The good are let in. The bad are politely refused and are excreted when we go to the loo.
What constitutes ‘good’ are the macro and micro nutrients which the body metabolises for energy, hormone production, cell regeneration, coping with stress etc. What constitutes ‘bad’ are bacteria, viruses, toxins, and anything that can’t be broken down and digested.
Just beyond the lining of the gut, an army of immune cells are on guard, ready to attack and destroy any dangerous substance that manages to slip through. The immune cells have two combat techniques.They instigate acute, localized inflammation which halts the onslaught of invaders and creates the space for healing and they produce antibodies which identify and destroy the bad guys.
Working together, the healthy gut lining and the immune cells are a team of unbeatable bodyguards. This is where 80% of your immune system is located.
Unfortunately, the layer of selectively permeable epithelial cells is a very fine and delicate sieve. It’s just one-cell thick. And it’s not invincible. If constantly aggravated by certain foods and pharmaceuticals, these cells and their junctures can become damaged.
Substances and conditions that damage the intestinal lining include prolamines, the protein structures found in all cereals and grains, NSAIDS and antacids, infections, conditions such as SIBO (Small Intestinal Bacterial Overgrowth) and candida.
In addition, lifestyle factors such as inadequate sleep, lack of sunlight and chronic stress weaken the intestinal barrier.
Leaky Gut: When Fecal Matter Enters the Bloodstream
When the intestinal lining is damaged it results in a situation known as Leaky Gut, or increased intestinal permeabilty. This isn’t a good thing. It means that substances which need to be kept out of our bloodstream manage to slip through. Remember, this stuff should be excreted. What we’re talking about is fecal matter getting into the bloodstream. When these molecules enter, the immune system responds immediately to fight and eliminate the foreign molecule. If there’s too much to do, day after day, year after year, eventually it will fail to win the battle.
Autoimmune Disease and Leaky Gut
In addition to being overworked, the immune cells can become confused. They can lose the ability to distinguish between the proteins of the invaders and the proteins of your own body. If this happens they may start to produce auto-antibodies which specifically target the proteins in your own cells. If the autoantibodies go haywire an autoimmune disease may result.
A confused immune system can strike anywhere: in organs, in glands, in the digestive tract, in tissues, throughout the nervous system. The “where” determines the type of disease. Autoantibodies that target the joints lead to Rheumatoid Arthritis. Breaking down the thyroid gland leads to Hashimoto’s Thyroiditis. Attacking the connective tissues leads to Connective Tissue Disease. If they attack the nerves it leads to Multiple Sclerosis and Fibromylgia.
These are just a few examples. Around 80 autoimmune diseases have been identified, all decidedly unpleasant and painful.
The situation can become further complicated through the situations known as “Molecular Mimicry” and “Cross Reactivity”. In the case of Molecular Mimicry, proteins that are very similar to those which are naturally found in our body enter the system and are incorporated into our cells with disastrous consequences. In the situation of Cross Reactivity otherwise harmless substances are so similar to those which cause damage that they provoke the immune system to flare. This is why people who are allergic or intolerant to gluten may suffer the same symptoms after eating gluten-free grains such as millet, rye or barley.
Healing and Protecting the Gut
The gut lining needs to be protected but much of contemporary life – poor diet, inadequate sunlight, chronic stress, pharmaceuticals – all lead to its gradual destruction. The signs and symptoms of a Leaky Gut are so commonplace now that we consider them to be normal. Digestive problems such as gas, constipation, diarrhea, bloating and cramps are all signs that the gut is unhealthy. Allergies and intolerances, bronchitis, obesity, hypertension, joint pain, eczema and tendonitis are all strong indications that foreign substances are getting into the bloodstream and are triggering the immune system.
The best and most natural way to reduce or eliminate entirely the symptoms of these issues is to heal and strengthen the lining of the gut. A damaged intestine can heal, but it takes time. The Paleo Diet activates an intense process of regeneration. It removes from the diet all foods that aggravate the intestine. It emphasises foods that are known to be particularly curative such as bone broth and collagen.
But in order to combat inflammation, looking after the gut isn’t enough. Along with keeping stress levels low, it’s imperative to consume just the right amounts of the essential fatty acids, Omega 6 and Omega 3.