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Everything You Need to Know About Leaky Gut Syndrome

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Hippocrates supposedly once said that "all disease begins in the gut." And as time goes on, more and more research shows that he may have been right. Studies are beginning to prove that your gut is the gateway to overall health and that an unbalanced environment in the gut can contribute to numerous diseases—including diabetes, obesity, depression, and rheumatoid arthritis.

Also known as the gastrointestinal (GI) tract, the gut is a pathway that begins at the mouth and ends all the way down at your rectum. Its primary role is to process food from the moment it's consumed until it is absorbed by the body or passed through stool. Keeping that pathway clear and healthy is incredibly important—how well it's functioning can affect vitamin and mineral absorbency, hormone regulation, digestion, and immunity.

What Is Leaky Gut Syndrome?

Another side effect of disorderly GI issues: leaky gut syndrome. Scientifically known as intestinal hyperpermeability, leaky gut syndrome is a condition in which the intestinal lining becomes increasingly porous, resulting in larger, undigested food molecules escaping from the digestive tract. Along with those food particles are yeast, toxins, and other forms of waste, all of which are able to flow uninhibited through the bloodstream. When this happens, the liver must work overtime to combat the invaders. Soon the overworked liver isn't able to keep up with the demand and its functionality is compromised. The troublesome toxins can make their way into different tissues throughout the body, leading to inflammation. Chronic inflammation has been linked to heart disease, diabetes, cancer, and even Alzheimer's disease. While it might not be the sexiest of topics to discuss, leaky gut syndrome has gained a lot of attention in the media lately due to a growing body of research linking it to various health concerns and chronic diseases.

Causes of Leaky Gut Syndrome

While there are still a lot of unanswered questions about what exactly causes the condition in the first place, research has shown that poor diet choices, chronic stress, an overabundance of toxins in the system, and bacterial imbalances can all wreak havoc on your health. Ongoing research is emerging that connects common health concerns and chronic issues to leaky gut syndrome, so one thing is clear: This isn't a problem that can be flushed down the toilet.

Jill Carnahan, M.D., a functional medicine expert in Louisville, Colorado, says that many things can trigger leaky gut syndrome. These can include inflammatory bowel disease, nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAID), overgrown bacteria in the small intestine, fungal dysbiosis (which is similar to a candida yeast overgrowth), celiac disease, parasitic infections, alcohol, food allergies, aging, excessive exercise, and nutritional deficiencies, says Carnahan.

Research has found that gluten is one of the biggest contributors to a leaky gut, due to its release of a chemical called zonulin. This protein regulates the bonds, called tight junctions, at the intersections of the gut lining. Excess zonulin can signal the lining cells to open, weakening the bond and causing symptoms of leaky gut. A 2012 study published in the New York Academy of Sciences also found that zonulin is linked to impaired gut barrier function in relation to several diseases, including autoimmune and neurodegenerative conditions.

Symptoms of Leaky Gut Syndrome

The most common signs of a leaky gut are bloating, constipation, gas, chronic fatigue, and food sensitives, says Amy Myers, M.D., a functional medicine expert in Bee Cave, Texas. But other symptoms—like ongoing diarrhea, joint pain, and constantly getting sick due to an overexerted immune system—can also indicate something's up with your gut.

What You Can Do

Carnahan says one of the best ways get your gut back on track is by taking a probiotic. Carnahan says testing out gluten-free eating, as well as ditching GMOs and opting for organic when possible could help ease symptoms for some people. "Curing leaky gut involves treating the root cause," she says. But if you're unsure whether you have leaky gut syndrome, and are experiencing some of the chronic symptoms, it's imperative that you speak with your doctor before making any changes in your lifestyle.

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