The Newest Leaky Gut Culprit Is Hiding In Your Home. Here's What You Need To Know
The outer layer of your gastrointestinal (GI) tract is a film of mucus and bacteria, and a protein called zonulin regulates how tightly the cells are linked together. These spaces between your gut's outermost cells are called intestinal tight junctions, and they act as the safeguard between your intestines and your bloodstream. When zonulin is functioning properly, your GI tight junctions keep things that don't belong in your bloodstream out—which includes toxins, allergens, undigested food particles, and bacteria. However, when zonulin malfunction occurs, you end up with leaky gut and sometimes a full-blown autoimmune disorder because the materials slip through the blood steam and start causing inflammation throughout the body.
It might surprise you to hear that some people suffering from leaky gut don't experience any symptoms at all. However, in general, if the amount of food and toxin leakage is small, symptoms are generally confined to the gastrointestinal tract. In fact, many people who have received a diagnosis of irritable bowel syndrome actually have leaky gut. Typical leaky gut symptoms mimic those of irritable bowel syndrome, including gas, cramping, bloating, and diarrhea or constipation. When we see more leakage (generally when there is more damage to the tight junctions), we find more systemic symptoms, which can include joint pain, rashes, difficulty sleeping, cognitive dysfunction, fatigue, and asthma. Eventually, these symptoms can even lead to autoimmune disorders such as Crohn's disease, rheumatoid arthritis, psoriasis, and type 1 diabetes.
Obviously, none of these scenarios are ideal. So let's review the common causes of leaky gut and what you can do to prevent it:
1. Food can cause leaky gut.
One of the leading causes of leaky gut is food, namely the standard American diet (SAD). What's the culprit, specifically? When you buy nonorganic or GMO grains, fruits, and vegetables, you are exposing yourself to gut-irritating impossible-to-wash-off pesticides. You can't escape GMO if you consume soy, corn, and wheat unless you are incredibly careful, as the bulk of the U.S. supply of these three ubiquitous foods are GMO. As an example, GMO wheat is often blamed for non-celiac gluten sensitivity and leaky gut. And this isn't just about bread; gluten is used as a thickening agent and is found in all sorts of foods such as ketchup, salad dressings, yogurt, mustard, and even in supplements without a non-GMO label!
2. Sugar is another common offender.
On average, each of us consumes a half pound of sugar per day, and this is enough to do damage to even the strongest gut. When we consume GMO foods, artificial sweeteners, additives, dyes, and added sugars, it spells disaster. Then, when we add non-sprouted grains and substances some cannot tolerate like lectins (found primarily in beans)—we are really in trouble. A hectic lifestyle (moderate to high-stress), excessive caffeine, and too much alcohol makes the situation worse.
3. Pharmaceutical drugs can cause leaky gut.
Eating or drinking a little too much? No problem—pop a gut-killing proton-pump inhibitor drug such as Prevacid, Protonix, or Nexium. Are you getting the sniffles and think an antibiotic will help? That antibiotic not only won't help a cold, but it will harm your immune system by dinging your gut and making you more susceptible to colds in the future. Painkillers are perhaps the most commonly overused gut irritant. Your tight junctions are damaged by everything from Tylenol to Aleve. Lastly, we have birth control pills, which are also bad news for your microbiome and gut health as they cause dysbiosis.
4. Speaking of dysbiosis: It plays a major role in leaky gut, too.
Gut dysbiosis occurs when the balance of good bacteria and yeast gets thrown out of whack. This is often caused by non-bio-identical hormones such as birth control pills or steroids, such as Medrol or prednisone. It's also common after taking chemotherapy medications. When you have dysbiosis, you might have an overgrowth of unhealthy bacteria or an overgrowth of a type of yeast called Candida. When this happens, the bacterial environment in your gut (crucial for optimal GI, immune, and brain function) doesn't operate as well as it should. Recall those tight junctions: Organisms such as Candida can invade the intestinal lining and cause gaps in those "gates." Other organisms—including H. pylori (responsible for ulcers and heartburn), Giardia (a parasite), and other "bugs" such as Campylobacter, Shigella, Salmonella, and E. coli—can not only cause infection but irritate the intestinal lining.
5. Chronic stress is a big trigger for intestinal permeability.
If you feel chronically stressed, you have chronically elevated levels of cortisol. Cortisol slows down the process of digestion and the rate of GI motility. As a result of these two functions, blood flow decreases to digestive organs producing a higher concentration of toxic metabolites, which then whittle away at your gut lining, revealing another way to cause a leaky gut.
6. Environmental toxins spell trouble for your GI tract.
The pollution problem on our earth is getting more serious every day, and these environmental chemical toxins deplete our reserves of GI-protective minerals. This includes fluoride in our tap water, mercury from fish, and toxins produced by molds.
7. Dust mites can contribute to leaky gut (yes, really).
In May 2016, a comprehensive study revealed there is something new and shocking that can also cause leaky gut: Dust mites are the newest villain on the leaky gut causation list. If you are someone with allergies, you have likely been counseled on how to remove dust mites from your environment, but dust mites should be on everyone's radar. Dust mites can harm us via nonallergic mechanisms, too. A study several years ago about the rare parasitization via dust mites brought this to our attention. Dust mites can act as intestinal parasites, causing GI tract pain and diarrhea. However, we don't know how common it is for dust mites to act as gut "irritants," causing measurable, definitive leaky gut—with or without GI symptoms.
It's a good idea to reduce your toxin load, and dust mites fall into that category. Try to get rid of them, whether you have leaky gut, risk factors for leaky gut, or just want to live a life with as few toxins as possible.