One of the universal constants in autoimmune disease is intestinal permeability. “Leaky gut” happens when the tight junctions between intestinal cells spread apart. These tight junctions are critical for protecting the body against bacteria, viruses, undigested food particles, toxins and other bugs that may cause harm. Consider this, the entire gastrointestinal tract is essentially an open pathway to the outside world. It is basically one long tube running from your mouth to your anus. So, the intestinal lining needs to be strong and intact to prevent the body from letting those harmful things inside.
When the gut lining is unable to stop those harmful things from entering the body, they can trigger:
- an autoimmune response where your body starts to attack itself, and/or
- changes in the gut flora that knocks things out of balance. (1)
The first line of defense to restore the gut is to focus on the diet. But in more complex cases, diet is not the only treatment. There are many hidden chemicals in food and medications that can increase intestinal permeability. It is important to understand what these chemicals are, where they are found, and how to avoid them to fully heal the gut. Let’s begin….
Non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs)
NSAIDs are one of the most widely consumed products for pain relief and reducing inflammation. As an endurance athlete, I personally went through a period of time when Advil was a staple in my recovery routine. This was before I knew how much damage they can cause to the gut. Long term use of these drugs can cause:
- damage to the large and small intestinal lining
- intestinal inflammation
- blood loss and anemia
- malabsorption, and
- increased gut permeability (i.e leaky gut).
NSAIDs target an enzyme called cyclooxygenase (COX). COX helps produce prostaglandins, which are local hormones that help control a number of important functions in the gut. These prostaglandins actually reduce inflammation and help protect the intestinal lining. The long-term use of NSAIDs reduces COX. Less COX decreases prostaglandin production, leaving the gut vulnerable to inflammation and damage (2).
Artificial sweeteners are another trigger for leaky gut. I touched on this briefly in my blog about sugar, but these sweeteners include sucralose (Splenda), aspartame (Equal) and saccharin (Sweet’n Low). In one study, researchers found that high levels of aspartame and saccharin caused intestinal cell death. Lower levels of sucralose and aspartame increased intestinal permeability (3). It is important to note that the “high levels” of these sweeteners was on par with what most people consume on a daily basis (if they regularly consume artificially sweetened foods and beverages).
The use of chemicals and additives has exploded over the last several decades with the increase in industrialized and processed foods. These chemicals and additives make food items last longer, but they can cause serious issues to our health and gut. Several of these food additives increase intestinal permeability, including:
- Sugar (or glucose) is mainly absorbed through the tight junctions in the gut lining. Diets high in sugar can increase intestinal permeability.
- Not only does salt loosen those tight junctions between intestinal cells, it also affects the innate immune system. Salt can activate an important pathway that plays a role in autoimmune disease development.
- Emulsifiers and surfactants
- These are used to help ingredients combine (like oil and eggs to make mayonnaise). Emulsifiers and surfactants are also used to improve the texture of foods. Common emulsifiers and surfactants used in food production have been shown to increase intestinal permeability.
- Organic solvents
- Food manufacturers use solvents as stabilizers, antioxidants, preservatives and flavorings. Alcohol is a commonly used solvent and has been shown to impair the intestinal lining. Even solvents used in cleaning agents can be harmful when inhaled and have been linked to the development of autoimmune diseases.
- This protein triggers the release of zonulin, which increases intestinal permeability. Gluten is also a very common additive in a number of processed foods (4).
Pesticides & Other Chemicals
The final place that leaky gut triggers may be hiding are in pesticides and other chemicals found in agricultural and manufacturing processes. Pesticides and chemicals have been linked to a variety of chronic diseases including cancer, cardiovascular disease, respiratory diseases, reproductive disorders and neurodegenerative conditions (5). However, there are some chemicals that can cause a leaky gut.
Chloropyrifos (CPF) are pesticides widely used on fruits and vegetables. CPF residues are commonly found in both drinking water and food. A study used pregnant rats to test how CPFs affect pups both before and after birth. Researchers found that chronic CPF exposure increased intestinal permeability and disrupted the gut microbial balance (6).
Fixing a leaky gut is not just about eliminating certain foods and adding in bone broths and collagen. It is important to look at the bigger picture when it comes to processed foods, chemicals and medications. Here are a few tips to help you heal your leaky gut:
Tip 1: Only take NSAIDs when absolutely necessary
I recommend stopping all NSAIDs if possible. If pain is something you need help managing, there are a few natural alternatives to try, including:
- fish oil
- white willow bark (7)
Tip 2: Start reducing the amount of processed foods in your diet
This will help cut back on artificial sweeteners and food additives. If you want to buy something in a box, read the ingredient label. Do not buy it if there are ingredients you cannot pronounce or there seems to be a lot of additives in the product. Look out for gums, stabilizers, preservatives and natural flavors.
Tip 3: Switch to using natural sugars
Instead of reaching for that packet of Equal or Splenda, try using a more natural sugar like honey, maple syrup, date syrup or even date or coconut sugar. The less refined, the better. Although stevia is technically natural, I still recommend choosing honey or maple as an alternative.
Tip 4: Buy organic produce
If possible, prioritize organic fruits and vegetables over conventional. This will reduce your exposure to pesticides. Shopping at farmers markets is a great way to save money and support your local farmers. My family subscribes to a local CSA and we get fresh fruits and vegetables delivered weekly.
Being a little more careful about your food and exposure to chemicals can help accelerate leaky gut healing. If you need additional support or guidance, please book a free call with me to learn more about my process and how I can help you achieve your health goals.