Headaches, hay fever, constipation, bloating, allergies or fatigue. How many people do you know who were prescribed a stool test by their doctor with these complaints? Not many. Yet that wouldn't be a bad idea at all, according to Dr. Ir. Julia Schantl, orthomolecular gut therapist and expert on gut problems. "There is a growing body of research showing that poorly functioning gut is at the root of numerous health problems," Julia says. And so in this article, we take a dive into the gut.
"The gut," Julia explains, "should be thought of as a tube that guides the outside world through our body. The intestine determines what may and may not be taken into the body. The intestine consists of an intestinal wall, on top of that a layer of mucus and finally a layer of good bacteria. The intestinal wall is thin, in some places only one layer of cells. Between the cells there are channels, 'tight-junctions', which act as a kind of sliding doors that only let the right substances through."
If the intestine is working properly, only digested nutrients will enter. If he does not function properly, then the tight junction channels are too large and undigested nutrients, "bad" bacteria and other harmful substances inside. We then speak of a 'leaky gut'.
Immune system on overtime
When harmful substances enter your body, it starts to defend itself tooth and nail. "All guns are pulled out," Julia explains. "Your entire immune system goes into full battle mode. That takes an awful lot of energy, so fatigue is one of the symptoms associated with a leaky gut."
What other symptoms are added varies from person to person. "Where your system is most weak or vulnerable, things go wrong. That could be an allergic reaction, headaches, joint pain, bloating or problems with stool." And: a leaky gut not only allows harmful substances to pass through, it also absorbs healthy nutrients less well. This further affects your health.
If the leaky gut persists for a long time, the problems can become really big. Because the immune system is constantly in fight mode, it can also start attacking its own body. Then autoimmune diseases such as celiac disease, Crohn's disease, type 1 diabetes or rheumatism develop.
Problems can also arise in the brain. There the neurotransmitters can be disturbed by harmful substances, which affects your mood and brain functions. And that is what happens with diseases like ADHD, autism, dyslexia and psychosis.
In naturopathy the leaky gut is seen as the underlying cause of many diseases. In mainstream medicine however, Leaky Gut Syndrome is not yet widely recognised as a condition. "Science has not long figured out how bowel function relates to health issues and further research is ongoing. It takes about fifteen years on average for an insight from science to become commonplace within mainstream medicine," Julia says. "So it will take another ten years or so. But a large number of diseases really start with the intestines.
Causes of a leaky gut
Much research is still taking place into the exact causes of leaky gut, but there are a few factors that are known to at least contribute to the condition.
"Stress is one of the causes," Julia explains. "The body is then in fight-or-flight mode and wants energy fast. It is possible that the body opens the sliding doors as wide as possible for a while, in order to get energy quickly".
In other cases, the leak occurs because the intestinal wall is damaged. "That can come from the wrong diet. Gluten, for example," Julia says. "Or use of ibuprofen or other anti-inflammatory drugs." Zinc deficiency is also associated with leaky gut.
Another culprit is Candida. This is a yeast that occurs naturally in the body. Normally this yeast is kept under control by 'good' bacteria in the gut. Antibiotic use, medications, too many (processed) carbohydrates and sugar can kill these 'good' bacteria. This can lead to Candida overgrowth and thus a Candida infection, resulting in a leaky gut. "And make no mistake," warns Julia, "antibiotics aren't just something we get by prescription. It's also in meat, milk, and other animal foods."
So eating healthier, drinking less and avoiding antibiotics where possible can help prevent your gut from leaking. But how do you know if it isn't already? "For me, allergies, skin problems and hay fever are already signals to start looking at the gut," Julia says. "Fatigue after a meal is also a sign." Via arelatively simple stool test, indications of a leaky gut can be found.
Once a leaky gut has been identified, then targeted action can be taken. In her practice, Julia starts by calming the immune system. "I look at what foods the patient reacts most violently to. Then we eliminate that from the diet. That's basically the 'mopping up'. Then it's still a matter of plugging the leak." Fortunately, the body always strives to regain balance. Julia supports it with dietary advice and the prescription of pre- and probiotics. "The mucus layer and the intestinal flora can then recover, so that the intestines can once again perform their role as gatekeeper properly."
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