How the Gut Gets Damaged: Gut Health Series, Part 2
Updated: Jan 10, 2020
I recently did a live Facebook presentation on optimizing gut health, and was inspired to write Part 2 in this series on SCD and Gut Health! When I was formulating the presentation, my goal was to emphasize that EVERYONE can benefit from optimizing gut health. Some may need more intensive healing than others, to be sure, like I did. Others may benefit from a light overhaul in their lifestyle, such as removing inflammatory foods and adding some targeted supplements.
In any case, it might help to understand the nuts and bolts of gut health to determine what type of changes you could benefit from. So, I'm going to go back to the basics!
Role of the Gut (or Digestive System)
Believe it or not, as a Registered Nurse with a Bachelor's Degree, I actually had a very poor understanding of the role the gut plays in overall health. Digesting our food, eliminating what we didn't use, and that was about it. Plus I grew up in the 80's and early 90's when the emphasis was on low fat, calories and weight loss (not overall health). The message was, it doesn't matter so much WHAT you eat, but it matters how much you eat and how much you burn. This message did not help me when I started heading down the eating disorder path (of course, that issue had many causes).
As it turns out, overall health is VERY dependent on gut health, and on the TYPES of foods we eat, not simply the calories in and out. I do think that these days, many are starting to catch onto this fact, thankfully. So what does the gut actually do? Well, very briefly it: Digests food (yes, I know, obvious), regulates hormones, excretes toxins, produces vitamins and healing compounds, helps regulate our mood (yes, you heard me right!), and of course, absorbs nutrients to be utilized by the body.
But HOW does it do this? Well, here's where it gets interesting:
1. Epithelial layer and Microvilli (also called GALT Layer, or Gut Associated Lymphoid Tissue). This is a layer that is 1 cell thick, which covers our entire GI tract. If you were to spread it out, it could cover the area of a tennis court! This cell layer is protective. Think of your gut as a hollow tube, that runs from your mouth to the "exit point" (yes, the anus. I don't want to say that word really, but there it is). This tube is actually open to the outside environment, and the rest of our body is not. So, the epithelial layer regulates what should be kept inside the gut (or the hollow tube) and what can enter the bloodstream. This layer is made of epithelial cells, and at the tips of these are "microvilli", which are responsible for absorbing nutrients. Between each of these cells are "tight junctions", which hold the cells together to strengthen this protective layers.
The microvilli basically "screen" all molecules so that only the correct ones are actually entering the bloodstream. You can imagine what might happen if this layer gets damaged! More on that, later.
2. Friendly Gut Bacteria. You may already be somewhat aware of the importance of your gut bacteria, since it has gotten so much press in recent years. A healthy, functioning gut contains trillions of friendly bacteria, which play a huge role in absorption of nutrients, producing vitamins, immune system regulation, and hormone regulation.
3. Enteric Nervous System. This is worth mentioning, because the gut actually contains MORE neurotransmitters than the brain! The primary nerve in the gut is the vagus nerve, and it carries information from the gut to the brain. 95% of the body's serotonin is actually contained in the gut, not in the brain! In this way, the gut plays a huge part in regulating our mood.
4. Elimination of Toxins. A healthy and well functioning gut plays an important role in elimination of toxins. This is done via the liver and the colon. This may seem obvious, but you need to realize that our body has this amazing built in system made to effectively eliminate toxins, and if it is compromised, it can cause major problems.
OK, now we get a little bit more about what the role of the gut is, and how that works.
So Where Did it All Go Wrong?
Answering this question was KEY to my own gut recovery. Because, why would I spend all that time healing my gut, only for it to be damaged again? I needed to figure out what damaged it, and correct those things for the future! Here are some reasons that the gut can fail to function properly:
1. Diet, diet, diet. Ugh, I know. Why is this such a hard one? It was for me, that's for sure! I thought I was eating just fine. I ate mostly organic. Even the sugar I baked with was organic. My pizza was always high quality (ha). So why did it all fall apart for me? Well, even the organic processed foods were still processed. Processed foods and sugar are still inflammatory, and they feed bacteria in our gut that should not be allowed to proliferate. Did you know that processed food or fast food actually feed the bacteria that INCREASE absorption? I didn't. Not to mention, the inflammation caused damages that important, protective epithelial layer.
2. Undetected Food Intolerances. So, this one is a little tricky. Some foods are inflammatory and harm the gut lining. Common offenders for many people include gluten, dairy, soy, sugar and sometimes eggs. When these foods potentially harm the gut lining, we then become more prone to additional food intolerances. I'll discuss this further, later.
3. Overuse of Gut Damaging Medications. These may include NSAIDS (Non-Steroidal Anti-Inflammatory Drugs like Ibuprofen, Acetaminophen, and Naproxen), antibiotics, and steroids, and other hormones. These medications can either destroy our friendly bacteria, damage our gut lining, or both, if used on an ongoing basis. If you happened to read Part 1 of this series, taking Naproxen for 6 weeks likely contributed to the breakdown of my own already compromised gut.
4. Toxins, Including Heavy Metals and GMO's. We are all exposed to toxins on a regular basis, but we can do our best to reduce our exposure through our choices in household products, personal care products, and the foods we eat. Exposure to high levels of toxins are very damaging to our gut, by altering our gut flora (bacteria) and harming the gut lining.
5. Impaired Enzyme Function. Our pancreas makes its own digestive enzymes, and also enzymes are present in raw foods. These enzymes help us to digest our food; however, as we age, our own production of digestive enzymes declines. Also, when the above factors start to harm our gut health, this affects our ability to produce digestive enzymes. Paired with a processed diet that is devoid of these enzymes, our ability to properly break down, digest, and absorb food becomes impaired. This can further harm the gut, and potentially cause further food intolerances, contributing to a vicious cycle.
6. Stress. This goes without saying, but is a good reminder. Stress does greatly affect our overall health, including our gut health. The mechanism of this is due to higher levels of cortisol being released as the body's response to stress. Cortisol is great for a short term, "fight or flight" response, but on an ongoing basis, cortisol suppresses the immune system. A weakened immune system cannot handle exposure to pathogens, and further contributes to gut dysbiosis (or a decrease in friendly bacteria, with an increase in harmful pathogens).
This likely does not cover every single factor that can harm gut health, but it covers the big ones.
All of This Leads To... Leaky Gut?!
Did you notice a common theme, that the above factors tend to harm or inflame the gut lining, and alter our gut flora? These issues ultimately result in a condition called Leaky Gut. You may have heard this term floating around. I did after my gut issues developed, but I still didn't think it applied to me, because it sounded so strange, and I just didn't understand it. Leaky Gut is basically when the protective lining of the gut is harmed, affecting its ability to "screen" what enters the bloodstream and what doesn't. The epithelial, 1 celled layer, becomes inflamed and the tight junctions break down.
Wait, WHAT? So, remember that hollow tube, that is our GI tract? How it is supposed to keep anything harmful out of the rest of our body? That's the one. When our epithelial (protective) lining, with the microvilli that absorb nutrients, is harmed, it actually allows foreign substances into our bloodstream. Maybe this illustration can help explain what's happening:
How do I KNOW if I have Leaky Gut, Then?
Here are some possible indications of Leaky Gut:
1. Food Intolerances. I know, I mentioned above that food intolerances can cause leaky gut. But, leaky gut can also result in food intolerances. Especially if you find you are reacting to multiple different foods, including foods that would normally be considered good for us. Think meats, bananas, nuts, peppers, tomatoes, or really just about anything. This is because when we have leaky gut, undigested food particles are allowed to pass through our now damaged gut lining, and into our bloodstream. When this happens, our immune system recognizes the foreign substance (food particles) and attacks.
2. Gut Symptoms and Cravings. This might seem obvious. But it is important to point out that it is NOT normal to experience diarrhea, constipation, and bloating on a regular basis. It astounds me how many of us just accept these symptoms as normal! I know I used to. But these are signs of inflammation, gut flora imbalance, and inadequate absorption of food.
And cravings? Well, if you are having intense cravings, this is actually a sign of gut dysbiosis (remember, that's the term for your friendly gut bacteria being taken over by bad bacteria and other pathogens like yeast). I remember standing in my kitchen, having out of body experiences with cravings. I wouldn't want to eat too much sugar, but the cravings were so intense at times that I could not stop. When harmful pathogens are allowed to go unchecked, they will actually cause these cravings, because they feed on sugar and processed foods!
3. Anxiety or Depression. Remember the enteric nervous system? Well, a poorly functioning gut can affect the neurotransmitters in the gut! I want to emphasize that this is not the ONLY cause of anxiety and depression. But it is a real and possible cause.
4. Systemic issues. As I just mentioned, when leaky gut is present, foreign substances pass out of our gut and into the bloodstream. Our immune system goes on high alert, because it will attack foreign substances. This results in widespread inflammation!
Symptoms of the widespread inflammation include, but are not limited to: Joint pain, brain fog, chronic sinus congestion, headache or migraine, rashes and other skin problems like psoriasis, and generalized fatigue.
5. Autoimmunity. Autoimmunity goes hand in hand with some of the above systemic issues, but in autoimmunity, the immune system starts attacking the body's own tissues. There are varying explanations or theories to this, including the possibility that toxins become lodged in the tissues and the immune system attacks the toxins (and the tissues by default). Others include the possibility that some of the tissues resemble some of the molecules that have leaked out of the gut, and because the immune system is on such high alert anyway, it attacks those tissues as well as the foreign molecules.
Note that in neither of these theories, does the body just develop autoimmunity for no reason. This was HUGE for me. It was such a relief to know that my body didn't just go haywire and turn against me for no reason!
OK, Seriously, How Do We Fix This?!
I know, it all just seems like doom and gloom. But I promise, it's not. I'm here to say I had almost ALL of these issues going on a few years ago. There are so many things we can do to improve our gut health, and I have seen them work for not only myself, but countless others! Stay tuned for Part 3 of this series for tools to not only manage these types of symptoms, but HEAL your gut on a deeper level.