Last week we learned how stress can affect your digestion. That’s just the beginning of the story of what stress can do your intestines.
Stress can come from within, as a reaction to everyday pressures, which raises our levels of stress hormones. As I mentioned in the first post in this series, chronic high cortisol leads to adrenal burnout, and eventually to low cortisol and DHEA, which translates into low energy. Other internal stressors include low stomach acid, which allows undigested proteins to enter the small intestine, and even low thyroid or sex hormones (which are related to cortisol levels, too).
Stress also comes from external sources. If you eat a food to which you’re sensitive (you may be sensitive to a food and not realize it), this will cause an inflammatory reaction in your body. Common food sensitivities include those to gluten, dairy, and eggs. Other stresses come from infections (e.g., bacteria, yeast, viruses, parasites) and even from brain trauma (like that concussion you got when you fell off your bike as a kid). Antibiotics, corticosteroids, and antacids also put stress on your small intestine.
These are some of the internal and external causes can contribute to leaky gut. So just what is “leaky gut,” anyway?
In a healthy digestive system, once the protein in your meal is broken down by stomach acid, the stomach contents, called chyme, pass into the duodenum (upper section of the small intestine). There, the acidic chyme is mixed with bicarbonate and digestive enzymes from the pancreas, along with bile from the gallbladder. As the chyme travels down the small intestine, enzymes secreted by intestinal cells digest carbohydrates. Food is broken down into glucose, amino acids, and fatty acids, which pass into the bloodstream to nourish your body’s cells.
In a leaky gut (actually, a leaky small intestine), proteins, fats, and/or carbohydrates may not get completely digested. Normally, the cells that make up the intestinal wall are packed tightly together to keep undigested foreign particles out of the bloodstream. The sites where adjacent cells meet are called “tight junctions.” Tight junctions are designed to let nutrients into the bloodstream but keep toxins out. Over time, as the tight junctions become damaged the various stresses we just talked about (or others, gaps develop between the intestinal cells, allowing undigested food particles to pass directly into the blood. This is leaky gut.
Undigested food that passed into the blood is seen by your immune system as a foreign invader, and soon you’ve made antibodies to gluten, or egg, or whatever particles happened to pass through. A normal immune process creates inflammation, and the inflammation becomes chronic if you keep eating the offending food. This chronic inflammation has health consequences of its own, which I’ll tell you more about in a future post.
Leaky gut leads to autoimmune conditions such as rheumatoid arthritis or Hashimoto’s thyroiditis. It also plays an important role in many cases of fibromyalgia, chronic fatigue syndrome, depression, inflammatory bowel disorders, brain fog, chronic yeast infections, and sensitivity to chemical odors – and this is only a partial list of issues related to leaky gut.
Food sensitivities, intestinal infections, and leaky gut are far more common than you think. It’s estimated that 30% of people who seem otherwise healthy have leaky gut; while up to 80% of people with health issues have it.
If you have multiple symptoms, I highly recommend you start a gut repair protocol. Depending on the severity of your symptoms and how long you’ve been living with them, repairing your intestine can take anywhere from 10 to 90 days.
Do you suspect you or someone you care about might have have food sensitivities?
If you’ve read this far and would like to find out more, schedule a free 20-minute Health Strategy Session by phone or video:
In the next article, learn about the link between your gut and your brain. Gut problems won’t always show up as intestinal problems, you might instead have seemingly unrelated symptoms such as unexplained headaches, memory problems, brain fog, or fatigue.