Our digestive system has a barrier that is designed to allow nutrients to pass through, yet keep toxins out. I think of our intestinal wall kind of like a bouncer at a nightclub who is paid to keep the troublemakers out (toxins), and let the high paying clients in (nutrients). But sometimes this barrier can develop gaps and become “leaky.” If this happens, things that are not supposed to be outside the intestines (like toxins, proteins from foods), can leak out into the bloodstream and cause our immune system to go haywire – creating inflammation, an overactive immune system, and can manifest in many different health problems.
A leaky gut could explain why certain foods, dyes, vaccines, and other chemicals can affect some people; while others seem to be relatively unaffected. But the next question is – how does the gut get leaky in the first place?
Many different things can contribute to a leaky gut: prolonged high stress, a viral or parasitic infection; bacterial imbalance; repeated exposures to genetically modified foods, antibiotics, steroids, alcohol abuse, or NSAIDs to name a few. Another common cause (as well as a symptom) of leaky gut is food sensitivities. Some of the most common foods linked to leaky gut are wheat/gluten, soy, dairy, certain chemicals; and inflammatory diets that are high in sugars and damaged fats like trans fats and unstable polyunsaturated fats like vegetable oil.
Our Second Brain
You might be wondering how all of this relates to our brains? We all are familiar with our cerebral brain – the one in our skull that is hard at work whether we are doing math problems, or a Words with Friends puzzle. But we have another brain, inside our guts – coined “the second brain,” by Dr. Michael Gershon. Our second brain is lined with a complex and extensive set of neurons, called the enteric nervous system. “Gut reaction” helps to explain what our second brain does – it guides our feelings, moods, certain behaviors, and reactions.
When there is a leaky gut, there often can be mood imbalances and neurological manifestations, because our enteric nervous system is also responsible for manufacturing important neurotransmitters that play a role in our mood and brain function. Over 90% of our serotonin, often referred to as “the happiness hormone,” is found in our guts. Another important neurotransmitter involved with focus and attention is dopamine, which is involved in focus, attention, and motivation. The interesting thing about dopamine is it competes with histamine – which can be elevated or depressed in people with food sensitivities and allergies.
This can help us to make sense of why digestive troubles can contribute to poor absorption, nutrient deficiencies, and imbalances in neurotransmitters and amino acids – which can drive depression, anxiety, mood disorders; and other problems like ADHD.
Heal Our Second Brain
So back to that leaky gut. A healthy digestive system is critical for a healthy brain, metabolism, immune system, detox channels, and overall health. Here are some things you can do if you suspect that you or your child might have a leaky gut:
- Identify Food Intolerances – when there is a leaky gut, food intolerances are often present. A food and chemical sensitivity panel can clearly identify which foods should be removed. This is the ideal approach because almost any food can be causing a reaction – I have seen odd foods like artichokes, beef, and even vanilla and cinnamon show up! For those that are looking for a less expensive option, you could try a food elimination diet –which involves removing the most common foods that cause a reaction for a few weeks and reintroducing them (one at a time, with 2 days in between) to see if there is a return of symptoms. Some of the key foods/substances to remove are wheat/gluten, soy, corn, dairy, artificial colors/additives, and sugary foods. *Do they have to be avoided forever? It depends. Sometimes after the food has been avoided for a time and the gut is healed, certain foods may be tolerated in the diet again on a limited basis. But be careful to not overdo it – or you could end back in the same place again. Time will tell. But some of the eliminated foods do not support overall health anyway, so ideally you won’t want to reintroduce certain foods anyway.
- Boost the good bacteria – taking a high-quality probiotic is essential to help rebuild the healthy bacteria and crowd out the bad bacteria. A healthy digestive system should have more good bacteria than bad. Gut bacteria affects our immune health, metabolism, moods, and so much more.
- Boost Nutrients – Swap out the nutrient-deficient processed foods for nutrient dense high-quality organic proteins, plant-based foods, and low glycemic slow release carbs. I also like to supplement key nutrients like omega 3s, B vitamins, magnesium, and zinc. Make sure to replace trans fats and vegetable oils with healthy fats like coconut oil,grass-fedd butter, and omega 3 fats. Try to get more superfoods like chia seeds, hemp, raw cacao and antioxidant rich berries in the diet! If your child wants something sweet, make sure to avoid high fructose, artificial colors, and instead choose something that is naturally sweet that also has nutritional value – like fruit or smoothies. One of the easiest ways to get kids to eat superfoods and veggies – are with smoothies! Stop by Beaming for a superfood smoothie on the way back from school, sports or the beach.
- Supplement – When the gut is leaky, there can be nutrient deficiencies because the digestive system is not able to properly absorb the nutrients from the foods. Often it is helpful to supplement with key vitamins, minerals, amino acids, and fatty acids. See this article for some key nutrients that tend to be depleted in people with ADHD.
- Heal and seal the gut. Once offending foods are removed, the leaky gut can be healed. Foods like bone broth, grass fed gelatin, cultured and fermented foods and drinks, and supplements like L-Glutamine or colostrum can help to heal the gut barrier.
If the above do not work, there could be an infection in the gut. Infections or overgrowths of bacteria, yeasts can all wreak havoc on the digestion and overall health. Identifying an infection generally involves a stool test.
Some tests that can be useful:
- Food & chemical intolerance test
- Neurotransmitter & cortisol test
- Micronutrient test (identifies nutrient deficiencies
- Stool test (checks for parasites, bacterial imbalances or infections)
- Gut permeability test (leaky gut)
- Methylation/MTHFR test (key for conversion of nutrients, mutations can manifest in neurological and cardiovascular symptoms).