With only one cell wall and some mucous between them, they host several specialised bacteria and immune cells which collectively act as the first line of defence to keep your bloodstream safe from the passage of microorganisms, pathogens, food particles and toxins. The cell wall also contains little gates called tight gap junctions, which, as the name suggests, provide an even stronger interface.
Your gut is responsible for assimilating and digesting the food you eat. Using specialised enzymes, it breaks apart the food into particles the body can recognise and use, such as amino acids, vitamins, and minerals. On the other side of this wall, your immune system is busy standing guard, screening your bloodstream and gut for anything it encounters to determine whether it is a friend or foe. When your gut and immune system are functioning well, there is a balance between tolerating harmless food particles and dealing with anything harmful.
Sometimes things can go awry, and our gap junctions loosen, changing the integrity of the barrier between the gut and the immune system. This is referred to as intestinal permeability or leaky gut. When this occurs, undigested food molecules can leak into the bloodstream that your immune system isn't equipped to recognise. At first, the immune system observes this, gathering information, but as soon as too many molecules cross through, it can fire up, causing symptoms of food intolerance.
When you have a leaky gut, anything you eat frequently can trigger an immune response. Your immune system starts to make antibodies that tag these undigested food molecules, making it easier to recognise them in the future. This is why some people wake up one day and cannot tolerate food they have been able to eat for a while. Symptoms may not be gut related either and can present as skin rashes like eczema, fatigue, brain fog, sinus congestion and even joint pain.
Common causes of leaky gut are exposure to toxic and inflammatory foods like sugar, alcohol, processed foods, preservatives, additives, and gluten. However, it can also result from not having enough good gut bacteria to modulate your gut environment, commonly referred to as dysbiosis, causing inflammation to the cell lining and damaging it. It's a bit like the front door of your house not closing properly, allowing the outside environment to leak through.
Another reason why you might not be able to tolerate a food is because you lack the enzyme to digest it. This is what happens in lactose intolerance and why when foods containing lactose, like cow's milk, are removed from your diet, you feel better. Your stomach acid is another important enzyme produced to help you digest protein and fats. When your levels are too low, you may feel too full quickly, bloating or nausea after eating a protein and fat-rich meal.
Some of the things you can do daily to maintain good gut health to support reducing your risk of developing food sensitives are:
Taking digestive enzymes with meals will support your body to break down macronutrients, so they are in the correct form your body can recognise.
Yes, the 30 chews per mouthful is not a myth - this is the only mechanical way your body breaks down what goes in your mouth aside from what your knife and fork does.
Consuming bitters 5-10 minutes before meals helps to stimulate your vagal tone and prepare the digestive system for food. A simple way to do this is by consuming a shot of lemon juice or apple cider vinegar in a little water before you eat.
Gluten promotes a leaky gut by loosening those gap junctions I mentioned earlier. So, if you are experiencing food sensitivities or gut symptoms this may be contributing to them. See if a month removing foods containing gluten helps and then decide for yourself.
Fibre is fuel for your gut bacteria, helping them to maintain good levels and species of bacteria. Ideally include soluble and insoluble fibre in your daily meals e.g. oats, legumes like lentils, apples, carrots, nuts, seeds, vegetables, onions, asparagus.
Michele is a naturopathic clinician and certified GAPS practitioner with a special interest in digestive health which in naturopathic medicine, is thought to be the seat of all disease when its function is compromised.