How Healing the Leaky Gut Could Heal Your Life

What do your intestines have to do with mojo? EVERYTHING!  Sure, you can be vital, even if you’re ill. But if you have leaky gut syndrome, it might manifest in ways you would never expect, such as depression, chronic fatigue syndrome, food allergies, gas and bloating, or the inability to find relief from other diseases, even when adequately treated.

What is leaky gut syndrome?

Good question. I’m a doctor and I never heard about it at Duke or Northwestern, where I trained.  While conventional medicine doesn’t recognize the existence of “leaky gut” syndrome, many naturopathic and integrative medicine doctors believe that a “leaky gut” can impair the natural healing process of the body and impede both traditional and alternative treatments.

In theory, leaky gut syndrome results from damage to the intestinal lining that leads to a state of intestinal hyperpermeability, allowing undigested proteins, fats, waste, bacteria, and other toxins to “leak” through the gut membrane, which should only allow healthy nutrients through. These particles can then wind up in the blood stream and lymphatic system, where the immune system tries to come to the rescue to eliminate these unwanted intruders, triggering an auto-immune response. While a natural immune response is usually a good thing, too much can lead to a state of inflammation, which wreaks havoc in ways you may never relate to gastrointestinal function. A normal intestinal lining brilliantly lets good stuff through, while screening bad stuff out, allowing it to be excreted as waste. But when this membrane is impaired, beware!

What kinds of symptoms might result from leaky gut?

Common early symptoms include gas, bloating, and fatigue, which should not be considered normal. These harbingers of other stuff brewing may be your only clue that your intestines need to be healed. If time goes by, you may wind up with chronic fatigue, skin rashes like eczema, psoriasis, or even chronic vulvar itching, food allergies, gluten intolerance, memory problems, mood disorders, body aches and joint pains, and other vague, seemingly unrelated conditions.

Why has my doctor never heard of this?

Nobody ever taught me about leaky gut syndrome in medical school, and unless you’re out there researching and self-educating yourself about complementary and alternative medicine treatments, you would never hear about it. Why is that? We Western docs are research fanatics, and the trust of the matter is that most of the expensive research that fuels modern medicine is sponsored by drug companies hoping to prove that their product works. Once they’ve proved it in randomized controlled trials, it becomes mainstream. Because there is no “drug” to treat leaky gut syndrome and nobody has paid to perform big studies, we just don’t have a lot of data out there in the mainstream medical literature, so it falls largely into the realm of what traditional docs call “anecdotal medicine” (and dismiss).

How is leaky gut syndrome diagnosed?

Unless your primary care doc is very forward thinking, you’ll likely have to find a health care practitioner who specializes in treatment of leaky gut syndrome, such as an integrative medicine doctor or naturopathic doctor. The test most frequently used is an inexpensive lactulose-mannitol intestinal permeability test, which is based on an oral challenge with lactulose and mannitol, two non-metabolized sugar molecules. Normally, tiny water-soluble molecules such as mannitol are easily absorbed through cell membranes, whereas larger molecules like the lactulose are normally excluded by cell membranes but can be slightly absorbed between cells. The amount of lactulose and mannitol found in a urine test 6 hours after the oral challenge can determine whether large molecules like mannitol are seeping through the normally barely permeable membrane.

How do you treat leaky gut syndrome?

This is where things get tricky. Every alternative medicine doctor has their own recipe of elimination diets, supplements, yeast-fighting treatments, gut healing potions, and the like. Because there is no standardization about treatment, there is little proof that any one regimen works better than others, so the diagnosis can lead to treatments that risk falling into the category of snake oil.

Personally, I use a leaky gut protocol created by the pharmaceutical grade company Integrative Therapeutics, which combines digestive enzymes, factors to promote healthy permeability (L-glutamine, N-acetyl-D-glucosamine, Gamma-oryzanol, phosphatidylcholine, and gamma-linolenic acid), quercetin to promote mast call function in the intestines, Ginkgo biloba to protect the intestinal mucosa, probiotics to support healthy bacteria in the gut, lactoferrin (an anti-oxidant involved in immune response), a fiber formula to promote healthy digestion, factors to support intestinal detoxification such as flax, slippery elm, and marshmallow, and a heavy-metal reducing blend.

The treatment requires 3-6 months of a supplement protocol that can be expensive and time-consuming. But if you boost your mood, improve intestinal conditions, heal chronic illnesses, eliminate your food allergies, reclaim your vitality, and get your life back,? Oh yeah, baby… Now we’re talking.

Does this sound like you? Can you think of ten people who might have this condition? Yeah. Exactly.  Me too. My mother is about to take the intestinal permeability test (TMI, Mom?)  If you know anyone who might benefit from evaluation to determine whether they have leaky gut syndrome, send them to the Owning Pink Center, where both me and my partner naturopath Dr. Lisa Brent are happy to help. If we’re too far away, seek out someone who can help you closer to home (sorry, I SO wish I had a list of docs around the world who could help!)

Don’t forget that you have incredible power to heal yourself. Sure, we can help diagnose you, offer treatment recommendations, guide your way, and hold your hand, but you are your own best doctor, and we believe in you.

Dr. Lissa Rankin is an OB/GYN physician, an author, a nationally-represented professional artist, and the founder of Owning Pink, an online community committed to building authentic community and empowering women to get- and keep- their "mojo". Owning Pink is all about owning all the facets of what makes you whole- your health, your sexuality, your spirituality, your creativity, your career, your relationships, the planet, and YOU. Dr. Rankin is currently redefining women’s health at the Owning Pink Center, her practice in Mill Valley, California. She is the author of the forthcoming What's Up Down There? Questions You'd Only Ask Your Gynecologist If She Was Your Best Friend (St. Martin's Press, September 2010).

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