You may have heard the term “intestinal permeability” thrown around. Usually it comes with other phrases like ‘gluten sensitivity’ and ‘autoimmune disease’. It’s also referred to as ‘leaky gut’ and ‘gut-barrier dysfunction’. But what is it really?
To explain it, let’s look at how a healthy digestive system functions.
First, you eat some delicious tacos. Those tacos are broken down by your gastric juices and enzymes into tiny particles that you can absorb easily.
Proteins, which are long strings of peptides, are broken down into single peptides. Those individual peptides are then absorbed through the intestinal wall and used by the body for fuel.
Ideally, you will only absorb properly digested nutrients. All the other junk in the intestines (undigested food, toxins, yeast, and other waste) aren’t allowed to pass into the bloodstream.
In the case of intestinal permeability, longer strings of peptides get through to the blood stream before they are broken down.
The “tight junctions” in the intestinal lining become a little less “tight” and a little more permissive about what they let through. All the partially digested food, bacteria, yeasts, and toxins in the intestinal tract pass straight into bloodstream where they cause trouble throughout the body.
This is the underlying issue behind countless autoimmune conditions, mental disorders, chronic inflammatory diseases, and dysfunctions all over the body.
Here’s what happens when the intestinal barrier is compromised:
First, the liver tries to filter all of the invading antigens out, but it quickly becomes overwhelmed. The liver is a busy little organ, and it really doesn’t have time to drop everything and deal with the onslaught of undigested particles and toxins that are passing through the gut. So the intruding particles build up in the bloodstream.
Next, the body sends in the immune system to attack and eliminate all of the intruders. Eventually the immune system can no longer keep up, and the antigens are absorbed in the tissues, causing inflammation. The inflamed tissues then cause more stress on the body.
The immune system becomes overwhelmed trying to put out fires all over the place, so it can no longer keep up with the normal daily jobs that it’s supposed to do.
This leaves the body susceptible to infections, leading to more inflammation, which increases stress hormones like cortisol. Cortisol imbalance sets off a cascade of other hormonal problems.
The immune system then creates antibodies to the offending proteins, and that’s where autoimmunity starts to kick in.
What’s an antibody?
Antibodies are cells that the immune system uses to identify and defeat foreign invaders. If anything poses a threat to your health–like a virus–the immune system organizes a team of antibodies to swim around looking out for any sign of that virus. Forever.
If you come in contact with that virus several years down the line, your antibodies will jump to attention and destroy it before it makes you sick.
Ok, back to the intestinal wall
So the long chain of peptides makes it through the gut barrier and into the blood stream. For the sake of illustration, let’s say this peptide chain has a pattern of 1212.
The body notices this 1212 protein in the blood stream, and it produces some 1212-specific antibodies to fight it off.
If the intestinal permeability persists, those 1212 proteins will continue to bombard the bloodstream, and the antibodies will be in constant battle.
Eventually they will become a little hypervigilant and sloppy because of the constant onslaught, and they will start identifying and attacking anything that looks remotely like 1212.
Here is the problem: Some of your own body tissues may contain a peptide pattern that looks like 1212. The antibodies, which are now totally paranoid because they have been fighting a war without cease, see the 1212 pattern in your bodily tissues, and attack! They fire their proverbial weapons at your tissues, assuming that they’re just more invading antigens. This is how you can wind up with an immune system that’s attacking your own cells.
The term for this is ‘molecular mimicry’, and with persistent intestinal permeability and the right amount of genetic susceptibility, the result is autoimmune disease.
For example, if your antibodies have tagged 1212 as the enemy, and your thyroid tissue looks similar to 1212, your immune system will start attacking the thyroid. Note: This is an incredibly common response to gluten consumption, because thyroid tissue looks very similar to gluten proteins, but this can occur in any of your tissues–joints, skin, gallbladder, pancreas, brain, etc. (source)
Bottom line: Intestinal Permeability = Unwelcome food particles passing into the bloodstream = Bad news.
When the tight junctions of the gut are left wide open, even food that would typically be considered healthy may trigger an inflammatory response.
If you have multiple food sensitivities, it’s pretty likely that you have some intestinal permeability going on. It’s usually not the food that’s the underlying issue—it’s the gut barrier.
So that’s intestinal permeability in a nutshell!
It’s a surprisingly widespread issue with potentially serious consequences–and it’s severely under-diagnosed.
In the next post we’ll take a look at the underlying causes of intestinal permeability… Feel free to share this info with anyone who might benefit from it!