Whose up for a science lesson?
* Crickets chirp *
You at the back there? I see one, maybe two hands…
Look, I understand. None of us want to sit through a science lecture, and with good reason. We were all 15 once, slumped sweaty-palmed in a Chemistry or Biology class staring blankly at the test paper. Overwhelm. Confused panic. Most of us have shelved scientific understanding of our bodies for the experts ever since. Our collective reliance on doctors, and more recently even naturopaths, suggests this might be true.
So, let’s forget the science lesson. Let’s talk philosophy. Better? Better!
Philosophy answers the question ‘why’. I’ve come to believe that it is only when you have that ‘why’ figured out that you have the motivation needed to heal yourself. I’d like to try and paint the picture of how your gut (wall) works, and in doing so give you the reason to create change within. Not because anyone told you to, not even the proven steps of a fantastic gut-healing program can force that, but because you can mentally SEE the internal mechanisms at work. From that point onwards the fix will become a natural, intrinsic ‘knowing’.
Let’s begin with the process we all know and love. Eating!
Picture this. A mythical, magical Gran has just pulled a streaming apple pie out of the oven as you walk in the front door. She’s fictional because when does that ever happen in 2020? I digress. Your senses get busy. An enzyme called amylase is released in your mouth to break down carbohydrates, saliva is produced and the body prepares to devour. Dogs slobber, babies drool, adults hold it together, barely.
That pie slips down the oesophagus like a toddler on a wet slide and collides with stage 2 digestion. Your stomach.
In here it is flopped around like a commercial-grade washing machine mixing with acidic stomach juices (HCl) and protein digesting enzymes called pepsin produced in the stomach lining. Not much happens to your partially digested carbohydrates in here, but the proteins are nicely chopped up into smaller chains of amino acids. Several factors contribute to the efficacy of this step including the potency or ph of your juice, availability of enzymes, presence of pathogens, balance of histamine, integrity of your stomach lining and so on. We won’t pause here, suffice to say, it’s a super important precursor to the main event as you will see next.
At last the partially digested food particles arrive in your small intestine. This is where the philosophy lesson really kicks in. We’re here to park a while, in one of the most diverse and wonderfully complex parts of your anatomy, and I hope I’ve encouraged you to loiter with me on the detail because right in here is your ‘why’.
Why attempt healing, why change my diet, why use herbals, enemas, biofilm disruptors, ferments, sunny walks, saunas?
Why be bothered at all? Nothing ever worked before!
Well, let’s look inside. I promise this will all make sense.
Lining your gastrointestinal tract (GIT) is a single layer of cells called epithelial cells. The name does not matter at all. Forget it now, you will not be tested. Just remember, stick with the why. Picture your GIT as one long hose of epithelial cells. Suspend reality for a tick and imagine your intestinal hose is out there in the front yard watering the roses. Only the roses are dry, and your lawn is wet. The hose has holes and it’s watery contents are seeping out. This is called Intestinal Permeability, the measure of how holey is your hose. It is simply the problem of your long, tightly-packed single layer of cells letting digestive matter out through the gaps.
But how is that happening, you moan, this sounds complicated, it never works to plug a hose!
Well, yes, we’ve all witnessed a red-faced family member out on the lawn, armed with the trusty gaffa tape, swearing at a leaky hose on a sweltering summers day. Plugging is not the solution.
Your cells are held together at tight junctions with protein strands called transmembrane proteins. A nifty little bit of creativity, these junctions ‘breathe’. They open sufficiently to allow well digested particles through the wall to the blood stream, they keep the bigger bits, and the inflammation generating microbes, inside the small intestine. Another protein called Zonulin (for optional remembrance) cleverly regulates the disassembling of the tight junctions in the small intestine. This is a natural homeostatic mechanism and totally necessary for life. For example, bacterial infection is flushed out of your gut through this process, and interestingly this observation is how IP was first discovered. Let’s just say, unlike Dad’s leaky hose, Intestinal Permeability is not a dirty word(s)!
The problem comes along when the holes are too many, too large, and stay open.
Let’s take a breath here because we are edging closer toward the light bulb moment. The ‘guts’ of the issue. Ha-ha. So far we have the ideal of an eclectic, densely complex small intestinal microbiome working in perfect synchronicity to break down food and pass the nutrients through the mucosal wall to your blood stream for circulation, along with electrolytes, and water, as well as antigens that play a role in immune regulation. In a normal body inflammation is low, energy is high, the immune system is effectively stamping out viruses and infections with a few short days of mild symptoms.
The trouble is, this isn’t you.
Instead, you feel flat and tired. Depressed too, more than likely. You catch a cold, it lasts weeks. Your body may be achingly sore, you might have weird signs of inflammation from skin rashes to gut pain to intolerances and headaches, regular UTIs, fibromyalgia, joint issues and everything in between. If it’s been going a while, symptoms might be severe (chronic). IBD, Crohn’s, Parkinson’s, Celiac disease, systemic candida, auto-immune disorders, diabetes and others have all been linked to dysfunctional intestinal permeability.
This is the effect of a damaged intestinal wall.
So, you can now ‘see’ how the gut wall should look, can picture your own potentially problematic version, appreciate the unhealthy side-effects of a porous membrane and you’re feeling all the feels. Distress, apprehension and frustration. How did this happen? In truth many factors contribute to dysfunctional IP but the really good news is, they just don’t matter that much. You do not need to dwell here and self-flagellate, lamenting over the daily diet of toasted cheesies and coffee, rounded off with a late-night-tv chocolate chaser. Ok, that might just have been me, but it’s true for all of us that guilt or self-blame will not motivate anyone out of a life-hole, especially the intestinal variety. Fear cannot be your ‘why’.
Also, it might help to ease the blow if I point out that this was not a sudden, physiological ditch you dramatically fell head-first into while meandering innocently through the passage of days. Although a traumatic event such as surgery or chemical exposures can cause reactive intestinal permeability, it is far more likely that your gut wall was slowly compromised. Unfortunately, the Western lifestyle is a common culprit for slow-onset gut dysbiosis and with so little community education from modern medicine you are one of many!
Numerous habits ingrained in our frenetic culture contribute. For example, regularly failing to chew, eat mindfully, or rushing through meals. We are all guilty, life is harried! The toast gulped down during the morning commute. Stressful mealtimes with a protesting toddler. In these circumstances food particles travel undigested to the stomach where inadequate pepsin and acid work all-too-weakly at the job of denaturing the proteins in our food. Eventually the sludgy mess arrives under-dressed and late to your S.I, like a reluctant boyfriend at the family dinner.
It’s when these stresses impact the life of the small intestine that the problems compound.
Do you remember in the she’ll-be-right days your nonchalant parents saying; ‘oh well, she ate something she shouldn’t have, it’ll just come out the other end’? We had a perception that the small and large intestine were part of a big old piece of pipe that kept things on the right side of wrong. This might be true of pebbles and marbles, but not organic compounds. In your S.I is a plethora of living organisms, an absolute colony of beings, and it is the balance of these species that is meaningful to health. Made up of bacteria, viruses, parasites (yes even these!), funguses and a slew of other microbes, they all have a part to play in your total wellbeing. Any matter entering your S.I is repackaged and utilised, either for the positive growth of your miniature United Nations, or for the worse.
You can imagine therefore how a leaky gut membrane might be a problem.
Located just outside the line of epithelial cells is the largest immune system in the body called the GALT. When hostile particles or microbes pass through the holey wall, they trigger an inflammatory reaction from this defender. If that happens over and over, you have a source of chronic inflammation. The cause of the junctions weakening is a more diverse and lengthy list of whodunnit. The straight answer is dysbiosis in the gut, as gram-negative bacteria over-populate, along with yeast such as candida, or common parasites for example blastocytsis or dientamoeba fragilis. There are many. Any ‘unfriendly’ organisms of this type in excess can increase permeability. Therefore, as Kirsty says; “regulating gastrointestinal microbial balance is the first line of defense”.
So, in an elaborate kind of way, it’s all quite simple? Yes!
So, I don’t need to overthink this? No.
There is a way though? Yes.
You may wisely choose to have your hand held along the steps of healing with experienced practitioners who’ve seen it all before, but basically, you’ve got it.
Which means that we have reached the final station on the whistle-stop tour through gut permeability. We’ve arrived at ‘WHY’?
Why try to implement change and why take a new direction?
Because it’s possible. It’s fixable. Your broken gut wall, with all the unpleasant symptoms you’d so love to kiss goodbye, is scientifically resolvable. Because there is a direct cause and effect and you have the precise tools required to winch yourself out. You may not have the name of every biochemical process on the tip of your tongue, but this is all the sciencey understanding required to begin.
Before I go, could I suggest hereon, that in any moment when the journey of healing appears overwhelming, you take a second to sit in the sunshine, hands resting on the gut, and picture the space inside. Visualise the rebuilding underway, the lining transformed, the junctions tightening and all of your functions busily repairing.
Isn’t that all the answer you were looking for? It was right there inside all along.
Writer: "Katie Payne is a mum-of-three boys, survivor of numerous gut-healing fads, avid researcher and occasional writer. By day she is the director of a financial planning firm, by night she is happiest buried under a mound of reading."