Dr. Emily Chan, ND

 A leaky gut is not a good thing. For example, a leaking sewer pipe into our water supply is a problem. This article will discuss the one molecule that causes leaky gut. But before that, what symptoms does leaky gut cause?

  • IBS Symptoms (including alternating loose stools and diarrhea)
  • Gas/bloating
  • Poor Digestion, Sensation of food sitting
  • Increased Food Allergies
  • Abdominal Discomfort
  • Inflammatory Bowel Diseases such as Crohn’s or Ulcerative Colitis
  • Brain Fog, Anxiety, Mood Issues

Leaky gut is not leakage of feces, as in incontinence. Leaky gut, is leakage of contents of your intestines through the gut wall to your immune system in the body. Here’s an analogy. The gut wall is a sieve. That sieve is only ONE cell layer thick. Inside the sieve are the contents of your intestines. The outside of the sieve is 70% of your immune cells. White blood cells live in the walls of your intestines.

Outside of your immune cells is your abdominal cavity. If the sieve is in bad shape there are leaks in it. Usually only amino acids can pass through the sieve (gut barrier). However with leaky gut (increased intestinal permeability), sequences of amino acids such as proteins can pass through the sieve, alarming the immune system to intruders. This triggers development of food sensitivities as well as inflammation.

The Leaky Gut Molecule

What is that molecule that makes your gut leaky, and how can we stop it? That molecule is called ZONULIN. When Zonulin levels rise, the sieve holes in your gut get bigger, increasing leaky gut. For those who like science, the sieve (intestinal barrier) is made of a 1 cell thick layer. That is very thin.

Zonulin is a bad guy. It separates the space in between the cells creating a space where the contents of the gut can leak out to the body. Imagine a bunch of “packmen” (cells) lining up shoulder to shoulder so no intruders can get through (contents of gut, allergens), but now Zonulin is increased causing the “packmen” not to like each other. So they stand farther apart from each other and intruders can get through.

Why is Zonulin Bad?

Zonulin is a molecule that is the only known physiological reversible modulator of intercellular tight junctions. More Zonulin, more leaky gut. Less zonulin tight junctions work well keeping the intestinal barrier intact. High levels of zonulin is associated with these diseases:

  • Autoimmune diseases
  • IBD: Celiac, Crohn’s
  • Cancers: breast, ovarian, pancreatic
  • Non Alcoholic Fatty Liver
  • Neuropathies, Multiple Sclerosis, Mood Disorders
  • Insulin Resistance, Metabolic Syndrome, Obesity 

What Increases Zonulin?

Gluten found in wheat flour products such as white bread, wheat bread, pastries, pastas, cous cous, thickened soups etc are associated with increased zonulin levels leading to leaky gut associated health problems. Journal of Gastroenterology 2015 shows research that a gluten free diet decreased levels of zonulin in celiac patients.

The following are also associated with increased zonulin levels:

  • This is used as a meat binder to improve texture and to reform cuts of meat. The USDA requires labeling of this product. A tell tale sign that your meat has transglutaminase added may read, “Formed Turkey Thigh Roast” (look for the word Formed or Re-Formed).
  • These particles are 10ths of billionths of a meter and are smaller than cells and a lot of viruses. Nano Particles are positively charged particles and more likely to spark an immune response. They are often used as a food additive such as titanium dioxide, silicon dioxide, and zinc oxide.
  • Elevated levels of cortisol and decreased levels DHEA (as in adrenal fatigue) is associated with increased leaky gut.
  • Increased levels of zonulin often preceeds diagnosis of diabetes and may be a tell tale sign to be careful. 29% of relatives of diabetics have increased zonulin levels.

Fixing Leaky Gut

Higher levels of Zonulin is linked with leaky gut, but what can we do to decrease leaky gut and the health problems associated with it? Secretory IgA SIgA is important to the integrity of the intestinal barrier. SIgA is anchored to mucous, and the one cell layer of your intestinal barrier. Stress and excessive Yeast in the gut is associated with lower SIgA levels. Spcific probiotics such as Sachromyces boulardii, Lactobaccillus rhamnosus, and Bifidobacterium lactis Bb-12 increase the protective SIgA. Prebiotics such as sauerkraut, pickles, and insoluble fiber also supports an intact intestinal barrier.

Patient’s who consult me from all over the world come with different health histories. Based on their individual cases there are additional specific therapeutics that are used to fully address their leaky gut associated health issues. One patient was housebound because of frequent urgency to have bowel movements and he was unable to go to his job until noon, because he would have 4-5 BM in the morning that were so urgent, he felt he did not have enough time to pull over the car on the way to work. Not only were the GI symptoms difficult to bear, it affected his social life. There was nothing that helped him when he started coming to see me, but as we worked on the principles of healing his intestinal barrier, repopulating proper microbiome, and reducing inflammation, he no longer had urgency to stool, was able to go to work, and started dating. These among many cases are examples of how addressing leaky gut is key to breakthrough in stubborn GI cases.

screen-shot-2016-10-14-at-12-57-04-pmDr. Emily Chan ND received her doctorate of Naturopathic Medicine from Bastyr University. She is a board licensed naturopathic doctor and founder of Modern Integrative Medicine. She currently practices in San Diego, CA and consults around the world.

Dr. Chan specializes in chronic medical conditions that have an impaired body memory component to them. She integrates the immune/nervous system and physiological relationships in treating her patients. She is published in medical journals, and magazines. She is a speaker, and has presented at medical conferences training doctors, and has appeared on television. She also authors and teaches health, and body memory reprogramming courses. You can contact her at: http://www.modernintegrativemedicine.com






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  • Ron

    I use bone broth protein and glutamine to repair gut lining after eliminating foods identified on a IgG test. After 6-8 weeks intestinal barrier assessment should show positive results

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