This is a common phrase around the gut health realm. It’s used as an umbrella term to cover a common idea about the integrity of the intestines as a barrier to the outside world.
First, let’s talk about the structure of intestines.
The human intestines are designed to serve as a barrier between the outside world and food waste while allowing nutrients to be absorbed. This is a big ask for a surface area that covers 400 square meters, top to bottom, don’t you agree?! Composed of layers, each serves a purpose. Let’s take a closer look beginning with the innermost layer of the intestine.
The innermost layer of the GI tract, the mucosa is the layer that absorbs and secretes. The mucosa is filled with folds in order to create more surface area to power absorption. It also contains specialized cells that secrete mucus and is the location that your native microbiome calls home. Between these cells, there are little gaps that when healthy are tight and close together.
This layer is thicker than the mucosa and is filled with blood vessels. These blood vessels pick up the nutrients absorbed through the mucosa and whisk them away to be used in the body elsewhere. Nerves, enteric nervous groupings, and lymph system access are found here too. Each of these plays a critical role in the immune system.
The mucosa layer is responsible for peristalsis and segmentation. Peristalsis is the wave-like contractions that push food through the alimentary canal while segmentation is the churning and crushing contractions of the GI tract. This system is controlled by the enteric nervous system and the autonomic nervous system. That feeling of butterflies in your stomach? That’s from the emotional neural stimulation that manifests in the GI tract.
This outermost layer is made up of cells that secrete serous fluid. This fluid acts as a lubricant between the organs and the cavity in which they lay. This ensures the organs are able to move around smoothly, without what would otherwise be painful friction with daily movements.
Spring a Leak
Let’s go back to the mucosa, the place where leaks begin. These specialized cells are created to be held together tightly. This creates a barrier between the inside of the intestine, the lumen, and the bloodstream. These junctions and mucus production get disrupted due to an irritant such as food sensitivity, pathogens, chemical interruption, inflammation, neurological response to stress, or even the natural aging process.
Because there are many reasons for a leaky gut, finding the way to correct the problem may take patience through trial and error. Common practices include an elimination diet, talking with a health care provider about medications, stress reduction, alcohol reduction, NSAID reduction, probiotic addition, or the addition of more high fiber foods to the diet.
Leaky gut can be either the cause or the result of a disease. It is important to find a health care provider who is familiar with and values gut health to help with the data collection and creating a plan.
The content in this post is not intended to be professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health providers with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition.
Written by Lorilyn Van Dyke
Lumen Learning (2020). Boundless Anatomy and Physiology. Retrieved from https://courses.lumenlearning.com/boundless-ap/chapter/layers-of-the-alimentary-canal/
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Mu, Q., Kirby, J., Reilly, C. M., & Luo, X. M. (2017). Leaky Gut As a Danger Signal for Autoimmune Diseases. Frontiers in immunology, 8, 598. https://doi.org/10.3389/fimmu.2017.00598