The first thing I hear from many parents is something like: “Does little Johnny have a leaky gut? Can I test for it, and if he does have a leaky gut what can I do about it?” Here’s how to test and fix this very common problem that is the root cause of many other conditions.
Leaky gut may be a new concept to many other people but it is super important to learn about gut permeability, as it could easily be the root cause of unexplained or apparently unrelated health issues. Sadly, there is no quick fix and the process to sort it out is strict. Those that do stick to this process will not only help their child with current symptoms but will probably help avoid developing something even more problematic in the future.
It’s not easy to tell, but here are some key pointers:
- Look for red ears or red rashes anywhere around the body, but particularly around the mouth and cheeks.
- Bloated windy tummy with disrupted gut, which can be either diarrhoea or constipation.
- Allergy-type symptoms like itchy eyes, runny nose, swelling or wheeziness.
- Any auto-immune diagnosis.
- Skinny kids who have trouble growing and absorbing nutrients.
- A child who is unpredictable, with anger or anxiety issues. Learning difficulties may also be present.
- Fixated on certain foods containing wheat or milk, like pasta, crackers or cereal.
As you can see, these indicators could also be many other things, so it is important to carry out testing if leaky gut is suspected.
What is Leaky-Gut?
Leaky gut, also known as “gut permeability”, is on the rise in children. Naturopaths see this as a core reason why children develop allergies, food intolerances, skin rashes (including eczema, acne and rosacea), a poor immune system, early onset autoimmune conditions, migraine, asthma, adrenal issues (tired and wired), depression, anxiety, neuro-developmental issues (Autism and ADHD) as well as behavioural challenges such as naughty or anxious kids, and learning difficulties such as dyslexia and dyspraxia.
Your small intestine is a very long pipe that filters digested food matter with tiny finger-like projections called “villi”. These absorb nutrients and pass them out into blood vessels surrounding the pipe, while keeping toxins, pathogens and food bulk from getting through to those blood vessels, which in turn can transport those nasties round the body. In that sense, small intestine is supposed to leak the good stuff into the bloodstream, and it all goes wrong when the filter isn’t fine enough.
The villi are normally very closely packed together, but leaky gut occurs when junctions between them are no longer tight and allow particles to escape into the blood vessels.
Partially-digested proteins, known as “peptides” are especially at risk of not being properly identified. When these proteins, such as gluten, casein (milk) and soya, escape into the blood stream before being broken down properly, the immune system has a hard time recognising them. This is partly because they aren’t where they are supposed to be. It often sends signals to the immune system to flag the partially-digested foods as allergens or food intolerances. Once the immune system has flagged a substance, it remembers it as an enemy and will react the same way each time there is an exposure.
In other circumstances these partially-digested proteins can reach the brain causing an opioid effect – typically a child with this issue is one who eats almost exclusively just wheat and milk products, and has focus/attention problems (zoned out), speech and communication delay and/or poor social skills.
How does leaky gut occur?
This is commonly caused by an overgrowth of unwanted pathogens living in the gut, which may include parasites (worms and/or amoeba), bacteria, fungi (yeasts) and viruses. In my clinical experience it is rarely just one pathogen, but more often a build-up of several unwanted gut bugs. When the bad bugs are able to proliferate and colonise, they overpower the good bugs and the balance swings from mainly good bugs to mainly bad bugs.
Sometimes this is purely due to exposure to an infection that is not adequately addressed or may be due to a build-up of exposure to milder infections such as in day nursery settings. This is why it is so important to do stool testing to get a grip on what is causing havoc to your child. Antibiotic use either by the mother during pregnancy or breastfeeding or given directly to the baby or young child is often associated with development of a leaky gut.
Repeated courses of antibiotics may make leaky gut more likely. This is because antibiotics are usually non-selective and can wipe out the beneficial bacteria at the same time as the infection. When the balance of bacteria is wrong, it may also trigger systemic yeast infections which another cause villi junctions to become leaky. Baby vaccinations may also play a role (particularly any given in the first few weeks) as this challenges an immature gut with viruses. Heavy metal and pesticide exposure can make these holes in the gut stay open for longer.
Another trigger may be long-term ingestion of excess gluten. Alessio Fasano at University of Maryland discovered a substance called Zonulin that controls the permeability of tight junctions in the gut. Gliadin (present in wheat) activates Zonulin signalling, and can lead to increased intestinal permeability and this is why chronic gluten exposure may lead to leaky gut even in the absence of a coeliac disease diagnosis.
Why is leaky gut so detrimental to your child’s health?
The majority of our neurotransmitters (serotonin in particular) and 70-80% of our immune system are made or located in the gut. Once the gut has been damaged there is a greater chance of fewer neurotransmitters being produced and the immune system running low or misfiring. As a consequence, our brain, nervous and immune systems cannot function properly, which can cause this huge array of health conditions.
Most of our food these days is very complex. It contains all sorts of colours, preservatives, additives, and may even be “enriched” with synthetic vitamins. Even our “fresh foods” could be contaminated with pesticides, hormones, antibiotics, or contaminated ground water. This tends to further confuse the system and these specific toxins and additives may also be tagged as enemies. If the body detects anything that it thinks is an enemy, it will try to reject or dump everything you have eaten recently, including all the good stuff.
This “dumping” may explain why so many kids need high doses of nutrients despite eating a “healthy diet”. And since the bad bugs tend to steal the nutrients anyway, there is often not much left to feed the child’s body and brain.
If the gut has been severely damaged, it will struggle even to absorb the basics, so to heal it, we generally use liquid or powdered supplements, which work better than tablets, as they are easier to absorb.
To improve your child’s development and help toleration of a wider range of foods, then it is important to follow this sequence.
- Remove pathogens and food allergens (identify through stool testing and/or organic acid/amino acid testing, food intolerance testing and/or gut permeability testing).
- Replace the engines that aid proper digestion and absorption, such as pancreatic enzymes, hydrochloric acid and bile acids.
- Re-inoculate with beneficial bacteria to optimal levels.
- Recharge with food supplements that the damaged gut can’t provide.
- Repair the gut with amino acids and herbs.
- Alterations in intestinal permeability
- Intestinal permeability – a new target for disease prevention and therapy
- Claudins in intestines – Distribution and functional significance in health and diseases
- Bifidobacteria Stabilize Claudins at Tight Junctions and Prevent Intestinal Barrier Dysfunction in Mouse Necrotizing Enterocolitis
- Intestinal permeability defects: Is it time to treat?
- Zonulin and Its Regulation of Intestinal Barrier Function: The Biological Door to Inflammation, Autoimmunity, and Cancer