My Dear Reader, imagine lying in your bed late into a weeknight. You have to go to work in the morning, yet you can’t get to sleep. As you’re about to toss or turn for the umpteenth time, you hear something. Not a whispering voice. Not a sneaky scurry of claws from a pawed intruder. No—what you hear is far scarier, almost a guarantee you’ll be wide-eyed till morning. What you hear is a “drip, drip, drip”. And it’s coming from inside the room! These mysterious drip sounds can be a homeowner’s worst nightmare. Perhaps it started small: a leak in a shower in the guest bedroom. But the leak grew larger, and suddenly, the problem’s not just in the shower but in the floorboards, in the insulation. Perhaps there’s mold… perhaps something worse. What’s certain is a chain reaction has begun—by the time you hear the drip, who knows how many thousands of dollars in damage one tiny leak has caused? Worse yet, who knows where the chain reaction will finally come to an end—or how you’ll be able to fix it?
Now, let me give you an even more fearful example: the leak isn’t coming from inside the room… it’s coming from inside your very own body! Similar to a leaky shower, a leaky gut can wreak havoc on an unsuspecting individual. But we’re not talking about dollar amounts—we are talking about chronic, serious health problems—both physical and mental. Unlike a leaky shower, however, the cause of a leaky gut is no random occurrence. Rather, the cause can be traced back to those trillions of bacteria that make up our gut microbiome. And luckily for us, the solution can be traced there too! In this week’s post on our Mighty Moody Microbiome, we’re taking a deep dive into Leaky Gut Syndrome, and how our microbiome can both cause it and prevent it.
What’s Up With your Leaky Gut?
When some of my patients first hear the term Leaky Gut Syndrome, they scrunch up their noses in a look of disgust (particularly when I bring up “the stool test”). We often consider our intestines—our guts—to be our body’s sewer system. Who wouldn’t be grossed out by a sewage leak? However, as you’ve learned from prior blogs in this series, our gut plays a much larger role in our body’s health than simply aiding in digestion. The trillions of gut bacteria living within your intestinal tract regulate digestion, sure—but they are also responsible for our metabolism, our hormones, and even our mental health. When your microbiome is healthy and diverse, the lining of your gut itself allows for safe passage into our bloodstream and brain of numerous nutrients, neurotransmitters, hormones, and more. Like an A-plus student on a group project, nothing slips through the cracks—literally. When your gut bacteria are less diversified or otherwise thrown out of equilibrium, your microbiome enters a dysbiotic state. The lining of your intestines becomes more permeable (more “leaky”), allowing bacteria, incompletely digested food molecules, and toxic metabolites that should stay well within the gut to leak through and enter your circulation. As you can imagine, once your body recognizes molecules have “snuck” into a space where they don’t belong, thereby becoming antigens, your immune system is not very happy about it. A leaky gut can lead to chronic diseases such as inflammatory bowel disease and diabetes—but more and more research is showing it can also lead to mental health concerns, including depression, anxiety, autism—and even higher rates of suicide.
How Can a Leaky Gut Impact my Mental Health?
A leaky gut is the point-of-origin in a chain reaction that can set off a series of serious health concerns—including a “leaky brain” that leads to “leaky emotions”—so let’s trace how your body gets from Point A to Point B. It all begins with an unhealthy gut microbiome (to learn how to keep yours healthy, click here). Once bacteria and other antigens slowly begin to seep out of the lining of your leaky intestinal walls into your bloodstream, your body’s immune cells go on high alert. As you may recall from my prior blog on the topic, one of the favorite weapons of an activated immune cell is inflammation. Recognizing foreign bodies in its system, your immune cells call in the guards, including pro-inflammatory cytokines like IL-6. Low-grade inflammation leads to these cytokines hanging around your body in higher amounts for a longer duration—and here’s where things get really interesting. Research has found a correlation between a leaky gut and chronic inflammation… as well as a correlation between chronic inflammation—meaning increased levels of cytokines—and symptoms of depression, anxiety, and suicidal thinking (the “leaky emotions”). Your “leaky gut” also can cause a “leaky brain” whereby the blood-brain barrier also becomes permeable, which allows damaging molecules to leak into and inflame the brain itself. Besides being a “marker of systemic inflammation”, IL-6 also stimulates our HPA Axis, in turn responsible for fight, flight or freeze response. An overactive HPA Axis is a telltale sign in those who suffer from major depression.
Telling new studies have discovered elevated levels of IL-6 in those attempting suicide, as well as increased levels of inflammation. More needs to be understood—but the picture that is coming to light connecting a leaky gut and depression or even suicide may ultimately save thousands of lives in the near future.
Help! I Have a Leaky Gut! What Can I Do about It?
If you have Leaky Gut Syndrome, the answer lies in the same place as the cause of your problem: your unhealthy microbiome! A gut microbiota suffering from dysbiosis can be rejuvenated by “good” bacteria in the form of probiotics. In fact, studies have shown that patients taking probiotics showed reduced levels of stress and “improved self-reported psychological effects” to a similar degree as a commonly administered anti-depressant. Genetic testing, like Genomind’s Mindful DNA test, can give you and your doctor an idea of what you’re working with genetically—and whether you may be predisposed to a leaky gut through analyzing genes that may place you at greater risk.
Lifestyle modifications can go a long way toward addressing a leaky gut—yet the future of medicine may lie in fecal transplants, which transpose a healthy microbiota onto one in dysbiosis. Studies in mice demonstrate this to be an effective way to treat depression, anxiety, and many other mental and physical health ailments.
A leaky gut causes a chain reaction of events in your body that can go quickly from bad to worse. An unhealthy diet can begin to harm your microbiome in as little as 24 hours, and lead to dysbiosis, but the good news it that these effects can be reversed in as little as two to four days by eating a healthy diet. Eat healthy, fix the leak—and your body, brain, and loved ones will thank you.
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