I Might Have Something Called "Leaky Gut Syndrome," AND MAYBE YOU DO, TOO.

That's right: microscopic holes in my small intestine might be causing my headaches, eczema and digestive issues. Gross.
Publish date:
January 16, 2013
diets, PBS, leaky gut syndrome, intestinal permeability, Rick Steves

One piece of evidence that I am finally turning into my grandmother (this is good news -- my grandma is the best) is that I love watching PBS, even during the pledge drives where the programming is interrupted by a sales pitch every 20 minutes. My favorite reality-based show is “Antiques Roadshow,” if that tells you anything.

The other day I didn’t get out of my pajamas until like 4:00 p.m. because I was busy watching “Rick Steves’ European Capitols” all day, and calculating whether I could afford to spend the $180 on the deluxe package that includes all the European episodes and travel guides. (Answer: no.)

I finally left the room to shower and dress, and when I came back there was some woman talking about this frightening thing called “leaky gut syndrome.”

I had heard of leaky gut syndrome before but never paid much attention to it. This is surprising considering how much time I spend researching all the things that are/might be wrong with me.

Only some doctors acknowledge that leaky gut syndrome is an actual thing, but many nutritionists and healers say it causes a variety of symptoms, like headaches, digestive problems, bloating/gas, food sensitivities, acne, and other skin problems, like psoriasis and eczema. ALL OF WHICH I HAVE.

Oh, my god, you guys, do I have a leaky gut??? I mentioned it to Jeff and was met with an emphatic “EEEEEWWWW” before he put his hands over his ears. I know, boo, it sounds disgusting.

So what the hell is leaky gut syndrome? It is sort of exactly what it sounds like: stuff (partially digested food particles, “toxins,” etc.) leaks from your small intestine and into your bloodstream. It can wreak havoc on your immune system and digestive system, for starters. Some say it can be linked to Celiac Disease, IBD, chronic yeast infections, and depression, as well as autism and ADD.

Basically, a leaky gut is a condition where there are microscopic holes in the small intestine. Your intestines are lined with cells that, when they are functioning properly, fit tightly together, thus keeping everything that is supposed to stay IN your digestive tract IN. When you have a leaky gut (how I hate typing that over and over), the cells are not as tight as they should be, and that results in some of the stuff that is supposed to stay IN your digestive tract leaking OUT into general circulation. Leaky gut is actually just the gross, non-sciencey term for “intestinal permeability.”

When this happens, it can cause inflammation all over your body and lead to the symptoms I’ve been having, as well as lots of other not great stuff, like nutrient deficiencies.

Leaky gut can be caused by food allergies/intolerances/sensitivities, systemic yeast infections, and/or use of non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), like ibuprofen. The worst part is, it seems to be cyclical. For example, you eat something that you are sensitive or allergic to, which increases the permeability of your intestinal walls, which causes leaky gut symptoms, which makes your sensitivity or allergy worse. Good gawd.

Did I ever tell you guys about the time I ripped a hole in my stomach with Ibuprofen? No? Well, I ripped a hole in my stomach with Ibuprofen, you guys. It was two years ago. The doctor in the ER said that ulcers from NSAID use are surprisingly common, especially among women.

Anyway, long story short: I had a blood transfusion, they cauterized my ulcer, and it took six months to rebuild my hemoglobin up from an astonishingly low/I-should-be-dead 6.7 to a respectable 12.5. I still get anemic during my period, so I take a liquid iron supplement for one week every month, and I eat a whole lot of kale. And I can never take ibuprofen, aspirin, salicylates, or any other NSAID again.

It’s worth mentioning that the hole in my stomach came after a period of a few years of chronic gastrointestinal issues, followed by months of headaches -- and right before the ulcer, I had a four-day headache for which I took the ibuprofen (staying within the limits of the daily maximum recommended dose). So maybe I’ve had a leaky gut (ew) all along.

Anyway, after I ripped the hole in my stomach and subsequently healed it, my tolerance for gluten and dairy, which was borderline not great to begin with, went straight down the tubes. I laid off the bread and cheese for a long time, and now I can eat them again, in moderation, without writhing in pain on the sofa watching “Happy Days” reruns at 3:00 a.m.

But I still have loads of other unresolved problems, and I think they might be diet-related. I’m a big believer in the concept of “you are what you eat,” and using food as medicine. And I can tell you all, after my meat/cheese/bread-fest over the holidays, I am still feeling pretty lousy, even after a solid week of better eating. I’ve had not one, but two migraines in the last week. My digestive system is still kinda screwed up. My sleep has been not great (in fact, I’ve been up since 3:00am), and I’ve been feeling a little foggy and irritable. I feel older than my 36 years, and it blows.

Dr. Andrew Weil, the “anti-inflammatory diet” guy, has some solutions for resolving leaky gut syndrome.

It also turns out that the PBS thing that got me thinking about leaky gut was a thing for a diet called “The Virgin Diet,” which proposes eliminating the seven common allergens/inflammatory foods for three weeks to allow the gut to heal fully: dairy, gluten, peanuts, soy, corn, eggs, and sugar/sugar substitutes. After three weeks, you reintroduce these foods one at a time and see how you feel. If something makes you feel bad, it’s a sign that you should continue to avoid it, but you can re-test yourself periodically.

I like the logic of this. “The Virgin Diet” author JJ Virgin also says that often you can heal yourself of food sensitivities (which she defines as different from intolerances or allergies) by abstaining from the offending foods for a period of time. She also recommends doing the three-week elimination diet once per year (and then re-adding the seven foods one at a time) so that you can check in with your body and see how you are handling these things.

So if it turns out that say, eggs are making my skin freak out, there is a chance that if I just don’t eat them for six months, I will reach a point where I am able to tolerate them again.

Honestly, as long as I can eat cheese again someday without feeling terrible, that is all I care about. Because I cannot live without manchego.

So there you go. Because I’m a sucker for PBS, I’m now on an actual diet-diet, for the first time in years. It’s close to how I eat normally, but I do eat a lot of corn, soy, eggs, and peanut butter, so I’ll have to make some modifications. Today’s day one -- I’ll let you know how it goes and if I can ever eat cheese again.

Anyone else think they might have a leaky gut (ew)? Have you heard of this? Did you find that following an elimination diet helped you at all, and do you now have beautiful mermaid hair, clear skin, and perfect sleep?

Somer will probably tweet about her leaky gut: @somersherwood.