Leaky Gut

Many children with developmental delays, allergies, asthma, autoimmune conditions or other chronic illnesses have what is known colloquially as a “leaky gut,” or intestinal hyperpermeability.

What Is Leaky Gut?

The lining of the digestive system is a selective screen. It allows necessary fuel and nutrients to slip through, or be actively carried across, the intestinal membranes to the blood. Well-functioning membranes filter and excrete undigested food chunks, debris and germs.

What happens when the tissues lining the digestive tract are operating poorly? They “leak.” Microscopic junctures between the cells are too large to prevent undigested food pieces and potentially dangerous chemicals from reaching the blood and circulatory system.

The several pounds of food that the average child consumes each day contain an endless array of toxic substances, organisms and heavy metals. Pathological bacteria or fungi that tend to grow in excess along the surfaces of a leaky gut can change these toxins into even more dangerous compounds.

Fungal/bacterial derivatives, heavy metals and maldigested food can greatly impair a child’s behavior and development. Additionally, inefficient digestion of necessary nutrients can ravage neurological and immunological systems.

Repairing a leaky gut is a five-step process:

Step 1: Eliminate Reactive Foods

When a child’s gut cannot tolerate certain foods, the result can be irritation, inflammation, food sensitivities and intolerances.

Casein (milk-based) and gluten (wheat-based) proteins are two of the most difficult proteins to digest and, therefore, the most allergenic substances in most diets. Milk protein intolerance is the primary reason for gastrointestinal bleeding in infants, although few older children and adults have this problem. Soy, eggs and corn are the next most common allergens.

How can the gut be repaired if a child continually consumes foods causing debilitating reactions? For a child who reacts negatively to almost everything he eats, the family’s best course is eliminating only the most problematic items so that the child’s diet does not become nutritionally at risk.

Learn more about an elimination diet here.

Step 2: Add Extra Nutrients

Normal gut repair is nutrient intensive, as the outer lining is totally replaced every 72 hours. The high activity level causes constant cell loss and replacement. With insufficient nutrients, cell turnover is slower and inefficient.

When the gut leaks, unwanted substances are absorbed while some good nutrients are lost (or eaten by fungi and bacteria).  Just as home maintenance requires lots of money, gut repair requires the availability of a broad range of nutrients.

Vitamin A, zinc, essential fats and protein, all critical for cell integrity, are some of the many nutrients that children can take as supplements. These nutrients are important in many ways. Poor absorption of just one nutrient, fat-soluble vitamin A, makes some children especially susceptible to having leaky gut.

Step 3: Restore Good Bacteria Balance with Probiotics

Antibiotics contribute to gut leaking by killing the beneficial bacteria that are a first-line defense against invading organisms. Good bacteria further aid in gut repair by converting certain fibers in the diet into small fatty acids. These short chain fats work as a biological “mortar” to strengthen weak cell membranes.

Most health food stores carry several brands of “probiotics” or “good for life” bacteria. Common strains include L. acidophilus and L. bifidus. Purchase them from the refrigerated section in powder or in pull-apart capsules. (Excessive use can cause gas and, occasionally, irritability from the die off of fungus.)

Step 4: Kill Pathological Bacterial/Fungi with Anti-fungals

Fungus and “bad” bacteria thrive in an unhealthy gut environment. Once they are living happily, they are not easily removed. A healthier diet, supplements, and good bacteria may help, but eradicating excessive pathological organisms may be necessary.

To determine the need for this more intensive intervention, consider:

  • A urinary organic acid test to measure fungal or bacterial by-products, available from Genova Diagnostics
  • A comprehensive digestive stool analysis (CDSA) with parasitology test, through Genova Diagnostics

Your physician can request these tests and help with treatment options.

Step 5: Provide Digestive Support

Many children with developmental delays are deficient in one or more digestive enzymes or stomach acids. Look for digestive enzymes containing DPP-IV, a peptide-digesting enzyme specifically addresses the breakdown of gluten and casein in children with developmental issues. All digestive aids can cause irritation, so use with caution.

The gut and the brain are connected. Therefore, repairing a leaky gut can reduce chemical and microbial assault to the brain. The better food is broken down and absorbed, the fewer ­problems for the brain and the body.

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Sources & References

Liu, Z., et al. Tight junctions, leaky intestines, and pediatric diseases. Acta Paediatricia. 94 (2005): 386-393.

McCullough, F.S., et al. The effect of vitamin A on epithelial integrity. Proc Nutr Soc. 1999 May;58(2):289-93.

Michielan, A., et al. Intestinal Permeability in Inflammatory Bowel Disease: Pathogenesis, Clinical Evaluation, and Therapy of Leaky Gut. Mediators Inflamm 2015:628157.

Mine, Y., et al. Surfactants Enhance the Tight-Junction Permeability of Food Allergens in Human Intestinal Epithelial Caco-2 Cells. International Archives of Allergy and Immunology. 2003 Feb;130(2):135-42.

Moser, L.A. Astrovirus Increases Epithelial Barrier Permeability Independently of Viral Replication. Journal of Virology. 2007 Nov;81(21):11937-45.

Smale, S., et al. Determining small bowel integrity following drug treatment. British Journal of Clinical Pharmacology. 2003 Sep;56(3):284-91.