Hippocrates said “All disease begins in the gut.”
When we started eating Paleo in August of 2013, it was to help Craig lose weight. A quick skim of the Internet, and it was easy to see the Crossfit and Paleo eating often go hand-in-hand. But I’m not really a “dogma” kind of person, and I really wanted to know the reasons for excluding some of the foods that I had thought were good for us up to that point, especially legumes. As I started digging, I came across other reasons one might decide to go Paleo. I discovered the underlying idea of Paleo eating is not “eat what cavemen ate” (because let’s face it, we don’t have access to the same foods eaten thousands of years ago, and I’m pretty sure cavemen didn’t eat Larabars). Instead, the point of Paleo eating is to focus on nutritional density, reduction of inflammation in the body, and, most importantly, to avoid foods that damage the lining of the gut.
What is so special about the lining of the gut? Well, our gut is basically just a long tube within our bodies. It is “inside” the body while still keeping substances “outside” the body until they cross over a very specialized barrier. Only a single layer of very important cells, called enterocytes, separate the inside of the gut from the outside. The gut is filled with enzymes and good bacteria that break down the foods we eat to be used by our bodies. The enterocytes’ job is to get the broken down food particles from inside the gut to the outside of the gut for the body to use, and to keep anything else inside.
If the enterocytes or the connective lining that holds them together is damaged, this causes “leaky gut,” which is also known as intestinal permeability. Microscopic holes form, through which incompletely digested food particles, bacteria, toxins and waste products from digestion that would normally be excreted as waste, can leak.
Graphic from The Paleo Mom. For a more in-depth post on leaky gut, go to The Paleo Mom here.
Our bodies, of course, have defenses against the random rouge cell that escapes, and generally our immune system and liver would take care of the toxins. But in the case of leaky gut, too many particles cross over into the body, and the immune and detox systems become overworked. This can lead to huge problems. When toxins escape the gut, the body will attack these particles. This can cause generalized inflammation in the body and/or autoimmune disease. When food particles escape the gut, the immune system can create IgE antibodies to the proteins in that food, resulting in an allergic reaction. Or, in Natalie’s case, her immune system has created IgG antibodies, which is known as a food sensitivity. These food sensitivity reactions can cause allergy like symptoms, but also symptoms that you might not normally blame an allergy for-fatigue, weight gain, skin issues, among others.
How do you develop a leaky gut? There are all kinds of lifestyle choices and toxins that can contribute to developing a leaky gut. Stress, not getting enough sleep, medications including antibiotics and NSAIDs, eating the Standard American Diet (SAD), alcohol consumption, and environmental toxins are all some of the things that can cause a leaky gut to develop.
At first when I heard the term leaky gut, I passed over it as a reason for Natalie’s issues, because her problems weren’t digestive. Her problems were sleep and emotional. HOWEVER, as I began to learn, many people with leaky gut don’t manifest symptoms that are digestive, such as gas, abdominal pain, bloating, or other symptoms you might expect. For this group of people without digestive symptoms, their issues might be chronic pain, fatigue, skin disorders, ADHD, anxiety, depression, or even autoimmunity, among other things. I started reading articles about gut bacteria and mood like this one, this one, this one. I even started to see information about depression being a symptom of inflammation in the body. Here is another article about depression. Gut bacteria may even be a factor in weight loss. Also, leaky gut can develop slowly over years. Stress and lack of sleep can make everything worse very quickly, which is what happened with Natalie.
When you have leaky gut, your body is not able to easily absorb the nutrients from the food you are eating. Many people with leaky gut have nutritional deficiencies that can be shown through blood work. Also, 80% of your immune system lies in your gut. If your gut is not functioning properly, you are not fighting off illnesses the way you should.
This is why the gut-healing, anti-inflammitory Paleo diet is so poplar right now. You can’t be healthy (physically or mentally) without a healthy gut.
How does all of this relate to Natalie? First, she was a c-section baby. When babies are born vaginally, they are exposed to a host of beneficial bacteria as they move down the mother’s birth canal. Currently in Australia, women are seeding their babies with swabs of their vaginal bacteria after c-section deliveries in order to increase their babies’ immune systems. Good bacteria are that important. Then, 4 days after she was born, she contracted a MRSA infection and spent days on very powerful IV antibiotics. While this saved her life, it also set her up for terrible gut health. She has always gotten sick more often and more seriously than our other two children. She had several ear infections as a baby and toddler. She got strep throat when she was very young. She has had pneumonia. All of these infections were treated with more antibiotics. So, she started life without the dose of good bacteria she was intended to get, and then throughout her childhood she took many (and strong) antibiotics that further harmed her intestinal tract.
So, if we went Paleo in August of 2013, why did it take me until January of 2015 to figure all this out? It took me a while to find information related to mental health and diet. The articles I linked above are pretty current, because the mainstream media is just now starting to realize the gut/health connection. But in 2013, I didn’t even know what I was looking for. As I found information, I started asking our pediatrician about it. He brushed my concerns aside and made me feel like I was crazy. He wouldn’t even run blood tests on Natalie to see if she was deficient in any nutrients. I have since discovered that MANY mainstream medical professionals don’t even believe in the existence of “leaky gut syndrome.”
Once we found our Naturopath, Dr. Megan Schlick, Natalie’s world immediately began to turn around. She took an extensive history on Natalie and listened to all of my concerns. She literally nodded her head as I told her what my thoughts were and the research I had done. When I was almost finished, I said to her “So, I’m wondering if Natalie might have a leaky gut?” She looked up at me, smiled and replied “You have been doing your homework. Working with you guys is going to be great.” She listened to me! She ran blood tests and a food sensitivity test, and we found out that Natalie was indeed really deficient in vitamin D and iron. Natalie is sensitive to gluten, dairy and eggs, and she had me immediately remove them from Natalie’s diet. We started her on a better probiotic than the one I had been giving her. Within a couple of weeks, friends started to comment on how calm she seemed, and although her teacher said she was never a problem, she commented on how much more focused and attentive she was. It was working.
You don’t need to see a Naturopath, though, if you suspect that you might have food sensitivities or a “leaky gut.” One of the very best ways to see what bothers you is to do an elimination diet. The only one Craig and I have ever done is a Whole 30. Their tag line is “Let us change your life,” and it literally did. We now know what bothers us and what doesn’t, and we can make informed choices about what we are eating for our health.
If your gut is healthy, you are healthy!
Read the first two parts of Natalie’s story: