Most people don’t think much about their guts. Here’s some food for thought: over the last decade, we’ve found that the nearly 30-foot-long apparatus is teeming with 40,000 species of microbes, which not only fluctuate in response to what we send down the hatch, but also affect our mental and physical health.
The concept of “leaky gut syndrome” emerged about 30 years ago, and for most of those years it was dismissed as medical woo embraced only by alternative medicine circles. But the importance of a healthy gut is becoming more accepted, especially with a burgeoning supply of scientific evidence.
“Within integrative medicine it’s definitely one of the things we look at and treat as an underlying mechanism behind a lot of diseases,” says Dr. Akil Palanisamy, a Harvard-trained physician who also studied Ayurvedic medicine in India at the Arya Vaidya Ayurvedic Institute. “There is a lot of research behind it now—I think several thousand research papers have been published. They’ve studied probably about 35 different autoimmune diseases, and every time that they’ve checked, they have found that leaky gut is involved.”
In addition to 100 different kinds of autoimmune diseases, including lupus and rheumatoid arthritis, Palanisamy, currently an M.D. at the Institute for Health and Healing in San Francisco, says he believes that all diseases begin in the gut—a fundamental premise of Ayurveda, even thousands of years before the microbiome was discovered.
In leaky gut syndrome, increased gut permeability allows microbes and undigested food to leak into the bloodstream, flaring up the immune system. Doctors who recognize leaky gut syndrome believe this inflamed immune response to be the cause of many chronic diseases, with food allergies and autoimmune diseases leading the way as far as scientific evidence goes. Some doctors—like Dr. Sandy Newmark, who heads the Pediatric Integrative Neurodevelopment Program at the UCSF Osher Center for Integrative Medicine—report that a significant percentage of children with autism also have leaky gut syndrome.
“What people often don’t understand is that food sensitivity is both the result of a leaky gut, and it also drives it forward or perpetuates it,” says Dr. Dawn Motyka of KSCO’s Ask Dr Dawn. “Once you have food sensitivities, then you eat those foods and they’re irritating. The irritation makes your gut more leaky, and then you develop potentially additional food sensitivities because the big molecules leak across the gut. And this is a big thing. It can be definitely validated.”
But while conventional Western medicine recognizes that the intestinal lining is porous—that’s how vital nutrients squeeze out into the bloodstream during digestion—it has yet to recognize leaky gut syndrome, at least not officially.
“The main reason you haven’t heard about it in regular medical circles is no one’s got a drug,” says Motyka.
A drug, of course, would be irrelevant: the cure is in the diet, says Palanisamy.
“The cause of gut permeability is usually not just one factor but a combination of factors that break down the lining over time,” says Palanisamy. He lists the common culprits: food sensitivities, including dairy and gluten which can lead to the overgrowth of pathogenic bacterias and fungus; parasites; environmental toxins; and certain medications, including antibiotics and the long-term use of Advil or aspirin.
“And then finally, stress also is a big factor that affects the gut permeability, so the mind-body connection is really huge,” says Palanisamy.
Early symptoms include bloating and bowel changes, says Palanisamy, progressing to more serious signs of inflammation, including fatigue, malaise, joint pain, and skin changes.
To heal and strengthen the gut, Palanisamy recommends a “paleovedic” diet, which is akin to a plant-rich version of the paleo diet, customized to fit each patient’s dosha, or body type. He emphasizes the importance of a plant-based—rather than meat-based—diet in his book The Paleovedic Diet: A Complete Program to Burn Fat, Increase Energy, and Reverse Disease.
Gut-healing foods include bone broth and fermented foods, as well as spices—including turmeric, ginger, fenugreek, and cinnamon, to name a few—which help with assimilation of nutrients and strengthening the digestive tract, says Palanisamy. And then, of course, there is the golden cure: ghee, or clarified butter, an Ayurvedic remedy that has long been proven to contain butyric acid, which a healthy gut naturally produces.
“Ghee balances ‘Agni,’ digestive fire, especially in the gut for healthy digestion and assimilation, which is key to health and longevity,” says Manish Chandra of Santa Cruz Ayurveda, who hosts a monthly talk series in town. “A well-lubricated intestinal lining of the gut wall supports immunity and protects its integrity, thereby populating healthy microbes. In Ayurveda, we treat the gut to treat the brain, because healthy bacteria in the gut produces mood-regulating neurotransmitters.”