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Leaky Gut - a New Epidemic?

If you, your horse or even your dog had a form of joint disease, would you treat each of you the same as if you had allergies? Or EMS/diabetes?

You wouldn’t think so, would you. Yet these days we should perhaps be thinking that the answer to this is more of a Yes, because science is showing – and we’re becoming more aware - that there’s a growing epidemic that the gut is the hidden cause of most chronic disease. As we all know by now, everything starts with the gut, but these day I now say all over the website “ … but everything begins with the microbiome.

Researchers today are looking at how leaky gut, aka permeable gut membrane, is a major cause of many chronic diseases and how it might be more common - and more harmful - than imagined. This epidemic affects us all, human, horse and yes, even our dogs, and now that we’ve developed our range of organic DogNatural herbal supplements, I’m including dogs in this page as well.

When we (human, horse or dog) eat a meal, each chewed mouthful (bolus) passes from the mouth, down the oesophagus, into the stomach/foregut for mushing into a slime called 'chyme' (ooh, that rhymes!) and onwards into the small intestine, where the chyme works its way through the miles of GI tract. Finally, after digestion, what’s left finds its way to the large intestine/hindgut where the colon finishes the job off, digesting the remaining fibre and eliminating the waste out in neat little parcels 😉

The small intestine is where the major digestive action, bar fibre, happens, where nutrients are assimilated and then absorbed into the bloodstream. And when it comes to leaky gut, the small intestine is also where it all happens. It's a bit clever - the miles of small intestinal walls are covered in tiny finger-like projections called villi, with each of these villi covered in even tinier fingers called microvilli - picture them as coral fronds waving gently in the ocean shallows. These villi and microvilli are where the nutrient-absorption action happens, along their own surface membranes. Clever little fronds.

That said, these nutrient absorbing, microscopic microvilli fronds are lined with just one equally microscopic single row of epithelial cells. This in itself is pretty eye-opening as it literally means … the only protection between our sensitive bodies and the contents of the small intestine (yukky, dangerously toxic, undigested matter) is just One-Microscopic-Cell thick. So vulnerable, yet an utterly crucial part of the gut system, the master nutrient absorption area. One-Microscopic-Cell isn’t exactly much protection against yukky, dangerously toxic, undigested matter.

So what protects this exposed yet critical component of the gut system? Simples - a beneficially reciprocal relationship between the gut microbiome and the immune cells, that’s what. As in, the beneficial friendly bacterial microbes, because inside the small intestine and colon are multi-trillions of bacteria made up of hundreds of thousands of different species, including a motley crew of viruses, yeasts and other parasites, all working together. Collectively, they’re the microbiome.

Most of this microbial population are commensal bacteria, which in Latin roughly means “to eat at the same table”. Which is a good way to look at them as it simply means that the commensal bacteria eat the same foods as the host does, especially fibre, regardless of whether we’re human, horse or dog.

(Quick digress, and hopefully not too much information for you – I got my own microbiome tested last year and the results came back saying my friendly gut bugs were (quote) ‘veggie munchers’; quirky, cos I’m a vegetarian, not necessarily by choice (although I would be) but because we discovered back in my teens that my gut, literally, struggles to digest meat 😉 )

This is one reason why fibre is such an important part of the diet, even for dogs. Fibre from fruits, berries and veggies feeds the commensal bacteria communities, and in return, they produce digestive enzymes to break down the food nutrients into vitamins, minerals, amino acids, fatty acids et al.

Commensal bacteria are considered not only beneficial for their digesting abilities, but because provided there’s enough of them, they also help protect against the negative pathogenic bacteria by competing for food and the best places to live in the gut. Provided the gut biome/flora environment is in balance, there’s a beautiful co-operative going on as they all function in harmony together - as long as the bacteria stay in the gut.

Luckily, the commensal bacteria don’t actively cross the one-cell intestinal membrane barrier. And this is important, because if they did, this would trigger the immune system into battle. And that would cause systemic inflammation.

The leaky-gut/immunity connection

The body’s immune cells work carefully with the commensal bacteria to make sure they don’t break through the barrier and force the immune cells to respond and trigger inflammation in the body. This is why there’s a high % of immune cells in and around the gut system, around 80-90%, and it’s these immune cells that physically protect the delicate border between the gut contents in the small intestine, and the bloodstream and organs on the other side.

However … we know gut inflammation can happen because leaky gut exists. While the intestinal wall cells normally work together like a tight zipper, an argument between the friendly microbes and the pathogenic microbes will open up the zipper-like junctions between the cells. This makes the gut lining permeable, and the undigested food, toxins, various bacteria, allergens and yeast can leak into the bloodstream. Cue Leaky Gut.

Result – warfare. One Almighty-Immune-Response that triggers chronic inflammation in the entire body. This leaky-gut-related inflammation is the driver of most chronic diseases. Dementia, autoimmune disease, heart disease, diabetes, arthritis, liver/kidney disease, cancer, IBS, allergies … all can be caused by leaky gut. And over the last decade, thousands of studies have been looking at leaky gut and the role it plays in well recognised established health issues.

Leaky Gut & Food Intolerance

Arguably the most common symptom of leaky gut looks a lot like allergies, because an allergic response is considered an autoimmune response, and leaky gut is thought to be the cause of autoimmunity. Now let's bring proteins into the mix - if the gut is permeable, undigested proteins will leak out before they’re digested, and this is a problem because …

The immune system recognises foreign invaders by their proteins, so when it sniffs a protein in the body where it wouldn’t normally be, i.e. a virus or bacteria, the immune system would attack it as a matter of course. It would then file away the information about the protein in memory cells, which make sure that the immune system will quickly recognise and destroy that same invader if it comes back.

Which means, leaked food proteins can trigger the same immune response that bacteria and viruses would, thanks to those undigested food proteins leaking though the gut wall. Cue food intolerance, aka hypersensitivity.

If the microbiome is in good shape and the small intestinal gut membrane is zipped up, proteins from food won’t pass through the gut lining until they’re digested, where they’re broken down into small units called amino acids. The body won’t suffer the same immune consequences because the proteins have first been dismantled into their respective parts. But if they leak through ...

Signs of leaky gut

Food intolerance is one of the biggest signs of leaky gut, but there’s more. Because leaky gut triggers an immune response in the entire body, it can be hard to detect, but common signs include:

  • Autoimmune disease
  • Arthritis and joint pain
  • Allergenic responses
  • Skin issues
  • Digestive issues – any abnormal change means gut disruption
  • Liver, kidney, pancreas
  • Aggression/anxiety
  • Thyroid issues (and in turn, thyroid issues can worsen leaky gut)

The signs are varied because the chronic inflammation leaky gut causes can affect any (or multiple) organs - it’s truly a whole-body issue. It also shows that leaky gut is much more common than scientists first believed, and potentially more disastrous for all of us.

Since a large percentage of us, our horses and dogs, have one or more of these health issues, let’s look at the causes of leaky gut. If one or more of these apply, there’s a good chance it’s down to leaky gut.

Trouble is, there are two problems with diagnosing leaky gut. First, there isn’t really a test for it. You can do a hypersensitivity test but it may come back with a sensitivity to most proteins. This could mean leaky gut because it means the immune system is reacting to pretty much everything that leaks through, but if there’s only sensitivity to one or more proteins, it doesn’t necessarily mean it's leaky gut.

Secondly, leaky gut can cause many other diseases. A GP or vet will treat the resulting symptoms with chemical pharma meds, but more than likely this will only makes the leaky gut worse because the body has to metabolise those chemicals, on an already overburdened body.

The best way to determine if there’s leaky gut is to look at the stressors the gut system’s been exposed to, i.e.:

  • Antibiotics – which wipe out the entire microbiome which will cause dysbiosis.
  • Drugs, i.e. NSAIDs, vaccines, steroids, antihistamines, vet meds etc.
  • Stressors – chronic long-term stress basically shuts the gut function to Off, while releasing its own toxicity residue.
  • Yeast overgrowth.
  • Age – as we all age, the number and diversity of gut bacteria start to decline.
  • Glyphosate - bit of a nasty one, this, glyphosate being a herbicide that’s also antibiotic. Unless you’re feeding organic, if there’s local crop spraying to you, or if your field is fertilised or sprayed with anything, i.e. to kill off docks or thistles, there’ll be glyphosate. If there are grains or legumes in the diet, again unless they’re organic, again there’ll be glyphosate - the ingredients with the highest glyphosate content include oats, wheat, soy, potatoes and legumes (chickpeas, peas, lentils, beans and peanuts). Glyphosate is also found in most grains - unless they're organically grown.
  • Lectins - lectins are natural proteins in plants that act as a defence mechanism against predators. Which is fair enough – plants has every right to defend themselves, but when we eat the plant, the lectins attack the mucosal lining of gut. Beans, peas, soybeans, lentils, and other legumes have the highest lectin content of any food group, as do members of the nightshade family, i.e. peppers, potatoes and tomatoes. Lectins are also found in most grains with the exception of sorghum and millet. For us humans at home and especially if you’re a veggie, if you’re soaking legumes, i.e. chick peas or kidney beans, add a slosh of ACV in the soaking water as this helps to break down the lectins.
  • Gluten – as well as us humans, many dogs are gluten-sensitive. When we eat foods with gluten, the small intestine produces zonulin, a chemical that signals the tight junctions of the intestinal walls to open up, creating permeability.
  • Mycotoxins - mycotoxins are cancer-causing moulds that grow on grains, legumes and other starchy plants. They’re found in many processed pet foods; Purina has been quoted as referring to them as an “unavoidable contaminant.” Not unsurprisingly, mycotoxins have been shown to increase intestinal permeability in most species.
  • Dairy - most dogs don’t produce the enzyme lactase, which is needed to digest the lactose in dairy products. Whey and casein are proteins in milk that can also cause gut inflammation, so be aware if you're feeding a whey protein to your horse. Both casein and gluten share a similar molecular structure and 50% of people who are gluten-intolerant are also casein-intolerant. Sheep/goats have a different type of casein, which could make them easier to tolerate, but if your dog has lactose-intolerance, goat and sheep milk are still high in lactose. Hence, if your dog is eating kibble or has a dairy sensitivity, then there could be leaky gut.

Supporting a Leaky Gut

The first step is to avoid any food, drugs or environmental stressors that cause gut inflammation. It really is as simple that If you don’t eliminate the causes of leaky gut, the leaky gut will never resolve, and neither will the health issues it creates.

  • Stop all drugs and antibiotics (it might be time to upgrade to a holistic or homeopathic vet).
  • Horses – seriously check what’s going in the feedbowl. See our Feeding our Horses section, and specifically the page 'Why what we feed has to be right'.
  • For dogs, avoid dairy and consider feeding a BARF diet or, at the very least, the lowest carb level you can find in a canned or kibble diet.
  • Remove stressors, as the stress hormones themselves not only disrupt then shut gut function off but release their own buffet of toxicity side effects.

Now to supplements and foods that can help repair the gut lining and reduce gut inflammation:

The Leaky-Gut Fix-Kit

  • Feedbowl - Agrobs’ Alpengun Mash alongside one of the Agrobs' chaffs. We need fibre diversity in the gut - remember the paddock of thirty-years or so ago with 30-40 different plants and grasses? Agrobs blend over 50 different grasses and natural herbage, all grown using organic practices. Their Mash is an excellent product for horses with gut problems, from ulcers to scouring and especially Fecal Water syndrome and diarrhoea. Full info on the product page.
  • Dysbiosis repair - a 1-month course of our SIBO-CARE blend.
  • Gut membrane repair - See our GutAminos combined amino-acid blend of two vital amino-acids. L-Glutamine is an important part of solving leaky gut because it’s the preferred food of the cells lining the gut wall so it helps with their growth and repair. L-Glutamine also supports the mucosal lining in the gut and can help maintain the right pH balance. It’s so important to gut health that low concentrations are linked to gut permeability and inflammation. L-Glutamine can be manufactured by the body but it’s often used up more quickly than it’s manufactured. Glutamine deficiency can result from drugs, pancreatitis, bowel issues, stress, surgery, infections or injury. These can all cause the muscles to release glutamine into the bloodstream and this is what causes depletion. L-Glutamine is found naturally in spirulina, broccoli and asparagus, but when leaky gut is present, it should be supplemented. We combine L-Glutamine with Acetyl L-Cysteine which is is the precursor to the body's master antioxidant, Glutathione.
  • Probiotics – it’s imperative to restore the balance in the microbiome between the good and bad microbes. Probiotics are important to recolonise the gut and reset digestion which means less irritation from undigested food and more nutrient assimilation and absorption. Probiotics also help tighten the junctions between the gut lining cells, as well creating anti-inflammatory compounds and helping to build a healthy mucous membrane. Research also shows that probiotics can reduce the markers of leaky gut. We sell both Alltech’s Yea-Sacc probiotic and Mycosorb A+ mycotoxin binder.

Extra support

  • Aloe Juice - used medicinally for over 5,000 years, Aloe Vera juice comes from the inner fillet of the leaf, not the harmful latex or outer leaf. Aloe Vera contains aloe polysaccharides which actively promote tissue and cell regeneration and are anti-inflammatory. Aloe can also form a thin mucosal coating in the lining of the GI tract that can remain for up to 48-hrs, which can provide fast relief. We don't sell Aloe Juice but most decent health-food shops will.
  • Finally, linseed (micronized), a staple in my feedroom as you all know 😉. Apart from all its other health benefits It’s also a gut system superstar. Thanks to its high soluble-fibre level (around 27%) this makes it high in mucilage, so wonderfully lubricating for the inflamed gut membrane. Another of the many benefits of micronization is that it beneficially changes the structure of the seed’s grain which greatly increases digestibility in the small intestine by up to 90%, helping to reduce the burden on the large intestine and reducing the risk of overloading the GI tract and hence reduce the risk of colic, laminitis and acidosis.
  • For Dogs - N-Acetyl Glucosamine (NAG) - a form of glucosamine that comes from shellfish. NAG builds healthy connective tissue like other forms of glucosamine but with a special affinity for the gut lining where it promotes growth and healing. NAG can also bind to lectins and prevent them from binding to the gut lining. For dogs, you can get NAG from bone broth, but because glyphosate and heavy metals are stored in bone, make sure the source is as clean as possible.