Wheat and Leaky Gut Syndrome

Wheat in diets has been linked to gut permeability, also known as leaky gut, which started out as just a theory in the alternative medicine crowd but has since been proven to be a real and measurable syndrome.

Science is still trying to figure out the ins and outs of the whole process, which is one reason many doctors are slow to (or fail to) recognize and diagnose leaky gut. Here’s a quick overview of how your gut works — well, doesn't work — when leaky gut rears its head, and check out some symptoms you may not realize are tied to this condition.

What goes wrong with your gut

Understanding leaky gut may seem like a daunting task, but it really isn't. Think about your bathroom shower lined with porcelain tiles and grout. The tiles and grout have to be impenetrable to protect the space behind them. Otherwise, mold and rot can occur over time unless you catch the problem early and seal the grout before the full extent of the damage is realized.

Now apply this imagery to your gut. Your shower tiles are now the outer layers of your intestinal cells, also known as epithelial cells, which absorb nutrients. The epithelial cells allow only desirables (such as properly broken-down nutrients from food) to pass.

The spaces between the epithelial cells are called the tight junctions (see the figure); their job is to fill the space between the cells that are working to absorb the proper nutrients. Like the grout around the bathroom tile, the tight junctions are supposed to be impermeable.

Tight junctions in cells aren’t always as tight as they should be. [Credit: Illustration by K
Credit: Illustration by Kathryn Born
Tight junctions in cells aren’t always as tight as they should be.

However, certain external factors such as wheat, stress, and antibiotics can trigger the tight junctions to fall asleep on the job over time. The discovery of a protein called zonulin in 2000 made scientists realize the tight junctions weren't so tight.

Just like bathroom grout can wear away over time and provide less protection from invaders, so too can the tight junctions get to the point of permeability. After they're compromised, the tight junctions actually open like doors and let undesirables such as undigested food, toxins, and other waste into the bloodstream.

Alessio Fasano: Cracking the code of leaky gut

Alessio Fasano is the man responsible for discovering the protein zonulin. Zonulin is integral to leaky gut and autoimmune disease. With this discovery, Fasano opened up a world of treatment that shifted the emphasis to the intestines and away from just treating the symptoms of various individual maladies. However, in doing so, he implicated gluten-filled grains such as wheat as a major culprit.

Fasano points to three things that need to be present for many diseases such as celiac or autoimmune conditions to set in. They are

  • A genetic predisposition to a particular disease.

  • An environmental factor that starts the immune response.

  • A way to cross the safety barriers that the body has set up to prevent certain diseases from doing their damage. In the case of celiac disease and autoimmune conditions, that crossing is leaky gut. In essence, the leaky gut allows the first two factors to work together.

Unfortunately, celiac disease is the only disease for which it is currently known that the environment is the trigger. And of the three factors, only the genetic disposition is completely out of your control.

The chain reaction that follows goes something like the following:

  1. The tight junctions fail to stay closed, and they allow undesirables to pass through and into the bloodstream.

  2. The liver tries to filter the unintended guests but is overwhelmed by the flow of pathogens, toxins, and undigested food.

  3. Realizing that dangerous invaders are escaping, your immune system does its best to eliminate the invaders, but it's overwhelmed as well.

  4. The invaders roam the body at will and settle in various tissues, leading to inflammation in those particular areas.

  5. The immune system is now on red alert and working on all cylinders just to keep up with its normal duties (defending the gut, cleaning the blood, and warding off pathogens) in addition to dealing with the localized inflammation. Autoimmune conditions can follow.

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