It’s time for a gut check | Mind and Body


Science and health often feel like a fashion show that moves in waves of popularity. One year, research is hot in heart disease, cancer, nutrition or exercise. Or, perhaps brain health hits the spotlight and takes over as the disease of the year. Certainly, 2020 will be the year of COVID-19.

While it may feel like a disease pageant show with a winner of the year, what we are witnessing is the growth in comprehension and the ability to communicate new knowledge to the public. One area that has seen great improvements in understanding is “leaky gut syndrome.”

Leaky gut syndrome and treatments to heal the symptoms of this disorder has moved from quack medicine and snake oil treatments to sound validated science as 30 years of knowledge has evolved. Today, we know that the biology of our gastrointestinal system is incredibly complex, entwined in a symbiotic relationship with more bacteria than cells of our bodies, and contain up to 70%t of the body’s immune cells.

Like other parts of our bodies our digestive system can “break” in different places and different ways! The complicated job of the intestines is to be permeable; let good stuff in and keep bad stuff out. This permeability can be affected by stress, nutrition, medications, activity, inflammation and disease. The surface area of our intestinal track is 200 m(2) — a lot of room for something to go wrong.

There is a two-part thick mucus layer that protect us and a library of biochemicals and their interactions that require years of specialization to comprehend. Fortunately, research understanding is progressing to a point where the average American can use the information for healthier decisions.

Here are some select nutrients vital for proper barrier function. Which of these can you work into your diet and lifestyle?

n Dietary fiber is key to maintaining healthy bacteria that produce a chemical called butyrate. This chemical maintains healthy intestinal cells and structures called tight junctions. Tight junctions are needed to appropriately channel water and nutrients. Increased butyrate production through fiber rich diets may explain why Mediterranean diets have positive impacts on symptoms of rheumatoid arthritis.

n Vitamin D deficiency is associated with permeability problems. Adequate vitamin D has been tied to lower GI disease and prolonged remission in Crohn’s disease.

n Vitamin A has been shown to enhance tight junctions.

n Low zinc status may cause barrier disruptions and may exaggerate the harmful effects of alcohol on the lining of the gut.

n Curcumin acts as an anti-inflammatory. It is the bioactive compound found in turmeric.

n Green tea improved healthy permeability and suppressed pro-inflammatory chemicals.

n Omega -3 Polyunsaturated Fatty Acids act as the cleanup crew when acute inflammation occurs following (gut) injury.

n High fat, high sugar and high alcohol diets have been shown repeatedly to be risk factors for unhealthy permeability.

Polyphenols may play a role in protecting against the damage caused by high fat diets. You find polyphenols in a wide variety of vegetables and plants.

n Taking probiotics remains a complicated issue. Found to be helpful in one instance but not another this is a topic where we need to wait for the science to catch up to the questions. It will quite likely be yet another complicated answer with specific strains of bacteria being helpful in specific regions of the gut under certain circumstances. More to come for sure!

Cathy Moore is a registered dietitian-nutritionist and the agriculture program leader at Cornell Cooperative Extension of Jefferson county. Contact her at 315-788-8450 or


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