“Leaky Gut Syndrome” – Part II
Last month we looked at the mystery of the “Leaky Gut Syndrome” involving the small intestine. There’s also a “leaky gut” problem in the large intestine. It’s much different than the “leaky gut syndrome” in the small intestine, but its impact on health is equally serious. Because of this, it’s the subject of this month’s newsletter.
The large intestine (also called the colon) is different from the small intestine in many ways. A major function of the small intestine is the digestion of food to sustain good health. Large volumes of fluids are secreted to help this process. By the time this slurry gets to the large intestine, most nutrients have been absorbed, but the fluid still needs to be reabsorbed into the body to prevent dehydration. Reabsorbing water, protecting the body from the stream of waste coming through the colon, and safely eliminating these wastes are the main functions of the large intestine.
The Microbiome Paradox
The colon is also home to trillions of bacteria. There are ten times more bacteria in our colon than the total number of cells in our bodies. The bacteria in and on our bodies constitute a “microbiome,” a name coined by a top scientist over ten years ago as scientists began to understand the importance of this bacterial system A tremendous amount of research over the last few years has revealed many surprising benefits we reap from our microbiome, including protection of the immune system in a complex, wide-ranging kind of interactive relationship that can even affect organs like our lungs and joints.
One of the things bacteria in the colon do is break down roughage that humans are not able to digest. One of the products of this bacterial digestion turns out to be essential for our health. Butyrate is a short chain fatty acid (butyric acid) that the human cells lining the colon use as fuel for energy. If the cells don’t have any available butyrate for their energy needs, they begin to break down in a process called autodigestion.
The consequences of autodigestion are bad for the colon and for overall human health. The tight junctions between the cells become loosened or damaged, and then damaged cell parts, toxins, and other sub-microscopic wastes begin entering the body through this “leaky gut.” Seventy percent of our immune cells are stationed along the length of our gut as a kind of defense line. This system attacks any foreign substances that don’t belong in the body. It also begins to attack damaged colon cells, setting the stage for the development of autoimmune diseases like Ulcerative Colitis, Crohn’s Disease, and perhaps others.
The Importance of Dietary Fiber
To summarize, butyrate, produced by bacterial digestion of dietary fiber, is needed as fuel for the cells lining our colon. If we don’t supply enough fiber in our diet, the bacteria can’t do their job and we suffer the consequences. These include an increased risk of inflammatory bowel disease and other autoimmune diseases. We also run a greater risk of colon cancer.
So how do we get plenty of fiber in our diet? By eating lots of whole plant-based foods like grains, greens, fruits, veggies, nuts and beans! Foods without fiber do not help support gut health or related immune system functions. Such foods include meat, milk, all dairy products, eggs, sugar, white flour, and most highly processed foods. Unfortunately, these are the very foods that dominate the Western diet, providing us another example of how and why the Western diet seriously undermines good health.
Abundant fiber-rich foods in the daily diet are essential for our overall well-being. We have two or more high-fiber foods with every meal we eat. My recommendation is to have a minimum of six servings of fruits and vegetables daily as well as a variety of whole grain foods. It’s not hard to do this. They make our meals interesting, delicious and nutritious.
I’ve over-simplified an extremely complex subject in this newsletter, but its essence is accurate. High-fiber foods are the key to a healthy microbiome, a healthy intestinal tract, and vibrant human health!
Before concluding this month’s newsletter, it’s worth noting that the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) issued a statement earlier this month advising people not to take an aspirin a day to prevent heart attacks if they have no history or symptoms of heart disease. This reverses the advice to take aspirin to prevent heart attacks, given by most health organizations over the past forty years. Why this reversal? Recent large studies show that bleeding risks connected with aspirin usage pose a greater threat to health than any heart protective effect in people with no symptoms of heart disease.
This highlights the fact that medication is almost always a two-edged sword, with risks as well as benefits. A healthy lifestyle free of the need for medication is best.
A final note: If anyone is interested in seeing my “Be Healthy” presentation and learning more about my book, please get in touch with me. I will be organizing brief book tours over the next few months, and I would be delighted to include you if I can work you into the schedule. Please contact me through my website or call me on my cell phone (352-228-9641) for more information.
Ed Dodge, MD, MPH