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Leaky Gut Syndrome: Legit Problem or Imaginary Illness? [Either way it wins the Oscar for best disease name ever]

Posted Feb 25 2013 8:33am


See, your gut may betray you but at least it’s not a KILLER CROTCH. Dun, dun, dun!! (Seriously though is this not the best anti texting while driving advert you have ever seen?! Canada, you win again!)

For as long as there has been cheese and chocolate, a certain group of people has skulked around the outside of buffet tables, orbited appetizer platters and played the Hokey Pokey with hors d’oeuvres trays. You’ve probably noticed them since they have to ask every waiter “Does this have dairy in it?” before they order and then drool over your ice cream sundae while clutching a bottle of Lactaid like it’s the last pregnancy test in the store after a weekend with Flava Flav. They are – we, actually, as you know I’m one of the beleaguered too – the lactose intolerant. And for as long as we’ve been made miserable by our inability to digest dairy, as demonstrated by our gas, bloating, abdominal pain, and diarrhea after eating dairy products, we’ve been told that we’re basically stuck with it for life. Then, to add the cream-pie-to-the-face insult to injury, often people think we’re making our food sensitivit(ies) up.

I myself was even in the doubter camp for most of my life. First, because I was vegetarian so long, cheese, cottage cheese, yogurt and other forms of dairy made up a large part of my diet (and were usually the one “normal” thing I could eat at parties other than fruit). And second, let’s be honest, because a wheel of Brie is so close to heaven that I hear angels sing whenever I eat one. (And by “one” I do actually mean one wheel. When I was pregnant my favorite meal was a loaf of crusty French bread and a wheel of double-creme Brie. It’s one of the sad facts of pregnancy that your bean almost never makes you crave kale and cod liver oil but inevitably wants to stunt its own growth with entire pans of peanut butter rice krispie treats. He/she isn’t even born and they’re already embarrassing you in public.)

But my doubt as to the legitimacy of food sensitivities in general and dairy issues in particular all dissipated last year when I did what has become the single most impactful Great Fitness Experiment yet. Upon the advice of my nutritionist (a great guy named Darryl Bushard I met through LifeTime Fitness) I took all dairy and gluten out of my diet for a month. Unlike previous dietary experiments where I’ve felt deprived and rebellious, this time it was relatively easy to stick with because – and I can’t overstate how huge this is for me – my panic attacks stopped. Completely.

For most of my life I’ve been plagued with “incidents” where I think I’m dying, get insanely anxious, cry, have diarrhea and even vomit. Yet even though the source of my pain was always in my stomach, the doctors always told me it was in my head. (In retrospect I think I was having a very painful reaction to dairy and because I’m an inveterate worrier and the source of the pain was unknown, I’d get all panicky about it and work myself up to a tizzy.) At any rate, eventually I added gluten back into my diet and was fine with it but any significant amount of dairy and I was right back in the bathroom trying to hug the toilet with both ends, which is exactly as elegant as it sounds.

Because my mood (and life) was light years better without dairy I was content to give it up for the rest of my born days. So when a friend posted on Facebook, “It’s funny that people think their problems with dairy come from dairy.” My brain did that screechy-record noise and I e-mailed him all “Whaaaa?!” The gist of his reply was that lots of people have this thing called “leaky gut syndrome” which causes them to have food sensitivities but if you cure your leaky gut then you could eat that stuff again.

Beloved Brie?!? I hit Dr. Google so hard he jumped.

Leaky Gut Syndrome is described as a collection of symptoms ranging from gastrointestinal distress to mood disorders to even things like skin conditions and extreme fatigue, caused by the thinning of the lining of the intestinal wall making it hyper-permeable and thereby allowing pathogens and undigested food into the blood stream. But I quickly learned that, similar to adrenal fatigue and Anne Hathaway’s best supporting actress Oscar win last night, Leaky Gut Syndrome is a very controversial thing. (Seriously I loved Anne in Les Mis. I didn’t see any of the other movies/actresses in the nominated category so I may not be the best judge but come on, when they ripped her teeth out with pliers didn’t you just feel something?)

WebMD says bluntly, ” ‘Leaky gut syndrome’ isn’t a diagnosis taught in medical school. Instead, leaky gut really means you’ve got a diagnosis that still needs to be made.” Tell me how you really feel! While the article does go on to acknowledge that the group of symptoms exists, The WebMD article adds, “But with leaky gut, the evidence – about what causes it and how to treat it – has yet to fully accumulate. This is something that is essential for patients to understand. We are in the infancy of understanding what to do. People who are making claims about what to do are doing so without evidence.”

Well lucky for me I love dubious diagnoses! Actually I don’t. I love research. LOVE science. But I also knew what I had experienced and that seemed to fit with the descriptions of leaky gut, especially in light of  the 2010 study  commissioned by the respected National Institute of Health.  The Consensus Development Conference on Lactose Intolerance and Health concluded that first, deciding who is and who isn’t lactose intolerant isn’t as simple as it sounds as many people lacking the digestive enzymes tolerate dairy fine while some who have problems produce plenty of the enzymes, and second, “avoiding dairy products isn’t even necessary for lactose-intolerant individuals.” The trick, according to the scientists, is to cure the food sensitivity. And their recommended steps for curing lactose sound very close to the “alternative” therapies suggested for curing Leaky Gut. Also, the biological mechanism described for causing Leaky Gut – the hyper-permeability of the intestinal wall – is already known to occur, especially in conditions like Celiac Disease and Crohn’s Disease.

So when I got to interview Jill Brunewald , a holistic health coach and expert in food intolerances, for an article for Shape I perked up when she started discussing leaky gut syndrome. “Oh it’s real!” she enthused. She explained that thanks to an unhealthy diet, illness or antibiotic usage many people fall into a vicious cycle where their gut is compromised and becomes aggravated, leading to more sensitivities which leads to more thinning of the lining, until you throw up at the mere mention of food or Anne Hathaway. Kidding. Kinda.

What the medical community is missing, Jill says, is that it isn’t enough to remove whatever food is irritating you from your diet but you have to repair the damage done to your intestinal walls – she calls it “healing and sealing”. Once your gut is back to normal function – a period that takes a minimum of six months – then you can, in moderation, eat the foods you were formally sensitive to with no problem. (And because this post is getting crazy long, I’ll go into more detail about how exactly she recommends to “heal and seal” your gut in another post. Yeah, that’s the best attempt at a teaser I’ve got…)

So what do you think of Leaky Gut Syndrome? Is it just another faddish diagnosis or is it a legit affliction? Any of you have it or have experience with it? Have any of you “cured” your lactose (or other food) intolerance? How’d you feel about the Oscars last night?



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