Does gluten cause leaky gut syndrome?

A gastrointestinal condition called "leaky gut" is gaining worldwide attention, particularly among the natural health community.

Some medical professionals deny that there is a leaky gut, while others claim that it is the root of almost all diseases.

The leaky gut is a medical mystery. Scientists are still trying to determine exactly what it is and what causes it. Some people think that gluten causes a leaky gut, but the role of gluten in the condition is complicated.

This article examines research on gluten and leaky gut syndrome.

What is gluten?

Gluten is a mixture of proteins found naturally in grains such as wheat, barley and rye.

It is responsible for the elastic nature of the dough, which helps the dough stay together and rise. Gluten is also what gives bread its chewable texture (1).

Sometimes it is also added to the bread dough to increase its ability to rise.

The two main proteins that make up wheat gluten are gliadin and glutenin. Gliadin is the portion of gluten to which some people react negatively.

Bottom line: Gluten is a group of proteins found in wheat, barley and rye. One of these proteins causes negative effects on the health of some people.

What is intestinal permeability?

The digestive system performs several very important functions in your body.

The digestive tract is where food is broken down and nutrients are absorbed into the bloodstream.

The walls of the intestines also serve as an important barrier between the intestine and the rest of the body.

The intestinal wall serves as a gatekeeper, determining which substances pass through the bloodstream and organs.

Intestinal permeability is a term that describes the ease with which substances pass through the intestinal wall. Normally, there are small gaps between the cells in the small intestine called tight junctions.

If they become too damaged or loosened, it causes the intestine to become "permeable," allowing the substances and organisms in the intestine to leak into the bloodstream.

This phenomenon of increased intestinal permeability is also known as leaky gut syndrome. When bacteria and toxins seep into the bloodstream, this causes widespread inflammation in the body.

Increased intestinal permeability has been linked to autoimmune diseases, such as type 1 diabetes, Crohn's disease and inflammatory skin disorders (2, 3, 4).

Bottom line: When the small bowel barrier function deteriorates, bacteria and toxins can escape from the intestine, causing inflammation and disease.

Gluten causes major problems for some

Most people are able to digest gluten very well.

Having said that, a small proportion of people can not tolerate it.

The most severe form of gluten intolerance is called celiac disease. The celiac is a hereditary autoimmune disease.

For people with celiac disease, gluten can cause diarrhea, stomach pain, excessive gas and skin rashes. Over time, it can cause damage to the intestines, which affects its ability to absorb certain nutrients (5, 6).

However, some people are negative for celiac disease, but still react to gluten. This is known as non-celiac gluten sensitivity.

The symptoms are similar to celiac disease, but without the autoimmune response. People with non-celiac gluten sensitivity may experience diarrhea, abdominal distension, and gas, along with joint pain and brain fog (7).

Currently there is no clinical method to diagnose sensitivity to non-celiac gluten. If you react negatively to gluten and your symptoms are relieved by a gluten-free diet, you probably have sensitivity to gluten (8, 9, 10).

The issue of gluten is still very controversial. Some medical professionals believe that gluten is harmless unless you have celiac disease. Others claim that gluten is the root cause of all kinds of health problems and autoimmune disorders.

Bottom line: Most people can tolerate gluten very well. However, gluten causes significant problems in sensitive individuals.

Gluten activates zonulin, the regulator of intestinal permeability

Several studies have shown that gluten can increase intestinal permeability and cause an immune response in the body (11).

The immune system responds to substances that it recognizes as harmful by causing inflammation. Inflammation is the body's natural self-protection mechanism, but persistent inflammation is associated with multiple chronic diseases.

In sensitive individuals, gluten is considered a foreign invader, which leads to inflammation. However, there is conflicting evidence about gluten and intestinal permeability.

How gluten affects the permeability of zonulin and gut

Zonulin is a protein that regulates the tight junctions of the small intestine. When zonulin is released in the intestines, the closed junctions open slightly and allow larger particles to pass through the intestinal wall (12, 13).

Test tube studies have found that gluten activates zonulin, which leads to an increase in intestinal permeability (14, 15).

One of these studies found that gluten activated zonulin in cells of individuals with and without celiac disease. However, zonulin levels were much higher in the cells of celiac patients (14).

How does this affect people with gluten sensitivity?

Studies have consistently shown that gluten significantly increases intestinal permeability in celiac patients (16, 17, 18).

There are mixed results when it comes to people without celiac disease. Test tube studies have shown that gluten increases intestinal permeability, but this has not been confirmed in human studies (17).

A clinical study also found that gluten increased intestinal permeability in patients with irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) (19).

However, in other studies in humans, gluten made do not cause changes in intestinal permeability in people with non-celiac gluten sensitivity or IBS (20, 21).

Individual health can play a role

Gluten activates zonulin, but it does not affect everyone in the same way.

It is clear that gluten increases intestinal permeability in those with celiac disease and possibly in those with IBS. However, it seems that gluten does. do not Increase intestinal permeability in healthy people.

Bottom line: Gluten activates zonulin and increases intestinal permeability in people with celiac disease. Gluten does not increase intestinal permeability in healthy people.

Factors that contribute to leaky gut syndrome

Gluten may play a role in the development of leaky gut syndrome in people with celiac disease or IBS, but it is certainly not the only cause.

Medical professionals are still trying to understand exactly what causes leaky gut syndrome, but there are some factors that are known to contribute to the disease.

Here are some of the contributing factors:

  • Unhealthy diet: A diet high in fats and refined carbohydrates can increase intestinal permeability (22, 23, 24).

  • Stress: Prolonged stress can alter bowel-brain interaction and lead to all kinds of gastrointestinal problems, including increased intestinal permeability (25).

  • Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs): Excessive use of NSAIDs, such as ibuprofen, may increase intestinal permeability (26, 27).

  • Inflammation: Chronic extended inflammation contributes to multiple chronic diseases, as well as increased intestinal permeability (28).

  • Bad intestinal flora: When compromising the balance between the beneficial and harmful bacteria that line the intestine, it can contribute to leaky gut syndrome (2, 24).

  • Zinc deficiency: The lack of zinc in the diet can alter the intestinal permeability and contribute to multiple gastrointestinal problems (29).

  • Yeast: Yeast is naturally present in the intestinal tract. When the growth of yeast, mainly Candida, it gets out of hand, causes problems (30).

Bottom line: There are many factors that contribute to the development of leaky gut syndrome. In those with celiac disease or IBS, gluten can be a contributing factor.

Should everyone avoid gluten?

Gluten causes significant problems for some people.

For people with celiac disease, gluten increases intestinal permeability and triggers the autoimmune response and inflammation.

However, the relationship between gluten and intestinal permeability is complex and not yet clearly understood.

Currently, there is no solid evidence to support that gluten increases intestinal permeability or causes a leaky gut in healthy people.

If you have symptoms of gluten sensitivity, it may be beneficial to eliminate gluten from your diet. You can read more about eating gluten-free here.

Bottom line: People with celiac disease or gluten sensitivity should avoid gluten. However, there is no significant evidence that healthy people need to avoid gluten.

Factors that can improve your intestinal health

One of the keys to improve intestinal health and prevent leaky gut syndrome is to improve the intestinal flora. That means increasing the beneficial bacteria in the intestine so that they far outweigh the harmful bacteria.

Here are some ways to improve your intestinal health:

  • Take probiotics: Probiotics are beneficial bacteria that can improve intestinal health. Probiotics are found in foods such as yogurt, kefir, sauerkraut and kimchi. They are also available in supplement form (31, 32, 33).

  • Avoid refined carbohydrates: Avoid sugary drinks and foods with added sugars or refined wheat flour. The harmful bacteria in your intestine thrive in these foods (22).

  • Eat lots of fiber-rich foods: Fruits, vegetables and legumes have a high content of soluble fiber, which feeds good bacteria in the intestine (34, 35).

Bottom line: The increase of beneficial bacteria in your intestine can improve your intestinal health and help prevent leaky gut syndrome.

Bring the message home

Gluten causes significant problems for sensitive people.

Research shows that it can increase intestinal permeability, also known as leaky gut, in people with celiac disease and possibly IBS.

However, this does not seem to be the case of healthy people.

If you think you have symptoms of gluten sensitivity, it may be beneficial to talk with your doctor and consider trying a gluten-free diet.

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