Stress has many negative effects on gastrointestinal function, including increased intestinal permeability—otherwise known as “leaky gut.” When a person experiences stress, the brain releases a chemical called corticotrophin releasing factor (CRF). CRF triggers a cascade of other chemicals which eventually cause the release of the stress hormone, cortisol, from the adrenal glands, but CRF receptors are also found located in the gut itself. This means that the release of CRF impacts the digestive system directly. Through the effects of CRF on the gut, stress can result in changes in intestinal motility, sensitivity, and inflammation which may be experienced as constipation, pain, or gastrointestinal upset. Stress can also alter intestinal permeability—how easily the intestines allow various substances to pass through their walls.
The entire digestive tract is a continuous tube that runs from the mouth to the anus and separates materials inside the lumen of the tube (which is technically outside the body) from the rest of the body by a single layer of cells. The role of the digestive system is to extract nutrients from food and to provide protection against toxins or pathogens. Adjacent cells of the intestinal epithelium (that layer of cells lining the tube) adhere tightly to one another so that the passage of fluids and other substances can be carefully regulated and controlled. Some substances such as chloride and potassium diffuse freely without any assistance. Others like glucose and amino acids are actively transported across by proteins. If the integrity of this barrier is compromised, substances that should not ordinarily be allowed to pass—bacteria or large proteins from food—may slip through the wall.
When this happens, the immune system tags the substances as “antigens” and mounts an immune response against them, increasing inflammation via the use of chemical messengers and creating antibodies against the antigens. Some of these antibodies may cross-react with the body’s own tissues (i.e. attack them), leading to an autoimmune reaction, while increased inflammation contributes to the etiology or progression of other disorders such as depression.
In fact, many varied symptoms and conditions are associated with increased intestinal permeability including abdominal bloating, indigestion, joint pain, food allergies, fuzzy thinking, rashes, mood swings, fatigue, and hay fever. To test for leaky gut, a person drinks a liquid with two substances dissolved in solution: mannitol, a small molecule easily absorbed through the intestines, and lactulose, a larger molecule not well absorbed by a healthy intestinal lining. Urine is then collected and the amount of each molecule measured. In a healthy individual, levels of mannitol will be high while levels of lactulose will be low. If intestinal permeability is compromised, levels of both molecules will be high, reflecting increased absorption of both.
If you have leaky gut, there are many things you can do to help heal your intestinal epithelium. First, identify and eliminate any foods that may be contributing to the problem. (See my earlier blogs on making sense of food allergies, identifying food allergies, and eliminating food allergies and sensitivities for more on problematic foods). Then, utilize nutrients that can support repair of the tissue. Glutamine is the primary fuel for intestinal cells. It preserves intestinal structure and maintains healthy permeability. Quercetin, a flavonoid, also supports intestinal barrier function. Both L-glycine and phosphatidylcholine help to support normal levels of inflammation. Nutrients such as vitamin A, vitamin C, and zinc enhance intestinal repair and function.
Stress impacts many different conditions through its damaging effects on the gut; by supporting your gut, you may be able to improve your health in a multitude of areas as well.
About the Author
Dr. Lise Naugle is an associate of Dr. James L. Wilson. She assists healthcare professionals with clinical assessment and treatment protocols related to adrenal dysfunction and stress, and questions regarding the use of Doctor Wilson’s Original Formulations supplements. With eleven years in private practice and a focus on stress, adrenals, hormonal balance and mind-body connection, she offers both clinical astuteness and a wealth of practical knowledge. Dr. Naugle also maintains updated information about the latest scientific research on the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis function, endocrine balance and nutritional support for stress and develops educational materials about stress and health for clinicians and their patients.