When I was in high-school, I would wake up in the middle of the night with severe hives that oftentimes would lead to subsequent visits to the ER. “It’s called idiopathic chronic urticaria, we suspect it’s probably stress-induced,” were the answers I would hear from primary care doctors and allergists. I was told that with taking allergy medication each day, I would be fine. Adhering to the doctor’s suggestions, I continued to question the reason behind this sudden onset of what appeared to be an autoimmune disorder. Fast forward a year, and I was diagnosed with PCOS (polycystic ovary syndrome – a hormone disorder than can cause large ovaries with small cysts) by my endocrinologist, who also informed me that I was suffering from adrenal fatigue due to chronically elevated cortisol levels as well as high inflammation. At 17 years old, I left the office feeling frustrated and confused considering the fact that I was an extremely health-conscious, organic eater who exercised a lot. As I researched my conditions, I began to understand that even my symptoms each day –brain fog, extreme fatigue, anxiety, and occasional confusion—were not normal, and were stemming from a deeper issue.
After a laparoscopic surgery for ovarian torsion five years later, I was sitting in my surgeon’s office as she told me that I had stage II endometriosis, a disease in which the tissue that makes up the uterine lining is present on other organs inside the body. I sought other recommendations, and, after visiting a holistic endocrinologist, learned of a new potential suspect in the development of my diagnoses–the second brain of the body—the microbiome. Specifically, I was educated on something called increased intestinal permeability, also known as leaky gut—a topic that would become my new passion as I began to understand how critical a role it played in all areas of health. I completed a blood test that revealed a gluten intolerance and elevated levels of the antibody zonulin, suggesting a leaky gut condition.
“Leaky Gut” Condition?
So first, what is leaky gut? Leaky gut, also known as increased intestinal permeability, is a condition in which the lining of the intestines becomes compromised, subsequently allowing bacteria and toxins to leak through the intestinal wall. These toxins trigger an autoimmune response which results in increased inflammation throughout the body. Leaky gut can also stem from a variety of different things, notably chronic stress, antibiotic and birth control use, strenuous exercise, alcohol, and poor diet.
After doing extensive research on gut dysbiosis, I discovered a few life-changing insights…
Inflammation starts within the gut.
Research has proven that leaky gut is directly linked to chronic inflammation. In fact, elevated intestinal permeability has been associated with autoimmune conditions, metabolic disorders, hormone disorders, and neurodegenerative diseases. Specifically in my case, inflammation caused by leaky gut can lead to hormone imbalances, which can result in diseases like PCOS and endometriosis.
PCOS and endometriosis are inflammatory-related diseases.
Did it ever occur to you that diseases themselves could actually be symptoms of something else going on in your body (e.g. a leaky gut?) I was fascinated in reading studies that showed endometriosis to be an estrogen-dependent inflammatory disease, and one in which the pathogenesis remains unknown. Research has also shown PCOS to be associated with “low-grade systemic inflammation” as evidenced by increased markers of inflammation such as C-reactive protein in those with the disorder. Even in subsequent visits to my surgeon and attending physicians, I was surprised to find out that only one was familiar with the concept of increased intestinal permeability, and had heard of the recent research that links the development of PCOS and endometriosis to compromised gut health.
If you heal your gut, you can reverse your symptoms.
Despite the current protocol that PCOS and endometriosis can’t be reversed, I firmly believe in the body’s ability to heal itself, in the right time, when under the right circumstances of course. This begins with healing your gut. A few weeks ago I had my first visit with the doctor who discovered leaky gut in 2001, Dr. Alessio Fasano. One of the many questions I asked him was whether or not he thought that my other health issues (e.g. endometriosis and PCOS) would reverse themselves if I healed my gut. Although there isn’t enough evidence at this point in time. Dr. Alessio’s response was, “I wouldn’t be surprised if they did.” Each person is different, but the few major changes I’ve incorporated into my lifestyle in terms of healing my gut include eliminating gluten and dairy from my diet, introducing several gut-healing supplements (L-glutamine, a high quality probiotic, and collagen powder), and consuming bone broth, apple cider vinegar, and fermented foods daily (also see The GAPS Diet).
I highly encourage you to consider that an undiagnosed leaky gut may in fact be the root cause of many of your illnesses, and the first step that should be addressed in achieving overall wellness.