Leaky gut syndrome is an unofficial term used to describe a collection of symptoms that center on damage in the lining of the large intestine. This damage apparently gives undigested food particles and toxins access to the bloodstream by producing minute gaps in the intestinal wall. While there is controversy regarding some of the purported effects of leaky gut syndrome, most doctors believe that unusual permeability in the large intestine can cause real health problems. People who abuse alcohol commonly experience significant changes in their intestinal function. These changes can potentially support the onset of leaky gut syndrome, or worsen its effects once it appears.
Leaky Gut Syndrome Basics
In medical terms, syndromes are different than diseases. Diseases feature specific collections of symptoms that have unique, distinguishable underlying causes; on the other hand, syndromes feature symptoms that happen to appear at the same time and have a number of potential known or unknown underlying causes. The symptoms associated with the presence of leaky gut syndrome include diarrhea, excessive flatulence, unexplained fatigue, unexplained fever, heartburn, ongoing or recurrent abdominal pain, recurrent bladder infections, hemorrhoids, food allergies, frequent hunger, joint pain, muscle cramps, lymph gland swelling, and psychological problems such as memory impairment and depression.
Normally, the bowel wall is sealed tight with the help of cell structures called desmosomes, which overlap the cells in the wall and stop them from tearing. Under certain circumstances, irritation or damage in the desmosomes can loosen their grip on the bowel wall and lead to the formation of tiny gaps that make the wall abnormally porous or permeable. The development of leaky gut syndrome begins when materials pass through these gaps and enter the bloodstream. Since these materials don’t belong in the bloodstream, immune system cells identify them as invaders and attack them. In turn, this immune response can produce increasing levels of inflammation that further damage the bowel wall, and thereby provide passage for larger molecules of undigested food and various toxins.
Alcohol consumption damages normal function in the intestinal tract in one of two ways. First, the presence of alcohol appears to reduce the level of activity in key substances in the body called prostaglandins. Among their many functions, these substances help the body control the amount of inflammation that occurs at the site of any injury. Alcohol-related suppression of prostaglandins essentially allows inflammation to increase in an uncontrolled manner. While the effects of any single drinking session will produce only a temporary suppressing effect on prostaglandin levels, the type of habitual, heavy drinking commonly associated with alcohol abuse can produce ongoing prostaglandin suppression that contributes significantly to inflammation in the large intestine (and other areas of the body). In turn, this inflammation can trigger or support the development of leaky gut syndrome.
Heavy alcohol consumption also damages the body’s ability to pull nutrients from food and digest them in the small intestine, according to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. Ways in which this damage occurs include a reduction in the output of substances, called enzymes, required for digestion of certain types of nutrients; direct impairment of the cells in the small intestine responsible for absorbing nutrients into the bloodstream; and the creation of nutritional deficiencies that further disrupt the absorption of important nutrients. In people with preexisting cases of leaky gut syndrome, nutritional deficiencies and lack of effective nutrient processing can contribute to a worsening of the syndrome’s symptoms.
More Women Affected
Women who abuse alcohol may develop more leaky gut-related problems than men. Part of this disparity stems from the fact that, compared to men, women have relatively small amounts of an enzyme called alcohol dehydrogenase, which is required for the breakdown and elimination of alcohol. This means that alcohol tends to stay in women’s bodies longer. Women also have a reduced ability to effectively process alcohol during certain portions of the menstrual cycle.
Leaky gut syndrome may play a role in the onset or worsening of recognized gastrointestinal ailments such as irritable bowel syndrome, Crohn’s disease, and celiac disease, as well as a number of other ailments. Some alternative medical practitioners make unsubstantiated claims for the syndrome’s role in illnesses such as autism and multiple sclerosis. Since leaky gut syndrome is not a distinct, recognized medical disorder, physicians don’t diagnose the condition in their patients; instead, they usually consider its symptoms in a larger medical context as they work toward diagnosis of a recognized disorder.