In order to heal, you have to get to the root cause.
When I became a nutrition student in 1992, I had a lot of healing to do. I had the irritable bowel from hell. No treatment had worked, be it conventional medicine or the truly woo woo stuff.
It was a good job I was drawn to nutrition as a career subject, because it turned out to be my salvation.
What I discovered, as a student, was that I had something called a leaky gut. Cue much hilarity at that. But when given its scientific nomenclature — intestinal permeability — the condition suddenly assumes the gravitas it demands.
That was the first step. Then I learned how to heal my leaky gut, and therefore my irritable bowel. Twenty-five years on, I remain symptom-free.
Fifteen years a sufferer
For nigh-on 15 years I had lived with daily, often excruciating abdominal pain, accompanied by some extraordinary bloating and gas.
I could have lived with all that. But a sensitive young adult, I could have done without the spots.
Not, thankfully, on my face. But my chest and back were peppered. I was hugely self-conscious, so only wore clothes that covered up those areas. Summers could be tricky.
Private investigations going… nowhere.
In my early, pre-student days, I lurched from one bad lead to another in my quest to resolve all these issues. I saw a succession of doctors and therapists who turned out to be as clueless as I was.
I saw a private skin specialist and had a swanky consultation in a swanky consultation room, all high ceilings and heavy oak furniture. I came away with the same antibiotics that any National Health Service doctor would have given me.
They only made things worse. Later, on my course, I would find out why.
Then there was the homeopath (zero effect), the spiritual ‘healer’ (let’s not even go there) and the Chinese herbalist. The latter, I was convinced, was my man. Here was a sage from the East, practising esoteric knowledge seeped in ancient wisdom, no?
I brewed up the foulest-tasting concoctions, believing the pain would be worth the gain.
There was no gain. And the pain continued.
At the time, I was a nutrition philistine, and had no idea that all my problems were connected.
What truly shocks me, even now, is that nor did any of the specialists I consulted.
I came to realise that all my symptoms began and ended in my gut.
I acquired two essential wisdoms during my three-year course.
First — when the medics can’t find anything wrong with you, there’s a good chance that it’s your diet that’s the problem.
Second — if something is wrong, you have to get to the cause.
So, for the first step on my self-directed healing journey, I invested in two cause-seeking strategies: a stool analysis and a urine test.
The stool analysis revealed that I had a severe case of dysbiosis — an imbalance between good and bad bacteria in the gut. The bad guys (actually, they were downright evil) were in control, rampaging through their dark kingdom like some crazed, middle-earth despot.
The good guys were hiding out in some distant intestinal backwater, too few and feeble to do their job, which was to guard my health.
Next came the urine test, the aim of which was to check for intestinal permeability, or leaky gut.
Intestinal permeability arises when the gut lining becomes damaged, and as a consequence, leaky.
The gut lining has two main jobs: to allow the passage of digested nutrients and fluids to cross into the blood, and to stop unwanted intruders from doing the same.
This barrier consists of just one layer of cells. Holding these cells together are links, called ‘tight junctions’.
When working properly these tight junctions are like nightclub bouncers, sifting out and blocking the riff raff.
But if they become damaged, they lose their tightness and microscopic holes appear. Toxins, bacteria, undigested food, tiny bits of things that fell on your food… in they pile.
One of the consequences of this breach is inflammation.
An almighty battle commences. It starts in the gut, but with access all areas the fallout of this mayhem can show up anywhere. So too can symptoms: joint pain, headache, depression, recurrent infections …
The liver normally copes well with the body’s everyday toxins, but when the toxic overload exceeds capacity, they get dumped elsewhere. In my case it was skin.
Sure enough, the urine test confirmed that I was a walking wikileaks.
What causes leaky gut?
Generally, the most likely culprits include:
Certain medications, especially the non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs, or NSAIDs, such as aspirin. Around two thirds of NSAID users have a leaky gut.
I had a history of taking NSAIDs.
Dysbiosis. See above. Taking antibiotics exacerbates the situation, wiping out the good with the bad bacteria. Dysbiosis is the outcome.
Well I knew I had that.
Stress and anxiety. Stress creates damaging chemicals called free radicals.
Smoking. Smoking is free radical hell.
I smoked like a trooper in my late teens and 20s.
Diet. Most especially: alcohol, sugar and refined vegetable cooking oils. Soy, corn and sunflower oil are high in pro-inflammatory fatty acids. When heated to high temperatures, they also produce free radicals.
All of the above.
Allergens. Foods to which you are allergic or intolerant can create irritation and inflammation.
What I did next
With the state of my intestines laid out in black and white, I could have plunged into despair.
Au contraire! I couldn’t have been happier. I knew exactly what to do about it.
First, I started taking probiotics — friendly bacteria to fight the unfriendly. Probiotics also strengthen tight junctions and produce anti-inflammatory chemicals.
Next, I really tidied up my diet.
Out went every refined carbohydrate and vaguely sugary item. In came as many vegetables as I could manage, especially the brightly coloured variety, including peppers, tomatoes, red onions and aubergines.
These vegetables are loaded with antioxidants that fight free radicals, and plant chemicals that fight inflammation. So too are dark leafy greens, such as broccoli and spinach.
In came live natural yogurt and lots of oily fish. This category includes salmon, herring, trout, anchovies, sardines and mackerel. I also took fish oil supplements, for good measure. Fish oil is highly anti-inflammatory, so combined with the probiotics formed a significant part of my arsenal. And fish is a complete protein, essential for any kind of healing.
Out went anything that contained pro-inflammatory, refined vegetable oils.
A self-imposed ban on alcohol was put in place. A well-known contributor to leaky gut syndrome, I stayed clear (most of the time).
Free at last
It took several months to complete the healing process. But it was complete: all my symptoms vanished. Calm was restored, and it was wonderful. It still is.
I went on to practise as a nutrition consultant for over 15 years, and saw many cases of leaky gut in that time. I found it took most people at least two months to heal.
And like me, they had acquired that one essential core wisdom: whatever your symptoms, your journey must begin with finding the cause.
My healthy digestion and clear skin are the evidence of that — 25 years on.