The boy and the leaky gut
Ben was a pale child with heavy-lidded, red-rimmed eyes, dark bruises under his lower lashes and a swollen tummy protruding over his shorts. His oversized trainers were in stark contrast to his stick-like legs.
Ben complained of regular headaches and dizzy spells. He had difficulty sleeping and often woke his parents several times each night seeking comfort and reassurance. His voice sounded hoarse and sniffly when answering my questions and, every now and then, he’d cough convulsively until his eyes watered, then gag at the end. There were sore spots on his gums and tongue and he rubbed his eyes repeatedly.
Ben often felt nauseous and vomited after eating food, his bowel motions fluctuated from constipation to diarrhoea, he passed a lot of malodorous wind and his breath smelled sour and acrid. At night he sweated a lot and woke with sticky mucus gumming up his eyes.
Tests revealed a number of major anomalies:
- Markedly elevated IgE, IgG and IgM antibodies. IgG antibodies commonly react to a variety of substances and environmental factors, including moulds and food.
- The presence of Blastocystis hominis, a bacterium that causes gastrointestinal disruption. In addition, there was also solid evidence of Helicobacter pylori, Yersinia enterocolitica and Shigella activity.
- A number of key liver enzymes were raised in the bloodstream.
My conclusion, from past experiences, was that poor wee Ben was suffering from the effects of leaky gut syndrome (LGS). When questioned, his mother told me that Ben had suffered from recurring painful ear infections as a baby, which were treated with at least nine prescriptions for antibiotics before the age of one. In desperation, she had consulted a holistic practitioner, who had cured the problem by changing the baby’s diet and giving him a zinc supplement.
LGS is really a nickname for the more formal term “increased intestinal permeability”. There are literally thousands of research articles on the topic of LGS. These explain how, when the intestinal mucosa is damaged (eg by repeated antibiotics), disease-causing micro-organisms, undigested or poorly digested food remnants, noxious ingested particles etc breach the gut lining and pass directly into the bloodstream, thus triggering white blood cells to do battle. The result is not only intestinal inflammation and irritation but also allergies, multiple malabsorption syndromes, numerous skin problems and, eventually, autoimmune degeneration. Increased intestinal permeability has also been found to contribute to liver diseases and liver scarring.
Dysbiosis is not the only cause of leaky gut syndrome. The condition can also develop from environmental contaminants such as heavy metals, chronic alcohol abuse, intestinal alkalosis, low-fibre unhealthy diets, long-term use of anti-inflammatory medications, and prolonged stress.
Healing a leaky gut
Happily, it’s possible to gradually restore gut integrity once the problem has been identified. In adults, the use of supplements can be very helpful. However, when treating a small child of Ben’s tender age, one can’t do better than follow Hippocrates’ recommendations, “Let food be thy medicine and medicine be thy food.”
Glutamine is the favoured fuel of cells in the small bowel, so we had to find a palatable means of boosting Ben’s intake. After experimenting with a few sources, Ben’s mother triumphed with organic ricotta cheese. Her son couldn’t get enough of it — his body seemed to know instinctively that help was being offered. Old-fashioned, gluten-free, organic oats also proved a hit. These were fortified with a little pure organic colostrum and soaked overnight in raw goat’s milk. The oats softened beautifully when treated this way and, seasoned with some mashed banana, cinnamon, almond meal and vanilla, became the little lad’s looked-for breakfast.
Vitamin A is of great importance in protecting gut and mucosal barrier integrity as well as immune function. Fresh carrot juice, free-range egg yolk, steamed flaked salmon, puréed English spinach and kumara ensured Ben’s intake was adequate.
Although zinc had helped Ben’s immune system vanquish his chronic ear infections as a baby, the supplement had been discontinued many months ago. When I explained that the mineral is an essential nutrient for all tissue repair, including the gastrointestinal tract, Ben’s mother was very happy to resume a special child formula for a while. She was also interested to learn of the best food sources so that her infant’s dietary intake would maintain a steady supply as he continued to grow. A smoothie made with raw goat’s milk, rehydrated bilberries, a free-range egg yolk and just enough certified biodynamic honey to make it delicious soon became one of Ben’s favourite zinc-rich treats. Occasionally, the addition of a little ground sunflower and black pumpkin seed meal fortified the milkshake’s zinc potential even further.
Probiotic therapy was paramount given Ben’s history of antibiotic medication. Ben was given the following “gut bug” formula to underpin regulatory tight-junction proteins (claudin-l and occludin) and mucosal barrier function: Bifidobacterium breve, B. infantis and B. longum; Lactobacillus acidophilus, L. delbrueckii, L. bulgaricus, L. casei and L. plantarum; and Streptococcus salivarius and S. thermophilus.
Bifidobacteria thrive by fermenting certain soluble fibres that act as prebiotics. This has the great benefit of discouraging the proliferation of harmful bacteria, improving blood sugar control, lowering LDL (“bad”) cholesterol and preventing infections and problems such as allergies, eczema, asthma and autoimmune disorders.
Ben’s mother made sure her son kept up a regular supply of soluble fibre from such sources as his bran-rich organic oats, mashed Jerusalem artichokes (when in season), steamed and puréed sweet potatoes, puréed buttered broccoli and grated pears and apples — all thoroughly enjoyed by the little lad.
Ben made good progress in a remarkably short time. Today, he is a sturdy, healthy young boy, free of all his “allergic” signs and symptoms.
Karin Cutter runs a naturopathic clinic in Port Macquarie, NSW, Australia. T: +61 2 6582 4435