By Carolanne Wright
For years, leaky gut syndrome (LGS) was thought to be nothing more than a myth in medical circles — simply a condition fabricated by ‘fringe’ alternative medicine practitioners to push their agenda. But times have changed and researchers are beginning to take a hard look at the role abnormal intestinal permeability plays in a range of diseases — from autoimmune disorders to food allergies and even cancer. Characterised by abdominal pain, fatigue, inflammation, gas, bloating and intolerance to specific edibles, the syndrome can make life miserable.
Researchers believe LGS is caused when normally tight junctions of the intestinal lining become compromised and allow the passage of undigested food particles, toxic waste products, bacteria and viruses into the bloodstream. Autoimmune disorders can develop when these foreign particles travel throughout the body and activate the immune system, which mistakenly attacks the thyroid in case of Hashimoto’s, joints in rheumatoid arthritis or the intestinal lining with coeliac patients.
Currently, over 80 different autoimmune diseases have been identified — and the numbers are rapidly rising. It’s estimated that 23.5 million Americans suffer from an autoimmune disorder, with 75 percent being female. Incredibly, autoimmune diseases are now among the top 10 leading causes of death in American women under the age of 65.
Emerging research has found a majority of autoimmune disorders share leaky gut as a common root cause. In fact, world-renowned paediatric gastroenterologist and research scientist, Alessio Fasano, MD, believes three factors are always present in all autoimmune conditions: a genetic susceptibility, antigen exposure, and increased intestinal permeability.
“Besides coeliac disease, several other autoimmune diseases, including type 1 diabetes, multiple sclerosis, and rheumatoid arthritis, are characterised by increased intestinal permeability secondary to non-competent tight junctions that allow the passage of antigens from the intestinal flora, challenging the immune system to produce an immune response that can target any organ or tissue in genetically predisposed individuals,” Fasano notes in the February 2012 issue of Clinical Reviews in Allergy and Immunology.
Contrary to the belief that once an autoimmune disorder is activated it remains ongoing, researchers have discovered that “the process could be modulated and possibly reversed by interrupting one of the modifiable factors involved in the autoimmune triad.”
Standard treatment for healing a leaky gut involves dietary intervention and addressing SIBO, or small intestinal bacterial overgrowth — which has been implicated as the underlying cause of irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), Crohn’s disease, Hashimoto’s hypothyroidism and coeliac patients unresponsive to a gluten-free diet.
Classified as a chronic infection of the small intestine, SIBO causes the excessive fermentation of dietary carbohydrates and results in flatulence, bloating, abdominal pain, diarrhoea and constipation. It’s also a major player in fostering a leaky gut.
SIBO is normally treated with antibiotics, although naturopaths have had success using high-potency oregano oil. Avoiding FODMAP (fermentable oligo-, di-, mono-saccharides and polyols) sugars, foods and refined carbohydrates may also be necessary to combat the infection.
Dietitians also typically recommend an elimination diet that restricts certain foods like wheat, gluten, soy, dairy, eggs, nightshade vegetables, nuts and processed foods, which contain proteins and other compounds that can contribute to autoimmune flares and damage the gut.
But now health practitioners have yet another tool to help patients heal their leaky gut and calm autoimmune disorders: CBD oil.
The Role of Cannabinoids in Alleviating Leaky Gut Syndrome
As we now know, cannabis has a wide-range of healing attributes and has been used successfully for seizures, cancer, chronic pain and much more. With leaky gut syndrome, researchers have found cannabinoids act as an antioxidant, minimise intestinal permeability and also reduce nausea, inflammation, as well as the associated pain response.
A 2011 study published in the British Journal of Pharmacology established that the phytocannabinoids THC and CBD reduced intestinal permeability in vitro. The researchers believe cannabinoids increase a protein called claudin-1, which creates tight junctions between intestinal cells and reduces leaky gut syndrome.
The team concluded:
“These findings suggest that locally produced endocannabinoids, acting via CB1 receptors play a role in mediating changes in permeability with inflammation, and that phytocannabinoids have therapeutic potential for reversing the disordered intestinal permeability associated with inflammation.”
Moreover, cannabinoids suppress the immune system — an important consideration since dysregulation of the immune response is linked with LGS. According to this study in the European Journal of Immunology:
“The cannabinoid receptor CB2 is found on the surface of many types of immune cells that cause inflammation. The use of CB2 agonists like THC can result in suppression of the immune system, which could help mitigate some of the autoimmune problems that are associated with LGS.”
Cannabinoids also reduce inflammation. Research in Jerusalem, Israel found that non-psychotropic cannabidiol (CBD) oil blocked the progression of arthritis and has great potential as a novel anti-inflammatory agent.
The team also noted there is much historical and cultural background in the use of cannabis. It was used for the ‘poison of all limbs’ — presumably arthritis, according to Ashurbanipal (died 625 BCE), it dissolved oedema and reduced inflammations (Pedanius Dioscorides, died 199 CE), and was used in India as a poultice over “inflamed, painful parts of the body.”
Overall, cannabis holds promise as a powerful therapeutic agent in treating those with LGS and autoimmune disease. More research is needed to fully understand the healing mechanism behind cannabis and these disorders. However, if conventional treatment isn’t providing relief, patients should discuss with their healthcare provider the possibility of adding CBD oil into their treatment plan.