I wrote Healthy Digestion the Natural Way over 13 years ago. In it were presented over 60 intestinal conditions and how to use natural methods to help deal with them. One concept presented was the leaky gut syndrome. At that time, if a patient mentioned that they might have a leaky gut to their doctors, they got the raised eyebrow “aren’t you stupid” reaction. Today, that shouldn’t be the case. If your doctor still reacts this way, run for the hills or put their picture on a milk carton. Even scientists at Emory University are getting in on understanding leaky gut and writing about it in peer-review literature.

First, a bit of gut anatomy 101. A healthy digestive tract is a long tube with the outside world actually going through the center of us. A robust intestinal lining must have healthy barrier function. This does two things: 1) keeps the bad stuff from crossing the gut wall and gaining entry deep inside our bodies, and 2) allows only the good stuff (nutrients, water, etc.) to cross over and get on in.

This sounds simple, but it isn’t. And it’s at the core of our immunity, health, body weight, and even peace of mind (links to obesity and depression with poor gut ecology is now being demonstrated by prestigious labs the world over).

At the time I wrote the book, the concept of the leaky gut and appreciation of the importance of gut heath in overall health was not well recognized. All that is changing. An amazing example is when the top scientists who figured out the human genome went on to their next project, they began looking at gut wellness. Why? Because what is going on in the gut is at the epicenter of our ability to thrive or not.

Scientists at Emory University have now shown that chronic leaky guts—guts with holes in the lining so bad stuff can leak on through to the inside of the body—is a reality. They are also demonstrating that if immune systems are healthy, they can pick up some of the slack and squelch any further damage. But if immune systems have defects, or are otherwise busy attending to other job requirements, leaky guts and overworked immune function can put us at risk of diseases, such as colitis and Crohn’s disease and maybe even others.

PS, one reason gluten is an issue for so many people, especially those with an autoimmune reaction to these proteins, is that gluten exposure can cause leaky guts. Gluten, especially in these Celiac patients, upregulates a protein called zonulin, which is the protector of the supposed tight junctions of the lining of the gut. When there is more zonulin present, it is like hitting the gut wall with a hammer and nails, making it have poorer junction integrity. Then, even healthy bacteria which should stay in the gut, can cause problems if and when it leaks on through into the blood vessels that line the gut wall, and then enters into the rest of the body.

Optimal intestinal barrier function, mice research at Emory is revealing, is vital to health. This investigation also showed that healthy intestinal barrier function is dependent upon cells that act like natural glue beads, keeping the junctions of the cells that line the gut, the epithelium, nice and tight. These adhesive cells are called JAM-A cells (junctional adhesion molecule-A). They are kind of like toe jam, but they are gut jam. They control healthy mucous production and barrier protection in the gut. Immunity 2012 Annals of New York Academy of Science 2012

As a nutritional researcher, I have for years sleuthed through the literature to see which nutrients promote enhanced healthier barrier function. I now often recommend thiamine, vitamin B1, and sometimes vitamin A in specific dosages, to achieve better mucous and intestinal barrier function. It may be discovered in the future that A and B vitamins promote healthy JAM-A function in the gut.

But, it seems, that one of the reasons we have hormone receptors lining the gut wall, is that hormones protect gut jam.

Hormones and JAM-A: Wow! Estrogen has receptors (proteins that take messages from hormones) lining the gut wall. I have been writing and speaking about the protective effect of estrogen receptor beta (ER beta), the good estrogen dominance (except in endometriosis), for many years now.

It turns out that ER beta boosts protective production and activation of JAM-A in the gut wall, as well as the brain! Healthy permeability is part of both optimal gut and brain function. Estradiol and estriol both boost ER beta upregulation of JAM-A, but estriol does it better.

When we age we produce less estrogen, and just like our skin thins and more easily breaks, so do our gut linings. And so do our brains get affected, meaning they shrink in volume and develop permeability glitches. But estrogen replacement, especially with added estriol that especially boosts ER beta, is very leaky gut and brain protective.

Testosterone replacement boosts ER beta, too, in both women and men.

Boosting ER beta should help treat colitis and inflammatory bowel disease, and it even protects against adverse cardiac disease, breast cancer, and more.

And we can also boost ER beta through specific foods such as soy. Soy boosts ER beta, due to its high isoflavone content. This promotes JAM-A, which then guards against leaky guts, shrinking brains, and threatened breasts.

Whole grains contain robust amounts of the entire vitamin E family, called natural-mixed tocopherols. These boost, or upregulate, ER beta and JAM-A, production, too. Processed or refined grains, like white bread, white pasta and white rice, do not contain this ER beta boosting vitamin E family.

It’s the hormone/nutrient/total health link, once again. Hormones, nutrients, and food function (and dysfunction) together, and in so doing affect multiple tissues, especially our gut walls. And brains.

(Safe Hormones, Smart Women (Awakened Medicine 2010), Journal of Physiology 2009 American Journal of Physiological Gastrointestinal & Liver Physiology 2011 Microvascular Research 2011)

Perhaps yet another way that antibiotics potentially damage gut linings is not only by killing friendly bacteria, but they may also injure JAM-A cells. I recommend to people that need to take antibiotics that they add some thiamine along with vitamin A to their probiotic regime to protect their gut walls. It also seems prudent to do in other situations that can erode gut linings, such as with chemotherapy and in chronic use of NSAIDs (non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs) and even aspirin.

It may also be that after a serious illness, surgery, or accident, especially if we are already on hormone replacement, hormone levels, that could have shifted due to the stress, should be retested.

Of course, JAM-A cells are not all that simple. JAM-A cells protect other tissues, not just the intestinal tract, such as diverse cells in the brain, thyroid and lungs. But in certain situations, JAM-A cells may even protect cancer cells, not something we like to hear. So the unfolding story of JAM-A is, of course, complicated. But inside our guts, and inside our brains, we want our JAM-A to keep jamming away and to protect us.