Study shows how processed food lets toxins ‘leak’ into your gut

Study shows how processed food lets toxins ‘leak’ into your gut

Leaky gut syndrome, in which unwanted elements enter the digestive system, is aggravated by common food additives, Technion professor says

Illustrative: A man shops at a Rami Levy supermarket. (Nati Shohat/Flash90)
Illustrative: A man shops at a Rami Levy supermarket. (Nati Shohat/Flash90)

Feeling tired, lethargic, or depressed? Can’t lose weight, plagued by stomachaches, or suffer from psoriasis or rheumatoid arthritis? You could be a victim of “leaky gut syndrome.” And according to a new study led by a Technion professor and his German colleague, the processed food you’re eating could be making your gut even leakier.

“The use of ingredients like emulsifiers, high levels of salt and sugar, and transglutaminase have become very common in processed foods in the past two or three decades, and during that time we have seen a sharp rise in a wide variety of conditions that could definitely be attributed to leaky gut syndrome, such as autoimmune diseases,” said Professor Aaron Lerner.

Lerner, of the Technion’s Faculty of Medicine and Carmel Medical Center, along with Dr. Torsten Matthias of the Aesku-Kipp Institute, have published findings on the health damage caused by processed food.

Although their paper, published in the latest issue of the journal Autoimmune Disease, does not establish definitive causality between an increased in processed ingredients and prevalence of diseases attributed to leaky gut syndrome, Lerner stresses that “the correlation between the sharp increase in the use of these items and the increase of these diseases is just too strong to be dismissed. The scientific evidence for the negative effects of these ingredients is well-known and well-established.”

Lerner hopes that his research will prompt more work in the area, providing clearer answers about how engineered food ingredients are harming people.

One of the bulwarks of the body’s physical defense system is the “tight junction” structure that keeps undesired elements out of the intestines. The human body can process certain types of proteins, and the digestive system breaks down the food we eat into its nutritional components, including proteins – which are the right size to fit through the small “holes” in the intestinal lining, where it undergoes further digestion. When the system is working properly, larger, undigested food particles that have undesirable components – proteins that the body cannot use, yeasts, toxins, waste products, etc. – are kept out, and end up getting excreted.

But sometimes the tight junction structures become less tight, which means that all sorts of junk can find its way into the digestive system. The now “leaky gut” allows toxins to leak in, forcing the immune system to work overtime to fight them. As the body now has to expend energy on this, it has less energy for other things, resulting in lethargy – and sometimes some of the toxins don’t get banished by the immune system. That can result in other complications, such as autoimmune diseases, the research by Lerner and Matthias indicates.

Professor Aaron Lerner (Courtesy)
Professor Aaron Lerner (Courtesy)

It’s the additives like emulsifiers and transglutaminase, and the excessive amounts of salt and sugar, that are breaking down the tight-junctions in the first place, the researchers say.

“This is a scientific fact,” said Lerner. “We can see how the glucose, salt, emulsifiers, organic solvents, gluten, microbial transglutaminase, and nanoparticles that are extensively and increasingly used by the food industry have an effect on the tight-junction structure. We believe that these commonly used ingredients abrogate human epithelial barrier function, increasing intestinal permeability through the opened tight junction.”

Although the reasons for leaky gut syndrome have still not been firmly established by researchers (although the condition, which describes a wide range of maladies, is well-known to doctors), Lerner and Matthias believe they have zeroed in on a major cause of the problem.

In their study, the researchers focused on the dizzying increase in the use of industrial food additives aimed at improving qualities such as taste, smell, texture and shelf life, and found “a significant circumstantial connection between the increased use of processed foods and the increase in the incidence of autoimmune diseases,” the study said.

The study supplies plenty of evidence to support that contention, said Lerner. For example, the study says, a positive correlation was shown between the annual sales of emulsifiers for food and beverage production and an increased incidence of Crohn’s disease (a chronic inflammatory disease of the intestines) in Japan. Organic solvents like ethanol, used extensively in food manufacturing, “increases paracellular permeability and induces alterations in tight-junction proteins,” according to a 1999 study called “Ethanol modulation of intestinal epithelial tight junction barrier” cited in Lerner’s report.

Gluten, which increasing numbers of people seem to be sensitive to, has a role in reducing the tight-junction structure, and as more gluten gets through to the digestive system, celiac disease, in which the stomach can no longer tolerate gluten, can develop.

“Evidence exists that intestinal barrier defects have a role in initiating celiac disease,” the report says.

That salt causes hypertension is well-established, but the news about salt is that it causes inflammation throughout the body – “and in inflammation the sky is the limit,” with the entire body at risk, said Lerner.

And on it goes – with many of the basic ingredients in food production, including emulsifiers (used to keep naturally-separating oil and water together), surfactants (natural or manufactured components that keep processed food smooth), solvents (used to extract active ingredients for food processing, and often identical to the ones used in manufacturing, dry cleaning, etc.), microbial transglutaminase (which maintains proper food texture), salt, sugar, and other ingredients all conspiring to break down our digestive system’s tight-junction structure, according to the report.

Is nothing safe to eat? After all, the large majority of products on supermarket shelves undergo extensive processing, all using copious amounts of the components Lerner’s report names as tight-junction killers.

“Obviously we have to eat,” and to expect an overnight change in the food industry is unrealistic, said Lerner. “All things in moderation – especially with regards to processed foods – needs to be the watchword. We really need more studies with human subjects on this issue – most of the studies are on animals.”

With the increased awareness of what happens when people get leaky gut syndrome – and how food additives promote it, Lerner added – there might just be enough pressure on the food industry to change its ways.

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