Problems with digestive function will affect most of us at some point in our life. Maintaining a healthy gastrointestinal tract (GIT), particularly a strong intestinal barrier, can help support both your immune and digestive systems. Ultimately, a healthy digestive system means a healthy you.
The GIT is part of the digestive system and consists of the stomach and intestines. The GIT is responsible for digesting and breaking down the foods from your diet and absorbing nutrients. It contains gut-associated lymphoid tissue (GALT) which is essential for immune support.
Healthy intestinal barrier function
Healthy intestinal barrier function is essential for both digestive and immune health. The intestinal barrier acts as the gateway between the GIT and the bloodstream. It is composed of a single layer of cells lining the GIT, which mainly consist of enterocytes (intestinal absorptive cells) and tight junctions (which sit between the enterocytes). When the intestinal barrier becomes damaged, it is often referred to as ‘leaky gut’, where the tight junctions become ‘loose’, allowing unwanted substances to enter the bloodstream.
The intestinal barrier is a selective barrier coated in a layer of mucus that allows essential dietary nutrients, electrolytes and water from the intestines into the bloodstream and helps to prevent the passage of unwanted substances, such as food antigens, endotoxins and microorganisms.
Loss of intestinal barrier integrity is associated with:
- Digestive disturbances
- Inflammation of the GIT
- Reduced immune system function
- Reduced GIT immune function
- Pathogenic microorganisms
- Poor digestive enzyme activity, particularly for proteins
- Hypochlorhydria (low stomach acid)
- Nutritional deficiencies
- Gut-brain axis dysfunction
Supporting the intestinal barrier with herbs and nutrients
- The inner leaf juice or gel of Aloe vera provides mucilage that helps soothe irritation and inflammation of the GIT. Aloe vera maintains mucous membrane health and supports healthy mucous linings of the digestive system.
- Calendula is traditionally used as an anti-inflammatory to help relieve mild gastrointestinal tract inflammation.
- Licorice is traditionally used as a demulcent to help maintain and soothe the gastrointestinal mucous membranes. Deglycrrhizinated Licorice (DGL) is a specialised form of Licorice, typically containing less than 3.5% DGL can be used long-term if required.
- Glutamine is involved in more metabolic processes than any other amino acid. The GIT is the greatest user of glutamine in the body. Glutamine is essential for normal intestinal barrier function due to its ability to preserve the integrity of the intestinal lining. Glutamine is an important fuel source for rapidly proliferating cells of the immune system and makes a significant contribution to maintaining GALT. Glutamine helps support healthy gastrointestinal immune function as it helps maintain secretory IgA, an immune marker which functions primarily by preventing the attachment of bacteria to the mucosal cells of the GIT. Prolonged, strenuous exercise depletes plasma glutamine concentrations.
- Zinc supports healthy digestive function and gastrointestinal immune function. Zinc is an important component of various digestive enzymes and is important for the maintenance of intestinal barrier function. Zinc helps increase mucin production, a component of mucus, which acts as a lubricant to help protect the GIT lining from inflammation and other irritants.
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