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The Intestinal Barrier: Guardian of Immune Homeostasis

Written by Portland Clinic of Natural Health on August 23, 2023

From a naturopathic and functional medicine perspective, the health of our gut is intrinsically tied to the health of our entire body. At the forefront of this intricate relationship is the intestinal epithelial barrier, which plays a pivotal role in controlling the homeostasis of the immune system.

Understanding the Intestinal Epithelial Barrier

The intestinal epithelial barrier is a multi-layered defense system that lines the gut. It's primarily composed of epithelial cells that are tightly packed together, preventing harmful substances from entering the bloodstream. These cells are also responsible for the absorption of nutrients, fluids, and electrolytes.

Within the gut lies the gut's rich ecosystem of bacteria, viruses, and fungi, collectively known as the microbiome. The balance and health of this microbiome are fundamental to our overall well-being, influencing everything from digestion to mental health.

Leaky Gut and the Breach of the Barrier

When there's a breakdown in the intestinal epithelial barrier's integrity, we commonly refer to this condition as "leaky gut". This means that there are gaps or "holes" in the barrier that allow harmful substances, including pathogens and toxins, to pass into the bloodstream. This breach can have far-reaching consequences. (1)

Once harmful substances infiltrate the bloodstream, the immune system reacts, leading to inflammation. Persistent and uncontrolled inflammation is a known precursor to various health issues, including autoimmune disorders. In essence, when the body continuously encounters these foreign invaders due to a leaky gut, it may start misrecognizing its own cells as threats, leading to an autoimmune response.

Naturopathic and Functional Medicine Perspective on Leaky Gut

Both naturopathic and functional medicine emphasize the prevention of disease through a holistic approach, focusing on the root causes rather than just treating symptoms. In the context of leaky gut:

Diet and Nutrition: Healing the gut often starts with diet. Anti-inflammatory foods, bone broth, and fermented foods can support gut lining repair and the growth of beneficial bacteria.

Supplementation: Probiotics, L-glutamine, and other nutrients might be recommended to strengthen the gut lining and restore balance to the microbiome.

Stress Reduction: Chronic stress is a known factor that can exacerbate leaky gut. Techniques like meditation, yoga, and deep breathing exercises are often suggested to reduce stress and support gut health.

Environmental Factors: Avoidance of gut-disrupting substances, such as certain medications, toxins, and chemicals, is vital. This includes being mindful of the use of antibiotics, non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), and other medications that can disrupt the gut's natural balance. (2)

The Intestinal Epithelium's Interaction with the Immune System

The integrity of the intestinal epithelial barrier is fundamental to maintaining immune system homeostasis. By understanding and addressing the root causes of a compromised gut barrier from a naturopathic and functional medicine perspective, we can help prevent the onset of autoimmune disorders and other related health challenges. In essence, taking care of our gut is a direct investment in our overall well-being.


  1. Camilleri M. Leaky gut: mechanisms, measurement and clinical implications in humans. Gut. 2019 Aug;68(8):1516-1526. doi: 10.1136/gutjnl-2019-318427. Epub 2019 May 10. PMID: 31076401; PMCID: PMC6790068.
  2. Gacesa R, Kurilshikov A, Vich Vila A, Sinha T, Klaassen MAY, Bolte LA, Andreu-Sánchez S, Chen L, Collij V, Hu S, Dekens JAM, Lenters VC, Björk JR, Swarte JC, Swertz MA, Jansen BH, Gelderloos-Arends J, Jankipersadsing S, Hofker M, Vermeulen RCH, Sanna S, Harmsen HJM, Wijmenga C, Fu J, Zhernakova A, Weersma RK. Environmental factors shaping the gut microbiome in a Dutch population. Nature. 2022 Apr;604(7907):732-739. doi: 10.1038/s41586-022-04567-7. Epub 2022 Apr 13. PMID: 35418674.

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