Understanding the Functions of the Mucus Membrane in Nutrient Absorption and Leaky Gut Syndrome

Author: Yean Toh | Published date: July 8, 2023 | Category: Nutrition

The Mucus Membrane: Defense and Absorption Functions

Once your food has been broken down, the next step is for the nutrients to be absorbed into the body. Again, this takes place in the small intestines, which have a 3-mm thick lining of cells covered by mucus, called the mucus membrane.

This serves two crucial functions:

Defense: The role of the mucus membrane as a physical barrier and biological warfare barrier against harmful organisms.

  • Defence: The mucus membrane acts as a physical barrier separating our body from food and bacteria inside the intestines. More critically, it acts as a dynamic "biological- warfare barrier" where bacteria, viruses, yeast, parasites and other harmful organisms
    are destroyed - by stomach acids, special enzymes and antibodies.
    During digestion, the contraction and relaxation of the intestines help flush out undesirable contents. An additional microfilm of intestinal probiotics lining the mucus membrane further strengthens the defence.

Absorption: How the mucus membrane selectively absorbs nutrients into the body.

  • Absorption: The mucus membrane also acts as a semi-permeable barrier for selective absorption of nutrients - glucose, fructose and galactose from digested carbohydrate; amino acids from digested protein; fatty acids from digested fat, nucleotides from digested nucleic acid; and micronutrients like vitamins and minerals from all types of food. Only small amounts of nutrients are absorbed through the mouth, stomach and colon. The bulk of nutrients are absorbed through the small intestines.

Leaky Gut Syndrome: Causes and Symptoms

The job of breaking down food is performed by enzymes, which are proteins that speed up chemical reactions. Some enzyme activity takes place in the mouth and stomach. In the small intestines, however, your food is acted upon by many different enzymes secreted by the pancreas, gall bladder and the small intestines itself. To ensure that these enzymes function optimally, you need to avoid elements that might damage them, including:

  • Abdominal bloating and pain;
  • Food intolerance;
  • Fever for no apparent reason;
  • Skin rashes;
  • Tiredness and fatigue;
  • Muscle and joint pain;
  • Memory loss, decreased cognitive function and other mental symptoms.

In severe cases, leaky gut syndrome can also cause, or contribute to, diseases such as:

  • Autism, hyperactivity and other behavioural problems;
  • Coeliac disease, irritable bowel syndrome and inflammation of the colon;
  • Multiple food and chemical sensitivities;
  • Autoimmune diseases like arthritis, asthma and eczema,
  • Allergies like hives and other skin diseases.

Inflammation and Anti-Nutrients as Causes of Leaky Gut

Leaky gut can be caused by inflammation due to infection or the presence of inflammatory substances like rancid oils, trans fats and excessive amounts of omega-6. It can also be caused by certain plant chemicals that irritate and inflame the mucus membrane.

These chemicals are called anti-nutrients because they can also block the absorption of nutrients.

Gluten and Leaky Gut

Among anti-nutrients, gluten - especially its gliadin component - is one of the worst offenders. Unless you are a big wheat consumer, you may be unaware of the harm as some of the symptoms are vague. About one percent of people, however, have coeliac disease, a serious autoimmune disease that makes them absolutely intolerant to gliadin and gluten. Such people must totally avoid all products that contain even traces of gluten.

Managing Leaky Gut: Dietary Approaches

If you suspect that you have leaky gut, avoid the above foods for three months to see whether your health improves significantly. You could also circumvent this problem by sprouting or fermenting these foods to deactivate or destroy their anti-nutrients.

Permeability of the Mucus Membrane in Infants

Newborns naturally have a more permeable mucus membrane, as this allows the infant to absorb large molecules of immune cells and growth factors from breast milk. This permeability starts to decrease when an infant is about six months old, indicating that the time is right for the infant to stop breastfeeding and start eating some semi-solid foods. Weaning too early will increase the risks of allergic reactions due to infants being prematurely exposed to allergenic ingredients of "adult" foods.

This content is adapted, with permission, from Book 1 of 2 : The Wonders of Nutrition by Dr Ang Poon Liat. MBBS, M.MED (PAED), MRCP (UK PAED), FAMS, MD.



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