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Healthy Mucosal Barriers Makes for a Healthier You

Dr. Linda J. Dobberstein, DC, Board Certified in Clinical Nutrition


The human body is a marvelous creation with unique tissues of all types that work in concert unlike anything else. It is made up of liquids like saliva, urine, blood, bile, and digestive juices. It houses a gut microbiome that outnumbers your own cells. It contains organs that are soft, smooth, tough, and muscular that contract and expand, clean or manufacture, secrete or absorb. It has bones, muscles, and joints that give motion and structure. It has an elastic barrier as skin that protects your insides against the elements and germs, helps regulate body temperature, and gives external beauty. And it houses a brain and nervous system that makes any supercomputer system look abysmal.


Surrounding many of these tissues are mucous membranes that are integral to your health, yet little thought is given to them. Healthy mucosal barriers are essential for your body to survive and thrive.


Mucous Membranes


Mucosal membranes interface with your internal tissues and the outside environment. They are found in your mouth, nose, eyelids, and respiratory tract (trachea and lungs). These sophisticated barriers are also found in your stomach and intestines, urogenital tract (ureters, urethra, bladder, and vagina) and the tympanic membrane of the inner ear.


Mucous membranes provide a barrier that protects the tissues it surrounds from germs. These membranes also secrete mucous which provides lubrication that protects against friction. These two mechanisms are vital to your health in ways that you may have never realized.


When Things Don’t Work Well


Imagine what your body would feel like if you lacked the support of any mucous membranes. You would have great difficulty speaking and swallowing. Your eye lids would feel extremely gritty when you blink. Urination would burn intolerably. Bowel movements would be exponentially more difficult. Your immune system would be overwhelmed from germ management and invasion.


More commonly, when your mucous membranes need some care, you may have minor issues with dry mouth, dry eyes, constipation, vaginal dryness, or burning with urination. You might be more prone to colds or upper respiratory symptoms, allergies, skin rashes, and gastrointestinal upset.


When mucosal barriers are more compromised and in disrepair, you may experience issues throughout your whole body. This may include brain fog, fatigue, achy joints, skin rashes, bloating, increased digestive distress, weight management difficulties, blood sugar problems, thyroid dysregulation, immune distress, respiratory challenges, and more. More information on this topic may be found at Leaky Gut Syndrome: More Than Just a Gut Problem.


Poor hydration, alcohol, caffeine, high sugar beverages, smoking, vaping, and medications can impair the moisture levels of mucous membranes throughout your body. Other factors like high stress even in healthy individuals,germs,NSAIDs (aspirin, ibuprofen, etc), fructose,proton pump inhibitors,high fat diets,endurance exercise, pregnancy, gluten,antibiotics,alcohol and coffee, and high blood sugar levels etc. can compromise mucosal barrier integrity.


Basic Support


Adequate hydration is a basic element for mucosal hydration. Everyone has experienced the effects of dry mouth from not drinking enough water. Imagine the effects on other tissues when your body lacks good hydration. Strive towards at least 6-8 eight ounce glasses of water per day. Sipping on 3-4 ounces of water every 20-30 minutes provides better cellular hydration than drinking large amounts of water every few hours as large quantities flush quickly out of your body.


Nutrients


Mucous membrane health is more than just hydration. These complex tissues require several nutrients to do their daily work and maintain their structural integrity and functional capacity. Here are some of the most important ones.


Vitamin A


Vitamin A is critical for the normal regeneration and repair of mucosal barriers in your respiratory tract and digestive tract. It is also essential in maintaining moisture levels and mucous membranes of your eyes and eyelids.


Individuals on a plant-based diet or those who have dysregulated vitamin A genes, thyroid dysfunction, fat maldigestion, or gall bladder concerns, etc. may not be able to convert carotenes adequately into vitamin A or absorb it.


You can learn more in the article Vitamin A – An Essential Nutrient for Immune, Respiratory, and Gut Health.


Vitamin D


Vitamin D works with vitamin A as team player for mucous membrane support in the gut and respiratory tracts. Large amounts of vitamin A and D receptor sites are found throughout these tissues. Vitamins A and D provide antioxidant support and protect against free radicals, germs, and pro-inflammatory compounds that pummel against and damage mucosal barriers.


Vitamin D is central to mucosal barrier survival and vitality as it manages tissue stress and damage control for adaptive and innate immunity. In airway tissues, vitamin D supports mucosal barriers and protects underlying tissues against microorganisms,dust, and various chemicals.


Both vitamin A and D are critical to the integrity and functionality of tight junctions or “doors” within the intestinal mucosal barrier. Tight junctions must maintain “selective permeability” otherwise increased intestinal permeability occurs. That results in more toxins entering circulation, increased free radicals, and tissue stress. You need both vitamin A and D for the control mechanisms that manage tight junctions and mucosal barrier integrity.


More information about vitamin D may be found in the articles:


New Discoveries Highlight the Importance of Vitamin D


Vitamin D and Your Immune System – Are You Getting Enough?


Glutathione and Vitamin D: A Powerful Essential Connection


Vitamin D and Magnesium: Essential Partnership for Health


Amino Acids


In addition to vitamins A and D, amino acids like glutamine are needed to maintain healthy mucosal barrier integrity. Other amino acids like arginine, branch chain and sulfur-rich amino acids, and glycine and proline as found in collagen peptides are also essential to daily mucosal repair needs.


Both glutamine and arginine are conditionally essential amino acids. Conditionally essential means that if you are stressed, overworked, or ill, your need for these amino acids substantially increases. If you are on a plant-based diet with inadequate planning or consume little protein for other reasons, you may also lack these conditionally essential amino acids necessary to maintain mucosal membrane integrity and immune defense.


Additional information may be found in the articles:


Glutamine: Critical for Gut, Immune System, and Muscles during Stress and Aging


Arginine Supports Men’s and Women’s Health, Athletic Performance, and More


Collagen Peptides Support Joints, Skin, and Muscle Structure and Function


Fiber and Probiotics


Dietary fiber and healthy beneficial flora like Bifodobacterium make short chain fatty acids (SCFA) like butyrate. SCFAs with the amino acid glutamine are the team captains of gut mucosal lining repair. They must be present to constantly manage repair and regeneration of mucosal barriers. This team effort affects other mucosal barriers outside your gut like respiratory tract and eye health.


The Standard American Diet fails miserably to provide adequate dietary fiber and often lacks probiotic rich foods.


Omega Oils


Omega-3 oils EPA and DHA seal up broken or damaged mucosal barriers throughout your body as they are built into these tissues. In the digestive tract, they also help beneficial bacteria produce more short chain fatty acids, which in turn protects and supports mucosal barrier function.


Omega-3 oils also support saliva production and tear production essential to maintaining eye lubrication. This includes the needs placed on your eyes with extensive computer work. Omega-3 oils and omega-6 GLA help produce and manage beneficial anti-inflammatory compounds that protect against other pro-inflammatory compounds which break down mucosal tissues.


Hyaluronic Acid and Feminine Comfort


Hyaluronic acid deserves a special mention as it provides an integral role for mucosal barriers. This compound is widely used for skin hydration, joint comfort, and eye lubrication. A little-known benefit of hyaluronic acid is that it also supports non-hormonal feminine comfort in vaginal tissues.


With menopause and the natural aging process, vaginal tissues atrophy and lose mucosal production and protection. Research showed that use of hyaluronic acid improved tissue moisture, quality, thickness, and mucosal lubrication in menopause. Vitamins A and E provide synergistic support with hyaluronic acid in protection of feminine mucosal tissues and moisture needs.


Zinc


The last fundamental nutrient to mention for mucosal barrier integrity is zinc. In the digestive tract, zinc communicates with gene signals that affect two key proteins, occluding and zonulin, found in the mucosal barriers. These proteins are related with the size and open/close mechanisms of the “tight junctions” or little doors that allow absorption of nutrients and toxins.


Insufficient zinc impairs their activity and promotes increased permeability. This in turn increases the amounts of toxins and germs into circulation and can challenge other mucosal barriers throughout your body. Zinc is also essential for respiratory tract barriers, eye, and ear health. Zinc may be combined with carnosine for a more substantial repair effect in the digestive tract. Zinc should be taken in a ratio of 8:1 or 10:1 with copper especially when used for more than a few weeks.


Summary


Every day, mucosal barriers in your respiratory tract, eyes, gastrointestinal system, urogenital tract, etc. are on the front lines of immune defense and normal structural comfort. Thankfully you don’t have to consciously think about repairing mucosal membranes. You do however need to provide your body with the nutrients and building blocks to keep mucosal membranes slippery, intact, and hydrated.


Make sure you drink enough water every day. Eat at least 5-9 servings of vegetables and fruits rich in color, fiber, and antioxidants. Consume at least 25-35 grams of fiber everyday or more. Consume 60-80 grams of protein per day or 0.8 grams/kg for average individuals without underlying health concerns or athletes.


Use ancient grains like kamut and spelt or use gluten-free grains to avoid the stress of modernized white and wheat flour products and gluten on the intestinal mucosal barrier.


If you need a little extra support, supplement with vitamin A and vitamin D,omega-3 EPA/DHA and omega-6 GLA,hyaluronic acid, and/or zinc. While much of the emphasis has focused on gut mucosal barriers, these factors and repair mechanisms overlap with other tissues with mucosal barriers. If you support the gut mucosal barrier repair and regeneration, it can aid other things too!


Your body’s mucosal membranes work very hard everyday in making you comfortable and protected. Many things bombard these tissues stressing them and provoking damage that makes you more susceptible to loss of health. Support your body and mucosal membranes with healthy choices to make a healthier you!