What Is Leaky Gut? Causes, Symptoms, and Relief

Dr. Group
by Dr. Edward Group DC, NP, DACBN, DCBCN, DABFM
Last Updated on

A person dealing with leaky gut syndrome.

A leaky gut is characterized by damage to the intestinal wall that allow molecules or microorganisms to pass through into the bloodstream. The phenomenon is a profound failure of the intestines’ duty to act as a protective barrier. Leaky gut syndrome is difficult to diagnose; many physicians do not know to look for it when diagnosing patients who are experiencing a complicated array of symptoms.

What Exactly Is the Gut?

The gut encompasses the intestinal mucosa (lining), the microbial community (and its genes) in the intestines, and the immune system and nerves. In addition to being the most important organ in the digestive system, the intestines are the largest immune organ,[1] with roughly 2,700 square feet (or 250 meters) of surface area.[2] Eating or drinking exposes this tennis court-sized area to the outside world. The digested molecules (micro-, macro-, and phytonutrients) in food are supposed to filter through the intestinal mucosa, which is made up of the epithelial cells on the surface of the small intestine. The contents of the intestines are supposed to remain in the intestinal lumen and continue the journey to the colon.[3] But, with a leaky gut, the contents of the intestine can slip, unregulated, between the epithelial cells of the intestine.[4]

The spaces between the intestinal cells, known as tight junctions, are supposed to form a seal between the inside of the intestinal lumen and the rest of the body. When the tight junctions aren’t tight enough, things slip past the intestinal gatekeepers and into the bloodstream. From here pathogens, toxins, and antigens can circulate throughout the body, wreaking havoc and provoking a systemic inflammatory response.[4] The loose gaps between the cells in the intestinal mucosa are associated with a myriad of conditions and syndromes including:

  • Inflammatory bowel disease (IBD)
  • Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS)
  • Type 1 diabetes
  • Rheumatoid arthritis (RA)[4]
  • Food allergies
  • Celiac disease[5]
  • Asthma[6]
  • Autism[7]
  • Parkinson’s[8]

What Causes Leaky Gut?

The tight junctions are not a perfect barrier. A number of factors can cause them to relax or contract—diet, medication, hormones, inflammation, and more. When the tight junctions relax or contract, their function may be disrupted.[9]

1. Diet

Few things affect health as much as diet. Several primary offenders appear to contribute to the development of leaky gut:

  • Alcohol: When the human body metabolizes alcohol, the metabolic product acetaldehyde can increase intestinal permeability.[10]
  • Sugar: Sugar and artificial sweeteners cause inflammation that compromises gut health. Additionally, a urine analysis that measures glucose in the urine is a useful indicator of the severity of leaky gut.[11]
  • Dairy: Dairy products are linked to gastrointestinal disorders—–particularly among individuals on the autism spectrum.[12]
  • Gluten: Consumption of gluten contributes to increased intestinal permeability in those with gluten sensitivity.[13]
  • Additives: Industrial food additives such as emulsifiers, solvents, microbial transglutaminase, glucose, and salt contribute to leaky gut syndrome.[14]
  • Pesticides: Glyphosate disrupts gut bacteria, which can contribute to the development of intestinal permeability.[15]

2. Candida

Several species of candida are known to disrupt the makeup of the gut microbiota. The resulting imbalance in the microbiota is called dysbiosis.[16] These disturbances can lead to the development of digestive disorders including leaky gut.[17]

3. Chronic Stress

It’s no secret that stress negatively affects your health[18, 19] but it’s especially taxing on gut health. Psychological stress increases the presence of inflammatory cytokines, a class of signaling proteins created by the immune system that contribute to the development of leaky gut. Animal studies have shown that both psychological and physical stress compromise the integrity of the intestinal barrier.[20]

4. Environmental Toxins

The environment is flooded with harmful chemicals and substances, many of which pose a significant risk to your health. Mercury,[21] BPA,[22] fungicides, and insecticides[23] can all negatively affect intestinal permeability.

5. Medications

Non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), such as aspirin, ibuprofen, and naproxen have demonstrated a tendency to increase intestinal permeability and provoke inflammation.[24]

6. Zinc Deficiency

Zinc is an essential trace mineral that supports the immune system[25] and plays a significant role in irritable bowel diseases. Zinc deficiency can lead to intestinal permeability, while supplementation with zinc supports the function of the tight junctions.[26]

Symptoms of Leaky Gut Syndrome

You might think the symptoms of leaky gut are all digestive disorders but, because leaky gut allows foreign bodies to enter the bloodstream, it can exert a wide range of effects the body as a whole and produce a varied array of symptoms. Some of the more obvious symptoms include allergies,[27] cardiovascular disturbances,[28] and a multitude of metabolic disruptions.[29, 30, 31] Chronic fatigue syndrome and depression are separate and unique conditions, but both are known to result from compromised integrity of the intestinal mucosa.[31, 32]

Intestinal permeability allows foreign microbes access directly to the bloodstream. In response, the immune system releases antibodies,[34] which mistakenly attach to normal proteins in the blood, tagging them for immune action. Fortunately, there are ways to ease the burden of living with a leaky gut.

What’s the Best Solution for Leaky Gut?

Following a healthy diet is one of the most effective measures to help manage leaky gut. Foods that are a source of probiotics are helpful for mitigating the effects of the disorder.[35] Nutrients like glutamine and curcumin support the intestinal environment by balancing the overstimulated immune response and the oxidative stress that weakens the intestinal wall.[36]

Monitoring what goes into your body is one of the best natural remedies for managing leaky gut. If you suffer from a digestive disorder, whether it’s leaky gut, irritable bowel syndrome, celiac disease, Crohn’s disease, or any of the many disorders associated with hyperpermeability, try keeping a daily food journal to identify the foods that trigger symptoms. If you experience frequent flare-ups, it’s time to make significant lifestyle changes such as incorporating the best foods for leaky gut into your diet to support your health and quality of life.

Do you have experience with a leaky gut? What insight can you offer? Leave a comment below and share your thoughts.

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