Unfortunately, leaky-gut syndrome is not just a fad concept that a lot of people happen to be talking about these days. There is growing evidence that it is, in fact, real. But before you get very depressed about this, think of it as a positive — there may be a reason why you feel the way you do. And the minute you know what condition you are dealing with, you can arm yourself with information to get healthy again. Phew.

What it is

Leaky gut is another way of referring to intestinal permeability, or IP. Normally, tight junctions (the connections between the cells that line the small intestinal wall) are very close to each other. They open and close, only permitting certain molecules to pass into the bloodstream, such as vitamins, minerals, nutrients, and fully digested food.  With IP, the tight junctions become too loose or open, allowing larger molecules to pass through that are not supposed to, like bacteria, toxins, and larger, undigested food proteins.  This is bad for our health and leads to inflammation, which manifests in a variety of ways. Symptoms can include Irritable Bowel Syndrome–like symptoms (constipation, diarrhea, gut pain, and bloating), as well as non-gut symptoms like joint pain, headaches, brain fog, mood issues, skin conditions, and fatigue. IP can lead to obesity-associated metabolic diseases like cardiovascular disease, diabetes, and non- alcoholic fatty liver disease. It also can play a role in autoimmune diseases like Crohn’s disease, ulcerative colitis, celiac disease, and type 1 diabetes, to name a few. Food allergies and sensitivities are also related to IP, which may be why we are seeing a rise in these. IP can even increase the risk of some cancers, such as esophageal and colorectal.

C A U S E S

There are many contributors to IP, including toxins, infections, certain dietary proteins, and an unhealthy diet.

Toxins

While usually not considered a toxin, chronic unmanaged stress is damaging to the gut and can contribute to IP. Other toxins include cigarette smoke, alcohol, and medications such as steroids, antacids, acid-blocking drugs, and NSAIDs, including ibuprofen. Toxins in our food can also damage the gut. Pesticides and herbicides in conventionally grown crops are harmful. Glyphosate, especially, is a widely used herbicide in conventional and genetically modified crops. It can harm the microbiota (microbes that live inside of us and are integral for gut health).

Infection

Infections from bacteria, yeast, viruses, and parasites can all harm the intestinal lining. Small Intestinal Bacterial Overgrowth, where bacteria grow in a place they do not belong, is an example of an infection harmful to the gut lining. Dysbiosis — an imbalance of the good and bad bacteria that live inside of us — is another example that can have a negative effect on IP. Anything that harms the microbiome can also harm the gut lining, although it is not essential for leaky gut. Pathogenic bacteria, for example, can break down the tight junctions. The hygiene hypothesis plays a big role here: If we live in an environment that is too sanitary, and if we have a history of much antibiotic use, our microbiome will suffer. For more information on the microbiome, see my article from 2016.

Dietary proteins

Dietary proteins including gluten, dairy, soy, corn, animal protein, and grains can all potentially contribute to leaky gut. Getting tested for food sensitivities and allergies and/or doing elimination diets can both be helpful in determining if this is an issue.

Poor inflammatory diet:

What we eat has profound effects on our health. The SAD/MAD diet (Standard American Diet/Modern American Diet) can harm the gut lining. This diet is high in fats and high in processed carbohydrates and sugars. The fats that are especially harmful include trans fats and processed industrial seed oils. Trans fats are found in margarine and deep-fried foods. Industrial seed oils include corn oil, soybean oil, cottonseed oil, and canola oil, among others. Foods high in processed carbohydrates include prepackaged foods like cookies, cakes, pastries, chips, pretzels, candy, and ice cream. White flour–based products often fall into this category, like many breads and pancakes. These products quickly turn into sugar in the body and, importantly, are very low in fiber. Fiber from whole plant foods feeds the microbiome and is essential for a healthy gut.

While this may sound gloom and doom, there is much we can do to help nourish the gut. Eliminating or treating irritants as mentioned above is a good first step: toxins, infections, dietary proteins, and an unhealthy diet. This is a time-consuming process filled with detective work and dedication. Supporting proper digestion is also key in restoring gut health through lifestyle changes, foods, and supplements. Probiotics can also be helpful, but it can be tricky to find one that is right for you. Calming inflammation in the gut lining with inflammation-fighting foods and supplements also helps nourish the intestines. In the end, there are many ways to heal leaky gut, or IP. How you do it depends on your unique situation. While I encourage everyone concerned about IP to seek the guidance of a health care practitioner knowledgeable in gut health, the ideas within this article are a great place to start on your own.

The information provided in this article is intended for general use only and is not to be used in place of medical advice from a licensed health professional.