If you’ve browsed the internet regarding digestive distress or gut health, chances are you’ve run across some form of gut health information. Today, research reveals that what goes on in our gut happens to impact our entire body. As Hippocrates said, “all disease begins in the gut.”
One of the conditions that is showing up more frequently in research is leaky gut syndrome, also known as intestinal permeability. Leaky gut syndrome is a relatively new medical diagnosis that thousands of people have embraced as an explanation for a host of troubling symptoms.
What is Leaky Gut Syndrome?
As the name suggests, leaky gut occurs when the tight junctions of the gut lining loosen, causing various unwanted food, pathogens, toxins, etc., and leak through the gut lining into the bloodstream causing an inflammatory response in the body.
To better understand this, the tight junctions of the human gut lining are tightly wound together to prevent large items from passing through the gut lining and entering the bloodstream. Think of these tight junctions as a parent tightly holding a toddler’s hand to cross a busy street. Barely anything can get through those two hands except tiny wind or dust particles. This is how the gut should function—only allowing small essential particles like ions, water, and nutrients to get through.
When there is inflammation in the body (from a food, pathogen, etc.), a protein in the gut responsible for keeping the tight junctions of the gut lining intact, called Zonulin, opens these tight junctions. Larger particles (i.e. toxins, bacteria, etc.) enter the bloodstream. This is known as intestinal permeability. Think of this as when a toddler gets cranky, it gets hard to cross the street – they don’t want to hold hands and the grip loosens, just as the tight junctions of the gut lining loosen. People, animals, and cars can get through the parent and the toddler. When Zonulin increases or a toddler gets increasingly cranky, more chaos ensues and inflammation heightens.
Leaky gut syndrome can cause countless symptoms. In general, it generates inflammation, as the body reacts to unknown and unwelcomed substances in the bloodstream. It may also cause people to experience severe stomach bloating, and some may also develop newfound sensitivities to a host of foods. Other sufferers note feeling chronically exhausted, or they may have issues that manifest on their skin.
It should be noted that leaky gut syndrome is a highly individual condition. As a result, symptoms can vary widely across patients, as can the severity of the syndrome.
How does leaky gut occur?
The walls of our intestines are built to allow water and nutrients to pass through to our bloodstream. However, at the same time, bacteria and toxins enter the bloodstream, where they can be harmful. It is also worth noting that even though people usually talk about guts or intestines in general terms when discussing leaky gut syndrome, the loosening of our guts’ lining largely happens in the small intestine.
What are some leaky gut causes?
There are many potential causes of leaky gut syndrome. Here are 6 potential leaky gut causes you should be aware of…
The Standard American diet, known to be rich in fried foods, omega-6 fatty acids, processed foods and sugars, processed meats and cheeses, and low in fiber (think: fruits and veggies) has been shown to cause leaky gut. A diet rich in inflammatory foods, which vary depending on the individual, can also be a leading offender. We often recommend an elimination diet minimizing foods such as gluten, dairy, corn, soy, alcohol, and processed sugars to see which foods may be inflammatory for a specific individual. Lastly, if an individual has food allergies or sensitivities that cause inflammation, this can loosen the tight junctions of the gut lining, as well.
Nutrient Insufficiency and low stomach acid
If we aren’t absorbing the foods we’re eating, this can cause inflammation in the gut. This can range from not chewing foods well to having low levels of stomach acid, which doesn’t allow us to properly break down and absorb the foods we’re eating. Pathogens can sneak into the gut that usually would be killed off by a low stomach pH, which can upregulate Zonulin protein, and undigested food particles begin to sneak through the gut lining.
Toxin Exposure and overload
We are exposed to chemicals every day–in our homes, our personal care products, and in our environment. They can be magnified by where we live, our occupation, and the amount of chemicals we’re exposed to. Various chemicals can wreak havoc on our gut lining, intensifying and worsening leaky gut symptoms.
Systemic Disease, Infections, and Dysbiosis
Diseases and infections can cause the gut lining to loosen, causing leaky gut, which is why we have to keep our immune system healthy and strong and support the gut in many disease states. Infections can cause an imbalance of the healthy and opportunistic bacteria in the gut, which can result in the overgrowth of bacteria, yeast, fungi, and/or parasites. It’s been shown that the pathology of disease can be tied to the degree of intestinal permeability.
Stress plays a large and rather underrated role in our overall health. Ever run to the bathroom in the mindset of a stressful situation? Stress can cause our body to go into fight or flight mode, reducing our body’s ability to fight off disease and infection. It’s been shown to reduce our gut’s immune function. Additionally, stress can reduce gut barrier function and deplete stomach acid levels resulting in malabsorption.
Various medications, including acid blockers, proton pump inhibitors (PPIs) and antibiotics can all contribute to leaky gut. Antibiotics, while they can be essential, can lead to gut flora imbalance, whereas acid blockers and PPIs can inhibit gastric acid secretions, necessary for digestion and absorption. Using probiotics can help balance out the gut flora, especially if antibiotics are indicated.
Will Leaky Gut Heal Itself?
Although many individuals would like to believe that this problem will fix itself, the reality is that getting to the root cause of leaky gut requires testing and treatment. We like to use stool and/or urine testing to diagnose leaky gut and get to the root cause of it. If the conditions and behaviors that initially led to leaky gut do not change, then it is likely not realistic to expect leaky gut to fix itself. Not to mention, any damage done to the gut must be rectified.
Instead, concerted steps need to be undertaken to solve leaky gut syndrome.
Can you fix leaky gut?
Although it can be frustrating to know that leaky gut syndrome is not a problem that will simply spontaneously resolve, there is good news! While we recommend working with a professional, you CAN fix leaky gut.
Leaky Gut Fix #1: Reduce Inflammation
Leaky gut syndrome is often driven by and accompanied by significant amounts of inflammation. Therefore, it is important to remove any elements from your diet that can be triggering inflammation. These trigger foods vary from person to person so a personalized approach is necessary here. We recommend working with a qualified practitioner who can help you figure out which foods and dietary choices are causing inflammation for you.
Additionally, with stool testing, individuals may find that they have certain strains of opportunistic bacteria, yeast, fungi, or parasites present. To cut inflammation, these issues must be addressed. Generally, we recommend herbs and botanicals to help eradicate these pests causing inflammation. However, this can’t be overlooked as it is pinnacle in any treatment plan.
Leaky Gut Fix #2: Nourish and repair the gut
Fixing leaky gut syndrome is not just a matter of getting rid of irritants, we also must use good quality foods and supplements (if needed) to help heal and seal the gut lining. It is also important that your diet is filled with healthy nutrients that come from whole foods. Sometimes targeted supplementation may be necessary depending on the testing.
What To Include In Your Leaky Gut Diet
Aim for your diet to be rich in a wide range of colorful vegetables (especially dark, leafy greens), whole grains rich in fiber (i.e. oats and quinoa), colorful fruits, and good quality, organic or grass-fed protein sources. A high fiber diet can help with gut motility, and constipation itself can be irritating to the gut. In addition, supplements can also be beneficial on the road to recovery. One of the most beneficial supplements is L-glutamine. L-glutamine is an amino acid in the human body. It helps with tissue repair and has been shown to help heal and seal the gut lining in the case of leaky gut so, is a great addition to a leaky gut diet. Other nutraceuticals such as glutathione, also known as the “master antioxidant” have been shown to help repair the gut lining, as well.
Leaky Gut Fix #3: Rebalance Your Gut Flora
The first two steps mentioned above will likely help to reduce gut permeability. However, to ensure that this solution is sustained, you will have to invest time and effort into maintaining a healthy balance of gut flora.
This can be done in numerous ways. The healthy protein and vegetable-rich diet mentioned above is a good first step. But, you can and should do more. Instead of simply taking probiotics when you are on antibiotics, you should add in a daily, high-quality probiotic. Plus, in addition to probiotics, another great addition is fermented foods. There are a host of them to choose from, including sauerkraut and kimchi.
Leaky Gut Syndrome Explained
If you’ve been struggling with GI issues or have noticed some systemic symptoms that negatively impact your life – it could be leaky gut syndrome. It’s very possible that this condition will be affecting many individuals each year, and with the proper treatment, they could restore a better quality of life.
For now, you can take steps to improve your gut health and decrease the risk of leaky gut syndrome by following some of the steps mentioned. By reducing inflammation, transforming your diet, and adding a wide range of beneficial supplements you could eradicate your symptoms and feel like your best self. If you feel you need help on that journey, our Integrative Nutrition Team treats both local and virtual patients. Wherever you are, we’re there too. Just give us a call or, you can start by filling out the form below.