Anyone who has researched anything digestion or autoimmune-related has probably come across the term “leaky gut.” You may not be so familiar with the term if you’ve been looking to shed some flab, boost energy, or have a better functioning brain, but rest assured, you too need to read this blog!
The clinical term for leaky gut is intestinal hyperpermeability, and it refers to an increase in permeability of the small intestine.
The small intestine has two critical roles; the first being to digest and absorb nutrients, and the second being immunity – by acting as a physical barrier against excessive pathogenic bacteria, food antigens and other macromolecules.
What is leaky gut?
The inner lining of the intestines is a porous membrane, comparable to fine mesh or cheesecloth. Under normal circumstances fat, protein, and carbohydrates are broken down, absorbed through the tiny holes in the membrane into the bloodstream, and used by the body’s cells. This same membrane also keeps pathogens and other threats out.
With leaky gut, the mesh or cheesecloth develops large holes. Larger, incompletely digested food particles then find their way into the bloodstream, provoking an immune response because the body doesn’t recognize these particles (say hello to multiple food sensitivities and allergies).
Pathogenic organisms and other threatening substances, normally kept in the gut and excreted in the stool, can also sneak through the intestinal membrane and enter the bloodstream.
The end result of leaky gut is chronic activation of the immune system, which creates chronic inflammation that can show up anywhere in the body.
It is this inflammation which jumpstarts a broad array of ailments, chronic disease, and zaps you of energy. Dr. Sara Gottfried, MD, has this to say about the condition:
“More and more people are affected by leaky gut… and many of them don’t realize that this sneaky disease is what’s making them suffer. Leaky gut can masquerade as fatigue, anxiety, depression, digestive symptoms, weight problems, and other serious conditions. It’s been linked to asthma, diabetes, rheumatoid arthritis, irritable bowel, kidney disease, psoriasis, chronic fatigue syndrome, and heart failure.”(1)
What causes intestinal hyperpermeability?
Top leaky gut triggers include:
- GLUTEN: Research has clearly shown gluten to trigger intestinal hyperpermeability across the population, not just those with celiac disease.
- PILLS: Certain medications such as aspirin and non-steroidal anti inflammatories (NSAIDs), antacids, steroids, and antibiotics.
- STRESS: Chronic stress
- Other common risk factors include dysbiosis (an imbalance between beneficial and harmful species of bacteria in your digestive tract), undiagnosed food intolerances, and regular consumption of refined sugar, processed foods, and/or alcohol.
Donald Kirby, MD, director of the Center for Human Nutrition at the Cleveland Clinic, refers to leaky gut syndrome as a gray area for medical doctors, because it isn’t a diagnosis taught in medical school and its symptoms span other health problems.(2)
For these reasons, most physicians are not well informed when it comes to leaky gut syndrome, which continues to be under-diagnosed. The following are some common signs:
- chronic pain/inflammation
- multiple food sensitivities
- regular fatigue
- brain fog
- chronic diarrhea or constipation
- chronic nutrient deficiencies
- chronic seasonal allergies
- yeast overgrowth or intestinal infection
- autoimmune disease of any kind
- skin conditions
- immune deficiencies
Bottom Line: Leaky gut is a gray area for most physicians, so awareness of common signs and symptoms (listed above) is important. If you eat gluten, take certain meds, are under stress, or have dysbiosis, leaky gut may be the root cause of your symptoms.
Treating Leaky Gut
Linda A. Lee, MD, gastroenterologist and director of the Johns Hopkins Integrative Medicine and Digestive Center, says that lifestyle modifications such as stress reduction and dietary changes may be among the best ways to treat leaky gut, particularly when no underlying condition is identified.(3)
Along with stress reduction techniques, the steps I use to address leaky gut include:
- Removing foods that damage the gut
- Replacing these with anti-inflammatory, gut-healing foods
- Rebuilding the intestines and gut flora with specific foods and supplements
Check out my free e-book, “The Digestion Inflammation Nexus – Simple Strategies to Age-proof Yourself” for simple ways to enhance your digestive health starting today.
- Fasano A. Zonulin and its regulation of intestinal barrier function: the biological door to inflammation, autoimmunity, and cancer. Physiol Rev. 2011 Jan;91(1):151-75.
- Drago S, et al. Gliadin, zonulin and gut permeability: Effects on celiac and non-celiac intestinal mucosa and intestinal cell lines. Scand J Gastroenterol. 2006 Apr;41(4):408-19
- Hollander D. Intestinal permeability, leaky gut, and intestinal disorders. Curr Gastroenterol Rep. 1999 Oct;1(5):410-6.