What is Leaky Gut?
Leaky gut, also known as “increased intestinal permeability,” is a condition in which the lining of the small intestine becomes damaged, causing undigested food particles, toxic waste products and bacteria to “leak” through the intestines and flood the blood stream.
This process of a leaky gut has been linked to inflammatory symptoms throughout the body such as brain fog, skin conditions, and has even been implicated in the development of auto-immune diseases.
Looking at what happens when there is leaky gut, we need to consider that the digestive system has two purposes:
The first one we are familiar with: it allows us to break down food into smaller and smaller bits in order to be absorbed into the bloodstream to give us energy and the nutrients to survive.
But importantly, it also maintains a barrier that only allows smaller digested food molecules through:
- In the gut lining, there are ‘tight junctions’ that usually prevent larger particles such as undigested food, toxins and bacterial fragments from entering the bloodstream. When leaky gut is present, these tight junctions loosen and there is the uncontrolled passage of these particles into the blood.
- Our immune system doesn’t recognise these larger molecules and launches an immune response
- This overactive immune response causes inflammation in the gut and elsewhere in the body
- Symptoms such as gut issues, skin conditions, brain fog and fatigue develop
The state of health or the state of disease is the combination between what we are – meaning what genetically makes us the way we’re engineered – and the environment that’s around us. And the gut is the point of entry in which these two elements meet
Alessio Fasano, MD
How can I tell if I have leaky gut?
Leaky gut can cause a wide variety of digestive and non-digestive symptoms.
Digestive disorders indicate leaky gut is present and should be included in a treatment plan. The common gut symptoms include:
- Gas and bloating
- Digestive disorders like irritable bowel syndrome (research), irritable bowel disease (IBD) and celiac disease
- Food sensitivities or intolerances – As food particles may enter the bloodstream through a leaky gut, the immune system of a person with increased intestinal permeability may react to a food (especially gluten and dairy)
- Candida, Parasites and Small Intestine Bacterial Overgrowth (SIBO)
- Heartburn or reflux
As leaky gut allows unwanted food particles and toxins to enter the bloodstream and activate the immune system, it can give rise to seemingly unrelated symptoms such as brain fog, autoimmune conditions. Depending on where in your body the immune system battle is happening, associated symptoms can include:
- Hashimoto’s thyroiditis (research) and auto-immune conditions
- Joint pain (rheumatoid arthritis)
- Mental health issues such as anxiety, depression and brain fog
- Skin problems like eczema or psoriasis
- Polycystic Ovary Syndrome – PCOS has been associated with increased zonulin, a biomarker of increased intestinal permeability (research)
- Chronic Fatigue – Inflammatory compounds, called cytokines are associated with increased intestinal permeability and can lead to fatigue (research)
- Nutrient malabsorption – This may also be associated with fatigue
- Allergies (research)
How to heal leaky gut
Whether you have digestive condition or an inflammatory condition, there is plenty you can do to improve your gut health and repair leaky gut. Anything you do to improve your gut health will also lessen inflammation and leaky gut. I also recommend working with a Functional Medicine practitioner to find out what is causing the leaky gut in the first place.
There are 3 ways to heal a leaky gut which should all be part of a leaky gut program
- Food and nutrition
- Foundational lifestyle habits
- Key supplements
Food and Nutrition
Certain foods may cause inflammation in your gut. In general, a diet to fix leaky gut should avoid processed foods (such as packaged foods or those made from refined flour or sugar) and foods that people commonly react to.
There are several named diets that can be helpful:
- Low Fodmap
- Paleo diet
- Elemental diet (for short periods)
Working with a nutritionist can help you find the right diet for you..
Certain foods can also help to repair leaky gut:
Foundation Lifestyle Habits
Our choices about how we live can also be driving leaky gut and reflecting on how they are impacting our health is an important part of healing. These habits are associated with overall good health and include
- Getting enough quality sleep
- Working on how you handle stress
- Slowing down and chewing your food well
- Reducing alcohol consumption
There are several key supplements that can help to heal leaky gut. They should be used together with dietary change and focusing on healthy habits. Working with a practitioner such as myself is recommended to create a plan that works for your situation but generally these supplements can include:
- Probiotics, particularly Sacchromyces Boulardii improve the balance gut microbiota, can reduce inflammation and maintain a healthy intestinal barrier
- L-Glutamine is an amino acid that is particularly effective for rtrengthening and rebuilding the gut lining.
- Vitamin D helps maintain immune system balance in the gut. It should be combined with Vitamins A and K.
Leaky gut can lead to inflammation and symptoms in the gut and throughout the body. Many of these symptoms can be improved by working on leaky gut.
Leaky gut should not be treated separately as it is closely related to overall gut health. An overgrowth of bacteria or Candida can cause inflammation in the gut and make leaky gut worse.
The good news is leaky gut is completely reversible by following a step-by-step process to improve overall gut health that focuses on diet, some foundation self-care habits, and a few key supplements.
You may also be interested in this article to find out how intestinal permeability is key to the development of an auto-immune disease.