The gut is an impressive and expansive system involved in various functions including digestion, immunity, and the regulation of various important substances. Furthermore, gut activity can impact a wide range of systems throughout the body meaning that dysfunction in the gut can result in the development of many different conditions and symptoms.
Originally Published April 2018
Updated March 2019
Keeping the gut healthy is important. Doing so requires being well-informed of potential dangers and conditions.
Leaky gut syndrome, sometimes described as severe intestinal permeability, is a chronic gut condition that can negatively impact the body in many ways. Familiarizing yourself with leaky gut, its effect on the body, and how to identify and treat it can help prevent the development of many harmful conditions.
Understanding Leaky Gut Syndrome
The gut is essentially a long tube that can be broken down into different sections. Running the length of the gut is a semipermeable lining that allows nutrients to pass into the bloodstream to be transported to the appropriate location. This barrier also blocks harmful xenobiotics like toxins, microbes, undigested food particles etc. from escaping and damaging other systems. When working properly, nutrients pass through the intestinal wall while larger and harmful particulates remain in the gut to be expelled later.
At its core, leaky gut is caused by breakage of intestinal tight junctions. Tight junctions regulate what passes from the intestines into the bloodstream. Malfunctioning or damaged tight junctions in the digestive tract permit partially digested or oversized particulates to enter the bloodstream. If tight joints are not functioning properly, there is nothing keeping harmful substances found in the intestines from entering the bloodstream and subsequently traveling to other areas of the body.
The bulk of the immune system is found in the gut and as foreign particles escape the intestine, the immune system triggers resulting in significant inflammation. The immune system marks the unwanted particulates as pathogens and sets out to destroy them. Regulated inflammatory action helps flush out harmful substances. However, if the tight junctions and gut are not repaired, the immune system will remain active as more toxins and particulates escape into the body. Constant immune activity and inflammation is a leading cause of chronic disease such as Crohn’s disease, ulcerative colitis, celiac disease, Parkinson’s disease, chronic fatigue syndrome, fibromyalgia, and others. Therefore, without resolving intestinal damage and leakage, the likelihood of resolving chronic disease and inflammation is low.
Typically, leaky gut is caused by weakening of the intestinal lining. There are multiple contributing factors that may result in weakening, breakage, or disruption of tight junctions. A diet that is high in inflammatory foods such as sugar, alcohol, and dairy can stress the gut. Medications and environmental toxins can also contribute to increased gut permeability. Substances such as Motrin, Advil, steroids, antibiotics, acid reducers, mercury, pesticides, and BPAs all cause varying degrees of damage to gut lining.
Gluten can be particularly impactful regarding tight junction breakage. Those who are allergic or sensitive to gluten release a protein called zonulin that breaks down tight junctions and intestinal lining when gluten is consumed. In addition to triggering the chemical weakening of tight junctions, large gluten molecules may cause rips or tears in the gut lining allowing other particulates to escape.
Signs and Symptoms of Leaky Gut
Because leaky gut is frequently associated with greater immune activity, many of its symptoms relate to immune dysfunction and inflammation.
Additionally, because particulates escaping the gut can be transported virtually anywhere in the body, there is a potential for developing seemingly unrelated conditions.
Some of the most common symptoms associated with leaky gut include:
- Autoimmune disorders
- Candida overgrowth
- Digestive issues including gas and bloating
- Food sensitivities and allergies
- Gut-related cancers
- Hormone imbalance
- Infectious diarrhea
- Inflammatory skin conditions
- Irritable bowel syndrome
- Metabolic disease
- Mood disorders such as depression, anxiety, and ADHD
- Nutrient deficiencies and malabsorption
- Respiratory infections
- Thyroid issues
In addition to these symptoms, leaky gut can also lead to other digestive disorders.
With such a broad range of symptoms it can be challenging to properly identify leaky gut syndrome. Furthermore, many doctors still do not recognize leaky gut syndrome as a legitimate condition and may not be willing to diagnose or treat an issue as such. Unfortunately, this means there is little in place regarding standard tools and methods for assessing and diagnosing leaky gut. To overcome these challenges, it is best to seek the assistance of a doctor who is well informed regarding the gut and immune function when there are concerns of leaky gut syndrome.
4-Step Leaky Gut Treatment
When treating leaky gut, it is critical to eliminate gut stressors in your diet and environment while promoting the regeneration and function of the gut.
Although there is no standard for treating leaky gut syndrome, many knowledgeable physicians employ the 4-Step Resolution approach when treating leaky gut.
The first step is to eliminate toxic or inflammatory foods from your diet. Cutting products such as dairy, processed sugars, and alcohol reduces gastrointestinal stress. Furthermore, avoiding or removing environmental toxins such as pesticides and BPAs further supports gut stability.
The harmful foods and toxic substances then need to be replaced with foods and supplements that promote healthy absorption. Incorporating digestive enzymes – we recommend HoltraCeuticals’ Digestizyme-B, hydrochloric acid, and bile acids into a treatment plan improves gut function and allows for better nutrient acquisition.
Typically, leaky gut syndrome destroys the balance of good bacteria in the gut. To fully restore gut function, a healthy balance of good bacteria must be restored. Taking probiotic supplements and glutamine, an amino acid that supports intestinal metabolism and function, can be useful.
Once the gut is able to absorb nutrients and proper bacteria balance is established, an anti-inflammatory diet including plenty of fiber and fatty acids such as fish oil (omega 3s) and GLA (omega 6s) can be implemented. Doing so supports the gut by providing the nutrients it needs to repair itself and the intestinal lining.
Healing the Gut to Achieve Greater Wellness
The gut is closely connected to many important systems and functions. Therefore, it should not come as a surprise that severe dysfunction such as leaky gut syndrome can cause serious symptoms and conditions. Protecting the gut requires limiting contributing factors of leaky gut, identifying signs of dysfunction, and implementing effective treatment. Healing the gut with the four-step resolution process discussed previously supports gut function, limits future damage, and may even resolve chronic conditions caused by gut permeability. Properly caring for the gut is a powerful way to improve overall wellness.
1. Bischoff, Stephan C et al. “Intestinal permeability–a new target for disease prevention and therapy.” BMC gastroenterology vol. 14 189. 18 Nov. 2014.
2. Ulluwishewa, Dulantha et al. “Regulation of Tight Junction Permeability by Intestinal Bacteria and Dietary Components.” he Journal of Nutrition, Volume 141, Issue 5, 1 May 2011, Pages 769–776.
3. Josh Axe, DC, DMN, CNS. “Leaky Gut Syndrome: 7 Signs You May Have It.” Dr. Axe.
4. Amy Myers, M.D. “11 Signs You Have Leaky Gut Syndrome.” MindBodyGreen.