I remember the first time I ever heard about leaky gut syndrome, it was when I was in Fiji with my family and I was reading the book “GAPS: Gut and Psychology Syndrome” by Dr. Natasha Campbell-McBride while lying on the beach. It was a huge eye-opener into the world of gut health for me, and one of the catalysts that led me to start my research into the gut, how it works, and how much of an impact it has on our health.
As I became more aware about it, I heard more and more reports about people being diagnosed with this condition, and even a few people I knew were developing leaky gut too! This condition seemed to become more prevalent in society, and I was curious to know why?
What is Leaky Gut?
Leaky gut is also referred to as “intestinal hyperpermeability.” This is a fancy term meaning that the intestinal lining of the gut has become more porous, developing holes that are larger in size hindering the guts ability to filter out what it does and does not need. This can result in larger, undigested food molecules and other things like yeast, toxins, and other forms of waste, that should NOT be entering your blood stream and that your body would not normally allow through, to flow freely through your bloodstream and around your body.
So I can understand that was I just wrote may sound utterly meaningless to some of you (and that’s ok, because it took me a while to understand what it meant and how it worked too. Once you read about it few times and hear a few different ways of it being explained, it can become a bit easier to get your head around).
So let’s find out what’s really going on…
The intestinal lining is the body’s first mechanism of defence for the immune system. The outer layers of intestinal cells (known as epithelial) are connected by structures called tight junctions. At the tops of these are the microvilli, which absorb nutrients that have been properly digested and carry them through the epithelial cell and into the bloodstream. During healthy digestion, the tight junctions stay firmly closed ensuring that anything that has been allowed to pass through has been thoroughly checked and may only be allowed through to the bloodstream through the mucosa cells (they’re like the security guards at the front of a bar). These tight junctions, however, can become permeable (or “open”) for reasons I’ll mention later on, allowing unchecked molecules and substances to pass through to the bloodstream.
So What Causes Tight Junctions to Break Apart?
In sensitive people, gluten can cause the gut cells to release zonulin, which is a protein that can break apart tight junctions in the intestinal lining. Other factors that can also cause these tight junctions to break apart include infections, toxins, stress and age.
Once these tight junctions are broken apart, you have a leaky gut. When your gut is “leaky”, things like toxins, microbes, undigested food particles, and more can pass through your intestines into your bloodstream where they can then travel throughout your body. Your immune system then spots them and marks these”foreign invaders” as pathogens and unleashes an attack on them. As the vast majority of your immune system is found in your gut, this can result in acute inflammation, which, if left untreated for long periods of time, can turn into chronic inflammation, which is at the root of most diseases.
Intestinal hyperpermeability, if left untreated, can be linked to
- Gastric ulcers
- Infectious diarrhoea
- Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS)
- Inflammatory bowel diseases (Crohn’s, ulcerative colitis)
- Coeliac disease
- Esophageal and colorectal cancer
- Respiratory infections
- Acute inflammation conditions (sepsis, SIRS, multiple organ failure)
- Chronic inflammatory conditions (such as arthritis)
- Obesity-related metabolic diseases (fatty liver, Type II diabetes, heart disease)
- Autoimmune disease (lupus, multiple sclerosis, Type I diabetes and more)
- Parkinson’s disease
- Chronic fatigue syndrome
While these diseases are linked, science has not yet proved that intestinal hyperpermeability (leaky gut syndrome) actually causes these conditions, but rather they have been linked as occurring at the same time.
What Causes Leaky Gut?
Some of the underlying causes of leaky gut include:
- Genetic susceptibility – Some people may be more prone to developing leaky gut because they can be more sensitive to environmental factors that “trigger” their body’s response of initiating an autoimmune reaction.
- Unhealthy diet – particularly a diet high in allergenic and inflammatory foods such as grains that haven’t been soaked or sprouted, added sugar (especially refined sugar), GMOs, refined oils, artificial and synthetic food additives, and conventional dairy products.
- Chronic stress
- An overload of toxins in the body – it is estimated that we come into contact with over 80,000 chemicals and toxins every single year! The worst offenders thought to contribute to leaky gut include antibiotics, pesticides, tap water, aspirin and NSAIDS. High drug and alcohol consumption also have a significant impact. Purchasing a high-quality water filter can help eliminate chlorine and fluoride found in tap water, and also sourcing natural plant-based herbs to reduce inflammation in your body can be a huge help.
- Bacterial imbalance in microflora (dysbiosis) – This simply means there is an imbalance between beneficial and harmful species of bacteria in your gut. There is a large amount of evidence now showing the importance of gut microbiota in supporting the epithelial wall and preventing autoimmune reactions.
How Do You Know if You Have Leaky Gut?
The signs and symptoms of leaky gut can be very individual, and may vary substantially from person to person, with some people having gut problems for a long time and not even showing any symptoms. This online quiz can be really helpful in determining some personal risk factors.
Otherwise, here are some of the more common signs and symptoms to look out for that may point to you having an unhealthy gut.
Leaky Gut Signs and Symptoms
Sensitivities to Food
We all are exposed to large amounts of toxins entering our bloodstreams each day, however, the immune system’s of those with intestinal hyperpermeability are on overdrive trying to produce massive amounts of different antibodies in hope of eliminating these toxins. But this comes at a cost as it can make their bodies more susceptible to antigens (harmful substances) in certain foods (especially gluten and dairy). This is one of the most common symptoms of leaky gut.
Malabsorption of Nutrients
Nutritional deficiencies can result from leaky gut due to the body’s inability to absorb nutrients in food properly as the gut lining has become so damaged and inflamed. Common nutrient deficiencies that can result from leaky gut include magnesium, vitamin B12, and digestive enzymes.
The gut-skin connection talks about how intestinal hyperpermeability may play a significant role in causing a multitude of skin conditions, in particular acne and psoriasis. So just using creams and drugs (often containing a heap of side effects) to cover up skin conditions is not the best way to go. If you want to fix the root cause of the problem, not just the symptoms, you’ll need to look deeper and find out what the underlying cause is, which may often be an unhealthy gut. So by healing the gut, it can often help heal your skin too.
Inflammatory Bowel Disease
It was recently discovered back in 2012 by researchers from Hungary that people suffering from irritable bowel syndrome and ulcerative colitis often only have higher levels of gut permeability confined to just the colon area. In these cases, a small study (observing 12 patients) found that supplementing zinc into their diet may help in resolving the abnormal functioning of the tight junctions, however more research is required on a larger scale to confirm these results.
The protein zonulin has been shown to play a key role in causing autoimmune disease through leaky gut. A 2011 article published in the journal Physiologic Reviews stated that:
Zonulin is the only physiological modulator of intercellular tight junctions described so far that is involved in trafficking of macromolecules and, therefore, in tolerance/immune response balance. When the finely tuned zonulin pathway is deregulated in genetically susceptible individuals, both intestinal and extraintestinal autoimmune, inflammatory, and neoplastic disorders can occur.
What does all this highly sophisticated word jumble mean? Well, it talks about how zonulin is a molecule that impacts the performance of tight junctions, and when unregulated, can cause individuals who are particularly susceptible to this molecule to develop autoimmune and inflammatory responses as a result of the tight junctions in the intestinal tract not performing properly.
Eating gluten may trigger this dangerous response. Gluten was found to “activate” the zonulin response regardless of the possibility of it triggering an autoimmune response, which led to increased intestinal permeability to larger, undesired molecules.
The good news is as far as leaky gut plays a role in autoimmune conditions, it is possible to reverse and alleviate some of these undesirable immune responses.
Hashimoto’s disease (a.k.a chronic thyroiditis) is one of the autoimmune diseases that leaky gut syndrome may directly affect. Hypothyroidism (low thyroid function), impaired metabolism, fatigue, depression, weight gain and an array of other concerns, are thought to also be influenced by this disorder.
Mood Problems and Autism
Various neurocognitive disorders have been to be linked to leaky gut. For instance, intestinal hyperpermeability can trigger the release of proinflammatory cytokines and other chemicals that are thought to induce depression.
A common theory in modern science is that autism may be linked to problems in the gut microbiome, particularly within the first year of life. It is thought that leaky gut may be strongly related to autism.
The Bottom Line
Gut health plays a major role in the functioning and well-being of our body. I suspect we will see a rise in research on gut health and leaky gut, and will also see an increase in gut problems over the next few years. But for now, ensuring you fuel your body with nourishing whole foods, replenishing good bacteria with fermented foods and probiotics, ensuring you minimise toxins that enter your body through organic ingredients and natural products, and following a specialised diet (like GAPS, Leaky Gut Diet or Autoimmune) can go a long way in helping to heal your gut and nourish your body more effectively.
As always, this is not personal medical advice and we recommend that you talk with your doctor before trying or using any new products.
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Have you or someone you know had leaky gut? What did you do to help heal your body?
Wells, Katie. (January 23, 2019). Leaky Gut Diet – My Experience with GAPS & SCD. Wellness Mama. Retrieved from https://wellnessmama.com/23461/leaky-gut-diet/
Axe, Josh, Dr., DC, DMN, CNS. (May 8, 2018). Leaky Gut Syndrome: 7 Signs You May Have It. Dr. Axe. Retrieved from https://draxe.com/7-signs-symptoms-you-have-leaky-gut/
Myers, Amy, M.D. (January 24, 2019). 11 Signs You Have Leaky Gut Syndrome. Mind Body Green. Retrieved from https://www.mindbodygreen.com/0-10908/9-signs-you-have-a-leaky-gut.html
Axe, Josh, Dr., DC, DMN, CNS. (July 30, 2018). The Leaky Gut Diet and Treatment Plan, Including Top Gut Foods. Dr. Axe. Retrieved from https://draxe.com/leaky-gut-diet-treatment/