You’ve probably run into the term “leaky gut” or “leaky gut syndrome” within the past few years if you’ve been paying any attention to the topic of health.
Leaky gut, or increased intestinal permeability, is a condition where toxins, microorganisms, and small food particles, get through the intestinal wall and into the bloodstream where they don’t belong. This can lead to a whole bunch of nasty symptoms.
Although this is a relatively new area of study, there’s now quite a bit of scientific research showing that leaky gut is associated with many different health problems and illnesses.
I’ve mentioned leaky gut in a few articles before and realized I never explained what it is! So in this article, I’ll go over what exactly leaky gut is, the causes, the symptoms, and the long-term effects.
What Is Leaky Gut?
Our gastrointestinal tract breaks down our food and absorbs nutrients into the body. It also houses trillions of bacteria both friendly and pathogenic that makeup what’s called our gut microbiome.
Basically, the friendly bacteria that make up our gut microbiome have 4 main jobs within the body:
- aids us in the digestion of food
- helps us absorb nutrients
- produces vitamins and neurotransmitters
- facilitates immune system functions
It’s easy to see why many people say our health begins here, in the gut. Every aspect of our health is affected by the health of the gut, which is why it’s important to understand what leaky gut means.
Leaky gut is another name for “intestinal permeability” or “epithelial barrier dysfunction.”
Your intestinal wall is just one cell thick! This thin wall is the only thing that comes between the inside of your intestines and your circulatory system. When the “tight junctions” between the epithelial cells of your intestinal wall become loose or broken down, things leak out that shouldn’t.
We all need some intestinal permeability because this is how our nutrients and chemicals get absorbed into our bodies for use. Tight junctions regulate what comes in and out of the intestinal wall. Leaky gut happens when those tight junctions aren’t so tight anymore. As a result, food particles, toxins, and potential pathogens are able to enter the bloodstream causing an immune system response and inflammation.
If leaky gut goes unnoticed or is allowed to persist over a long period of time, the damage can be extensive and the symptoms can vary.
What Causes Leaky Gut?
Here are a few of the many potential causes of leaky gut:
When we’re stressed our body releases our primary stress hormone, cortisol. Cortisol is very handy when you’re under a real physical threat that you need to fight off or run away from. It shuts down all the bodily processes that use up your energy in favor of using that energy for pure survival.
If we are under chronic stress, we are always activating our sympathetic nervous system with cortisol and shutting down important processes like digestion. If we never get to rest, digest, and repair, our bodies – and our gut lining – will suffer.
Stress and depression cause inflammation in the body, which is an immune response.
2. Nutrient Deficiencies
We need B vitamins, vitamin C, vitamin A, vitamin D, magnesium, zinc, selenium, iron, and others, for healthy digestion. If you are lacking in important vitamins and minerals your gut can get leaky.
Zinc, for example, strengthens the barrier of the gut lining making this mineral very important for gut health.
Many B vitamins aid in the breakdown of protein, fat, carbohydrates, and alcohol. When they are lacking we are no longer able to absorb nutrients used to keep the gut lining strong. This damages our health in general as well because we aren’t able to get enough energy to carry out many of our bodily functions properly.
3. NSAIDs like ibuprophen
Managing pain can be difficult for some people without the use of NSAIDs like ibuprofen but it may to time to look at some alternatives.
NSAIDs, or nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs, help us lessen pain by reducing inflammation. Inflammation is a natural healing response of the immune system. It’s an alert that something is wrong and the body is trying to address it. So inflammation in itself isn’t bad.
Instead of always covering up chronic inflammation, we should figure out what is causing the inflammation in the first place. There may be a way to get to the source of the issue so the body can continue healing itself.
NSAIDs not only damage the gut lining but also kill our gut bacteria. Long-term use can even give us ulcers. But you don’t have to be using them long term to experience the negative effects of these popular drugs. There was a study done that showed an “increase in intestinal permeability resulting from a single 600 mg oral dose of aspirin.”
Other medications that can contribute to leaky gut are birth control pills, antacids (especially proton-pump inhibitors or PPIs), steroids, and antibiotics.
Antibiotics can be life-saving if you have an infection but they are also very overprescribed and bacteria are now becoming resistant to them. Can you imagine needing an antibiotic only to find that it doesn’t work? Maybe this has already happened to you.
To make matters worse, antibiotics also kill our gut microbiome. This makes us vulnerable to infection and creates opportunities for pathogens to start taking over the gut. Without our friendly bacteria, we have no protection.
There is also a link between antibiotics and depression (and remember depression and stress cause inflammation) so take them when they are truly needed, but it might be a good idea to do some damage control afterward.
5. The Standard American Diet (SAD)
The standard American diet, or SAD, isn’t just limited to the United States, unfortunately. This popular high-sugar, high-processed foods diet is very damaging to our health and is spreading around the globe. Over the last few years, it’s been relieving to see that people are starting to become more health-conscious and learning more about what we should be eating.
So we know that sugar, unhealthy fats, and processed foods destroy our health and the gut microbiome. And we know that the gut microbiome is critical to building, maintaining, and repairing the gut lining. It’s clear that eating this way can cause leaky gut.
But SAD is also lacking in some important things that help support gut health so start with whole foods in general. Depending on your own digestive issues and food sensitivities this diet can look different from person to person. Just make sure that the foods you eat are as unprocessed as possible. These whole foods such as beef, chicken, eggs, fish, vegetables, and fruits are an important way to get all the nutrients mentioned above into your diet to prevent your gut lining from deteriorating.
Abusing alcohol damages the pancreas which means it won’t release digestive enzymes to help break down our food. This again results in you not being able to absorb nutrients properly and your gut won’t be able to build, maintain, and repair itself.
7. Gut bacterial or fungal imbalance
I mentioned that when your gut microbiota is decimated, you will have a lot of trouble absorbing nutrients, creating vitamins, synthesizing neurotransmitters, and supporting the immune system.
If you have an overgrowth this can cause havoc as well.
SIBO, or small intestinal bacterial overgrowth, and SIFO, or small intestinal fungal overgrowth, happen when bacteria or fungus are allowed to flourish in the small intestine when they are supposed to be in controlled numbers in the colon.
This can lead to vitamin deficiencies as the bacteria or fungus get first dibs on the food you eat before your body can absorb it.
One common type of SIFO is a fungal infection or overgrowth caused by a yeast called Candida albicans. We are supposed to have some Candida in our guts but if it gets out of control, it can also grow into our tight junctions in the intestinal walls and create larger holes. I wrote about my experience with Candida and a healing program that worked for me here.
8. Environmental Toxins
Another cause I will mention is environmental toxins such as the pesticides, heavy metals, and chemicals in plastic such as BPA. These can be very damaging to the gut lining and when they enter the bloodstream can cause lots of health problems. It’s best to eat organic when you can and be aware of the packaging your food and beverages come in as the chemicals can leech into them.
What Are The Symptoms of Leaky Gut?
The symptoms of leaky gut are varied but there are a lot of similar complaints: heartburn, indigestion, constipation, diarrhea, bloating, fatigue, acne, rashes, hives, rosacea, brain fog, migraines, depression, anxiety, inability to focus, memory issues, abdominal pain, joint pain, food sensitivities, and more.
Although this list could be attributed to many other issues, they all seem to happen along with leaky gut. That’s what makes it hard to diagnose. Leaky gut shares a lot of these common problems with other illnesses.
But what’s very telling is that when you start treating leaky gut, all these symptoms start to disappear.
What Health Problems Result From Leaky Gut?
There are many illnesses and diseases associated with leaky gut such as irritable bowel syndrome or IBS, SIBO, Candida, Celiac, Crohn’s, diabetes – really, the list is very long.
These diseases are definitely exacerbated by leaky gut and some may be caused by it. It can be unclear at times if leaky gut is the cause of some of these issues or if these issues cause leaky gut. The link, however, is plain to see.
If you have leaky gut for a longer period of time there is evidence to suggest that it can cause autoimmune diseases such as lupus, rheumatoid arthritis, and psoriasis to name a few.
This is because when our intestinal wall is continually letting things into the bloodstream, keeping our immune system response switched on, our own immune cells may get confused as to why it can’t get things under control and start to attack our own cells.
Up to 80% of your immune system is located in your gut. So it makes sense that we need to heal our gut in addition to other treatments you may need in order to address any autoimmune disease.
I Think I Might Have Leaky Gut
If all of this is clicking for you, you may have leaky gut. I believe with the state of the environment today, our modern stressful lifestyle, and our horrible diets it’s not surprising that most people would have issues associated with leaky gut.
So what’s the next step? How do we heal? I wrote an article going over the 5 ways to heal leaky gut.
Let me know if you have any experience with leaky gut or its symptoms. Do you suspect that one of the possible causes was listed in this article? Share in the comments!
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