Leaky gut. It is a term that evokes some unpleasant imagery, but do you actually know what it is?
A digestive disorder that has been gaining traction in discussions about health of late, leaky gut is still only vaguely understood. For this reason, there are a lot of misconceptions about the disease including what causes it, what the risk factors are, and how to treat it.
In this article, you’ll receive an in-depth look at leaky gut including what it is and what causes it. You’ll learn how to identify the symptoms of leaky gut and receive tips for treatment. So, if you’re ready to get started, keep reading!
What Is Leaky Gut?
In order to understand leaky gut, it is best to think of your digestive tract as a fence protecting your yard. Normally, this fence is very good at preventing things from getting through – things like stray dogs or a soccer ball from the children next door. However, if the fence develops holes, things will get through that shouldn’t – soon you’ll have a yard full of kickballs, Whiffle balls, and Frisbees.
Leaky gut, also known as increased intestinal permeability, occurs when the lining of your digestive tract allows particles into your bloodstream that should not be entering. Your digestive lining, which is normally geared to only allow helpful particles through, has begun to accept particles that are no good for you – these could be toxins, microbes, or undigested food particles. This condition is thought to create an array of health problems and a variety of symptoms.
When talking about leaky gut, it is important to understand that very little is definitively known about this disease. While it is becoming a more common topic in medical circles, there is still considerable pushback against the notion that it is a prevalent condition. In fact, it has only recently even been purported to exist. Likewise, there is disagreement about the maladies to which it is truly connected and what methods are best to cure and prevent it.
There is so much disagreement in the medical community about this condition that medical students are not taught to diagnose leaky gut. As more research is conducted, hopefully more certain lines may be drawn regarding the diagnosis and treatment of the condition. However, it presently remains a gray area in the medical field. Because of this dubious status, it is best to take a general and cautious approach when considering approaches to diagnosis and treatment.
Signs and Symptoms of Leaky Gut
One of the things that makes leaky gut such a difficult dysfunction to assess is the fact that it may be linked to such a vast array of ailments. In fact, many leaky gut symptoms can be attributed to other health problems. However, the presence of many of the following symptoms, or particularly severe symptoms, could be a sign that it is time to consider leaky gut:
- Food sensitivities
- Inflammatory bowel disease
- Autoimmune disease
- Thyroid disease
- Malabsorption of nutrients
- Skin ailments
- Neurocognitive disorders
- Digestive upset
Now, let’s take a closer look at each of these symptoms.
1. Food Sensitivities
Food sensitivities are one of the most common signs of leaky gut. As undigested food particles and toxins enter the bloodstream, the immune system can be forced to work particularly hard in order to produce the necessary antibodies. An insufficient response can result in inflammation and irritation of the digestive tract
2. Inflammatory Bowel Disease
Inflammatory bowel disease is also thought to be a symptom of leaky gut because elevated gut permeability is often localized in the colon for those suffering from inflammatory bowel diseases such as Crohn’s disease, celiac disease, or irritable bowel syndrome.
3. Autoimmune Disease
Autoimmune disease is another possible signifier of leaky gut. Eating gluten can often activate zonulin signaling, which could result in increased intestinal permeability to macromolecules.
4. Thyroid Disease
Thyroid diseases such as Hashimoto’s disease (also known as “chronic thyroiditis”) are thought to be a potential sign of leaky gut. Thyroid issues may include or lead to hypothyroidism, impaired metabolism, fatigue, depression, or weight gain.
5. Malabsorption of Nutrients
The inability to absorb key nutrients such as vitamin B12, magnesium, and key enzymes could potentially be related to leaky gut.
6. Skin Ailments
It has long been thought that the health of the stomach is closely related to the health of skin, which is why it makes sense that some skin diseases have been discussed as possible signs of leaky gut. While remedies such as ointments and creams often get the job done, sometimes adjustments to diet and oral medicines can be equally effective.
7. Neurocognitive Disorders
It has been hypothesized that there may be a connection between neurocognitive disorders, including mood issues and autism, and leaky gut. For instance, it is established in literature that children with autism have increased permeability of the intestinal tract (i.e. higher instances of leaky gut). It is not known what the cause is or how these relationships work, but it is believed that the connections could be significant.
8. Digestive Upset
More generally speaking, symptoms like bloating, gas, cramps, and aches and pains in the stomach all have the potential to be linked in some way to leaky gut.
With an incredibly long list of connected ailments including allergies, asthma, autoimmune disease, eczema, inflammatory bowel disease, psoriasis, rheumatoid arthritis, systemic inflammatory response syndrome, and type 1 diabetes, it is fair to say that some caution should be applied when considering your prospects of having leaky gut.
Again, very little is agreed upon in the medical community regarding the status of this disease. That means it is not fully understood what its symptoms truly are, how to treat them, or whether it really exists. It is best to only seriously consider a diagnosis if symptoms are numerous or severe, and always to trust the advice of medical professionals when it comes to your diagnosis.
Even so, it is important to understand your risk factors for the disease – keep reading to learn what they are.
Risk Factors for Leaky Gut
Though there is a great deal of controversy surrounding the legitimacy of the disease, there are theories about what could potentially put you at risk for leaky gut. The first, and perhaps most obvious, is poor diet.
One of the most widely accepted dietary causes of leaky gut is thought to be high levels of phytates and lectins which can be found in un-sprouted grains, sugar, GMOs, and conventional dairy products. These antinutrients help to protect plants from things like mold and parasites, but are not so helpful to you. If consumed in too large of a quantity, they can cause damage to the lining of your intestines. Given the nature of leaky gut, this is one of the more popularly believed causes.
While poor diet and the overconsumption of lectins and phytates is thought to very directly instigate the problems most central to leaky gut, there is another potential cause that is considered likely simply because it is related to such a wide bevy of problems: chronic stress.
If you are suffering from chronic stress, your immune system is likely taking a hit. Being stressed out can do a number on your health including elevated blood pressure and increased risk for heart attack and stroke . Additionally, chronic stress makes you more likely to suffer from leaky gut.
Another potential cause for leaky gut is an overload of toxins. By consuming too many antibiotics, pesticides, medicines that are harmful to the stomach, NSAIDS, or dirty water, you may be exposing your stomach to conditions that could lead to leaky gut. By making sure that you are only consuming healthy substances, you can help to keep your stomach safer.
Lastly, a bacterial imbalance has the potential to cause leaky gut. This condition, also known as dysbiosis, occurs when too many harmful bacteria are in your stomach while too few beneficial bacteria are there. Whether or not these factors are likely to give you leaky gut is still being researched, but it is generally agreed upon that you will be creating a healthier situation for your stomach and yourself by avoiding them as best you can.
Treating Leaky Gut
The first option for treating leaky gut is to simply remove the foods that could be causing the ailment and replacing them with healthier options. This means ditching things like sugar, grains, conventional meats and dairy, and GMOs. Instead, you can try natural alternatives. A few to consider are bone broth, raw culture dairy, fermented vegetables, coconut products, and sprouted seeds.
Bone broth contains certain properties that may make it useful for combatting leaky gut symptoms such as collagen and amino acids which help to heal damage in the digestive lining. Raw cultured dairy is another option as it contains probiotics and SCFA’s that are healthy for the stomach. Acceptable options include yogurt, butter, and raw cheese.
Fermented vegetables may be able to assist in treatment of leaky gut because they contain organic acids that help to balance intestinal pH, while they also include probiotics that are known to be healthy for the stomach. Another food that has been shown to be particularly healthy for the stomach is coconut. Nearly all coconut products are likely to improve the health of your gut because of easily digestible MCFAs.
Lastly among the dietary options, sprouted seeds can provide a helpful option for preventing leaky gut (remember that un-sprouted seeds are a source of the lectins that can cause damage to the digestive lining). Chia seeds, flaxseeds, and hemp seeds are all viable options that can help balance out the ratio of beneficial bacteria to harmful bacteria in your stomach.
It is also possible to utilize supplements and probiotics in order to keep a balanced and healthy set of nutrients in your gut. Options like digestive enzymes, glutamine, licorice root, or quercetin could provide you with the healthy supplements that you need. Probiotics may be the best example of supplemental options to help your stomach. They can help to keep beneficial bacteria populated in your gut while limiting the spread of bad bacteria.
Another option is digestive enzymes which help to make sure that foods are fully digested. As you may recall, undigested foods getting into the bloodstream can be a serious problem for those suffering from leaky gut, which makes these supplements an immediately beneficial option.
Other supplements that may help include L-glutamine, licorice root, and quercetin. L-glutamine, or just glutamine, is an anti-inflammatory option that can help repair the damage in your digestive system by coating your cell walls. Licorice root helps to balance cortisol levels and improve acid production in the stomach. Quercetin may improve gut barrier function, helping to create tight junction proteins, which in turn help to prevent the holes that allow bad particles to leak through the lining of the intestines.
Lastly and most simply, you can improve the health of your digestive system by consuming more fiber. It is a time-tested method that foregoes fancy-sounding foods and supplements for good old whole grains, nuts, and beans.
Summary: What to Do about Leaky Gut
Leaky gut is a mysterious ailment that still has a way to go before it is fully understood. This can make it seem particularly intimidating, as it may appear as if there is no way to know if you are really suffering from it.
However, that does not mean that you cannot follow simple methods to keep yourself healthy and safe. Anything you can do to promote the health of your stomach is a good bet to help prevent leaky gut from becoming a problem for you. Regardless of whether you are at risk for leaky gut, you will benefit from taking a few simple steps towards a healthier stomach.
Action Steps: How to Keep Your Stomach Healthy
- Keep track of all of the food you eat for one week, including portions. At the end of the week, add up all of the fiber that you have eaten. Are you getting your recommended 25 grams per day? You may be surprised to learn that you need another 10 grams of fiber per day – or more!
- Get some additional fiber into your routine by eating at least one of the following every day: one apple, one avocado, one cup of broccoli, one quarter cup of oatmeal, or one cup of raspberries. Eat these healthy options as a snack between meals.
- Spend one more week getting into a regular routine of eating these healthy foods as a snack. Once you have done that, again track your eating patterns for a week.
- Based on how much closer you are to reaching 25 grams per day after adding these snacks into your diet, you can estimate how much more you may need to add in order to get to that mark. Conversely, if you find yourself exceeding the mark substantially, you will know that you can afford to cut down if you would like to.