What Is Leaky Gut?: Everything You Need to Know

January 15, 2020

Imgae via Shutterstock

Laura Borinsky, Integrative Nutrition Health Coach, IIN Contributing Editor

Leaky gut syndrome, or as it’s more formally known, “increased intestinal permeability,” occurs when the intestinal lining of your gut becomes too porous, allowing toxins to pass through and leak into your bloodstream. 

Like your skin, your gut is constantly exposed to outside elements. Anything you put in your mouth – whether it’s an organic apple you picked up at the farmers’ market or a delicious slice of birthday cake – heads straight for your small intestine. The difference is that while your skin has seven layers of cells, your intestines have only one. 

This single layer of cells has a tricky job. It’s meant to be somewhat permeable; that’s how we absorb nutrients. But that cell layer also needs to act as a barrier. It keeps out toxins and unwanted microbes so that the body can excrete them as waste.

Tight junctions are areas where two adjacent cell membranes join to form a barrier. These tight junctions regulate what can and cannot enter the bloodstream through the single-cell intestinal layer. Problems start to occur when these tight junctions loosen and unwanted molecules that should be on their way out are able to wiggle through and “leak” into your bloodstream. At that point, the immune system, 80% of which resides in your gut, identifies these foreign invaders and springs into action. Though your immune system is just doing its job, its constant activation can eventually lead to chronic inflammation.

Signs you might have leaky gut syndrome

While gastrointestinal issues may be a sign of increased intestinal permeability, other symptoms can signify compromised intestinal walls. Because leaky gut can lead to chronic inflammation, symptoms can look a lot like allergies, especially in the form of skin problems like eczema or dermatitis.

When your immune system is busy fighting toxins, it has less energy to do its other jobs, such as regulating your hormones and communicating with your brain. This can contribute to brain fog, chronic fatigue, and even symptoms of anxiety and depression.

Another key indicator that leaky gut may be an issue is a sudden increase in food sensitivities, especially to some of your favorite foods. This new sensitivity indicates that your immune system is attacking anything and everything that leaks through your intestinal lining.

Finally, a diagnosis of an autoimmune disease, such as celiac disease, inflammatory bowel syndrome, or lupus, can also be a sign that your gut needs some healing.

What causes leaky gut syndrome?

While some people are genetically predisposed to gut barrier issues, our modern lifestyle certainly doesn’t help. Below are some factors that may contribute to leaky gut syndrome:

  • Gluten: Studies show that gluten can be particularly harmful to the gut wall as it increases the production of zonulin, a protein that can weaken tight junctions. People who tend to experience sensitivity or have a known allergy to gluten are at a higher risk for developing and exacerbating leaky gut.
  • Gut bacteria imbalance: The small intestine is full of good and bad gut bacteria. A healthy gut has mostly beneficial gut bacteria with a small amount of bad gut bacteria. An overgrowth of the bad gut bacteria compromises this delicate balance and can lead to increased intestinal permeability.
  • Medications: Long-term use of over-the-counter medications, especially nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDS), can contribute to leaky gut syndrome. Antibiotics can also affect gut bacteria balance, which, as you now know, may also play a role in increased intestinal permeability.
  • Chronic stress: The gut and brain are intimately connected. Studies show that high levels of stress can have a major impact on gut health. Our bodies are incredibly wise, and every system is designed to keep us safe and healthy. When we experience a stressful situation – whether we’re running from a predator or constantly running late to meetings – our adrenal glands produce cortisol, a stress hormone that then prompts the immune system to kick into overdrive. It’s that fight-or-flight sensation that gives you a burst of energy to get where you need to be. While that’s helpful in small doses, a constantly activated immune system can lead to chronic inflammation, and poor gut health can fuel feelings of stress and anxiety. It’s a vicious cycle!
  • Processed foods: Processed foods tend to be high in sugar and often contain emulsifiers – additives that keep combined foods from separating. While it’s great for shelf life, it’s not so great for the lining of your gut. These gumlike emulsifiers can erode the lining of the small intestine, causing inflammation and contributing to leaky gut. Some common additives to steer clear of are polysorbates, carrageenan, and maltodextrin.
  • Alcohol: Not only can excessive alcohol consumption leave you with a nasty hangover, it also compromises your small intestine. Studies show that alcohol may result in increased intestinal permeability. If you’re not ready to give up your favorite happy hour tradition, try to at least choose a cleaner option. Your gut and your hangover will thank you!

How to support gut health

While delicate, the lining of your small intestine is made up of microvilli that are highly regenerative. When given the break they need, they can repair themselves pretty quickly. Below are some simple lifestyle and dietary changes that help heal a leaky gut.

  • Avoid potentially irritating foods and substances. When your intestinal wall is compromised, it’s best to avoid gluten, processed foods, sugar, dairy, and alcohol, all of which can wreak havoc on the already sensitive cells that line your gut. Choosing organic whole foods will help keep your immune system happy.
  • Eat more healthy fats. Short-chain fatty acids like butyrate not only help heal the lining of your gut, they’re also anti-inflammatory. One great source of butyrate is ghee, or clarified butter. Other healthy fats include coconut oil, avocado, and nuts.
  • Add fermented foods. Kimchi, sauerkraut, kombucha, and other fermented foods are great sources of probiotics that can help replenish the beneficial bacteria in your gut. You can find them at your local grocery store or farmers’ market or try making them at home!
  • Take a probiotic supplement. Studies show that taking a high-quality probiotic supplement can help balance gut bacteria.
  • Try anti-inflammatory supplements. Several supplements can help maintain intestinal wall integrity by fighting inflammation. L-glutamine is an amino acid that improves intestinal barrier function, zinc helps support the immune system, and omega-3 fatty acids help increase anti-inflammatory compounds.
  • Boost your body’s collagen supply. While collagen is widely known for its beauty benefits, it also contains the amino acids needed to repair your gut lining. Studies show that collagen peptide supplements and collagen-rich foods, like bone broth, can help strengthen the gut lining.
  • Find ways to manage stress. Yoga, meditation, and breathing exercises are all great ways to reduce stress and get your body into a parasympathetic state, also known as the rest-and-digest state. A recent study by IIN visiting teacher Deepak Chopra showed that “meditation helps regulate the stress response, thereby suppressing chronic inflammation states and maintaining a healthy gut-barrier function.”

How can Health Coaches help?

Health Coaches help clients learn to listen to their bodies and implement habits that lead to sustainable change. One of the core concepts we teach at IIN is the importance of primary food, the idea that there’s so much more that goes into being healthy than just the food on your plate. You could be eating kimchi for breakfast, lunch, and dinner, but if your stress levels are through the roof, chances are your gut health isn’t doing so well. Health Coaches can help guide clients to make simple lifestyle changes that will result in a healthy, happy gut!

Interested in diving even deeper into gut health? We created the Gut Health Course specifically for Integrative Nutrition students and graduates. It’s one of our most popular courses, and our first class of 2020 starts in February! Click here to learn more and join our next class.

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