Leaky gut syndrome is a common but often undiagnosed condition which not only affects the digestive system, but many other bodily systems and functions too.
In the following post, we’ll start out with the 8 most common signs of leaky gut. From there, we’ll move on to 7 of the top causes of this damaging digestive disorder. Finally, we finish with the 15 best ways to naturally heal a leaky gut which can improve every aspect of your life and your good health!
8 Signs of Leaky Gut
In healthy people, the lining of the digestive tract is only slightly permeable, to allow certain nutrients and substances through.
However, in those with a leaky gut (also known as increased intestinal permeability, or intestinal hyper-permeability), the tract has become damaged and develops larger openings. This allows bigger molecules such as food proteins, bacteria, and waste products to pass through.
These molecules can wreak havoc on our bodies, causing symptoms which are seemingly unrelated to the gut! Here are 8 signs you may have a leaky gut and not yet know it:
1. Food Sensitivities
One in five adults report a food intolerance. However, the true number is believed to be much higher. This is because the symptoms of food sensitivities (which you can read about here) are so varied and non-specific.
These food intolerances – also known as Type B food allergies – can occur in reaction to literally any one (or more than one) food or drink. Although the mechanisms underlying this type of food sensitivity are not yet fully understood, leaky gut is often thought to be to blame.
Because leaky gut allows large food particles to enter the bloodstream, the immune system views these as toxins and produces antibodies against them. Each time the food is consumed, the immune system kicks into action. This immune response drives the intolerance and causes its symptoms.
For the majority of people, Type B food allergies aren’t a lifelong condition. As such, healing leaky gut is one of the many steps you can take to reverse your body’s aversion to such foods and prevent the development of further allergies.
2. Nutritional Deficiencies
A leaky gut can lead to various vitamin and mineral deficiencies. This is because poor digestion, inflammation, and damage to carrier proteins inhibit their absorption.
If you are suffering any of the side effects of, or have been diagnosed with, a deficiency in iron, magnesium, zinc, copper, calcium, boron, silicon, or manganese – despite eating a diet rich in these nutrients – leaky gut may be to blame.
A food-based natural multivitamin and multi-mineral will provide much needed nutrients while you are working to heal the gut.
Learn the facts about the most common nutrient deficiencies, as well as how to naturally reverse them in this article.
3. Skin Conditions
Since the 1930s, scientists have been aware of the gut-skin connection. Modern research has confirmed this as an important and very real relationship. An inflamed gut can often manifest itself as inflamed skin, even in the absence of any digestive disorders!
Those suffering with such skin conditions should work on supporting and healing the gut, rather than investing in expensive medications and topical creams, which don’t even come close to touching the root of the problem!
4. Digestive Issues
Digestive distress may manifest in the form of gas, bloating, diarrhea, or irritable bowel syndrome. These are all tell-tale signs that there is something wrong in the gut.
Those with diarrhea-predominant IBS (D-IBS), for example, tend to display increased intestinal permeability, according to research published in the journal Pain.
Other research suggests that leaky gut is prevalent in the majority of Crohn’s disease patients, as well as in up to 20% of their first degree relatives and spouses. These statistics suggest that environment and lifestyle play a major role in cases of leaky gut.
5. Autoimmune Disease
Leaky gut syndrome is almost always associated with autoimmune disease. These disorders include alopecia, rheumatoid arthritis, multiple sclerosis, fibromyalgia, Hashimoto’s disease, Crohn’s disease, ulcerative colitis and type 1 diabetes. As such, reversing and minimizing symptoms of autoimmune disease is usually dependent upon healing the lining of the gut.
The link between autoimmune disease and leaky gut can be explained by the action of a protein called zonulin, which plays a role in maintaining the integrity of intestinal tissues. When zonulin’s pathway is disrupted in some people, autoimmune and inflammatory disorders can occur.
Celiac sufferers have been found to have higher levels of zonulin, suggesting that increased levels of the protein are a contributing factor to the development of the disease. It also highlights gluten consumption as a potential cause of intestinal hyper-permeability.
6. Mood Disorders
Mood and mental disorders such as depression, anxiety, autism, and ADHD have all been linked with leaky gut.
The brain and gastrointestinal system share an intimate connection, known as the gut-brain axis. The gut also produces up to 90% of the body’s serotonin – the feel good hormone which regulates our mood. Serotonin is connected to our appetite, sleep, learning, and memory capabilities. So it should come as surprise that an unhealthy gut leads to mood disorders.
A study published in the journal Neuro Endocrinology Letters has shown that the inflammatory response triggered by intestinal hyper-permeability causes the release of pro-inflammatory substances. This, in turn, leads to depression.
7. Chronic Fatigue Syndrome
Chronic fatigue syndrome (CFS) is a disorder characterized by extreme tiredness that cannot be pinned to a specific cause. The condition doesn’t improve with rest, yet can be exacerbated by physical or mental exertion.
Although the exact cause is unknown, there are many theories – one of which is leaky gut.
Several studies link chronic fatigue and leaky gut, including a 2008 Belgian study which showed that treating leaky gut in a 13 year old girl resulted in a complete remission of her CFS symptoms.
8. Unexplained Weight Gain
Gaining weight (or failing to lose weight) despite following a healthy diet and exercise regimen can be a symptom of inflammation caused by a leaky gut.
In 2012, Brazilian researchers published a review exploring the role of intestinal permeability in obesity. They identified three risk factors which are likely to cause both intestinal permeability and promote obesity in some people: an imbalance of bacteria in the gut, poor diet and nutrient deficiencies.
7 Common Causes of Leaky Gut
If you can relate to some of the above symptoms, you may in fact have a leaky gut. Still, the above symptoms are common to a number of other disorders. So how can anyone be sure that a leaky gut is the cause? Of course, you will want to consult with a licensed physician to be sure. However, in the mean time, review the following 7 common causes of leaky gut which may help you to more accurately identify the disorder.
1. Gluten Consumption
Researchers have identified a protein called zonulin that increases intestinal permeability (leaky gut) in both people and animals.
Celiac sufferers have been found to have higher levels of zonulin (which we discussed briefly above). This suggests that increased levels of zonulin are a contributing factor to the development of celiac disease and other autoimmune disorders.
Wheat and other gluten-containing grains like rye and barley contain a protein called gliadin. This protein directly contributes to leaky gut by increasing zonulin production. For this reason, gluten is best limited or avoided entirely in the diet.
Here are just a few more reasons why you may want to eliminate gluten from your diet.
2. Imbalance of Gut Bacteria
The importance of maintaining a healthy balance of gut bacteria cannot be overstated. It influences everything from your immune function and energy levels to cognitive abilities and mood.
Gut bacteria also play a huge role in maintaining the structural integrity of the gut lining. When there are more ‘bad bacteria’ in the gut then ‘good bacteria’, it’s called dysbiosis – a state which leads to inflammation of the gut wall.
Having the right balance of gut bacteria helps prevent the production of inflammatory substances, while increasing the amount of intestinal wall-strengthening proteins. Dysbiosis also means that the bad bacteria in the gut form toxins which can make it through weakened intestinal walls into the bloodstream, where they lead to a whole host of negative symptoms.
Learn how to improve your gut health naturally with these 13 tips!
3. A Poor Diet
Diets high in refined carbohydrates, sugar, alcohol, and processed foods all contribute to leaky gut by upsetting the balance of bacteria in the digestive tract, encouraging damage to the intestinal lining.
These types of food also cause an inflammatory response which builds on the inflammation caused by leaky gut, compounding your problems.
Gut bacteria play an extremely important role in maintaining intestinal integrity. Thus it’s no surprise to learn that antibiotics (which disrupt the delicate balance of said bacteria) can contribute to leaky gut syndrome. This effect highlights the importance of eating fermented foods and supplementing with probiotics following a course of antibiotic medication.
Corticosteroid drugs suppress the immune system and raise levels of cortisol (the stress hormone), which can break down the gut lining when secreted in high amounts.
Over-the-counter drugs such as non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) are no better. Medications like ibuprofen and aspirin have been shown to increase intestinal permeability within just 24 hours of use. With regular consumption, these can easily become a key factor in the development of leaky gut.
While some drug treatments may be unavoidable, discuss all the options with your doctor. Always opt to go the natural route to deal with your condition if possible. In the case of NSAIDs, try some painkilling herbs and spices before heading to the drugstore.
5. Infection and Illness
Often people will notice a general sense of ill-health following recovery from a case of food poisoning, or other infection or illness. Although the symptoms of the initial illness have been cured, this feeling of being under the weather may persist due to leaky gut and its effects on other bodily systems.
Viral, fungal, and bacterial infections such as the stomach flu or traveler’s diarrhea can damage the gut lining. The same goes for internal parasites. All of these forms of infection throw the delicate balance of gut bacteria out of whack. Furthermore, many of these conditions are treated with strong doses of antibiotics and other leaky-gut inducing drugs!
6. Chronic Stress
Feeling stressed out over work, finances, relationships, and even global catastrophes all contribute to a leaky gut.
That’s because the bacteria present in the digestive system can actually sense stress in the body – thanks to the intimate connection known as the gut-brain axis. They are also able to detect the presence of the stress hormones adrenaline and cortisol. As previously mentioned, these can also break down the gut lining.
Oddly enough, it has been found that usually harmless microbes become pathogenic in the face of such stress hormones. This leads to infection and inflammation; and once again the gut flora is thrown into dysbiosis!
When our stress response kicks in (known as ‘fight-or-flight’ mode) it shuts down the digestive and immune systems, leaving us even more susceptible to illness and bacterial overgrowth.
7. Hormonal Imbalances
Just like gut bacteria, our hormones must maintain a delicate balance in order for us to experience optimal health. Research shows that our hormones and gut flora interact with, and influence, each other.
Low levels of the thyroid hormones, the female sex hormones estrogen and progesterone, and the male sex hormone testosterone, have all been shown to contribute to leaky gut syndrome.
Discover how to balance your hormones naturally with these 10 tips!
15 Ways To Fix Leaky Gut
If any of the above causes of leaky gut seem to be relavent to your life, you’ll definitely want to begin taking steps to fix the problem as soon as possible! Repairing hyper-permeability in the gut and undoing the damage done to the gastrointestinal tract requires a multi-faceted approach. Here are 15 steps you can take to initiate and expedite the process of healing a leaky gut.
1. Identify and Remove Food Sensitivities
Intolerances or allergies to certain foods greatly exacerbate the symptoms of leaky gut syndrome. By removing the offending foods, you will reduce inflammation and give your digestive tract time to smooth and repair itself.
Identifying food sensitivities can be tricky, particularly as many intolerances are ‘masked’ – meaning the symptoms don’t show themselves for several hours or even days after consumption. Many people have multiple intolerances, making identifying problematic foods all the more difficult.
Gluten is by far one of the most common dietary intolerances. It has been found to play a role in increasing intestinal permeability because it increases the production of zonulin. (As previously mentioned, zonulin can degrade the integrity of intestinal tissues.)
An elimination diet – whereby you remove common allergens for up to three weeks before reintroducing them one at a time and gauging reactions – is considered the gold standard in uncovering food allergies. Once leaky gut is healed, many people find they can reintroduce former allergens on an infrequent basis without suffering any adverse reactions.
2. Clean Up Your Diet
As we discussed in the causes of leaky gut, a diet based predominantly on refined carbohydrates, sugar, dairy, alcohol, and processed foods is a major culprit of the disorder. Unless the diet is modified and these types of foods are removed, it’s not possible for the gut lining to renew itself.
Sugar and refined grains (which break down quickly into sugar) feed bad bacteria and yeasts which damage the gut. In a high-sugar environment, these troublesome microbes can multiply rapidly and quickly outnumber the ‘good bacteria’ which normally prevent the production of inflammatory substances and protect the integrity of intestinal walls. Bad bacteria also produce waste toxins which are known to damage the gut further.
Dairy milk is another food which often leads to leaky gut. This is thanks to the presence of a protein called casein, which can be just as damaging as gluten.
Other gastrointestinal (GI) irritants include alcohol, caffeine and pro-inflammatory foods like corn, soy, and gluten-grains.
Eat a diet based on fresh fruits, vegetables, non-gluten grains (such as quinoa and amaranth), nuts, seeds, beneficial oils (like olive and coconut), and healthy protein sources such as beans, lentils, fatty fish and organic, grass-feed meat.
3. Legumes, Seeds, Sprouts and Ferment Grains
Grains, beans, lentils, soy, nuts, and seeds all contain substances called lectins and phytates which can inhibit nutrient absorption and irritate the gut lining.
However, these nutritious foods also make up an important part of a well-balanced diet. They help to improve satiety, and provide protein, fiber, vitamins, and minerals. Proper preparation is the key to maximize their health benefits while minimizing the potential risks.
Soaking, sprouting and/or fermenting these foods – a common practice in many ancient and traditional cultures – reduces both phytates and lectins, improving digestion, inhibiting anti-nutrient properties, and freeing up vitamins and minerals for absorption.
4. Filter Your Water and Eat Organic
More than 84,000 chemicals are legally for sale in the US. This means that every day we are exposed to a whole host of toxins which are compromising the health of our bodies.
These toxic chemicals can disturb the fine balance of bacteria in the gut. And just like many foods, they can irritate the delicate lining of the GI tract.
Using a water filter to eliminate chlorine and fluoride, as well as consuming only organic foods are two of the easiest ways to minimize the toxins you ingest.
5. Reduce Medication Use
Where possible, reduce your reliance on medications like antibiotics, corticosteroids, and over-the-counter pain killers.
As we discussed earlier, antibiotics destroy the protective bacteria in the gut, while steroids suppress the immune system and raise levels of cortisol – the stress hormone – both of which can break down the gut lining. Also, non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) like ibuprofen and aspirin have been shown to increase intestinal permeability within just 24 hours of use. If you use these regularly, your gut won’t have time to heal.
Discuss natural options to your health issues with your doctor or qualified naturopath before reaching for these harsh medications.
6. Learn To Manage Stress
Amazingly, the bacteria in our digestive systems can actually sense stress in the body! They can also detect the presence of adrenaline and cortisol – two stress hormones which can break down the gut lining if secreted in sufficient amounts.
Researchers have also found that usually harmless microbes become pathogenic when exposed to these stress hormones, which leads to infection, inflammation, and an increase in toxins which harm the gut.
Of course, exposure to stressors is practically unavoidable. However, reducing them wherever possible and learning how to manage stress more effectively is key to healing leaky gut. Exercise, massage, meditation, hydrotherapy, deep breathing techniques, and even relaxing salt baths are all fantastic de-stressing options!
7. Take Probiotics and Eat Fermented Foods
Probiotics are beneficial bacteria which naturally reside in the gut. They help prevent or heal leaky gut by keeping pathogenic bacteria and viruses under control.
These helpful microbes play a huge role in maintaining healthy digestion, as well as proper immune system and brain function. They also work to reduce inflammation in the digestive tract and throughout the entire body.
Probiotic supplements are strongly recommended for anyone suffering from leaky gut. Beneficial bacteria can also be ingested by consuming fermented foods like miso, tempeh, kimchi, kefir, and sauerkraut. (Learn how to make your own fermented foods here!)
8. Cook with Coconut Oil and Milk
Coconut products like coconut oil, milk, and kefir are very beneficial when it comes to treating leaky gut.
Coconut contains caprylic acid, lauric acid, and capric acid – three potent anti-viral and antifungal acids that work to kill the bad bacteria which contribute to the hyper-permeability of the digestive tract. They also fight inflammation and support ‘good’ bacteria.
What’s more, the medium-chain fatty acids in coconut oil are easier to absorb and digest. This makes it a preferable option for those who have the symptoms of digestive distress so often associated with leaky gut.
9. Use Digestive Enzymes
Enzymes are substances in the body which work to break down the nutrients in food into smaller, easily digestible units. This not only helps in nutrient absorption – something many with leaky gut struggle with – but the proper breakdown of food particles ensures that large molecules are not making their way through the gut wall and into the bloodstream.
Digestive enzymes also boost immune function, and encourage the growth of beneficial bacteria in the gut – with both actions helping to reduce the inflammation associated with leaky gut.
Choose an enzyme product containing proteases, lipases, and amylases which break down proteins, fats, and carbohydrates respectively. Herbal bitters, which you can get at any health store, are also effective digestive enzymes.
Getting your diet under control to fix leaky gut also requires consuming sufficient amounts of six key nutrients. They are:
A zinc deficiency is all too common today, and especially so in leaky gut sufferers. Supplementing with zinc is effective at addressing signs of deficiency while reducing gut permeability, particularly as zinc is required for the growth and healing of cells, and has anti-inflammatory properties.
This amino acid is considered the ‘preferred fuel’ for the cells lining the small intestine, meaning it is the ideal nutrient to repair leaky gut. L-glutamine has anti-inflammatory properties, and can coat the cell walls to protect the gut from ingested irritants.
12. Aloe Vera Juice
This juice, which you can make at home, has a number of benefits for leaky gut and overall digestive health. It fights inflammation, prevents harmful microbes from attaching to the gut lining, protects from toxins and allergens, and facilitates the movement of food particles through the digestive tract.
Alternately, you can pick up premade Organic Aloe Vera juice here.
13. Licorice Root (DGL)
An adaptogenic herb, deglycyrrhizinated licorice (DGL) helps balance cortisol levels in the body, reducing stress on the digestive system. It also helps maintain the health of the stomach lining and to soothe away gut inflammation.
This supplement limits the release of histamine, a common substance implicated in many cases of food sensitivities. Quercetin also helps in the sealing of the gut by tightening junctions. Tight junctions connect intestinal cells, which helps to keep larger food particles from leaking outside the gut.
Its anti-allergy properties, anti-cancer effects, and antioxidant function also speed up treatment of leaky gut.
You can find all-natural Quercitin supplements in capsule form here.
15. Slippery Elm
Slippery elm has been used to heal the gut for centuries. It contains mucilage, a gel-like substance which coats the intestines and stomach. Slippery elm also stimulates nerve endings in the intestinal tract to increase mucus secretion, protecting the gut from excess acidity and toxins. Furthermore, antioxidants in this supplement can help relieve symptoms of inflammatory bowel.