What is leaky gut and why does it matter?

Gut and digestive system image

What is leaky gut?

Our gut is one of our first lines of defense and acts as a barrier between the inside and outside world. Leaky gut, otherwise known as intestinal permeability, is essentially when your gut barrier is breached.

Normally, the gut lining is one of the body’s first lines of defense, and the intestinal cells stay closely packed together to let in food in only its smallest, most digested form. For instance, protein is ideally broken down into its most simple building blocks, amino acids, before it gets passed through to the rest of the body. Meanwhile, the gut keeps “junk” out, including bacterial toxins released by the trillions of microorganism neighbors that make up our gut microbiome.

In leaky gut, however, the “glue” holding our intestinal cells together, called tight junctions, is weakened, which creates “holes” in our gut lining. If our normal gut lining is like a fine-meshed strainer, leaky gut is like a colander, which allows much larger substances through.

Leaky gut lining and normal gut lining analogy

Why It Matters

Ultimately, a leaky gut lining reduces its ability to act as a barrier and allows partially undigested foods and bacterial toxins through to your bloodstream. Partially digested food proteins can go on to cause further food sensitivities, while bacterial toxins, particularly one called lipopolysaccharide (LPS) cause chronic inflammation. Both appear as foreign invaders that set off the alarm system in your body, resulting in an inflamed and over-stimulated immune system that leads to the symptoms and risk factors below.

Symptoms of Leaky Gut

  • Headaches 1,2
  • Skin issues 3,4,5
  • Joint pain 6
  • Fatigue 7,8
  • Bloating, abdominal pain, altered bowel movements 9,10

Inflammatory conditions that leaky gut is associated with and may increase risk for11

  • Autoimmune conditions, e.g. celiac, Type I diabetes, inflammatory bowel disease, multiple sclerosis, and ankylosing spondylitis
  • Neurological disorders, e.g. autism, schizophrenia, and depression
  • Metabolic disorders, e.g. insulin resistance, Type 2 diabetes, hyperlipidemia (high blood pressure), obesity, and non-alcoholic fatty liver disease
  • Some cancers, e.g. glioma and hepatocellular carcinoma
  • Food sensitivities and allergies

Causes of Leaky Gut

It’s important to note that leaky gut isn’t a “syndrome” in and of itself; it is a SYMPTOM of one or more of the following causes.

Causes of leaky gut

Dysbiosis – An imbalance in the gut microbiome (commonly an overgrowth of bacteria and/or yeast) is, along with gluten, one of the biggest triggers of leaky gut. Many of the other factors here, such as stress, lack of sleep, alcohol, etc. can also drive dysbiosis.11,12 

Low-fiber diets – Fiber feeds beneficial gut bacteria, and without a food source, these microbes cannot thrive and the gut flora becomes imbalanced.

High sugar and high saturated fat diets – High sugar diets can negatively alter the gut microbiome. High saturated fat diets in the absence of fiber can do the same.13,14

Stress – Whether it be emotional or physical (i.e. over-exercising), stress causes disturbances to the gut environment.15

Sleep deprivation – Lack of sleep promotes a more inflammatory microbiome.16,17,18

Alcohol 19

Medications such as NSAIDs (ibuprofen, aspirin) and antibiotics 20,21,22

Gluten – This is the primary cause of leaky gut in celiac and gluten-sensitive people, and can be a trigger even in trace amounts (via cross-contact).23 According to Dr. Alessio Fasano, Director of the Center for Celiac Research and Treatment with Harvard-affiliated Massachusetts General Hospital, gluten causes leaky gut in everyone; however, for many people, it’s a minor event that does not appear to cause health consequences in moderation.11 But for people with celiac and non-celiac gluten-sensitivity, the leakiness caused by gluten is far more exaggerated and long-lasting.11

Causes and consequences of having a leaky gut

How to Fix Leaky Gut

Remember, leaky gut is a symptom of other causes; it doesn’t happen spontaneously! That means, in order to resolve it, we must address each of the factors driving it. Fortunately, all of these are within our control!

The first, most critical step for people with gluten-related disorders is to get solid in and stay vigilant about living 100% GF. This cannot be overstated, as the way that gluten causes gut permeability for us is uniquely impactful. We experience an extended, amplified leaky gut response from gluten, which increases our risk for other inflammatory conditions and food sensitivities.11

Of course, it takes a holistic approach that addresses other causative factors, such as sleep, stress, and nutrition, but being completely gluten-free must always be our foundation.

If you’re still struggling with building your foundation, my GF Jumpstart Program can help by identifying where you might be getting glutened and giving you the tools to start your gut repair journey.

If you’re confident that you’re living truly GF but suspect you still have leaky gut, I can support you in a one-on-one setting to personalize a plan and elevate your digestive and overall health. Feel free to schedule a complimentary, 20-minute discovery call to find out which path is right for you!

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