The last few years have seen a rise in chronic health conditions like joint pain, skin conditions, premature aging, and even autoimmune diseases. You will be surprised to know that these health problems stem from a common condition known as the leaky gut syndrome.

Though this condition is generally not recognized by physicians, there is quite a bit of evidence to show that it is a real condition that affects the lining of the intestines.

Let us learn more about the leaky gut syndrome, its signs and ways to deal with it.

What is leaky gut syndrome?

The leaky gut syndrome, also known as intestinal permeability, is a state of the body in which the epithelial cells that link the digestive tract are damaged and are not able to provide the tight barrier function that they are designed for.

Our intestines are lined with specialized cells that are linked together by tight junction proteins. These junctions regulate intestinal permeability as they allow water and nutrients to pass through and enter the bloodstream and while blocking harmful substances (1).

When these tight junctions break, it causes the leaky gut syndrome. When you have a leaky gut, toxins, microbes, and undigested food can escape from the intestines and travel through the body via the bloodstream.

The immune system considers these invaders as pathogens and attacks them. This immune response leads to chronic inflammation, which is the root cause of most diseases.

What causes leaky gut?

Many different factors contribute to the leaky gut syndrome. Some of the underlying causes include –

1. Unhealthy diet

A diet that is high in sugar can harm the intestinal wall (2). Consuming high amounts of processed foods, preservatives, refined flours and flavorings can add massive amounts of chemicals into the body.

This toxin build-up can lead to inflammation. Excessive consumption of alcohol can also cause intestinal permeability (3).

2. Medication

Long-term use of non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs, antibiotics, over the counter pain relievers like aspirin or acetaminophen can irritate the intestinal lining and decrease the mucosal levels (4).

This contributes to inflammation and leads to intestinal permeability.

3. Chronic stress

Chronic stress can lead to a suppressed immune system. A weakened immune system leads to increased inflammation. Stress is known to cause many digestive problems including leaky gut (5).

4. Deficiencies

Deficiencies in essential nutrients like vitamin A, vitamin D and zinc can lead to intestinal permeability. During a 2010 study, when children were given vitamin A supplements, they had lower total parasitic and Giardia infections, suggesting that vitamin A improves intestinal barrier function (6).  

Studies have also shown that zinc supplements have a positive effect on the epithelial barrier in the intestines (7).

5. Inflammation

Any chronic inflammation in the gut can lead to leaky gut. This condition may be caused by low stomach acid, yeast overgrowth, parasites and even excessive toxins (8).

6. Bacterial imbalance

There are millions of bacteria, both good and bad, in our gut. Gut microbiota supports the epithelial barrier and prevents autoimmune reactions.

When the balance between the good and the harmful bacteria is disrupted, it can lead to a leaky gut.

7. Yeast

Yeast is naturally present in the gut, but when it grows out of hand, it can damage the intestinal lining (9).

8. Genetic predisposition

Some people are genetically predisposed to developing leaky gut because they are sensitive to certain environmental factors which can trigger an autoimmune response by their bodies.

Diseases linked with leaky gut

According to a 2014 review, leaky gut has been linked to many health conditions. However, it is yet to be proved that leaky gut causes these conditions.

So, while there is no evidence to show that intestinal permeability is responsible for these conditions, leaky gut and these health conditions do co-occur.

1. Celiac disease

Celiac disease is a severe autoimmune disorder characterized by severe sensitivity to gluten. If you have celiac disease, eating gluten can trigger an immune response in your small intestine. Over time this can damage the lining of the small intestine.

One study found that consuming gluten increases intestinal permeability in celiac patients immediately after consumption (10).

2. Crohn’s disease

Crohn’s disease causes inflammation in the digestive tract, which can lead to abdominal pain, diarrhea, fatigue, weight loss, and malnutrition.

According to several studies, Crohn’s disease leads to an increase in intestinal permeability (11). These studies also found increased intestinal permeability in the relatives of these patients, which means that increased permeability may be linked to the genetic component of Crohn’s disease.

3. Diabetes

Increasing evidence, both functional and morphological, supports the concept that intestinal permeability plays a vital role in the development of type 1 diabetes (12).

Type 1 diabetes is caused by the destruction of the insulin-producing beta cells in the pancreas. According to some studies, certain substances leaking through the gut cause the damage of the beta cells  (13).

4. Irritable Bowel Syndrome

Irritable bowel syndrome is an intestinal disorder that causes pain in the stomach, wind, constipation, and diarrhea. Patients with irritable bowel syndrome have increased intestinal permeability (14).

According to a 2006 study, small intestine permeability is frequently prevalent in diarrhea-prominent IBS (15).

5. Food allergies

Several studies have shown that people with food allergies often have impaired intestinal permeability (16, 17). Allergic reactions occur when a leaky gut allows food proteins to cross the intestinal barrier.

Signs of intestinal permeability

Although leaky gut is linked to a host of serious diseases, it can be difficult to recognize. Here are the symptoms of leaky gut that you must watch out for –

1. Digestive problems

Symptoms of IBS like diarrhea, constipation, heartburn, excessive gas, bloating and burping can all be signs of a leaky gut. According to a 2012 study, people with IBS and ulcerative colitis often have often have elevated gut permeability that is localized in the colon (18).

2. Mood imbalance

A leaky gut can trigger inflammation which leads to anxiety, depression and mood swings. According to a 2008 study, intestinal mucosal dysfunction characterized by an increased translocation of gram-negative bacteria (leaky gut) plays an essential role in the inflammatory pathophysiology of depression (19).

The researchers suggest that patients with major depression should be checked for leaky gut using IgM and IgA panels that were used in the study and should be treated for leaky gut.

3. Skin issues

Leaky gut can also lead to skin issues like acne, eczema, rosacea, hives, and psoriasis. We have known about the link between the gastrointestinal mechanism and skin health for the last 70 years (20).

A recent study now confirms that internal permeability causes both systemic and local inflammation, which in turn contributes to skin disease.

4. Nutrient malabsorption

People with leaky gut suffer from many nutritional deficiencies including iron, magnesium, vitamin B12 which can lead to fatigue, muscle pain, and neuropathies.

Lack of zinc due to malabsorption can lead to baldness, and this is the reason why many doctors prescribe multivitamins in addition to probiotics for the treatment of leaky gut.

5. Food sensitivities

Food allergies are believed to be the most common sign of leaky gut. Allergic reactions to dairy, wheat and other gains can be a symptom of leaky gut.

When the toxins enter the bloodstream, the immune system goes into an overdrive producing antibodies which make people more susceptible to antigens in certain food.

6. Autoimmune diseases

The leaky gut syndrome is linked to many autoimmune diseases like IBS, celiac diseases, autoimmune hepatitis, type-1 diabetes, multiple sclerosis, and systemic lupus erythematosus.

According to an article in Physiologic Reviews, a protein known as zonulin is the only physiological modulator of the intracellular tight junctions, and this helps in immune system balance.

When the zonulin pathway is deregulated, it leads to autoimmune, inflammatory and neoplastic disorders (21). Gluten can be one of the triggers for this.

7. Autism

Recent studies have shown that there is a strong link between leaky gut and autism. According to research, autism is connected to the problems of the gut microbiome within the first year of life (22).

8. Fatigue and headaches

Leaky gut syndrome increases certain inflammatory compounds like cytokines, which can cause fatigue. When unhealthy gut bacteria permeates through the leaky gut, out body produces more immune cells, which leads to extreme tiredness and chronic fatigue.

Ways to repair a leaky gut

There are four necessary steps that you must follow to fix your leaky gut.

1. Remove

Remove all inflammatory food from your diet including gluten, dairy, soy, corn, as well as toxic foods like caffeine, alcohol, and sugar.

2. Replace

Replace these with healthy, healing foods. Add bone broth, raw cultured dairy, fermented vegetables, coconut products, grass-fed beef and lamb and omega-3 rich foods to your diet.

Add all the essential ingredients for proper digestion to your diet like digestive enzymes, hydrochloric acid, and bile acids.

3. Repair

Repair your gut with leaky gut supplements like butyric acid. Collagen is rich in amino acids, and it helps in sealing the perforations in your gut by repairing damaged cells and building new tissue.

4. Rebalance

Rebalance your microbiome with high-quality, high-potency probiotics.  Gut microbiota regulates digestion and absorption of nutrients, and they also supply epithelial cells with energy.

Final thoughts

The leaky gut syndrome refers to an abnormal increase in the permeability of the small intestine. The causes of leaky gut include inflammation, unhealthy diet, medications, deficiencies, and yeast infections.

The symptoms of leaky gut include digestive problems, mood imbalance, skin issues, and food sensitivities. Though this condition is generally not recognized by physicians yet, there has been a lot of research on this condition.

The treatment includes replacing inflammatory foods from the diet with healthy foods.

The leaky gut syndrome is a state of the body in which the epithelial cells damage & cannot provide the tight barrier function as designed.