Leaky Gut Syndrome 101: Symptoms, Causes, Treatment, and Prevention

18 minute read

Explore the Leaky Gut Syndrome Guide:

The Importance of a Healthy Gut

What Causes a Leaky Gut?

10 Symptoms of Leaky Gut Syndrome

The Leaky Gut Treatment Plan

Bookmark this page to digest it in small doses, and get started on your path to a healthier you. 

Just thinking about things leaking from your gut is unpleasant. An image of fluid pouring through holes in your gut may seem almost comical, but the fact is that leaky gut is real and a very serious condition.

Many people are unaware of the dangers of leaky gut, especially because it impacts more than just those with digestive issues. Leaky gut, i.e., intestinal permeability, can happen to anyone, so here is everything you should know about leaky gut syndrome, including causes, symptoms, signs, and what you can do about it.

The Importance of a Healthy Gut

Your digestive tract is not only important in digestion and nutrient absorption. It plays a role in protecting your body from harmful substances.

Your intestinal walls serve as barriers controlling what is allowed to enter your bloodstream. Tight junctions in these walls allow water and nutrients to pass, but block harmful particles. Damage to the gut loosens these junctions and allows harmful substances to pass through into your bloodstream.

It may not always be obvious, but your gut influences other systems within your body beyond digestion. The beneficial bacteria live in your gut, and they work to promote healthy digestion as well as boost your immune system.

In addition to this, your gut has a direct link to your brain via the gut-brain axis. This means the health of your gut influences your mental health and well-being too. Any disruption to gut health can therefore have a major impact on your overall health.

Beyond poor nutrient absorption, an unhealthy gut can trigger chronic inflammation, which causes other serious disease. Some diseases commonly associated with leaky gut syndrome are:

Celiac Disease: This is an autoimmune disorder that is characterized by a severe sensitivity to gluten. Intestinal permeability is much higher in those with Celiac disease, especially after any consumption of gluten.

Diabetes: The intestinal permeability associated with leaky gut plays a role in the development of type-1 diabetes. This autoimmune disease develops as a result of the destruction of insulin-producing cells. It is thought that the particles that escape through a leaky gut trigger the destruction of these pancreatic cells.

Crohn’s Disease: Increased intestinal permeability is a big part of Crohn’s disease. This chronic digestive disorder is characterized by chronic inflammation of the gut, which is a known factor of leaky gut syndrome. Studies have found that there is increased intestinal permeability in the relatives of those with Crohn’s disease, giving them an increased risk for the disorder.

Irritable Bowel Syndrome: IBS is characterized by chronic irregularity of bowel movements, showing both chronic constipation and diarrhea. People with irritable bowel syndrome have an increased risk for leaky gut. Studies have found that leaky gut syndrome is more prevalent in those with diarrhea-predominant IBS.

Go Back to the Top

What Causes a Leaky Gut?

The causes of leaky gut are still undergoing research, but what is known is that intestinal permeability occurs alongside other diseases. Knowing this can help understand what can cause leaky gut syndrome to develop.

Zonulin is a protein that regulates the tight junctions in your gut. High levels of this protein have been found to loosen these junctions. Two factors known to stimulate levels of zonulin are bacteria and gluten.

This is why intestinal permeability is commonly present in those with celiac disease and those with imbalanced gut bacteria. In addition to gluten and bacteria, the tight junctions of your gut have been shown to be influenced by inflammatory mediators.

Long-term use of NSAIDs as well as high levels of tumor necrosis factor (TNF) can also increase the development of intestinal permeability.

Studies have also found that dairy and sugar both play a role in the development of leaky gut. Conventional cow’s milk in particular goes through a pasteurization process that kills many vital enzymes.

As a result milk sugar known as lactose is difficult to digest and can increase intestinal permeability. Sugars in general feed the bad bacteria and yeasts, like Candida, that live in your body and can wreak havoc on your digestive system.

In addition to gluten, dairy, sugar, and bacteria, there are other factors that have been found to play a role in gut health, including:

♦ Excessive alcohol consumption

♦ Stress, and the chronic inflammation it causes

♦ Yeast overgrowth

♦ Overuse of medications, including gut-disrupting antibiotics

Go Back to the Top

10 Symptoms of Leaky Gut Syndrome

Since leaky gut has not been completely researched, it can be difficult to point at entirely verifiable causes to avoid other than doing one’s best to maintain a healthy lifestyle.

When you don’t know the causes to avoid, however, the next best thing is to know the symptoms to look out for. When it comes to a leaky gut, there are symptoms you can watch for and they may help you identify the condition early enough to avoid serious damage to your gut and health.

1. Chronic Irregularity in Bowel Movements

Regular bowel movements can include anything between three times a day and three times a week. Everyone is different, but as long as your bowel movements stick to a schedule, then all is good.

Regular bowel movements are the trademark sign of a healthy gut and efficient digestive system. When you have leaky gut, your body handles waste differently. Chronic constipation, diarrhea, or bloating could all be symptoms of a leaky gut and are often the first to appear and are some of the easiest to notice.

2. Excessive Fatigue

Your body is generally very efficient at turning food into the energy it needs to function. When you have a leaky gut, however, your ability to absorb the nutrients from the food you eat can be greatly hindered.

Intestinal permeability also triggers the release of inflammatory markers as a result of escaped particles travelling through the bloodstream. Your body uses energy to fight these wayward particles which only depletes your energy stores further. As you use energy that you are not able to restore with food intake, your fatigue and tiredness become chronic.

3. Joint Pain

Arthritis is an all too common condition these days, affecting the joint health and comfort of millions. Arthritis as a part of the aging process is normal, but general joint pain in younger individuals may indicate leaky gut syndrome.

Because a leaky gut triggers inflammation, the joints are top of the list with regards to where that inflammation attacks and causes pain. While joint pain can be caused by aging, overuse, and other inflammatory-related diseases, it can be a sign of leaky gut and is worth paying attention to.

4. Nutrient Deficiencies

Leaky gut plays a big role in malabsorption, and, just like problems with lack of energy, improper absorption can also cause a deficiency in many essential vitamins and nutrients.

Often a leaky gut is the cause of malabsorption when other conditions have been eliminated. Fortunately, this can be reversed once the leaky gut is healed.

5. Headaches

While the occasional headache can be brought on for a variety of reasons, chronic headaches may be caused by more serious conditions, including leaky gut. Cytokines that are triggered as a result of leaky gut can travel to your brain, affecting mood and causing headaches.

Research has shown that migraines and frequent headaches are common in those with gastrointestinal troubles because of the well-documented link between gut and brain health. The gut-brain axis allows for direct communication between the two systems. When one is not functioning properly, the other is negatively impacted.

If other causes for your headaches are ruled out, then your gut may be the next logical place to consider.

6. Memory Impairment

The link between gut and brain also shows that a leaky gut can impair your memory or cause brain fog. Brain fog is not an official medical term but is a known cognitive dysfunction that is associated with poor memory and confusion, difficulty concentrating, and forgetfulness.

Without the proper nutrients to function effectively, your brain may have trouble retaining memories because other functions like breathing take priority. Many people with leaky gut have been found to have poor short-term memory but this can be easily reversed when your gut is restored to full health.

7. Depression and Anxiety

Depression and anxiety are the most common mental health disorders in America and often have links to gut health. Mental illness, of course, can result from a number of other problems, but the gut-brain axis proves that gut health directly impacts mental health.

Depression and anxiety have been shown to cause digestive troubles, and in the same way may be linked to intestinal damage or leaky gut. When nutrient absorption is poor, your brain cannot get the hormones it needs for optimal mental health.

Serotonin is one such vital hormone that is responsible for happy feelings. A lack of serotonin, as a result of malnutrition from a leaky gut, can contribute to depressed moods and overly anxious thoughts.

8. Skin Problems

Your skin is the largest of all your organs, which means it requires a great deal of resources to stay healthy. When nutrient absorption and energy are impacted as a result of leaky gut, your skin is not always a priority for the limited resources.

Recurring skin conditions such as acne, rosacea, and eczema may be the result of a leaky gut. Skin’s integrity and protective function decreases, leaving you more prone to pathogens and bacterial infection.

9. Food Sensitivities

A leaky gut can be caused by an inflamed gut as well as trigger inflammation. One of the main causes of gut inflammation is an undiagnosed food sensitivity.

When your body thinks certain foods are foreign bodies, it creates antibodies to defend against these foods. Unfortunately, this process irritates and inflames the lining of your gut.

Addressing dietary changes is one of the ways to heal a leaky gut, specifically by removing foods that cause inflammation. Eating foods that reduce inflammation, such as those containing omega-3 fatty acids, also helps repair the intestinal walls that may have been damaged.

10. Autoimmune Disorders

When your body starts to treat food particles escaping the gut as foreign bodies, the inflammatory defense can be very dangerous. Research has confirmed that a leaky gut contributes to autoimmune disorders, as these food particles come under attack.

Widespread inflammation throughout the body can damage healthy cells and tissues. As antibodies develop that cross-react with your own body, autoimmune disorders can also begin . Once these conditions develop, more chronic inflammation ensues, and an unhealthy and vicious cycle is born.

Go Back to the Top

The Leaky Gut Treatment Plan

Once you know what to look for, leaky gut can be identified and taken care of. Research has shown that it is possible to repair a leaky gut and restore your overall health. The treatment plan for healing and repairing a leaky gut involves four simple steps: Remove, Replace, Repair, and Rebalance.

Remove Bad Foods

Remove the foods that trigger inflammation and cause damage to your gut. Leaky gut not only causes inflammation but is caused by it as well. It is essential to reduce inflammation, which means cutting inflammatory-foods from your diet.

Added sugars, unsprouted grains, refined oils, GMOs, conventional dairy, and synthetic additives are all culprits that you need to remove if you believe you have a leaky gut. Eating fewer processed and snack foods is the best way to eliminate these harmful substances.

You also want to remove or reduce exposure to possible toxins, such as pesticides and overuse of medications as a way to reduce inflammation and gut damage. One great way to do this is buying organic produce, or at least by buying the organic versions of a few particularly “dirty” types of produce.

Replace Bad Foods With Good

Replace the foods you take out of your diet with gut-healing and anti-inflammatory foods. The best foods for a leaky gut diet are those that are organic, easy to digest, and can help repair the damage done to your gut lining. Some of the best foods for a leaky gut diet include:

Bone Broth: This contains collagen and essential amino acids such as proline and glycine that help heal damaged cell walls. Many people have completed three day bone broth fasts as a way to heal both leaky gut and autoimmune conditions.

Raw, Cultured Dairy: As a replacement for conventional dairy, these food items will nurture your gut rather than damage it. They contain probiotics and short-chain fatty acids that heal your gut. The best options include kefir, yogurt, raw cheese, and butter.

Coconut Products: Essentially all coconut products are good for your gut. They contain medium-chain fatty acids (MCFAs) that are easier to digest than others, and they work well for leaky gut. If you were to incorporate coconut kefir in your diet, you also get healing probiotics in addition to the MCFAs.

Fermented Vegetables: These contain beneficial probiotics and organic acids that promote healthy intestinal pH balance. Sauerkraut, kimchi, and kvass are ideal fermented vegetables to try when you need to heal a leaky gut.

Healthy Fats: Fats like coconut oil, egg yolks, avocados, and ghee are all easy to digest. When consumed in moderation, they can have a beneficial impact on gut health. Through gentle healing, these fats can help to repair a leaky gut and promote better overall gut health.

Sprouted Seeds: Since unsprouted grains are known to contribute to leaky gut, sprouted seeds make sense as an option for healing it. Chia seeds, flaxseed, and hemp seeds are great sources of fiber, which supports the growth of healthy bacteria in your gut.

However, if you have severe leaky gut, it is best to get your fiber first from fruits and vegetables until the delicate bacterial balance has been reached.

Fruits: One or two servings of fresh, organic fruit each day is a must for the leaky gut diet. Just remember not to overdo it and to eat fruits earlier in the day rather than later.

Omega-3 Fatty Acids: These are full of antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties which makes them ideal for promoting overall health, reducing inflammation, and healing a leaky gut. Wild-caught fish, like salmon, and krill oil supplements are great sources of these essential omega-3s.

Repair Your Gut With Supplements

Now that you have removed damaging foods and are eating more healing foods, the next step is to repair your gut with supplements. The supplements below not only promote healing, but they work to protect your gut from further damage.

Digestive Enzymes: When taken before each meal, digestive enzyme supplements ensure that all foods you consume are properly broken down. Your body naturally produces digestive enzymes, but as you get older this slows down, so supplements come in handy.

L-glutamine: This is an essential part of any healing program for a leaky gut. This amino acid possesses anti-inflammatory properties and is necessary for the growth and repair of your gut lining. It serves as a protective agent, coating the cell walls and repelling irritants, so your gut wall can heal.

Licorice Root: This is an adaptogenic herb that helps balance your cortisol levels and improves stomach acid production. It also supports the body’s natural processes to maintain stomach mucosal lining.

Rebalance Your Microbiome

The beneficial bacteria in your gut play an essential role in overall gut health. By taking a probiotic supplement, you can rebalance your gut microbiome which will increase your resistance against pathogens and bad bacteria. This protects your gut lining from damage and also helps to regulate digestion and nutrient absorption to benefit your overall health.

These four steps are essential for healing and protecting your gut from intestinal permeability. In addition to these, you can make other changes to your life to promote gut health and prevent leaky gut.

Learn to Reduce Stress: Learn to relax because stress triggers inflammation, which can increase intestinal permeability. Meditation, yoga, and deep breathing exercises are great ways to control stress and prevent it from causing any physical damage.

Quit Smoking: Cigarette smoke is a risk factor for bowel damage (not to mention a variety of cancers) and can increase the levels of inflammation in your body and gut. Quitting smoking benefits your overall health and can lead to an increase in healthy gut bacteria as well.

Get More Sleep: A lack of sleep contributes to numerous health problems and also negatively affects your gut. Disrupted sleep leads to poor distribution of healthy gut bacteria. This can allow for bad bacteria to take over which will increase your risk of intestinal permeability.

Drink Less Alcohol: Excessive drinking interacts with certain proteins in your body to increase the chances of leaky gut. Avoiding alcohol or drinking in moderation is the best way to protect your gut.

Go Back to the Top

The Bottom Line

Left untreated, your gut health will deteriorate and you will be at increased risk for serious diseases. If you notice any of the leaky gut symptoms discussed it is recommended to speak with your doctor right away and seek testing. The earlier you identify it, the easier it is to repair.

With anti- inflammatory foods and other lifestyle modifications, leaky gut can be repaired, restoring your gut to optimal health. The causes of leaky gut may not be completely understood yet, but research has shown that effective ways to heal and prevent it do exist.

READ NEXT >>> What Are Digestive Enzymes?