Strange as it is to think of health problems as responsive to fads, the truth is that their prevalence can ebb and flow in popular media. One condition that’s catching attention these days is leaky gut syndrome. While some doctors are adamant that the diagnosis isn’t real, others insist that it’s the explanation for the health problems suffered by thousands. But what is leaky gut, and how can you tell if you have it? We’ll dig into the details below.
What is Leaky Gut?
Leaky gut syndrome, also known as ‘increased intestinal permeability,’ is a digestive condition that's categorized by the ability of bacteria and toxins to ‘leak’ through the walls of the intestines and into the bloodstream.
When it’s functioning correctly, your digestive system is the space where food gets broken down, so your body can absorb its nutrients. The intestinal walls act as natural barriers to prevent compounds of food from passing through and entering the bloodstream.
However, small gaps in the wall of the intestine (known as tight junctions) are designed to let water and nutrients pass through while still blocking harmful substances. This is known as your intestinal permeability, and it’s perfectly normal for a small number of compounds to travel through these walls. However, if something happens that causes these tight junctions to loosen, your gut becomes more permeable, and larger compounds can pass through, consequently triggering leaky gut.
Unsurprisingly, this passage of undesirable compounds seems to lead to numerous health problems, including inflammation, immune system overreactions, fatigue, food sensitivities, skin breakouts and digestive disorders like bloating, gas, and cramps.
Is Leaky Gut a Recognized Medical Condition?
Depending on who you ask, leaky gut is either not a real medical condition, or it’s a disorder that’s severely understudied by professionals. Some researchers state that there’s little-documented evidence of increased intestinal permeability leading to problems, while others think that it is at the root of dozens of health conditions that range from migraines to autism and chronic fatigue.
However, many doctors will concede that we just don’t know enough about the gut to determine the facts. Though the stomach and intestines are fundamental to the body’s immune system, it’s still not clear how the system works or what the effects are on the rest of your body when things go wrong.
Some specialists note that the symptoms attributed to leaky gut aren’t unique and that other health conditions share them. Despite the confusion, there is a consensus that certain chronic diseases show evidence of increased intestinal permeability. Even so, health tests rarely pinpoint the precise cause of a problem, which leaves a lot of room for ambiguity.
Causes of Leaky Gut Syndrome
How do you develop leaky gut in the first place? Many specialists believe that everyone has the condition to some capacity, thanks to natural fluctuations in your tight junctures. However, the severity of the situation can vary considerably.
Some people seem to be genetically predisposed to digestive problems, and your lifestyle can increase your chances of developing the leaky gut, especially if you follow a standard American diet. Following a diet that’s low in fiber while high saturated fats seemingly leads to leaky gut syndrome, as does chronic stress and heavy alcohol use.
Other factors that potentially impact intestinal permeability include the following:
- High Sugar Intake: Overeating sugar (especially in the form of fructose) can disrupt your intestinal wall functioning.
- NSAID Use: Non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (like ibuprofen) can potentially trigger leaky gut.
- Nutrient Deficiencies: Low levels of vitamin A, D, and zinc have all been associated with intestinal issues.
- Disrupted Microbiome: A healthy gut has millions of bacteria that are well balanced between beneficial and potentially harmful species. If this balance becomes disrupted, you’re at a higher risk of developing a leaky gut.
- Yeast Overgrowth: While yeast is naturally present in the gut, too much can lead to leakage problems.
At this time, the only known regulator of the permeability of your intestines is a protein called zonulin. If it’s activated (and you’re genetically predisposed to digestive problems), it can trigger leaky gut. What activates zonulin? The two main factors are the bacteria in your intestines and your exposure to gluten. However, there’s evidence that gluten can only impact intestinal permeability if you already have celiac disease or irritable bowel syndrome.
Potential Health Problems Associated with Leaky Gut
The research is clear that higher levels of intestinal permeability can impact the severity of gastrointestinal problems like irritable bowel syndrome, Crohn’s disease, and celiac disease. What’s not as well understood are the impacts that the condition can have on the rest of your body. Initial research seems to show a connection between leaky gut and autoimmune diseases like multiple sclerosis, lupus, and type 1 diabetes, as well as conditions like allergies, asthma, acne, mental illness, obesity and more. Notably, the clinical evidence isn’t yet conclusive about correlation verse causation.
Signs and Symptoms of Leaky Gut
Are you concerned that you might have leaky gut? The condition has wide-ranging symptoms, some of which are also considered to be its triggers. This means that it can be difficult to pin down precisely whether your symptoms are caused by the condition, though the ones below are some of the most common.
- Chronic stomach problems (diarrhea, gas, bloating, constipation)
- Inexplicable headaches and brain fog
- Sugar cravings
- Skin rashes and irritation (acne, rosacea, eczema)
- Joint pain and arthritis
- Poor immune system functioning
- Difficulty concentrating
- Autoimmune diseases like Crohn’s, lupus, arthritis, or celiac disease
- Nutrient deficiencies
- Excessive fatigue
- New food allergies or sensitivities
- Seasonal allergies or asthma
- Hormonal imbalances that lead to irregular periods or PCOS (polycystic ovarian syndrome)
- Diabetes or high blood sugar
- Irritable Bowel Syndrome
How To Treat Leaky Gut Syndrome
Don’t despair if the signs of leaky gut disorder fit your experience. There’s a lot you can do to get the condition under control through a variety of lifestyle changes.
Because leaky gut isn’t an official medical diagnosis, there’s no officially recommended treatment. Even so, many specialists will suggest that you focus on restoring the levels of beneficial bacteria within your system. Some of the best ways to support a healthy gut include the following:
- Limit Your Intake of Refined Carbs: Potentially troublesome bacteria thrive on sugar, so consuming too much can lead to problems with your gut barrier.
- Increase Your Greens: Add leafy greens to each meal, as often as you can, and consider supplementing with a green juice to fill in the gaps. All the nutrients and chlorophyll in greens are great gut-healing helpers.
- Up Your Fiber: Soluble fiber (the kind that’s found in fruits, vegetables, and beans) provides a necessary food source for your digestive system bacteria, which keeps your gut healthy.
- Take L-Glutamine: L-Glutamine is a natural and powerful supplement that when taken correctly can help heal leaky gut. It has powerful anti-inflammatory properties and works on a cellular level to repair the cracks or fissures that leaky gut syndrome comes with.
- Take a Probiotic: If your system’s been depleted of beneficial bacteria, one of the best things you can do is to reintroduce them into your stomach with a high-quality probiotic supplement.
- Eat Fermented Foods: If a pill isn’t your preferred way to improve your bacterial levels, you can instead fill your diet with microbial-rich foods like plain yogurt, kimchi, kombucha, sauerkraut, and more.
- Limit NSAID Medications: Too much ibuprofen use can damage your gut and potentially lead to leaky gut syndrome.
Best Foods for Treating Leaky Gut
Considering its connection with digestion, there’s no surprise that a healthy diet is the best way to prevent and improve leaky gut syndrome. Focusing your meals around a variety of whole foods will make a difference, especially the following.
- Steamed Vegetables: asparagus, zucchini, broccoli, and cauliflower
- Leafy Greens: cabbage, arugula, kale, and swiss chard
- Fermented Vegetables: tempeh, miso, kimchi, and sauerkraut
- Anti-inflammatory Spices & Herbs: ginger, turmeric, peppermint, and dandelion root tea
- Omega 3 EFAS & Proteins: avocado, olives, wild fish, walnuts, unrefined coconut oil, and coconut meat
- Probiotic-Rich Foods: unsweetened coconut milk yogurt, coconut milk kefir, and beet kvass
- Helpful Supplements: Probiotics, L-glutamine, and Quercetin
Foods to Avoid for Leaky Gut
Just as certain foods can improve leaky gut syndrome, others are likely to make the problem worse. Certain foods can trigger inflammation, while others help promote the growth of unhealthy gut bacteria that worsen the condition.
The key to treating leaky gut through your diet is discovering which foods are triggering sensitivity problems. You might find that gluten, soy, dairy, refined sugars, or a combination of more than one can lead to leaky gut symptoms, and the only way to find out for sure is to intentionally eliminate them individually from your diet to see if it makes a difference for your symptoms. If you suspect your diet is what’s leading to digestive problems, you’re best off eliminating the following foods from your diet:
- Wheat-Based Foods: bread, pasta, cereal, anything with wheat flour. This includes grains that contain gluten like barley, bulgur, and some oats.
- Processed Meats: cold cuts, bacon, hot dogs, deli meats
- Junk Food and Snack Foods: cakes, muffins, cookies, pizza, crackers, popcorn, potato chips, all sugary snacks
- Standard Dairy Products: milk, ice cream, cheese
- Artificial Sweeteners: sucralose, saccharin, aspartame
The Bottom Line About Leaky Gut
Increased intestinal permeability is a condition that often produces more questions than answers, but the truth is that there are steps you can take today to get the condition under control. As the evidence shows that leaky gut syndrome might be a precursor to numerous autoimmune disorders, it’s smart to take the time today to improve your gut health with a healthy diet and lifestyle.