While this condition isn’t always recognized in the medical community as an official diagnosis, there is growing interest in the causes and treatments for leaky gut syndrome.
Evidence suggests that a leaky gut — also known as increased intestinal permeability — may be linked to multiple chronic health issues, including a weakened immune system and mental health disorders.
Let’s take a closer look at leaky gut, how it can affect your overall health, and how to improve it.
What is leaky gut?
The digestive system includes an intestinal lining, which forms a tight barrier between your intestine and the rest of your body. This barrier helps control what remains in the digestive system, and what is allowed to pass into the bloodstream. This intestinal lining is made up of cells called epithelial cells, which absorb nutrients from the food you eat and protect the body from microbes, bacteria, and other potentially dangerous particles.
Damage to these epithelial cells can cause intestinal inflammation, which can lead to inflammatory bowel diseases such as Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis. Increased intestinal permeability also plays a role in other digestive disorders such as celiac disease and irritable bowel syndrome.
Damage to the epithelial lining can also lead to “holes” or “cracks” in the gut lining, which allow small particles such as bacteria, undigested foods, and toxins to “leak” through and enter the bloodstream.
These substances can then lead to inflammation in other parts of the body, as well as changes in the levels of healthy gut bacteria that help with digestion. Numerous studies show that systemic inflammation and imbalances in intestinal bacteria are linked to many common chronic diseases.
What causes leaky gut
We all have some degree of intestinal permeability. The intestinal lining isn’t supposed to be completely impenetrable; it’s what allows water and nutrients to enter the bloodstream and be transported to your organs. It’s when other particles, such as toxins and bacteria, are allowed to pass through the gut lining that problems emerge.
Some people may be genetically predisposed to have a greater degree of intestinal permeability, but DNA is not the only cause. Our modern lifestyles may actually be the primary cause of leaky gut. The Standard American Diet is high in foods that can damage the epithelial cells.
Other factors that cause internal inflammation can also contribute to a leaky gut. These include chronic stress, alcohol use, lack of sleep, exposure to chemicals, smoking, and the use of certain medications.
Certain nutrient deficiencies, including vitamin A, vitamin D, and zinc have also been linked to intestinal permeability.
Foods that cause leaky gut
A poor diet is one of the biggest drivers of increased intestinal permeability. Foods that contribute to leaky gut include:
- Sugar, especially added sugars in processed foods such as fructose and high-fructose corn syrup
- Artificial sweeteners such as aspartame and sucralose
- Wheat and other grains containing gluten, including barley and rye
- Cold cuts and deli meats, such as hot dogs and bacon
- Junk food, fast food, and candy
- Refined oils, such as canola, soybean, and sunflower oils
- Sweetened beverages such as soda and sports drinks
- Dairy products, including milk, cheese, and ice cream