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Leaky Gut Syndrome: Causes and Symptoms

Do you have a “leaky” gut?

Updated: December 6, 2020
By MBL Featured Blogger: Karen Eisenbraun
Originally Posted: August 19, 2020

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 

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Symptoms of leaky gut

Research suggests that leaky gut can be linked with numerous health conditions throughout the body. While these issues can also have other causes, it’s worth taking steps to correct leaky gut if you have any of the following:  

1. Digestive problems

Digestive issues such as chronic diarrhea, constipation, bloating, gas, and irritable bowel syndrome are common among people who eat a Standard American Diet. These types of digestive issues can be a sign of leaky gut as well as bacterial imbalances. 

2. Mental health disorders

Problems in the gut can affect the body’s levels of important neurotransmitters, which help control certain brain functions and also influence moods and emotions. One important neurotransmitter is serotonin, which is known as a natural mood stabilizer. As much as 90 percent of the serotonin in the body is produced by the gut. Depression has also been linked to digestive disorders and may be a sign of intestinal inflammation. 

3. Food intolerances or allergies

Damaged epithelial cells place the gut in a chronic state of heightened sensitivity, which can make it react to certain foods. If you’re sensitive to foods such as gluten and dairy, it could be a sign of a leaky gut. One study found that children with food allergies had increased intestinal permeability. 

4. Nutritional deficiencies 

Since a leaky gut can lead to problems with digestion, people with increased intestinal permeability may not properly absorb the nutrients in their food. If you have symptoms of nutritional deficiencies, it may indicate that you have a leaky gut. Signs of nutrient deficiencies can include fatigue, dry skin, muscle pain or weakness, numbness in the arms and legs, brittle nails, bleeding gums, hair loss, and red or white bumps on the skin. 

5. Weakened immune system 

Up to 70 percent of the body’s immune system is located in the gut. Any damage that occurs to the digestive system will therefore compromise immune system function. If you’re often coming down with colds, flu, and other illnesses, it could be a sign that your intestinal health needs attention. 

6. Chronic fatigue

Internal inflammation triggers the production of compounds called cytokines, which can cause fatigue and flu-like symptoms. If you constantly feel exhausted, even after getting enough sleep, it could be an indication of inflammation and leaky gut. 

7. Hormonal imbalances

Intestinal bacteria play a role in hormone function, so problems with the digestive system can cause hormonal issues. Common signs of hormonal imbalances include unexplained weight gain, fatigue, acne, anxiety, depression, and extreme PMS symptoms. Hormonal issues can also affect the way your body responds to insulin, which can lead to insulin resistance. Over time, insulin resistance can lead to weight gain and type 2 diabetes. 

8. Skin problems 

Intestinal permeability and bacterial imbalances in the gut have been linked to inflammatory skin conditions such as psoriasis and acne. Acne is also frequently linked with depression and anxiety. One study involving more than 13,000 adolescents found that those with acne were more likely to suffer from digestive issues such as constipation and bloating. 

9. Autoimmune disorders 

A leaky gut can contribute to or worsen autoimmune disorders such as inflammatory bowel disease, celiac disease, multiple sclerosis, type 1 diabetes, and lupus. If you’ve been diagnosed with an autoimmune disease, take steps to improve your digestive function to see if your symptoms improve. 

10. Difficulty with weight loss

Research shows that weight gain is linked to intestinal permeability, nutritional deficiencies, and diets high in sugar and fat. Insulin resistance, which can be a result of systemic inflammation, also leads to weight gain. 

How to stop leaky gut

Because leaky gut is not an official medical diagnosis, there is no standardized treatment for it. Attempts to treat symptoms of leaky gut typically fail to address the root cause and may make intestinal permeability even worse. 

Fortunately, leaky gut can often be corrected with diet and lifestyle changes, though it can take some time. If you think leaky gut may be at the root of your health issues, take these steps to improve your intestinal health: 

  1. Stop eating inflammatory foods, which include wheat, dairy, sugar, processed foods, deli meats, vegetable oils, soda, and refined carbohydrates such as baked goods and pasta. 
  1. If you are sensitive to certain foods, such as wheat and dairy, remove them from your diet completely, at least until your symptoms subside. You may find that you can eventually add them back into your diet in small amounts without experiencing the same reactions. 
  1. Eat anti-inflammatory foods such as fresh fruits and vegetables, leafy greens, berries, tomatoes, olives and olive oil, fatty fish, grass-fed beef, avocados, nuts and seeds, green tea, turmeric, and dark chocolate. 
  1. Take a probiotic supplement to help rebalance intestinal bacteria. 
  1. Eat fermented foods, which also contain probiotics that can improve your digestive health. Some examples of fermented foods include yogurt, kimchi, sauerkraut, and kombucha.
  2. Limit your use of NSAIDs. The use of nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs such as ibuprofen may contribute to intestinal permeability. 
  1. Take other steps to reduce chronic inflammation. This includes managing stress, limiting alcohol use, avoiding smoking and secondhand smoke, limiting your exposure to chemicals, and getting enough sleep. Click here to learn more about reducing chronic inflammation.

If you’re struggling with digestive issues and difficulty losing weight, request a consultation with a weight-loss specialist that offers therapeutic interventions for reducing stress, balancing hormones, reducing inflammation, and improving leaky gut. A weight-loss clinic specializing in medically managed weight-loss programs can help you determine if leaky gut is interfering with your ability to lose weight, and help you develop a plan that addresses your individual needs. Click here to view our weight loss doctor directory.  




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Author Details

Karen Eisenbraun is a certified holistic nutrition consultant and writer with a background in digital marketing. She has written extensively on the topics of nutrition and holistic health for many leading websites.

Karen received her nutrition certification from the American College of Healthcare Sciences in 2012. She follows a ketogenic diet and practices intermittent fasting. Karen advocates a whole foods approach to nutrition and believes in empowering yourself with information that allows you to make smarter decisions about your health.

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