Do you suffer from leaky gut syndrome? This common health condition can cause a range of health symptoms, from headaches to digestive problems, and it’s closely linked to dozens of other chronic health issues.
The term leaky gut is fairly new within the medical community, and many physicians don’t recognize it as a legitimate health issue. But leaky gut has long been called by another term: intestinal permeability.
It’s very common for anyone eating a Standard American Diet — high in poor-quality meats, sugar, refined carbohydrates, and processed foods — to experience digestive issues and intestinal inflammation. But just because these issues are common, that doesn’t mean we have to live with them. It is possible to heal a leaky gut, and to resolve many of the health conditions that often come along with it.
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What is a leaky gut?
Leaky gut syndrome is a condition in which the lining of the small intestine is damaged, allowing harmful particles such as microbes, bacteria, undigested food, and toxins to leak through the intestine and enter the bloodstream.
The presence of these substances in the blood can trigger an inflammatory reaction and lead to a number of health problems that range from migraines to irritable bowel syndrome. A person who suffers from leaky gut syndrome is often at high risk for malnutrition, weakened immunity, hormone imbalances, and other serious health conditions.
How does leaky gut happen?
The intestinal barrier is made up of cells linked together by tight junctions. These junctions control what is allowed to pass through into the bloodstream — this is how vitamins and nutrients are absorbed by the small intestine. Normally, these tight junctions remain small enough to prevent the passage of any harmful compounds that may cause disease.
But when the intestinal barrier becomes damaged — often as a result of a diet high in inflammatory foods such as sugar, dairy, and processed foods — these joints can become compromised. Tiny particles that would normally be blocked are allowed to “leak” into the bloodstream, allowing them to cause damage throughout the body.
What causes leaky gut syndrome?
At the root of leaky gut is intestinal inflammation, which has been linked to most major diseases. Several factors can contribute to inflammation, which causes the intestinal barrier to become weakened and damaged. These include:
- A poor diet. As previously mentioned, the Standard American Diet is high in poor-quality, inflammatory foods, which can cause intestinal inflammation.
- Chronic stress, which is another factor involved in systemic inflammation and intestinal issues.
- A high toxic load. Chemicals from pollution, pesticides, personal care products, food additives, tap water, and medications can build up in the body, causing inflammation.
- Dysbiosis, which is an imbalance of intestinal bacteria.
How leaky gut affects the body
Gut health is closely linked to many other functions throughout the body. If you aren’t properly absorbing vitamins and nutrients from the foods you eat, it can lead to a wide range of health symptoms. Your immune system function can also be compromised, and the inflammatory responses that occur throughout the body in the presence of foreign particles can cause additional processes to malfunction. In short, a leaky gut can affect nearly every area of your health — not just your digestive health.
Leaky gut symptoms
If you experience any of the following symptoms for an extended period, it’s possible you may have leaky gut syndrome.
1. Digestive problems
Leaky gut syndrome can cause a range of digestive issues including chronic diarrhea, bloating, constipation, gas, and irritable bowel syndrome. If you tend to experience digestive problems regardless of what you eat, leaky gut syndrome may be to blame.
2. Nutritional deficiencies
Since 90 percent of all nutritional absorption takes place in the small intestine, those with leaky gut syndrome are more prone to suffering nutritional deficiencies. If you tend to become sick quite frequently, or experience symptoms of vitamin deficiencies such as numbness in limbs due to vitamin B12 deficiency, you may have leaky gut syndrome.
3. Weakened immune system
The intestinal wall contains 70 percent of the cells that make up the immune system. As a result, any damage that occurs to the intestinal barrier will compromise the immune system. Pay attention to how often you get sick from the flu, the common cold, and other viruses and infections. If you find yourself repeatedly falling ill, it may be due to weakened immunity caused by a leaky gut.
4. Mental health disorders
Depression and anxiety are common side effects of leaky gut syndrome. In the past, mental health disorders such as these were thought to be solely caused by an imbalance in brain neurotransmitters like serotonin. But as much as 90 percent of the body’s serotonin is actually produced and stored in the gut. New evidence shows that depression can be triggered by digestive problems, and is often a symptom of inflammation..
5. Chronic fatigue
Leaky gut syndrome increases the production of inflammatory compounds called cytokines, which can trigger chronic fatigue. If you’re constantly feeling exhausted even after getting lots of sleep, leaky gut syndrome may be affecting your energy levels.
6. Food intolerances or allergies
Because the immune systems of people with leaky gut syndrome are in a chronically heightened state, it may cause you to be more sensitive to certain foods, most notably gluten and dairy. A study of children who were allergic to milk and eggs also found that they experienced elevated intestinal permeability.
7. Autoimmune diseases
The passing of bacteria and toxins into the bloodstream caused by leaky gut syndrome may lead to the development of autoimmune diseases such as rheumatoid arthritis, thyroid disease, multiple sclerosis, and Crohn’s disease. If you’ve recently been diagnosed with an autoimmune disease, then leaky gut syndrome may be the root cause of your condition.
8. Hormonal imbalances
Inflammation caused by leaky gut syndrome can cause your body to under- or over-produce certain hormones, and lead to conditions such as PCOS and PMS. If you’re experiencing symptoms of hormonal imbalance, talk to your doctor about ways to treat leaky gut syndrome and balance your hormones.
9. Skin conditions
Intestinal permeability may be at the root of skin conditions such as acne and psoriasis. Acne is frequently associated with depression and anxiety, and research suggests that inflammatory skin conditions may be linked to gut dysbiosis. One study found that adolescents with acne were more likely to experience gastrointestinal issues, including intestinal bloating.
10. Difficulty losing weight
Intestinal permeability has also been linked to obesity and insulin resistance. A 2012 study identified three factors that can lead to weight gain in the presence of leaky gut: bacterial imbalances, an unhealthy diet, and nutritional deficiencies.
Can leaky gut be healed?
Because leaky gut is not recognized as an official diagnosis, there are no standardized tests or treatment for it. Medications that attempt to treat symptoms of leaky gut syndrome typically fail to address the root of the problem.
Some tests, however, can help identify food intolerances or nutritional deficiencies that are associated with leaky gut, which can help determine the correct course of treatment. In most cases, this includes:
- Removing any problematic foods from the diet, such as wheat or dairy
- Removing any additional inflammatory foods, such as sugar and refined carbohydrates
- Following an anti-inflammatory diet
- Repairing the gut lining with supplements designed to support healthy digestive function
- Taking a probiotic to help balance intestinal bacteria
Do you need help restoring your intestinal health and improving your overall wellness? At Garcia Weight Loss and Wellness Centers, our custom weight-loss plans are designed to address the underlying health issues that often make weight loss difficult, including chronic inflammation, hormonal imbalances, and leaky gut syndrome. Contact us today for a no-cost consultation!
Medically reviewed by Jay J. Garcia, MD on August 3, 2018
This post was originally published in December, 2017, and has been updated for freshness, accuracy, and comprehensiveness.