Leaky Gut Syndrome: Why Is It So Confusing?

Just what is leaky gut syndrome? Lately, it’s all over medical blogs and social media. My son thinks it sounds like a malady that would require adult diapers. All joking aside, leaky gut is still kind of a medical mystery – even doctors can’t quite agree on all the facts. Here’s what you need to know about leaky gut syndrome.

Leaky gut syndrome can seem complicated. Here's what you need to know if your gut isn't as healthy as you'd like.

What Is Leaky Gut?

You probably already know that the digestive tract is where food is broken down and all the nutrients and good stuff from the foods you eat are absorbed through the intestinal wall.

A healthy intestinal wall has small gaps called tight junctions which are designed to allow water and nutrients to pass through. This is how your body absorbs the nutrients from the food you eat.

These tight junctions, when they’re working properly, should also block the passage of any harmful substances from your digestive tract.

Intestinal permeability refers to how easily substances pass through the intestinal wall.

If the tight junctions of the intestinal walls become loose, it can cause increased permeability of the intestinal wall, which can allow bacteria, toxins, undigested food, and other waste products to pass from the gut into the bloodstream.

When this happens, it’s known as leaky gut syndrome.

When a leaky gut allows harmful substances to pass through the intestinal wall, they can enter the bloodstream. Once in the bloodstream, these harmful substances can trigger inflammation and changes in the normal bacteria of the gut that could lead to problems within the digestive tract and beyond.

If that damage wasn’t bad enough, sometimes the damaged intestinal cells don’t produce the enzymes needed for proper digestion. As a result, your body can’t absorb enough nutrients which can lead to other problems like a weakened immune system and hormonal imbalances.

What Do Doctors Say About Leaky Gut Syndrome?

Well, it really depends on which doctors you talk to. Many mainstream medical professionals don’t recognize leaky gut as a real condition. Some doctors don’t even agree that it exists.

One thing that the medical profession does agree on is that increased intestinal permeability or intestinal hyperpermeability definitely occurs with certain chronic diseases like celiac disease and type 1 diabetes. (source)

Today’s research world is on fire with studies showing that modifications in the intestinal bacteria and inflammation may play a role in the development of several common chronic diseases.

Discussion continues on whether leaky gut can cause the development of diseases outside the gastrointestinal tract in humans. We do not yet have clinical studies in humans showing such a cause and effect.

What can doctors do for leaky gut?

However, as the medical profession understands more about how important gut health is, and more scientific studies are completed, there is quite a bit of evidence that leaky gut does exist and may be associated with multiple health problems.

Leaky Gut Symptoms

Doctors do know that increased intestinal permeability is related to certain gastrointestinal issues and autoimmune diseases such as Crohn’s disease, celiac disease, and irritable bowel syndrome (IBS). (source)

The biggest question is whether or not a leaky gut may cause problems elsewhere in the body. While there have yet to be clinical studies completed with humans that indicate cause and effect, some studies show that leaky gut symptoms may show up in these varied issues:

  • Gas, bloating, and diarrhea
  • Irritable bowel syndrome
  • Food intolerances and allergies
  • Acne, eczema, and rosecea
  • Allergies and asthma
  • Brain fog and difficulty concentrating
  • Depression and anxiety
  • Hormonal inbalances: PMS, PCOS, irregular periods
  • Autoimmune diseases: Hashimoto’s, lupus, rheumatoid arthritis, and celiac disease
  • Psoriasis, multiple sclerosis, and type 1 diabetes
  • Chronic fatigue syndrome
  • Fibromyalgia
  • Obesity

That’s a seriously long list. It shouldn’t be too surprising since our gut health is tied into so many aspects of our overall health.

What Causes Leaky Gut?

Some people may have a genetic predisposition and may be more sensitive to changes in the digestive system.

DNA aside, the main culprits of leaky gut are the trappings of modern life.

Food: Gluten, dairy, alcohol and other inflammatory foods all contribute to leaky gut. Gluten causes cells in the gut to release zonulin, a protein that can loosen the tight junctions in your gut lining.

Stress: Stress has been linked to heart disease, ulcers, and has been shown to damage your gut as well.

Gut Infections: Common infections of the gut like parasites, yeast overgrowth and SIBO (small intestinal bacterial overgrowth).

Medications: Some medications like NSAIDs, steroids and antibiotics contribute to leaky gut.

How To Heal Leaky Gut

There is good news. The cells in your gut lining replace themselves about every week, so if you start doing the right things, your gut can repair itself quickly.

Gut health experts agree that the best way to heal a leaky gut is to follow the “five Rs”.

  • Remove: Before you try treating the symptoms of a leaky gut, it’s important to identify and remove the source of your gut irritation. This could involve starting an elimination diet to determine which foods are causing you trouble, limiting the use of alcohol and NSAIDS, and making sure you don’t have an infection or parasite.
  • Replace: The second step in healing your gut is to give your body what it needs to begin rebuilding your gut lining. Eating plenty of whole foods, non-starchy vegetables, lean proteins, high fiber foods, and healthy whole-food fats. For an extensive list of gut healing foods, see my post on Leaky Gut Diet.  Digestive enzymes, glutamine and omega-3 fatty acids also help your gut to rebound.
  • Reinoculate: This step involves helping your gut grow a healthy level of good bacteria. This can be done by taking probiotics and adding fermented foods and kombucha to your daily diet.
  • Repair and Rebalance: Once you’ve started on the gut-healing trail, begin focusing on lasting lifestyle changes. Think about what you are eating and how it will affect your gut. Try to reduce daily stress with healthy habits like meditation, yoga, or other self care strategies.
How do I heal leaky gut?

Leaky Gut Takeaway

Even though doctors may not yet be in agreement about the cause and effect of leaky gut and diseases, they do agree that a healthy gut is a cornerstone of staying healthy.

At the very least, it’s a good idea to eat a nutritious, unprocessed diet that includes probiotic foods and avoid foods that can trigger inflammation. This simple change could help you feel better without much change in your lifestyle.

Repairing your gut is the first step in improving your health in so many ways.

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How can I tell if I have leaky gut syndrome when everything is so confusing?  Here's what you need to know for good gut health.