Leaky gut, also called intestinal permeability, is one of the most common root causes of gut issues, and health issues in general. I discovered this for myself a few years ago when trying to find the root cause of my bloating, constipation, anxiety, and acne, and since becoming a Nutritional Therapy Practitioner I now see that it is at the root of almost all of my clients’ health issues. Leaky gut affects your gut, of course, but it can also affect your brain, skin, and joints, and it’s linked with autoimmune diseases, neurological diseases, and more. While not everyone has intestinal permeability, it is incredibly common, and it is always the first thing I consider when working with clients.
It’s important to note that the average Western medical doctor is not going to diagnose someone with leaky gut. Most Western doctors don’t consider leaky gut a “real diagnosis.” It’s a term that holistic doctors, functional medicine practitioners, and others in the world of natural medicine use. If Western doctors do recognize leaky gut, they are more likely to use the term “intestinal permeability.” “Leaky gut” and “intestinal permeability” are describing the same thing.
What is leaky gut? Don’t overthink it – it’s pretty much what it sounds like. When you have leaky gut, the lining of your intestine has been compromised and the microvilli on your intestinal wall (which absorb nutrients from food) become damaged. When your gut is damaged, particles can “leak” through the tiny holes in the delicate intestinal wall, which is meant to be sealed up. A gut lining that’s healed and sealed keeps “bad particles” from getting into the bloodstream. When you have leaky gut, food particles, bacteria, toxins, and other unwanted substances can slip through the gut lining, reach your bloodstream, and cause inflammation throughout the body. This inflammation can manifest in a variety of ways – bloating, constipation, diarrhea, food intolerances, skin rashes, acne, brain fog, mood disturbances, poor memory, autoimmunity, and more.
How exactly does this cause inflammation throughout the body? When your body notices any type of foreign invader entering your bloodstream, it alerts your immune system so that your body can fight the “bad guys.” As your body works hard to get the toxins out, it also creates inflammation. If your body is continuously dealing with what it perceives to be “foreign invaders,” this can cause chronic inflammation and even lead to the body mistaking its own tissues as a foreign invader. This can lead to Celiac Disease, Ulcerative Colitis, MS, chronic fatigue, and other autoimmune diseases.
Leaky gut is the main root cause of food sensitivities. If food molecules leak into your bloodstream, your body will think they are foreign invaders, and you might develop sensitivities to a number of different foods. This is why people often become sensitive to the foods they eat most often. Many people think that they are intolerant to foods “just because,” when really they might only be intolerant to foods because they have a leaky gut. Instead of just eliminating the foods, the best approach is to heal the gut.
There are many different symptoms of leaky gut, a few of which I already mentioned. Here’s a list of common symptoms, many of which I experienced myself when I was dealing with intestinal permeability:
- food sensitivities
- brain fog
- constipation or diarrhea
- skin rashes / eczema
- malabsorption / nutrient deficiencies
- brain fog
- poor memory
- joint pain
- hormonal imbalances
- thyroid issues
- bacterial or yeast overgrowths (SIBO, Candida, etc.)
- autoimmune diseases like Crohn’s, Hashimoto’s, Rheumatoid Arthritis, etc.
Many more people have leaky gut than they realize. It’s at the root of most diseases and symptoms, so it’s worth considering if you struggle with a health issue. Autoimmune diseases, IBD and IBS, arthritis, diabetes, autism – they’ve all been linked to leaky gut. The way we live in today’s world makes us all extremely susceptible to developing leaky gut if we haven’t already, and protecting your intestinal lining is vital to overall health. 70-80% of your immune system is located in your gut, which is why it is so important to support your gut health.
What causes leaky gut in the first place?
There are many different potential causes of leaky gut, and it can be complicated because it’s linked to so many different health issues. The question is – are those health issues causing leaky gut, or is leaky gut causing them? Or both? For example, if you have Celiac disease and leaky gut, which came first? Gut inflammation in general can lead to leaky gut, and that inflammation can come from many different things. Here are a few main causes:
- inflammatory foods like processed foods, refined sugar, artificial flavoring, gluten, corn, soy, conventional dairy, vegetable oils, alcohol, etc.
- food allergens
- glyphosate exposure
- gut infections like SIBO, Candida, parasites, etc.
- low stomach acid
- NSAIDs like Advil and Tylenol
- oral contraceptives
- OTC or prescription products (PPIs) for acid reflux
- Chronic stress
An inflammatory diet is a main cause of leaky gut. This includes processed and highly refined foods, refined sugar, alcohol, and vegetable oils like canola oil and safflower oil. Gluten, dairy, corn, and soy can also lead to leaky gut, as can grains and legumes for certain people. Glyphosate exposure can also cause leaky gut, which is why it is so important to buy organic produce whenever you can. I go over all of my recommendations for an anti-inflammatory diet in my Paleo Women Lifestyle Program.
NSAIDs, birth control pills, antibiotics, PPIs, and other medications disrupt the microbiome, irritate the gut, and can then lead to intestinal permeability.
Chronic stress, including overtraining, is an important lifestyle factor that can cause leaky gut. Many of us live fast-paced lives, don’t sleep enough, answer emails all day long, are exposed to stressful people and events – none of this is doing the gut any favors. Stress dampens the immune system, and a weakened immune system will increase inflammation throughout the body.
You can test for leaky gut with a functional medicine practitioner, but that usually doesn’t affect the way it’s going to be addressed. I think it’s a better use of money to do stool testing or hormone testing, and / or to start working on healing your gut with the guidance of a practitioner. To learn more about my own approach to addressing leaky gut, you can read my post on my leaky gut protocol.
**Remember, this information is not meant as medical advice and should not be taken as such. Always check with your qualified healthcare professional before incorporating a new supplement into your routine. A Nutritional Therapy Practitioner is trained to evaluate nutritional needs and make recommendations of dietary changes and nutritional supplements. An NTP is not trained to provide medical diagnoses, and no comment or recommendation should be construed as being a medical diagnosis. Since every human being is unique, I cannot guarantee any specific result from recommendations. If you are under the care of a healthcare provider, it is important that you contact them and alert them to your use of nutritional supplements. Nutritional therapy may be a beneficial adjunct to more traditional care, and it may also alter your need for medication, so it is important you always keep your physician informed of changes in your nutritional program.