What Is Leaky Gut? (and why it’s the foundation of real health)

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What is Leaky Gut? Leaky gut, or increased intestinal permeability, is a hot topic these days. Your intestines form a barrier between the food that you eat and the inner workings of your body. For optimal health, you want to be sure that the barrier is working properly.

Leaky gut appears to be the culprit in a wide variety of inflammatory conditions, including autoimmune diseases, food sensitivities, adrenal fatigue, thyroid dysfunction, and possibly even type 1 diabetes.

While leaky gut is more often discussed in integrative medicine, your conventional doctor’s office is starting to pay attention, too! A study was published in 1988 suggesting that patients who sustained large burns were more likely to develop sepsis (a bacterial infection in the bloodstream) due to increased gut permeability, or leakiness.

In the last 2-3 years, there’s exciting new studies suggesting links between leaky gut and chronic disease states like type 1 diabetes and other autoimmune conditions, such as celiac disease, multiple sclerosis, and lupus.

As an integrative medicine physician assistant, I’ve seen patients with a wide variety of symptoms FEEL so much better when they work on a healthy gut environment.

I’ve seen improvement in pain, abdominal bloating, autoimmune diseases, stronger immune systems, improved mood and concentration, reversal of food sensitivities, weight loss, and an increase in energy.

Sounds like something that deserves further exploration and consideration, huh?!

Some things are easier to talk about than write about, so here’s my video unpacking what is leaky gut and many important aspects of it. We’ll cover leaky gut symptoms, what seems to cause it, how to test for it, and how to treat it.

Below the video are notes answering “What is leaky gut?” if you want to follow along or refer to ’em for future reference.

What is Leaky Gut?

O, poor little leaky gut! Technically, leaky gut is intestinal hyperpermeability.

Here’s a quick run down on what leaky gut is:

  • Your small intestine is where the food that you eat gets absorbed
  • Food passes from the small intestine into the blood stream via small openings called tight junctions
  • In leaky gut, the tight junctions separate slightly
  • These enlarged openings allow larger molecules and proteins to pass (or leak, hence the name “leaky gut”) into the bloodstream than originally intended
  • These larger molecules trigger an inflammatory response and an immune response in the body which appear to lead to health issues

What Are Leaky Gut Symptoms?

  • frequent abdominal pain, bloating, and/or gas
  • frequent diarrhea or constipation
  • fatigue
  • headaches
  • brain fog
  • memory loss
  • rashes and other skin conditions (acne, rosacea, eczema)
  • sugar or carbohydrate cravings
  • joint aches, pain, and/or swelling
  • mood disorders- depression, anxiety, ADD, ADHD
  • autoimmune disorders- rheumatoid arthritis, lupus, celiac disease, Chron’s disease, ulcerative colitis
  • weight gain
  • high blood pressure (possibly)
  • muscle aches
  • malar rash (across the bridge of the nose and cheeks), allergic “shiners” (dark circles under the eyes)
  • food allergies or sensitivities
  • slight swelling of the tongue
  • thyroid dysfunction
  • nutrient deficiencies due to malabsorption

What is Leaky Gut Causing?

The more that we learn about what leaky gut is, the more we’re concerned that it can play a significant role in the development of:

  • food sensitivities
  • chronic fatigue
  • fibromyalgia
  • migraines
  • thyroid dysfunction
  • HPA axis dysfunction (AKA adrenal fatigue)
  • mood swings and mood disorders
  • skin conditions
  • autism and ADD/ADHD
  • hormone imbalances

It’s also been suggested in several studies that it may contribute to multiple autoimmune conditions, including:

  • multiple sclerosis
  • Type 1 diabetes
  • celiac disease
  • inflammatory bowel disease (Chron’s, ulcerative colitis)
  • PCOS
  • chronic infections

Possible Causes of Leaky Gut

There are so many factors that can set you up for leaky gut. For most of my patients, it’s usually a combination of these factors.

Have any of these situations happened to you at any point in your life? These can apply to your childhood, too.

Check out this list and see if any of these sound like you:

  • hormone changes (pregnancy, menopause, use of birth control pills for more than 2 years)
  • antibiotic use (usually leads to leaky gut when you’ve taken lots of different antibiotics throughout your life, not just if you’ve had one of course of them ever; but think back– did you have strep a bunch as a kid or multiple ear infections?)
  • exposure to heavy metals, mold, or environmental toxins (ever live through remodeling of your home, office, or school?)
  • chronic illness or an ongoing stressor (this can lead to adrenal fatigue, which often leads to leaky gut)
  • long term NSAID use (advil, aleve)
  • steroid use (like prednisone, but illegal steroid use could definitely play a role too)
  • sugar in your diet
  • alcohol use
  • eating disorders
  • cancer and cancer treatments
  • genetically modified foods
  • undertreated thyroid
  • nutritional deficiencies
  • inflammation
  • intestinal dysbiosis (bacteria or yeast overgrowth, parasites)

A quick note on….

Zonulin is the protein that regulates intestinal permeablity. Bacteria and gluten can trigger the release of zonulin in the body. In genetically susceptible people, that can lead to leaky gut.

How to Test for Leaky Gut

  1. Stool Sample- looks for microbes (bacteria, parasites, yeast); some stool tests will include a zonulin level (high level= increased gut permeability= leaky gut)
  2. Blood Test for IgG food allergies, vitamin and mineral deficiency tests
  3. Lactulose/Mannitol 24 hour Urine Test- this is an older test and not regarded as the most accurate test
  4. Blood Test for LPS Antibodies
  5. Blood Test for Actomysin Antibodies

Leaky Gut Treatments

There are four main tenets to most leaky gut treatment plans. I love the 4 R’s from Dr. Jeffery Bland of the Personalized Lifestyle Medicine Institute:

  1. Remove Stressors- remove the food allergies, SIBO (small intestine bacterial overgrowth), toxic substances, NSAIDs (advil, aleve), alcohol, refined carbohydrates (white flour, white sugar)
  2. Replace- get back to healthy stomach acid levels and digestive enzymes if needed
  3. Reseed- the gut with good bacteria through probiotics, prebiotics, gelatin, collagen, and fermented foods. Check out these leaky gut diet recommendations and how to make bone broth that beats botox!
  4. Repair- the gut and your body with good nutrition and supplements

For more info on what is leaky gut and how to heal it up, check out:

Dive Deeper Into Holistic Health Topics

Thanks for reading this Holistic Health Intro (from a holistic healthcare insider!). Beyond answering “What is leaky gut?,” you’ll find the rest of this series on these important Holistic Health Topics:

Resources That I Love

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What is leaky gut

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