Leaky gut syndrome refers to a set of symptoms that are associated with a “leaky gut.” What we often call “leaky gut” is more scientifically labelled as “intestinal epithelial hyperpermeability,” “intestinal tight junction malfunction” or even “compromised intestinal barrier function” by the medical community.
The gut is supposed to allow absorption of water, small ions and nutrients into our blood system (the gate function). It is also supposed to prevent other material in your gut from entering the blood stream (the fence function).
The barrier consists of a single layer of cells (intestinal epithelial lining) and the secretions of those cells. The cells are bound together by “tight junction” proteins. But, when this barrier become damaged, the undigested food as well as potentially toxic microbes and microbial products can enter the blood stream.
Why is Leaky Gut Important?
Most people have several pounds of microbes (mostly bacteria) living in their gut. It’s a population of several trillion organisms. This is your microbiome. These are organisms that can be either beneficial (for example, helping digestion) or detrimental to your health. But, they must not be allowed to escape from the gut and enter the blood stream.
Digestion takes place in the gut. Food particles are broken down into components the body can use. Proteins are broken down into amino acids. Fats are broken down into fatty acids. And carbohydrates are broken down into sugars.
Increased intestinal permeability allows undigested food particles to migrate to your blood system through the compromised intestinal barrier. For example, protein should be fully digested to amino acids (which are the building blocks used to construct various kinds of tissue). The intestinal barrier, in this case, should only allow the amino acids to pass into the blood stream.
When digestion not yet complete, “globs” of linked amino acids which are not yet separated can enter the blood stream through a compromised barrier. These large particles of undigested food may be recognized as foreign compounds. The immune system may start attacking these particles. And, the immune system may continue attacking normal bodily tissue with these similar structures. This is the characteristic of an autoimmune disease.
Excessive gut permeability also allows bacteria and toxins into the blood stream. This activates the immune system’s inflammatory defenses. This can lead to tissue destruction which can include multiple organ failure. The immune response can further increase gut permeability. This “vicious cycle’ results in worsening conditions that cannot be stopped until the intestinal epithelial hyperpermeability is addressed.
The migration of undigested foods, bacteria and toxins beyond the intestinal barrier results in both local and system-wide (systemic) inflammation. It is not clear whether the contamination or the inflammatory response is the major culprit in disease and symptoms of a leaky gut. But, the loss of the gut barrier is likely part of the chain leading to disease.
When bacteria, toxins or undigested food particles leave your gut and enter your blood stream your body reacts. These reactions often produce signs or symptoms you can recognize. They can help you identify a leaky gut.
Do You Have a Leaky Gut?
You can be tested for leaky gut by a doctor using a Lactulose/Mannitol Test. The procedure involves ingesting two compounds (permeability probes) dissolved in water. Two common non-metabolized sugars acting as probes are mannitol (which is small enough to go through a normal intestinal epithelial layer) and lactulose (a larger sugar molecule which has minimal penetration of a normal, healthy intestinal epithelial layer). Neither substance is used by the body, so once they enter the blood stream they are removed and sent to the kidneys for elimination in the urine. By measuring the concentrations of both probes in urine samples, the doctor can determine if you have intestinal epithelial hyperpermeability (a leaky gut).
If you have a leaky gut you may already experience some of these signs or symptoms:
- Digestive issues, diarrhea, constipation, gas or bloating
- Abdominal pain and cramping
- Fever and fatigue
- Autoimmune disease
- Depression, anxiety or moodiness
- Allergies or asthma
You should know that a set of symptoms associated with a leaky gut is not yet recognized by the medical community. But, there is sufficient experimental evidence (often studies with mice) to associate a leaky gut with a number of diseases, such as:
- Inflammatory bowel disease (Crohn’s Disease and Ulcerative Colitis)
- Graft vs. Host Disease
- Type I diabetes
- Multiple organ dysfunction syndrome
- Irritable bowel syndrome
- Celiac Disease
- Acute pancreatitis
The major problem with most of the studies of “leaky gut” is that while a correlation is noted between the leaky gut and the disease, this does not necessarily translate to a cause and effect relationship. And, in many animal studies the loss of the intestinal barrier alone is not enough to initiate a disease. Also, the restoration of the gut barrier has not been shown to cure any underlying disease. So, the medical community is cautious about establishing a “leaky gut syndrome” and awaits more careful studies.
But it is known that “leaky gut” can contribute to disease progression and make existing diseases worse. So, for this alone it is worthwhile improving the condition of your gut barrier.
Causes of Leaky Gut
Obviously testing what causes excessive intestinal permeability in humans is not something that ethical researchers can do. But, such research has been conducted on animals such as mice.
Some substances have an indirect effect on intestinal permeability. For example, zonulin is known to produce excessive intestinal permeability. And gluten and some intestinal bacteria are the two triggers that have been identified to trigger zonulin release.
Here are some triggers that can directly or indirectly cause leaky gut:
- Poor diet
- Genetic predisposition
- Chronic alcohol consumption
- Stress (both psychological and oxidative)
- Burn injury
- Bad gut bacteria
- NSAIDs (nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs)
Reducing and Eliminating Leaky Gut
Top 7 Foods for Getting Rid of Leaky Gut
Of course we want to eliminate as many triggers of leaky gut as possible. And, here are some additional ways to help reduce the excessive intestinal permeability that characterizes leaky gut:
- Probiotics and fiber
- Vitamin D
- Antioxidants (including Omega 3 fatty acid)
Leaky gut is not pleasant and it restricts you from living a full and energetic life. So, take steps today to heal your gut and prevent damage.
References Used in the Post
- Intestinal permeability defects: Is it time to treat? published in the journal Clinical Gastroenterology and Hepatology
- Acidosis induces hyperpermeability in Caco-2BBe cultured intestinal epithelial monolayers published in the American Journal of Physiology: Gastrointestinal and Liver Physiology
- Increased intestinal permeability to macromolecules and endotoxemia in patients with chronic alcohol abuse in different stages of alcohol-induced liver disease published in the Journal of Hepatology
- Leaky Gut As a Danger Signal for Autoimmune Diseases published in Frontiers in Immunology
- Role of the Gut in Multiple Organ Failure: Bacterial Translocation and Permeability Changes published in the journal World Journal of Surgery
- Intestinal permeability and systemic infections in critically ill patients: Effect of glutamine published in the journal Critical Care Medicine
- INTESTINAL EPITHELIAL HYPERPERMEABILITY: Mechanisms and Relevance to Disease published in the journal Gastroenterology Clinics of North America
- Mucosal mast cells are pivotal elements in inflammatory bowel disease that connect the dots: Stress, intestinal hyperpermeability and inflammation published in the World Journal of Gastroenterology
- Evidence that chronic alcohol exposure promotes intestinal oxidative stress, intestinal hyperpermeability and endotoxemia prior to development of alcoholic steatohepatitis in rats published in the Journal of Hepatology
- Intestinal epithelial hyperpermeability: update on the pathogenesis of gut mucosal barrier dysfunction in critical illness published in the journal Current Opinion in Critical Care
- Intestinal permeability, leaky gut, and intestinal disorders published in Current Gastroenterology Reports
- Intestinal Permeability and Its Regulation by Zonulin: Diagnostic and Therapeutic Implications published in Clinical Gastroenterology and Hepatology