Do you ever feel like it’s another day, another health symptom? Sometimes things can feel like they’re snowballing – but have you ever wondered if these symptoms could have the same root cause?
Symptoms that can seem completely unrelated often do have a relationship, even the same ‘root cause’. This is the case with leaky gut syndrome (LGS), with symptoms ranging from headaches, skin conditions like acne and eczema, to food allergies, sore joints and fogginess. Focussing on healing the gut can therefore bring relief to an array of health issues. In Part 2, we looked at what typically causes harm to the gut microbiome in our modern society. In Part 3, it’s time to ‘fill in the gaps’ on leaky gut – what it actually is, how it happens and what you can do about it.
What is leaky gut?
The gastrointestinal tract (GIT) has an enormous role to play in the health of the whole body. The GIT, specifically the small intestine, is responsible for the absorption and transportation of nutrients from the foods we eat to the rest of the body. Not only that, but it forms part of the immune system – the inside lining of the GIT is a ‘barrier’ that prevents harmful proteins and pathogens from ‘leaking’ out and causing damage, inflammation, and even infection.
There was a time when leaky gut syndrome was not considered a real issue – but there’s a wealth of evidence that has proven otherwise. Sometimes called ‘intestinal permeability’, LGS refers to damage to the cells of the ‘tight junctions’ – small ‘gatekeeping’ gaps along the gut lining. Over time, this damage allows for movement of substances such as food particles that were never meant to cross over the barrier into the body.
What causes leaky gut?
Leaky gut doesn’t just happen overnight or because of one poor decision. The barrier is eroded over time by a range of factors. Often, it’s made worse by the fact that the body doesn’t have enough of the right nutrients to repair itself from inevitable injury.
Image: Dr Axe
Here are some of the most common causes of leaky gut:
- Poor diet – a diet high in refined, processed and packaged foods, wheat, gluten, dairy, sugar, grains, vegetable oils, alcohol and artificial sweeteners are all culprits in destroying the gut lining.1
- Glyphosate – also known as Roundup, this is a common herbicide used to kill weeds. Unfortunately, it’s also long been used on wheat crops to dry them out before processing. Some experts have theorised that wheat intolerance (non-Celiac wheat sensitivity) and even Coeliac disease may be driven by glyphosate-sprayed wheat crops.2
- Gut microbiome imbalance – diet, alcohol, medications, stress, pollution and harmful toxins such as glyphosate kill off beneficial bacteria strains like Bifidobacteria and Lactobacillus. This makes way in the gut for harmful bacteria like Salmonella and Clostridium to thrive. Samsel, 2013 Also referred to as ‘dysbiosis’, this imbalance in the good and bad bacteria of the microbiome can lead to an impaired barrier.3 The main cells of the intestinal lining called enterocytes are not only responsible for absorbing nutrients, they also secrete anti-microbial substances to keep harmful bacteria levels down. However, when the enterocytes face regular injury, their ability to secrete these protective substances decreases.4
- Stress – this can be physical and/or mental stress. Stress and depression have both been shown to increase the permeability of the gut barrier, leading to inflammation in the body.5 Intense over-exercise can also cause injury to intestinal cells.6
- Certain medications – common prescription and over-the-counter medications can damage the gut lining with long-term use, including antibiotics, non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), the oral contraceptive pill, steroids, and antacids.7
- SIBO – this stands for small intestinal bacterial overgrowth, a condition where bacteria grows in harmful amounts in the small intestine where it definitely doesn’t belong! One of the side effects of bacteria in the small intestine is that it ferments sugars from carbohydrates and causes a build-up of gasses that damage the gut lining, resulting in leaky gut.8
Leaky gut and IBS
Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) - which is also linked with SIBO - is found in many people with LGS. This is thought to be due to the low-grade inflammation of the intestines that is common in IBS sufferers. Inflammation can lead to weakened tissue – including a weakening of the intestinal barrier.9
Image: Dr Axe
Does leaky gut cause autoimmune disease?
Autoimmune diseases are defined as any chronic condition where the immune system attacks the body’s own tissues and organs. Conditions such as type 1 diabetes and systemic lupus erythematosus (SLE) have strong links with disturbances to the gut microbiome and leaky gut.4
Recent research has shown that there is an interaction between autoimmune conditions and leaky gut, suggesting that LGS may contribute to the development of autoimmune conditions.4
Can healing leaky gut help reduce allergies?
The immune system will always be alerted to any foreign substance in the body that shouldn’t be there. So what happens when the contents of the intestines, i.e. your food, suddenly starts popping up in places where it shouldn’t be? Food allergies and intolerances are on the rise, which is no surprise considering the numbers of SIBO, IBS and leaky gut patients that walk through my door (or appear on my screen!).
As food particles move across the damaged intestinal barrier, they are scrutinised by the immune system and can then be deemed a threat to the health of the body. The cells of the immune system mount a response, resulting in inflammation and allergic reactions. If these foods continue to be eaten, the gut becomes more inflamed, more leaky, the good bacteria suffer and the risk of developing more food allergies increases.10
Healing from leaky gut
Just as poor daily food choices can result in leaky gut, making healthy, informed choices every day can lead to gut healing.
If you suspect that LGS is impacting your health, it’s important to first identify which foods you may already have an allergy or intolerance to. This can be done through allergy testing with companies like ImuPro. Removing these foods will help to reduce inflammation and give the gut lining an opportunity to heal.
Although dietary needs may vary between individuals, there are some fundamental changes that can benefit just about everyone:
- Eat whole foods, including plenty of fresh fruit, vegetables, fermented foods (as long as your cause is not SIBO), gluten-free grains like brown rice, amaranth and quinoa.
- Ensure you get plenty of healthy fats in the form of avocados, oily fish, nuts, ghee, olive, coconut and hemp oils.
- Add daily prebiotic food sources to support the good gut bacteria, such as my favourite rolled oats, flaxseeds and legumes. Check out my blog post on the importance of prebiotics here.
- Include gut healing compounds like gelatine, collagen and glutamine found in bone broth or cleanly, ethically sourced supplements.
- Liberally sprinkle in fresh and dried herbs and spices which are full of anti-inflammatory, antibacterial and antioxidant compounds.
- Re-introduce some healthy beneficial bacteria that is killed off with leaky gut – add a side of sauerkraut, a glass of kombucha or kefir, some organic Greek yoghurt to your smoothie, or pickled veggies in your salad.
- Ensure the bowel and liver are functioning well in order to remove toxins from the body. Sip on a tisane such as Apotheca Hygieia I blend which helps to promote bowel and liver detoxification.
- Manage stress – we’re facing a lot of stressful challenges as a collective at the moment. This is all the more reason to focus on nervous system support. The nervous, immune and digestive systems are all connected. Find out about ways to manage stress through accessing the vagus nerve here.
- Find the sweet spot with exercise. As mentioned above, overly strenuous exercise can exacerbate LGS, but it’s important to move your body every day. Try yoga, Pilates, swimming, gentle walks or shorter bursts of intensity such as in high intensity interval training (HIIT).
If you’re experiencing a range of symptoms that feel out of your control, consider if leaky gut could be the underlying cause.
- Ruscio. (2020). Leaky Gut Food List.
- Samsel, A. & Seneff, S. (2013). Glyphosate, pathways to modern diseases II: Celiac sprue and gluten intolerance. Interdiscip Toxicol, 6(4):159-184.
- Kinashi, Y. & Hasi, K. (2021). Partners in Leaky Gut Syndrome: Intestinal Dysbiosis and Autoimmunity. Front Immunol, 12: 673708.
- Mu, Q., Kirby, J., Reilly, C.M. & Luo, X.M. (2017). Leaky Gut as a Danger Signal for Autoimmune Diseases. Front Immunol, 8(598).
- Madison, A. & Kiecolt-Glaser-J.K. (2019). Stress, depression, diet, and the gut microbiota: human-bacteria interactions at the core of psychoneuroimmunology and nutrition. Curr Opin Behav Sci, 28:105:110.
- Science Alert. (2017). Your Gut Will Seriously Start Leaking if You Don’t Moderate Your Exercise. Accessed August 2021 from https://www.sciencealert.com/here-s-another-reason-too-much-exercise-could-be-bad-for-you#:~:text=Excessive%20amounts%20of%20exercise%20are,gut%2Drelated%20medical%20problem%20already.
- Amy Myers, MD. (2018). 5 Medications that Can Cause Leaky Gut. Accessed August 2021 from https://www.amymyersmd.com/article/medications-cause-leaky-gut/
- What is SIBO? Accessed August 2021 from https://sibotest.com/pages/what-is-sibo/#symptoms-of-sibo
- Park, J.H., Park D., Kim, H.J., Cho, Y.K., Sohn, C., et al. (2009). The Relationship Between Small-Intestinal Bacterial Overgrowth and Intestinal Permeability in Patients with Irritable Bowel Syndrome. Gut Liver, 3(3):174-179.
- (2020). Microbiota, leaky gut and delayed food allergies. Accessed August 2021 from https://imupro.com/microbiota-leaky-gut-and-delayed-food-allergy/