You may have heard of the term “leaky gut” already. It’s been receiving a lot of buzz from medical blogs and social media health personalities recently, yet there’s still a lack of understanding by the broader medical community of the critical role a leaky gut can play in health, both inside and outside the digestive system.
If you suffer from leaky gut—and thanks in part to our modern diets, many Americans do—you could soon be facing a whole host of other health issues (or maybe you already are!). Here are the most common signs that you could have leaky gut syndrome, why a leaky gut can be so damaging, and what you can do about it.
What is Leaky Gut Syndrome?
Whether you’ve heard the term “leaky gut” before or not, chances are you’re not entirely clear on what it is. The name itself is fairly descriptive, but to understand fully what leaky gut syndrome is, first you need to understand how your gut works (or is supposed to work!). Inside your stomach, your digestive tract has over 4,000 square feet of the intestinal lining. This intestinal lining is designed to create a tight barrier between your gut and the rest of your body to control what enters your bloodstream from the food you eat. (1)
To a certain degree, everyone has a leaky gut; even if your gut health is incredible, the barrier that your intestinal wall forms between your digestive tract and your bloodstream isn’t entirely impenetrable—nor is it meant to be! The term “intestinal permeability” describes how easily various substances pass through your intestinal walls. Your intestinal wall is supposed to have small gaps (called tight junctions) that allow nutrients and water to pass through into your bloodstream. (1) (2)
The negative health issues associated with a leaky gut arise when your intestinal permeability becomes too great—also known as intestinal hyperpermeability—letting harmful substances such as toxins, bacteria, or undigested food escape your gut into your bloodstream and the surrounding tissues alongside beneficial nutrients. (1) (2)
What happens then? Your immune system may recognize these foreign invaders as pathogens and attack. This immune system response can trigger inflammation in your gut and result in changes to the delicate balance of bacteria that calls your gut home. The continued overstressing of your immune system can have far-reaching consequences. Indeed, research suggests that leaky gut can be a precursor for developing autoimmune diseases. (3)
The Myriad Potential Causes of Intestinal Permeability
Clearly, leaky gut syndrome can lead to a wide variety of digestive issues as well as other health problems—and, unfortunately, it can arise from a wide variety of risk factors as well. The most common possible causes of increased intestinal permeability and the leaky gut it can lead to include:
Too much Sugar in Your Diet
Like so many other gut issues, leaky gut is frequently caused by poor diet. Number one among the possible dietary causes of leaky gut is too much sugar, a common issue in the modern Western diet. (4) Keep in mind that it isn’t just refined white sugar that can be the culprit here. Studies have found that too much fructose—that is, the sugar found in fruit—can increase intestinal permeability and lead to leaky gut. (5)
Overuse of Non-Steroidal Anti-Inflammatory Drugs
Commonly known as NSAIDs, non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs such as ibuprofen are excellent at helping counteract everyday aches and pains. Unfortunately, as effective as NSAIDs are at pain relief, they are also a major cause of intestinal permeability. Researchers have found that taking an NSAID increases your intestinal permeability within a day, and long-term damage is possible with continued use. (6)
Excessive Alcohol Consumption
Most of us like to enjoy a glass of wine every now and then, but drinking too much can have serious health consequences—and a leaky gut may be one of them. One study in rats showed that alcohol intake increased intestinal permeability for a whole day (7), while other research shows that chronic alcohol use can lead to increased intestinal permeability over time. (8)
A Diet Low in Key Nutrients
A balanced diet rich in a wide variety of vitamins and minerals is important for overall health, and there’s evidence that nutritional deficiencies in key areas can lead to a leaky gut. Various research has shown that deficiencies in zinc (9), vitamin A (10), and vitamin D (24) can weaken the intestinal barrier.
Stress has been implicated in many gastrointestinal disorders, and it turns out that chronic stress can be a cause of leaky gut as well. Researchers have found that too much stress over time can severely impair your intestinal barrier function. (11)
Yeast is naturally occurring in the gut and is perfectly healthy in the right numbers. The problems arise when the yeast populations of your digestive tract become overgrown. One study found that the intestinal permeability of mice increased when the Candida populations of their gut flourished. (12)
6 Common Signs that You Might Have a Leaky Gut
If you’re like most Americans, you can probably tick the box next to one (or more!) of the above potential causes for leaky gut—but how can you know if your risk factors have developed into leaky gut or not? Leaky gut can manifest in a number of ways, but these signs and symptoms of leaky gut are among the most common:
If you’ve been reading up on gut health for a while, you probably know that bloating is a symptom of many digestive tract problems—and research has shown that leaky gut can be counted among the list of gut health issues that can lead to bloating.
Food Sensitivities or Food Allergies
Research studies have found that those with food allergies or sensitivities often have poor gut lining barrier function. (13) This may be because a leaky gut can allow undigested food particles to cross the gut lining barrier, triggering the immune response that defines a food allergy. Common foods that are associated with leaky gut-related sensitivities and allergies include gluten, soy, and dairy.
Feeling tired every now and then is normal; feeling tired all the time isn’t. There’s evidence that chronic fatigue syndrome can be caused by a leaky gut allowing bacteria to pass into the bloodstream. (14) So if you’ve been experiencing ongoing debilitating fatigue that doesn’t seem to get better with rest, the cause may lie in your small intestine.
As we’ve seen before, a leaky gut allows microbes to escape your digestive tract and enter your bloodstream, triggering an immune system response. An immune system that’s been activated produces antibodies that cause inflammation in other areas of your body. Often this inflammation is experienced in your joints, leading to pain and swelling. (15)
Depression, Anxiety, and “Brain Fog”
Scientists have known for a while that your gut health plays a key role in your mental health, and there’s growing evidence that bacteria entering your bloodstream after crossing your intestinal wall can lead to anxiety, depression and brain fog. (16)
Autoimmune Diseases such as Irritable Bowel Syndrome, Crohn’s Disease, Rheumatoid Arthritis, Type 1 Diabetes, or Celiac Disease
There’s significant evidence that leaky gut is closely intertwined with a wide range of autoimmune diseases (17), ranging from celiac disease (18) and diabetes (19) to Crohn’s disease (20) and irritable bowel syndrome (IBS). (21) There’s some disagreement in the medical community over whether or not these diseases are caused by leaky gut or whether they cause increased intestinal permeability, but there’s no denying that they’re closely linked.
So What Can You Do to Heal Your Gut?
Luckily, even if you’re displaying the signs of leaky gut syndrome, there are steps that you can take to reduce your symptoms and strengthen your intestinal barrier.
Cut Down on Your Intake of Refined Carbohydrates (Particularly Sugar)
Harmful bacteria in your gut love sugar, and studies have found that excessive sugar intake has the potential to impair gut barrier function. (4) As much as possible, cut refined carbohydrates from your diet.
Fill Your Diet with Fiber
Of course, not all carbs are bad when it comes to intestinal barrier health! Foods high in soluble fiber—such as fruits, legumes, and leafy vegetables—can fuel the good bacteria of your digestive tract, which can help keep the bad bacteria of your gut in check and promote a healthy gut. (22)
Reduce/Stop Your Use of NSAIDs
As we noted above, NSAID use is linked to a weakened intestinal barrier, so opting for alternative over-the-counter pain medications can improve your leaky gut symptoms.
Add a Probiotic Supplement to Your Daily Routine
Probiotics—otherwise known as good bacteria strains—can help improve your gut health in a wide variety of ways, including helping to reinforce the barrier formed by your intestinal wall. (23) Adding a probiotic supplement such as LoveBug’s Here’s the Skinny to your daily regime can help you heal your leaky gut, balance your gut flora, increase nutrient absorption, and achieve better overall health—all in one simple little pill! Even better, all of our probiotics are additive, soy, dairy, allergen, and gluten-free. Our Here’s the Skinny probiotic supplement will work to improve your digestive issues and help you heal your gut.