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What Is Leaky Gut Syndrome?

Learn what leaky gut is and how you may be able to overcome a leaky gut.


Leaky gut can describe a range of disorders, syndromes, conditions, or clusters of symptoms affecting the lining of the intestines. The intestines are long tube-like structures that are part of the digestive system. After it’s swallowed, food moves to the stomach where it’s broken down and combined with digestive enzymes. This food mixture then travels through the intestines. When everything is working well, nutrients and water are extracted through the intestinal wall and taken into the bloodstream.

Within the intestines, different cell types work together to ensure that while nutrients travel from the digestive tract into the bloodstream, potentially harmful substances do not. The cells that make up the walls of the intestines are equipped with junctions that allow nutrients to pass through, while bacteria, toxins, and other harmful substances are prevented from doing so (Kinashi & Hase, 2021). The intestines also contain mucus, peptides, proteins, and a variety of helpful bacteria that all play a role in ensuring that only nutrients make it through to the bloodstream.

For a variety of reasons, this complex system may become dysfunctional, and harmful substances may “leak” from the intestines into the bloodstream (Camileri, 2019). In leaky gut syndrome, the intestines have become pathologically or chronically permeable - they regularly let bacteria, toxins, and other harmful substances move from the gut into the bloodstream.

The presence of harmful toxins in the bloodstream can cause the body to launch an immune response. The immune response may take several different forms including inflammation. Although the toxins may enter the bloodstream through the intestines, the inflammatory immune response may appear in almost any part of the body. There may even be a link between leaky gut and mental and developmental disorders including depression, anxiety, autism, and schizophrenia (Schmidt, 2015).

Leaky Gut Symptoms

Since leaky gut can lead to inflammation and a systemic immune response, symptoms may be very broad and may potentially include almost anything. However, digestive system discomfort may be the most common symptom of leaky gut. According to the Cleveland Clinic, symptoms of digestive discomfort that may be symptomatic of potential leaky gut may include:

  • Abdominal pain

  • Diarrhea

  • Bloating and gas

  • Food sensitivities

  • Indigestion

  • A burning feeling in your abdomen

  • Low energy as a result of reduced ability to draw energy from your food.

How To Fix A Leaky Gut

If an underlying medical condition like Inflammatory Bowel Disease or Celiac disease is responsible for the leaky gut, addressing these broader medical concerns may also address the difficulties with leaky gut.

In the absence of treatment for a medical condition, you may be able to gain relief through the use of

  • Probiotics: Probiotics are living microorganisms like bacteria, yeast, and other microscopic organisms that have beneficial effects on health and well-being. Some probiotics may strengthen the cells of the intestinal walls (Ukena et al., 2007), reduce inflammation, increase intestinal barrier function (Lamprecht et al., 2012), and inhibit the growth of potentially harmful bacteria (Fioramonti et al., 2003). Fermented foods like yogurt, sauerkraut, kefir, kimchi, kombucha, miso, tempeh, and some types of cottage cheese may all be good sources of beneficial probiotics.

  • Prebiotics: Prebiotics are foods that provide nutrients for the good bacteria in your gut (Tsai et al., 2019). Prebiotics are often found in plant fibers, meaning that a diet rich in fruits and vegetables may facilitate good gut health.

  • Low FODMAP diet: This diet, which limits a specific type of carbohydrates called fermentable short-chain carbohydrates, is often recommended for people with IBS and people with food sensitivities. It may also help heal a leaky gut (Prospero et al., 2021). Following a low FODMAP diet, even for only a brief period, may give a leaky gut a chance to repair. The low FODMAP diet involves eliminating difficult-to-digest foods from your diet. Foods from all food groups can be low or high FODMAP. For example, apples, cherries, and watermelon are high FODMAP. Kiwi, strawberries, and cantaloupe are all low FODMAP. Following a guide or consulting with your doctor or a registered dietician may be helpful if you choose to try the low FODMAP diet. In the short video below a dietician gives a brief introduction to the low FODMAP diet.

In Sum

If you find yourself with symptoms of leaky gut syndrome, all is not lost. You may be able to reintroduce order by changing your diet or by introducing supplements.

​This may be a relatively straightforward process that you can achieve by eating more fresh, unprocessed foods and fewer processed, fatty, and sugary foods. However, your path to recovery from leaky gut may be more complicated - requiring you to craft a specific diet and incorporate supplements. This may require you to move forward in your quest for gut health with the support of a qualified professional like your doctor or a registered dietician. Whether you opt to tackle small manageable changes yourself or to work with a professional on more intensive and targeted changes, you may be able to achieve relief from the discomfort of a leaky gut.

References

  • Camilleri, M. (2019). Leaky gut: mechanisms, measurement and clinical implications in humans. Gut, 68(8), 1516-1526.

  • Fioramonti, J., Theodorou, V., & Bueno, L. (2003). Probiotics: what are they? What are their effects on gut physiology?. Best Practice & Research Clinical Gastroenterology, 17(5), 711-724.

  • Kinashi, Y., & Hase, K. (2021). Partners in leaky gut syndrome: intestinal dysbiosis and autoimmunity. Frontiers in Immunology, 12, 673708.

  • Lamprecht, M., Bogner, S., Schippinger, G., Steinbauer, K., Fankhauser, F., Hallstroem, S., ... & Greilberger, J. F. (2012). Probiotic supplementation affects markers of intestinal barrier, oxidation, and inflammation in trained men; a randomized, double-blinded, placebo-controlled trial. Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition, 9(1), 45.

  • Prospero, L., Riezzo, G., Linsalata, M., Orlando, A., D’attoma, B., & Russo, F. (2021). Psychological and gastrointestinal symptoms of patients with irritable bowel syndrome undergoing a low-FODMAP diet: the role of the intestinal barrier. Nutrients, 13(7), 2469.

  • Schmidt, C. (2015). Thinking from the Gut. Nature, 518(7540), S12-S14.

  • Soderholm, J. D., & Perdue, M. H. (2001). II. Stress and intestinal barrier function. American Journal of Physiology-Gastrointestinal and Liver Physiology, 280(1), G7-G13.

  • Tsai, Y. L., Lin, T. L., Chang, C. J., Wu, T. R., Lai, W. F., Lu, C. C., & Lai, H. C. (2019). Probiotics, prebiotics and amelioration of diseases. Journal of biomedical science, 26(1), 1-8.

  • Ukena, S. N., Singh, A., Dringenberg, U., Engelhardt, R., Seidler, U., Hansen, W., ... & Westendorf, A. M. (2007). Probiotic Escherichia coli Nissle 1917 inhibits leaky gut by enhancing mucosal integrity. PloS one, 2(12), e1308.

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