What is Leaky Gut?


By Dr. Melody Khorrami, PharmD, RPh, INHC

The intestinal barrier in the human gut has important immune defense components. This barrier includes an epithelial (outer) layer and mucus. The mucus lining of the intestines absorbs nutrients and water from the food we eat. The semi-permeable nature of the human gut causes some of this food to enter the bloodstream. The intestinal lining serves as a barrier to certain infections and toxins, an important function in the dynamics of our immune system. In some people, permeability is greater, and the tight spaces between these cells that line the small intestine weaken, which increases the amount of undigested food and bacterial toxins that enter the bloodstream. This phenomenon is known as hyperpermeability, or leaky gut. 

Certain dietary components can influence leaky gut. Consuming inflammatory foods such as refined carbohydrates, processed foods, sugar, gluten, excess alcohol and caffeine, and smoking can negatively impact the gut and contribute to the development of a leaky gut. Dysbiosis, an imbalance in the gut microbial community, can lead to many health conditions, including leaky gut. Studies have shown that people with certain chronic diseases that impact the gastrointestinal system may be more prone to having leaky gut or having leaky gut be an underlying root to their condition, such as stress. For example,  it can harm the good bacteria present in the gut. If the intestinal barrier is weak, toxins can enter the bloodstream, and trigger a strong inflammatory response. 

Leaky gut is not yet recognized as a conventional medical diagnosis, and no standardized tests have been approved to look at intestinal permeability. There is more and more evidence that links the condition to certain health issues. There are associations between intestinal permeability and autoimmune conditions as well as celiac disease, allergies, depression, fibromyalgia, certain skin conditions, and other inflammatory bowel diseases. Some of the common symptoms of leaky gut include food sensitivities, bloating, abdominal pain, and indigestion. These symptoms can also be attributed to other conditions, so it is important to work with a licensed healthcare provider to identify the root cause of your symptoms.  

There are currently no FDA-approved treatments for leaky gut. However, there are ways to support the healing of the gut in this condition including maintaining the right diet and including the intake of high-fiber foods. These foods include vegetables, and certain fruits, chia seeds, and flax seeds which can all support the growth of good gut bacteria.  Additionally, lifestyle habits should include exercising,  increasing sleep, managing emotional stress, and incorporating the right nutrients in your diet. These behaviors can help to reduce gut inflammation and in turn improve leaky gut. Also, eliminating gluten, dairy, and sugar in the short term may help with the healing process of the gut.  Mental or emotional stress for an extended period of time can also affect the ability of the immune system to respond in a timely manner and can affect the healing of the gut. 

Permeability can also be affected by the microbiota, and the idea of reversing leaky gut through the use of probiotics has gained more attraction in the last couple of years. The gut has a diverse microbial balance, and studies show that the activity of gut microbes through fermentation can have a healing effect on the epithelium of the intestines.  

Other supplements that may support the healing process in leaky gut include zinc, L-glutamine, collagen peptides, curcumin, and butyrate. Studies have shown that zinc may have a role in modifying the tight junctures in the intestines that influence leaky gut, and may help  reduce gut permeability. L-glutamine is an amino acid that repairs the intestinal lining and may help to regulate it during stressful times. Collagen is a protein that impacts gut health by having a protective effect on the intestinal lining. Butyrate is the byproduct of the fermentation of fiber and may help to stimulate the production of mucus and support the tightening of the intestinal junctions. Curcumin is the active component of turmeric and has many anti-inflammatory effects which could benefit the lining of the digestive tract. 

The recovery time for leaky gut varies for each person. With the limited clinical data available for the condition and recovery times, it can be hard to say. Typically, it is a very individualized process and depends on patient care and other underlying factors that may exist. 

Keeping your gut healthy is integral to the management of leaky gut. The role of probiotics in the improvement of gut health is multifunctional. It includes preventing pathogenic microbes from colonizing the gut, regulating the function of the immune system, and reducing the permeability of the lining of the gut. It also helps to modulate the microbiota in the gut. If you find yourself experiencing the symptoms of leaky gut, it is important to follow up with your licensed healthcare provider to address the root cause of your symptoms. 

Please note: This article is for information purposes only. Please consult your personal licensed healthcare provider before making any changes to your healthcare plan.

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