In recent years, we have all been hearing more about how our health is impacted by our GI tract, gastrointestinal tract, or gut.
This pathway is responsible for processing our food and all the nutrients in it.
It is also where almost 80% of our immune system operates and has been connected to many functions for health, as well as mental health.
However, there is a recently coined condition called “leaky gut syndrome” that refers to gaps in our intestinal wall that can let substances into our bloodstream.
It may impact IBS, IBD, Crohn’s disease, the immune system, skin health, fatigue, as well as a host of other ailments.
What Is Leaky Gut Syndrome?
Leaky gut syndrome is not an official diagnosis but often refers to the normal intestinal permeability that we all experience.
Normally, there are tight junctions or small gaps in the small intestine that allow substances like water and nutrients to flow through into the bloodstream. (1)
However, in some individuals, the permeability may be worsened and lead to other symptoms like bloating, cramps, gas, food sensitivities, as well as pain. (2)
What Causes Leaky Gut Syndrome?
Little is yet known about what specifically causes leaky gut, but has been gaining interest in the medical community.
A leaky gut is usually indicative of another health problem.
For example, we know that an increase in intestinal permeability often comes along with Type 1 Diabetes and celiac disease (3).
Additionally, studies have found that when there are higher levels of a certain protein, zonulin, there is more permeability and looser junctions.
Two things can increase zonulin levels in an individual: bacteria and gluten.
In people without celiac disease or gluten allergies, the research on gluten’s impact on zonulin levels is mixed.
But we do know that low levels of the good bacteria in our gut have been linked to a multitude of health issues. (4, 5, 6)
We also know that alcohol, certain medications, antibiotics, and painkillers, as well as certain health conditions, can impact a healthy gut and create an imbalance of healthy vs unhealthy bacteria.
Studies have also found that people who have chronic stress lifestyles are more prone to have leaky gut.
Leaky Gut Syndrome Symptoms & Factors
As the leaky gut is not a formal medical diagnosis, it is seen as more of a description of other issues that have been linked to a more permeable gut.
So, what are the symptoms of a leaky gut?
There are some signs and symptoms of leaky gut, some factors tied to intestinal permeability, as well as other things that contribute to discomfort.
1. Digestive Diseases
If you suffer from celiac disease or other inflammatory bowel diseases like ulcerative colitis or Crohn’s disease, treating the actual condition will make the most improvement.
But it has been shown that these digestive conditions do lead to increased gut permeability.
It’s unclear how the disease and leaky gut influence one another, but following the advice of your medical team and eating a healthy diet will likely improve symptoms like gas, bloating, and constipation.
If you suffer from celiac disease, it is important that you eat a gluten-free diet.
2. Brain Fog
Like the leaky gut, brain fog is not a medical condition or formal diagnosis, but rather a set of symptoms from other medical conditions.
Brain fog refers to memory problems, poor concentration, inability to focus, and lack of mental clarity.
It can often interfere with work or studies.
Some believe that a leaky gut can contribute to brain fog through the gut-brain axis.
In fact, some research has pointed to the connection between migraines and IBS. (7)
It’s important to talk with your doctor or medical team to rule out any other underlying medical reasons for brain fog, such as side effects from medications.
If you struggle with chronic constipation, you may also have leaky gut.
The toxins present in the stool may irritate the lining of the intestines, leading to inflammation in intestinal tissues and increased gut permeability.
If left untreated, this may also contribute to irritable bowel syndrome or disease.
Similarly, if you suffer from chronic or recurrent diarrhea, it may be a sign of a leaky gut.
Irritants and toxins in the bloodstream come into contact with the intestinal wall and may lead to inflammation, increased gut permeability, and a reaction of trying to empty the bowels quickly.
Left untreated, this can lead to more serious conditions.
5. Joint Pain
It may seem unrelated, but joint stiffness or pain may also be tied to a leaky gut.
Certain kinds of arthritis-like psoriatic arthritis, are associated with an increased risk of ulcerative colitis and Crohn’s disease.
These are all inflammatory autoimmune diseases.
Eating a healthy diet that can heal the gut may also improve these other conditions, including joint pain.
6. Skin Issues
If some harmful substances are crossing through the tight junctions of your intestinal lining, the resulting inflammation can aggravate certain skin conditions.
If you have noticed a worsening in acne, rosacea, or eczema, you may want to try eating a healthy diet that promotes gut healing to see if these conditions improve.
7. Chronic Fatigue
Patients who suffer from chronic fatigue syndrome may also have a leaky gut.
Research has shown that patients with chronic fatigue syndrome had markers of inflammation in their blood, which may be a result of a leaky gut (8).
If you suffer from chronic fatigue, fibromyalgia, or other pain or fatigue ailments, make sure you talk with your practitioner about your diet and gut health.
8. Autoimmune Disease
Many autoimmune diseases have been associated with issues with the gut microbiota and gut health.
In fact, recently, more evidence has been found regarding dysfunction with the intestinal barrier and autoimmune disorders, such as type 1 diabetes, rheumatoid and psoriatic arthritis, psoriasis, celiac disease, multiple sclerosis, and more. (5)
Since so much of our immune response is modulated in the gut, proper intestinal health makes sense for helping with autoimmune disorders.
Remember, these are often chronic diseases that have no cure but can be managed with proper medication, nutrition, exercise, and lifestyle.
9. Inflammatory bowel disease (IBD)
Irritable bowel syndrome, or IBS, is a common disorder that is not particularly well understood.
Recent scientific studies have shown that IBS patients do have increased intestinal permeability or leaky gut.
They found that patients with more gut permeability also had more severe IBS symptoms.
Working with a doctor or dietitian on a diet to heal a leaky gut may improve IBS symptoms (9).
Inflammatory bowel disease or IBD refers to more serious conditions like Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis.
These conditions are also autoimmune diseases. Recent studies have shown that having a healthy gut can improve these conditions and their symptoms (5).
10. Food Allergies & Sensitivities
It is also now thought that a leaky gut may contribute to some food allergies and sensitivities.
Food allergies may cause irritation or inflammation in the intestines, and lead to increased gut permeability.
If you suspect you may be suffering from this, it is best to work with an allergist or dietitian who specializes in food allergies to remove these foods from your diet and give your body a chance to heal.
11. Deficient In Nutrients
A prolonged leaky gut may also lead to nutrient deficiencies.
As the gut is inflamed and there is more permeability, certain nutrients may not be absorbed and processed efficiently.
Common nutrient deficiencies include vitamin B12 deficiency, iron deficiency, and magnesium deficiency.
These can lead to chronic fatigue as well as nerve and muscle pain.
12. Medications (NSAIDS) Like Ibuprofen and Motrin
If you regularly take a nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drug, or NSAID, like ibuprofen, aspirin, or acetaminophen, you may also have a leaky gut.
Research has found that patients who use these medications long-term have increased intestinal permeability and higher levels of inflammatory mediators in their blood.
These drugs are common over-the-counter pain relievers like Motrin, Advil, Tylenol, and more.
Talk with your doctor about using these for an extended period of time, and make sure you eat a healthy diet that will heal the gut (10).
How to Heal Leaky Gut
If you suspect you may have a leaky gut, try the following tips to see if it improves your symptoms and overall health.
Eat Healing Foods
Eating a healthy diet is key to improving gut health and fixing a leaky gut. Remember, nothing is ever gained by eating a poor diet.
Foods that work as prebiotics and probiotics can help with intestinal barrier health.
Make sure your diet regularly includes the following foods:
- Vegetables: kale, cabbage, broccoli, Brussels sprouts, arugula, beets, spinach, ginger, mushrooms, and zucchini
- Roots and tubers: potatoes, sweet potatoes, yams, carrots, winter squash, and turnips
- Fermented foods: sauerkraut, kimchi, tempeh, miso, kombucha (these foods contain probiotics)
- Fruit: grapes, bananas, blueberries, raspberries, strawberries, kiwi, pineapple, oranges, mandarin, lemon, limes, passionfruit, and papaya
- Sprouted seeds: chia seeds, flax seeds, sunflower seeds, and more
- Gluten-free grains: rice, oatmeal, buckwheat, amaranth
- Healthy fats: avocado, avocado oil, coconut oil, and extra virgin olive oil
- Fish: salmon, tuna, herring, and other omega-3-rich fatty fish
- Meats and eggs: lean cuts of chicken, beef, lamb, turkey, and eggs
- Herbs and spices: all herbs and spices
- Cultured or fermented dairy products: kefir, yogurt, Greek yogurt (these foods contain probiotics)
- Nuts: all nuts, but try them raw or slightly roasted
- Reduce stress
Find a way to regularly decrease your stress levels in a healthy way.
Talking with friends, pick up a new hobby, listening to music, or reading may help take your mind off the stressors of daily life.
Get Some Sleep
Good quality sleep is important for overall health and for healing the gut.
The body normally repairs and restores itself during good sleep, so make sure you have a good sleep routine.
Try using dim lights in the evenings, limit mobile devices and screens, and sleep in a cool, darkroom.
Regularly moving your body is important for all facets of health.
Find a physical activity that you enjoy and can do regularly, from dance to walking to swimming.
Exercise can help regulate gut movement or motility and also aids the body in removing excess waste through sweat.
While there is still not an official medical diagnosis, the leaky gut syndrome is becoming more and more recognized by healthcare practitioners.
Research is also understanding the role that leaks in the intestinal wall may play in a wide variety of health conditions and chronic diseases.
We now see research emerging that increased intestinal permeability may make certain symptoms worse.
If you are struggling with digestive health conditions, it is best to see a gastroenterologist.
Along with a dietitian, they can help repair intestinal barrier function through treatment, diet, and lifestyle.
- Scheeman B. Gastrointestinal physiology and functions. Br J Nutr. 2002 Nov;88 Suppl 2:S159-63.
- Qinghui M, Kirby J, Reilly C, et al. Leaky Gut As a Danger Signal for Autoimmune Diseases. Front Immunol. 2017 May 23;8:598.
- Van der Walle C, Schmidt E. Chapter 9 – Modulation of the Intestinal Tight Junctions Using Bacterial Enterotoxins. Peptide and Protein Delivery. 2011, Pages 195-219.
- Fasano A. Zonulin and its regulation of intestinal barrier function: the biological door to inflammation, autoimmunity, and cancer. Physiol Rev. 2011 Jan;91(1):151-75.
- Fasano A. Zonulin, regulation of tight junctions, and autoimmune diseases. Ann N Y Acad Sci. 2012 Jul;1258(1):25-33.
- Hollon J, Puppa E, Greenwald B, et al. Effect of gliadin on permeability of intestinal biopsy explants from celiac disease patients and patients with non-celiac gluten sensitivity. Nutrients. 2015 Feb 27;7(3):1565-76.
- Arzani M, Jahromi S, Ghorbani Z, et al. Gut-brain axis and migrane headache: a comprehensive review.The Journal of Headache and Pain. 2020: 21, 15.
- Maes M, Leunis J. Normalization of leaky gut in chronic fatigue syndrome (CFS) is accompanied by a clinical improvement: effects of age, duration of illness and the translocation of LPS from gram-negative bacteria. Neuro Endocrinol Lett. 2008 Dec;29(6):902-10.
- Zhou Q, Zhang B, Vernel G. Intestinal Membrane Permeability and Hypersensitivity In the Irritable Bowel Syndrome. Pain. 2009 Nov; 146(1-2): 41–46.
- Bjarnasaon I, Takeuchi K. Intestinal permeability in the pathogenesis of NSAID-induced enteropathy. J Gastroenterol. 2009;44 Suppl 19:23-9.