Leaky Gut Syndrome in Plain English (Signs, Symptoms, Fixing it)
Leaky Gut can be crazy confusing, but it doesn’t have to be. There is growing acceptance for leaky gut syndrome and its connection to autoimmune conditions. But many of the causes of leaky gut (and its cures) are still debated (see leaky gut research and intestinal permeability research).
Most doctors are now aware of the condition, but still struggle to understand the symptoms, tests, and treatments.
I hope to shine some light on how to heal Leaky Gut Syndrome, what causes it, and why the SCD Diet and other leaky gut diets are such a critical component to getting better from it.
Leaky Gut Explained
The term Leaky Gut Syndrome is used to describe the condition of “Hyperpermeable Intestines” a fancy medical term that means the intestinal lining is no longer functioning properly. This results in all kinds of molecules and particles to get right into your bloodstream. Things like:
- Bacteria and Bacterial toxins
- Viruses, Yeast, Parasites & Other Gut Flora Organisms
- Partially Digested Food Molecules
- Metabolites and Acids
Normally your body doesn’t allow any of this through. It has a very sophisticated system for making sure only the right size of food and the right type of particles come into the bloodstream. Here’s how it works…
The intestinal lining is the first line of defense for our immune system. The outer layers of intestinal cells (epithelial) are connected by structures called tight junctions. At the tip of the mucosa cells are the microvilli, which absorb properly digested nutrients and transport them through the epithelial cell and into the bloodstream.
During the normal digestion process the tight junctions stay closed forcing all molecules to be screened and absorbed through the mucosa cells (think of them like bouncers at the front of a classy bar).
For reasons we will discuss later, these tight junctions can become “open” or permeable allowing UN-SCREENED molecules to flow directly in-between the cells. And when this happens the blood steam which is located right behind the mucosa cells is filled up with bad things.
How the Immune System Gets Triggered
The first reaction your body has to these “foreign” bodies in your blood is to fight like hell. The immune system jumps into action. It needs to neutralize, get rid of and tell the rest of the body about this foreign attack.
To do so, the immune system increases inflammation around the gut wall where the “problem” is. But it it also increase inflammation levels throughout the whole body. This increased inflammation especially at the gut wall can actually begin to damage the cells of the gut wall… which can quickly become a self-perpetuating cycle of cell damage and more leaky gut if it’s not fixed.
As more foreign particles trickle through from the leaky gut, the immune response increases and this results in chronic inflammation. This process flow can lead to your body fighting itself (it’s very real) and the creation of array of autoimmune diseases such as Lupus, Rheumatoid Arthritis, Ulcerative Colitis, and Raynaud’s Disease. It also increases your chances of symptom cluster issues like IBS, Histamine Intolerance, and CIRS.
On top of that, the immune system can miss some foreign invaders or get overrun if your gut is too leaky. This puts the burden on the liver and detoxification system. Remember, right behind the gut wall is a direct blood transport right to the liver. And if you start slamming the liver with a bunch of toxins it’s going to start causing issues in the detoxification system.
How Leaky Gut Causes Food Allergies
The whole body increase in inflammation is bad enough but then the next step happens. The immune system begins to create antibodies that are specific to the types of foreign particles that getting through. It does so to be able to alert the rest of the body about the attack that is happening in the gut.
These antibody soldiers designed are designed to fight against these foreign objects (which can be things such as the Casein protein from the milk you’re drinking, or other proteins in nuts, grains, meat, or eggs).
Even chemicals normally found in foods such as Phenols and Glycerin can now trigger immune responses when they enter the body.
For instance, I used to immediately react to dairy of any kind. I’d get instant brain fog, headache, sore throat, and horrible sinus drainage. A similar reaction used to happen when I ate foods high in phenols such as tomato juice. I am confident that it is all part of the damage caused by years with leaky gut and Celiac Disease.
If you’re having sensitivities to few foods up to a dozen or more, then it is most likely you have leaky gut. When you have a Leaky Gut condition, the damaged microvilli along the intestinal lining cannot manufacture the digestive enzymes they need to break down the food for proper digestion. The resulting condition allows food molecules to flow into the bloodstream that have not been completely broken down into the nutrients your body needs.
Bottom Line: If you are having food sensitivities it’s not the the foods fault. It’s the leaky gut letting the food molecules into your bloodstream. Of course, the caveat is severe food allergies such as gluten to a Celiac or deadly peanut allergies.
Do You Have Leaky Gut Symptoms?
Symptoms of Leaky Gut can vary from person to person depending on the level of damage and the tissues being affected. This is due in large part to how long you’ve had the leaky gut and your family history.
And by family history I mean you genetics and epigenetics (which genes are on or off).
So your symptoms are likely to be different than mine as we have a different family history and length of injury. However they can be bucketed into four main categories:
- Skin – rashes, itchy skin, psoriasis, rosacea, hives, acne
- Brain – headaches, migraines, brain fog, memory loss, depression, anxiety
- Immune – autoimmune conditions, food allergies, excessive fatigue, high inflammation
- Gut – nutritional deficiencies, chronic diarrhea, burping, bloating, gas, constipation
Here’s a chart that I created that’s much more comprehensive (but please read my warning below it):
Let me be clear that no one is going to have ALL of these symptoms of conditions. The reason why the list is so diverse and so many people tend to discount it is because they FORGET to remember how the condition happens.
Making Sense of Leaky Gut Damage
It’s worth taking a moment to recap how this all happens to hopefully quickly explain how all this is possible. Remember that when your gut is chronically leaking the body has the following reaction:
- Increases local and system wide inflammation
- Creates specific antibodies to the foreign invaders
- The detox and hormone systems will be extra burdened to clean up the mess
So if you then factor in how long your gut has been leaking… maybe a week, a month, or years (more on leaky gut causes below – but don’t jump ahead).
And then you think about your family history. Which might include autoimmune diseases, cancers, or any other number of chronic diseases. The point is that every genetic and epigenetic lineage has weak spots.
We all do.
And you’re weak spots are likely going to be where you start to show all this inflammatory damage.
While this is going on, your body begins to try to turn off the inflammation using hormones and other means. It also has to rush a bunch of nutrients in to help with detoxification and cell repair.
This can create nutrient deficiencies over time which will only worsen the health of the body.
As you can see, leaky gut syndrome is a serious digestive tract problem that can burden the immune system, hormone system and detoxification system. The longer and more intense the leaky gut syndrome, the higher your risk of developing chronic disease.
We’ve put together a 3-min leaky gut quiz, which will examine the most important risk factors in your body and provide a custom analysis of your likelihood of having a leaky gut.
You can take the quiz here: https://healthygut.com/assessments/leaky-gut/
What Causes Leaky Gut?
The list of what causes leaky gut grows each year as more research comes out. And it can be a quite overwhelming to try and make sense of. Which of these do you know you have? Have you had? Could you secretly have but not know?
It can make anyone crazy.
After giving 100’s of talks on leaky gut I’d say there’s an easier way for you to think about this.
- Event based immediate triggers of leaky gut
- Chronic inflammatory long term triggers
Almost every type of cause of leaky gut syndrome falls into one of those two buckets.
Event Based Leaky Gut Triggers
These are events like a concussion, stressful traumatic event (divorce, death, etc), chemo or radiation, moving into a mold filled home, NSAID prescriptions etc.
Basically the event that you experience is so strong that with a week you’re gut begins to leaking and gets worse if the exposure continues.
Where it gets even worse is if you are already participating in any of the chronic inflammatory long term causes when one of these events happens.
This is super common and there is no reason you should make yourself wrong if this has happened to you. It’s typically how it works…
Chronic Inflammatory Long Term Triggers
There’s all kinds of longer term triggers of leaky gut that are inflammatory in nature. Sometimes if you are engaging in too many of these at once you’ll trigger it.
But what is more likely is that you’re doing some of the behaviors below and they are constantly (every time you do it) pissing off your gut wall. And your body is sort of always on guard to have to clean up and repair itself.
Here’s some of the more “regular” causes:
– Diet: Consuming high amounts of refined sugars, processed foods, preservatives, refined flours, and flavorings introduces massive amounts of chemicals into the body that is seen as toxic. If your body has a hard time keeping up the toxins start to build up and cause inflammation (like we talked about earlier).
– Chronic Stress: Chronic stress almost always results in a suppressed immune system. A weakened immune system cannot handle doing it’s normal job and gets overrun with pathogens very quickly. This increases overall gut inflammation leading to increased permeability of the intestinal lining.
– Inflammation: Any type of inflammation in the gut can lead to leaky gut. This can be brought on by low stomach acid (which passes undigested food into the small intestine irritating everything it passes by), yeast overgrowth (Candida), bacteria overgrowth (SIBO), infection, parasites and excessive environmental toxins.
– Medications: Any medication prescriptions or even over-the-counter pain relievers with Aspirin or Acetaminophen irritate the intestinal lining and decrease the mucosal levels (a membrane produces mucus on the intestinal lining as a natural protective measure). This can start or help to continue the inflammation cycle (more bacteria, yeast, and digestion issues) and promotes an increase in permeability.
– Lack of Zinc: Zinc is a critical piece of maintaining a strong intestinal lining. A deficiency of the vitamin can lead to the mucosal lining losing strength and becoming more permeable. There are studies that show that supplementing with Zinc when it is deficient can dramatically improve intestinal lining integrity.
– Alcohol: Consumption of alcohol is a major stressor on the gut wall. It’s not even about the amount (that matters) but even small amounts are toxic (that’s why it feels good) to the body. It’s actually very hard on the digestive system to have consistent glasses of wine for the day.
I still love a great Malbec and I’m not saying you need to abstain from all your favorite fried foods, alcohol and shouldn’t take a pain reliever if you need it.
Remember the chronic ones are about how often per week and per month are you exposing your gut cells to these problematic triggers.
The more often, the more at once, the higher the chance you’re going to cause leaky gut.
How to Fix Leaky Gut Syndrome…
The medical community is still rather divided about the methods used to alleviate leaky gut. Turns out just like lot’s of things can cause leaky gut, there’s lots of ways to fix it. However, they all seem to take a multi-faceted approach.
I’ve boiled these down to 3 basic steps outlined above.
- Remove those leaky gut triggers
- Rebuild your gut (using a leaky gut diet and supplements)
- Fix underlying root causes
Now we’ve created a whole program that walks you through each of these in-depth but for now I’ll give a simplified version that will really help if you start. Just make sure to do several things at once as it’s basically totally unlikely for you to completely heal just by changing diet or just by taking a supplement.
That’s just now how healing leaky gut works.
Eat a Leaky Gut Diet
Without a doubt the first and most powerful intervention is a leaky gut diet. But what does that mean in a day and age where ‘everyone’ has a diet that’s the “best”?
I’d urge you to look past the black and white experts and realize that there’s a lot of “leaky gut diets” that could work for you. And if you look close enough you’ll see the ones that work are very similar.
Here’s what the best leaky gut diets have in common: eliminating sugars, starches, grains, processed oils, nightshades, dairy, food additives, and any other irritating foods alleviates the inflammation and starves out the yeast/bacterial overgrowth (both the SCD diet and Solving Leaky Gut diet do this).
Reducing any yeast or SIBO allows the intestinal tract to begin heal. As well as removing inflammatory foods like grains, sugars, and dairy which oftentimes cause the gut cells problems reducing overall inflammation and increase digestion.
If we stop any overgrowths, get rid of naturally inflammatory foods, the gut walls can begin to heal faster, the flow of foreign objects into the body is reduced and most people begin to feel better.
I’d argue that the Specific Carbohydrate Diet or Solving Leaky Gut Diet are the foundation of healing leaky gut. And that being said there’s lots of other leaky gut healing diets out there that could work.
Also be aware that you shouldn’t try to restrict your food forever. The goal should always to be to remove offending foods and foods you are sensitive too, heal up, then add the best ones back in (SCD and SLG diets do this).
Use These Leaky Gut Supplements
The next most important thing for healing is using the right leaky gut supplements. If you search around you’ll find that there’s many ideas on what to take to heal the gut. We’ve tried them all over the years and some of them just don’t live up to the hype. At the end of the day here’s the most important first supplements to start using.
– Basic Nutritional Supplements: The conditions that lead to leaky gut can also cause malabsorption and improper digestion, both of which are going to leave you with nutritional deficiencies. First and foremost, supplementing with a good multivitamin, large amounts of vitamin D, and Zinc will help the intestinal lining return to normal (assuming the irritants from the diet are removed).
Essential fish oils have also been shown to really help improve the condition of the intestinal mucosal lining (omega-3’s greatly reduce inflammation among a host of other benefits). Start with these basics before getting fancier.
– Digestive Enzymes: Digestive enzymes are critical to properly breaking down the foods we eat. Here’s why they are so important for leaky gut, first enzymes break down food into very small particles, preventing large undigested molecules from irritating the intestinal lining and increasing nutritional uptake. They also work through your intestines acting as garbage collectors by removing toxins, bacteria, and damaged cells of the mucosal lining.
The whole process gives the gut a clean slate of healthy cells to rebuild with. Bromelain and papain enzymes are shown to reduce inflammation in the gut lining and throughout other tissues in the body, allowing the immune system and the liver some reprieve. Don’t overlook animal based enzymes as they tend to help fat and protein absorption better than plant ones.
– Betaine HCL: Always remember digestion starts in the stomach. If you have low stomach acid then no matter what you do you’re unlikely to heal leaky gut syndrome. The acid must breakdown the food so that the molecules aren’t too large. The easiest way to check and correct for this very common issue is by doing a Betaine HCL supplement test (just click that link for directions).
– L-Glutamine: Supplementing with L-Glutamine can be a game changer for those who have food allergies and have been struggling with gut issues for years. It’s used in hospitals in mega doses to treat burn victims and body builders use it to recover from overtraining. We can use it to help us fuel the healing of the gut cells. They need L-glutamine to rebuild. The most important thing to remember with this is to use big amounts. At a minimum 5 grams several times a day.
These leaky gut supplements is where we recommend you start. After that if you want to try more advanced ideas like colostrum, probiotics, prebiotics and immune system regulators they are great too.
We don’t start with recommending those because many people react to them, dosing is confusing and the options for each one are endless.
Check for Leaky Gut Root Causes
The last step is to look for the root causes of leaky gut. This process often leads people to a functional medical practitioner, but there are many things you can do on your own.
The first is to rest more. The body needs energy and space to heal. In our fast paced world, this is often overlooked. The easiest thing you can do tonight to feel better is to take an Epsom salt bath (that post explains it).
The other thing you’ll want to do is get checked for any parasites or lingering gut infections. These hidden infections are a very common cause of leaky gut that won’t go away. If you find any and eliminate them, you’ll be surprised at the amount of energy, sleep, and body weight improvements you’ll notice.
One Final Note on Healing Leaky Gut
There are some ways to test for leaky gut, but the digestive system is such a dynamic place that many times it’s a waste of time and money. If you have most of the symptoms of leaky gut… especially if you food allergies or autoimmune conditions… it’s a really good sign you have it.
It’s NOT the end of the world if you do have leaky gut.
Trust me, it’s a completely reversible condition if you follow the multi-phased approach in this article. I used to react to eggs, nuts, dairy, and many more things. My nose, face, and sinuses would swell up instantly.
I no longer react like that. My gut is much less leaky and more stable.
And yes, I had to address deeper issues like gut infections, hormone dysregulation, trauma, and stress levels. But week-by-week I get stronger and more healthy.
If you need a guide like I did, we’re pretty good at this and I hope you’ll check out our products
In good health,
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