What is leaky gut syndrome?

Have you been wondering lately if vague symptoms like headaches, bloating or eczema may all be signs of a leaky gut? You’re not alone. The expression "leaky gut" is something we’re hearing a lot more often as researchers learn more about how our gut microbiome connects to so many other aspects of our physical and mental health.  

Leaky gut, also called increased intestinal permeability, is the subject of a growing number of studies indicating that the condition of our gut microbiome may play a role in the development of several common chronic diseases. Although it's not fully understood yet, what we do know is that there are a number of things that help improve the symptoms, making it less of an interference in a person's daily life. 

What exactly is leaky gut?

Inside our gut, the intestinal lining is a tight barrier that covers more than 370 square meters of surface area. When this lining is working as it should, the hair-like fibres act like a border patrol: they control where nutrients are absorbed and what gets absorbed into the bloodstream. A damaged or unhealthy gut lining may develop large cracks or holes, meaning that partially digested food, bacteria, toxins, and other substances can “leak” or penetrate into the tissues beneath it, eventually making their way into the bloodstream. 

These leaks in the gut lining can trigger inflammation and harm beneficial gut flora, which leads to digestive issues and a host of other symptoms that negatively impact how a person feels both physically and mentally.  The immune system responds to unwanted intruders in the bloodstream by producing antibodies that often lead to food sensitivities.  The liver also becomes flooded with excess toxins and is not able to perform its normal functions of detoxification and hormone breakdown as efficiently as it should.  On top of this, even when the person consumes a healthy diet, the absorption of essential vitamins and minerals suffers, leading to nutrient deficiencies.  With so many body systems affected, it’s not hard to imagine why a person with leaky gut syndrome feels so unwell.

According to the Canadian Digestive Health Foundation, leaky gut may cause or contribute to the following possible symptoms:

  • Chronic diarrhea, constipation, or bloating
  • Nutritional deficiencies
  • Fatigue
  • Headaches
  • Confusion
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Skin problems, such as acne, rashes, or eczema
  • Joint pain
  • Widespread inflammation

What causes leaky gut syndrome? 

Although no one has a perfect intestinal barrier, some people are genetically predisposed to inflammatory bowel diseases.  We know that increased intestinal permeability can be associated with gastrointestinal conditions like celiac disease, Crohn's disease, and IBS.  Studies also show that leaky gut may be linked to other autoimmune diseases such as lupus, diabetes, and MS, as well as conditions including fibromyalgia, arthritis, allergies, asthma, obesity, and the list goes on.  Researchers believe there may even be a connection with mental illness as they learn more about the action of the gut-brain axis (the communication pathway that connects the emotional and cognitive centres of our brain with peripheral intestinal functions.)

While health experts haven’t been able to pinpoint exactly what causes leaky gut syndrome, there are several additional factors that can disrupt the gut microbiome and increase the risk of intestinal permeability. These include:

  • Antibiotics
  • Chemotherapy and Radiation
  • Non-steroidal and steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs
  • Candida
  • Parasites 

What things should I avoid if I have leaky gut syndrome?

We can’t change our DNA or our health history, but we do have control over our diet and environment, which are two key players in a healthy digestive system.  Evidence shows that a low fibre, high sugar, high saturated fat diet, may be partly to blame for a leaky gut.  Heavy alcohol intake and chronic stress also cause inflammation that can damage the gut lining. 

Improving your diet to remove inflammatory foods can go a long way in supporting healthy gut flora.  If you have leaky gut syndrome, you should avoid or eliminate foods such as:

  • Processed and packaged snacks
  • Refined oils
  • High-sugar foods
  • Foods that may trigger individual sensitivities, such as wheat or dairy
  • Alcohol

What can I do to heal my leaky gut? 

Depending on your symptoms, your doctor or holistic nutritionist may recommend a low FODMAP diet. This diet is often recommended for people with IBS or celiac disease, and because the symptoms of leaky gut are so similar, it can help relieve some of the most common digestive complaints. 

Planning out a diet that’s rich in probiotic and fermented foods that support beneficial gut bacteria is important as well. Some excellent options are root vegetables, fruit, sprouted seeds, unpasteurized miso and sauerkraut, and live cultured dairy products (as long as you are not sensitive to dairy). Rotating several high quality probiotic supplements twice a day will also help you build up a variety of beneficial bacteria.  

Taking digestive enzyme capsules at the beginning of each meal can help your body fully digest certain foods, which helps in two ways: by decreasing the amount of partially digested food particles that can escape from the intestinal tract and by improving the absorption of nutrients for maximum nutrition and faster healing. 

As is true of so many of our modern health concerns, relatively small measures like taking time to slow down, (especially around meal times), making an effort to chew and digest our foods properly and prioritizing adequate sleep can all help lower stress levels and promote healing in an unhappy belly. 

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