Leaky Gut Syndrome: More Than Just a Gut Problem

By Dr. Linda J. Dobberstein, DC, Board Certified in Clinical Nutrition

September 21, 2015

Leaky Gut Syndrome: More Than Just a Gut Problem
Every day, our digestive tract lining comes into contact with thousands of germs, toxins, and nutritional elements. This digestive lining is an amazing interactive, dynamic, multi-tasking system involved with several profound functions. It protects us from pathogens, digests food, absorbs nutrients, interacts with gut flora, and houses eighty percent of our immune system. Disruption of the digestive lining is known as increased gut permeability or Leaky Gut Syndrome. The medical profession is finally recognizing this problem and agrees that it is real, while researchers have diligently studied and report on this for decades. Increased gut permeability or Leaky Gut Syndrome is linked with digestive problems such as gluten intolerance and IBS, but also a multitude of disorders such as fatty liver, depression, arthritis, and more.

Leaky Gut Syndrome Symptoms

Symptoms of increased intestinal permeability include bloating, gas, diarrhea, constipation, poor digestion, food sensitivities, joint pain, chronic pain, brain fog, depression, anxiety, fatigue, skin rashes, obesity, or trouble gaining weight. Several disorders with pain, inflammation, and loss of function outside of the digestive tract are linked with Leaky Gut Syndrome.

Digestive Tract Lining: A Multi-Tasking Intricate Barrier

The digestive lining has a system made up of two barriers. It has a superficial barrier within the gut lining that prevents bacteria from adhering and regulates the passage of elements to the surrounding tissues. It also has a deep barrier that distinguishes between beneficial bacteria and non-beneficial germs. This barrier is involved with keeping the immune system stable.

There are key players in this barrier system, including gut flora, mucous, epithelial cells, and innate and adaptive immune tissues, also known as Gut Associated Lymphoid Tissue (GALT). GALT forms the part of the immune system responsible for allergies and immune responses.

Gut Flora

Friendly gut flora, like Lactobacillus and Bifidobacterium strains, compete with non-beneficial germs for space and food to nourish them so they can do their job. The trillions of beneficial germs in the gut provide nourishment to the mucosal layer and talk to the immune system. They are directly involved with bowel motility, the production of B vitamins and vitamin K, and the regulation of other nutrients. The gut bacteria also produce neurotransmitters.

Healthy gut flora protects us from the challenges that our environment brings us. It has some friendly help along the way. Stomach acid, pancreatic enzymes, bile acid salts, mucous, and immune compounds help keep the intestinal barrier, immune system, and intestinal motility healthy. Unhealthy gut flora or changes in any one of these elements disrupts the gut microbiome. For example, changes in the gut terrain occur with gallbladder dysfunction, bile acid problems, low stomach acid or antacid use. When the territory is compromised, the barrier becomes disrupted and increased gut permeability occurs.

Digestive Tract Mucous

The mucous layer is the first superficial barrier that bacteria come in contact with in the gut. It protects the gut lining from pathogens and allergens as it contains antimicrobial components and a protective compound called secretory IgA.

It also provides lubrication to the intestinal tract. Losing this mucosal lining causes a friction-like response to the delicate intestinal lining. Without adequate mucous, inflammation is triggered and the risk for various disorders, including colon cancer, is increased. Simultaneously, the barrier no longer functions in a tightly closed, selective manner, and intestinal permeability increases.

Epithelial Layer and Tight Junctions

The epithelial layer, or inner layer of gut lining, contains intercellular junctions, i.e. tight junctions. These junctions are like tiny doors that open up within the gut lining. The doors are very selective about what is allowed to enter circulation. The digested foods pass through these tight junctions into the circulatory system then taken to the liver. The liver finishes cleaning things up before these food particles are allowed to nourish the rest of the body. Think of the intestinal barrier like a screen door opening on selective command.

Trouble occurs when these junctions are disturbed and the barrier stays open, becomes enlarged, and breaks down. It’s like punching holes in your screen door. The damaged screen doors allow larger food particles and immune compounds to pass into areas that shouldn’t have these particles. This prompts the immune system that pervades these different layers and tissues to send out alarm signals to deal with the perceived invader. An inflammatory battle develops and if it persists, the body starts fighting against itself, creating an avalanche of distress and disorders. Stress on the liver occurs as a result, leading to chemical or alcohol sensitivity, fatigue, and brain fog.

Leaky Gut Syndrome Causes

There are many causes and triggers for gut permeability changes. Aging, a poor diet, or high levels of acute stress and chronic stress are common factors that disturb this barrier system. Scientists have even suggested that any stress that causes a loss of homeostasis in the body will lead to increased gut permeability.

Germ Gangs

Germ overgrowth with yeast/candida, non-beneficial bacteria, and parasites trigger the breakdown. Stubborn germ gangs and their toxic byproducts lipopolysaccharides/LPS create major problems with leaky gut syndrome.

Food Allergies and Mold Toxins

Food allergens, like dairy have long been known to cause increased gut permeability. Mold toxins on foods are also involved. Severe allergies with anaphylactic response reflect a breach of the intestinal barrier. The foods must bypass the gut lining to create a systemic response. Chronic exposure to food allergens will keep the gut barrier dysfunction locked in. Momentary indulgences can trigger days to weeks of repair work in the body.

Gluten Consumption

Fascinating recent research shows that gluten (gliadin) exposure causes increased intestinal permeability in all individuals. Gluten exposure causes the tight junctions to break apart and increases intestinal permeability. Scientists evaluated individuals with celiac disease (active or in remission), non-celiac gluten sensitivity, and those without any disease. In all cases, gluten consumption caused increased intestinal permeability. For those who did not have any gluten intolerance disorders, the increased permeability was limited and temporary.

Researchers took this information a step further to identify why some had immunological consequences and others didn’t. Their results showed that those who did not have a gluten intolerance disorder had higher levels of the immune compound interleukin-10 (IL-10). IL-10 is a powerful anti-inflammatory compound. It plays a fundamental role in limiting adverse reactions to pathogens or irritants to the immune system. Insufficient IL-10 increases risk for infection and autoimmune disorders, like gluten intolerance or celiac disease.


Drugs like aspirin, ibuprofen, acetaminophen (Tylenol), other NSAIDs, steroids or prednisone, antacids/proton pump inhibitors, and antibiotics are known to increase intestinal permeability.

Endocrine Disrupting Compounds and Roundup

Xenoestrogens or endocrine disrupting compounds like bisphenol A have been shown to breakdown gut barrier health even in minor doses. One isolated intestinal cellular study from Environmental Toxicology Chemistry in 2005 showed that glyphosate (Roundup) significantly disrupted the tight junctions of intestinal cells. Glyphosate exposure disrupts gut microbiome status and activity which will also influence intestinal permeability.

Numerous Disorders Linked with Leaky Gut Syndrome

In March 2015, the Journal of the American Medical Association reported that nearly 21 percent of the population suffers from Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS) often due to gut flora disruption leading to increased intestinal permeability. Non-alcoholic fatty liver disease (NAFLD) is linked with increased gut permeability and imbalanced gut bacteria. Alcohol intake is a known gut irritant. Research shows that alcohol disrupts circadian rhythms which resulted in leaky gut syndrome and suppressed and depleted melatonin levels. Insufficient melatonin promoted leaky gut syndrome and led to increased levels of internal toxins from the alcohol intake.

Researchers have been investigating type 1 diabetes and its “which came first: the chicken or the egg” relationship with Leaky Gut Syndrome. Type 2 and type 3 diabetes are also linked with gut flora changes and increased gut permeability. Type 3 diabetes is insulin resistance linked to Alzheimer’s disease.

Recent evidence published in JAMA Neurology shows that traumatic brain injury, induces changes in the tight junctions of the gut lining. A study published just weeks ago confirms traumatic brain injuries trigger non-neurological injuries to other organs in the body like the intestinal tract. As a result of the brain injury, increased intestinal permeability occurred; this further triggered a cascade of high blood sugar and a higher risk of death. Parents, coaches, and athletes must be informed of this non-neurological injury associated with concussions and other traumatic brain injuries. This new evidence has clear implications that gut health and brain health are intimately tied together with extensive cross-talk.

Individuals with increased gut permeability often feel toxic, swollen, fatigued, foggy, and generally unwell. A recent review article identified that leaky gut syndrome caused loss of health spiraling into obesity and the metabolic syndrome. As a result of the gut changes, it provoked a major strain on the liver, pancreas, and lymphatic system.

Leaky gut syndrome is also linked with heart disease, liver cirrhosis, chemotherapy, burn injuries, surgery, chronic kidney disease, food poisoning, stomach flu, cystic fibrosis, fibromyalgia, chronic fatigue syndrome, autism spectrum disorders, eczema, chronic heart failure, ulcerative colitis, Crohn’s disease, irritable bowel syndrome, inflammatory joint disease, psoriatic, rheumatoid arthritis, ankylosing spondylitis, depression, anxiety, psychological disorders, and other neurological and autoimmune disorders. This is either as a consequence of the disrupted gut barrier or the illness itself triggers the altered permeability.

Hashimoto’s or autoimmune thyroid is associated with increased gut permeability. Increased cancer risk is also related with changes in the tight junction barriers and intestinal permeability. It is likely that medicine will find innumerable disorders linked with disrupted gut health as research continues.

Beside symptoms and conditions, special lab tests can identify intestinal permeability breakdown. Blood tests can identify the bacterial endotoxin (LPS) IgG, IgM, IgA for permeability/dysbiosis, actin-myosin network IgG elevations that lead to epithelial cell damage, and occludin/zonulin IgG, IgM, IgA elevations that indicate tight junction damage. In tough cases also consider stool testing to identify germ overgrowth. Discuss this with your natural health care professional.

How to Improve Leaky Gut Syndrome

New research  shows that mitochondria damage occurs with increased gut permeability and vice versa. Supporting and protecting healthy mitochondria is another manner of support, especially for stubborn problems.

Identify and remove poor quality or allergenic foods. Find alternatives to the medications that cause gut damage or use the least amount possible while simultaneously supporting the digestive tract with nutrients. This can help bridge the gap and reduce negative consequences.

It takes time to heal the gut lining. For minor problems, it may take three months of solid support and dietary clean-up. For long-standing concerns, it may take 12 months or considerably longer for the immune system and gut to truly heal. Doing nothing with the underlying gut problem ensures a fast track to more aches, pains, weight gain, debilitating fatigue and brain fog. You do need a plan of action. Research has provided great ways to identify and solve this concern. Use this information to empower yourself and help heal your gut!

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