Leaky Gut Syndrome 101: What It Is & How to Treat It

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Leaky gut syndrome isn’t “just” a gut problem. It’s one of those disorders that can cause dysfunction and disease in parts of your body you wouldn’t intuitively link with your gut.

Just as leaky plumbing in your house can damage your walls and floor, a leaky gut can damage remote areas of your body. In fact, it can cause a whole range of seemingly unrelated chronic illnesses that physicians have trouble figuring out.

What Exactly Is Leaky Gut?

Leaky gut syndrome happens when pathogens, poorly digested food particles, and toxins in your gut manage—on the sly—to get into your bloodstream.

Your digestive tract contains a barrier called the intestinal mucosa—it’s the tissue lining your intestines. Its job is separate the pure from the impure, allowing the entry of nutrients but preventing the entry of toxins and other invaders.

If all your intestinal mucosa had to do was keep contamination from entering your bloodstream, it could be a simple impermeable barrier—similar to a plastic liner in a pool.

But in addition to keeping contaminants out, your intestinal mucosa need to admit nutrients into your bloodstream. So instead of being like a plastic liner, your intestinal mucosa is made of epithelial cells, arranged shoulder-to-shoulder in layers like shingles on a roof—and those cells function much like a bouncer at a club entrance.

In a healthy gut, each cell’s outer membrane can check nutrients for identification, and admit them one at a time into the cell’s interior. From there, they are ferried through that first cell, into the next cell, and the next one, until they get to the other side. At that point, a blood vessel is waiting to pick them up and transport them to the liver for processing.

Contaminants, on the other hand, don’t carry proper ID—so it’s “no admittance” for them. If they try to slip in through the spaces between the cells of the mucosa, they hit a dead end because those spaces are too small to squeeze through. So, nutrients are admitted and anything lacking proper clearance is barred—at least in theory.

If your gut’s mucosa is damaged, the spaces between the cells widen, leaving gaps. As a result, things that should never be given a pass are able to enter your bloodstream, resulting in leaky gut syndrome.

What Triggers Leaky Gut Syndrome?

There are many triggers that can start you on the path to a leaky gut, including:

  • Chronic use of certain medications like NSAIDs (e.g. aspirin or ibuprofen), anti-biotics, and corticosteroids.
  • Anything that causes inflammation—from a gastrointestinal (GI) infection (e.g. parasites), to poor digestion, a lousy diet, or chronic stress.
  • Food allergies or food intolerances. Every time you eat an offending food you’re setting a brush fire in your intestines. The more often you eat that food, the more your barrier crumbles. Ironically, leaky gut syndrome can be the cause, or the result, of food allergies and intolerances.
  • Gluten-containing foods cause a release of zonulin, a protein that breaks down tight junctions. If too much zonulin is found in the small intestine, the glue between cells is eroded away and leaky gut develops.

No matter how leaky gut syndrome starts, it can become a vicious, chronic, and escalating self-perpetuating cycle that leaks your health right down the drain.

Leaky Gut Syndrome Results in Many Health Issues

You are what you eat? Not really. You are what you absorb and ultimately utilize. If you have leaky gut syndrome, you’re absorbing things you have no business absorbing. Even worse, the damage is extending beyond the spaces between the cells of your mucosa, to the cells themselves. This impairs their ability to carry nutrients across the barrier.

So, when you have leaky gut syndrome, not only are toxins and pathogens able to “leak” into your body, you’re not absorbing the nutrients you need. It takes a lot of nourishment to maintain the integrity of your intestinal mucosa. If that barrier falls into disrepair, what starts out as a leaky gut can escalate to malnutrition, and dysfunction and deterioration of not only your gut but other organ systems as well.

Your liver is first on the hit list. When contaminants manage to slip through your failing intestinal mucosa, your bloodstream takes them directly to your liver’s front door. Your liver is a hardworking and very efficient detoxifier, but it was never designed to handle such ongoing contamination. 

How to Stop the Leak and Get Your Health Back

You can’t fix leaky gut syndrome overnight because you must heal the damaged tissues—and those tissues are almost always on duty. It’s like trying to repair a pot-holed highway while cars and trucks continue to use it.

But if you commit to covering all the bases, you can see the beginnings of improvement in about three weeks. Here are some steps you can take:

  • Stop Adding Fuel to the Fire: If there are foods that “don’t agree” with you, stop eating them. You may also want to eliminate some of the more common food allergens, including wheat, soy, corn, and dairy. No matter what you decide to eliminate from your diet, you need to give the trial some time; food allergies can take upwards of 72 hours to show their effects. Once you’ve identified a problem food, avoid it for three weeks. After three weeks, try reintroducing that food and eat it for at least two meals of the day.  For example, if you gave up dairy, you may choose to reintroduce cheddar cheese first, so consume a medium sized piece of cheddar cheese for breakfast and lunch and monitor if any adverse reactions develop that day and the following day. You’ll need the participation of your health care practitioner.
  • Support Your Digestion: A combination of digestive enzymes and a high-quality probiotic will help ensure that your food is being digested properly so that your small intestine can absorb nutrients easier. If you have leaky gut syndrome, you likely have dysbiosis—that’s a shift in your intestinal bacterial population, favoring the harmful bacteria. Probiotics compete with those bad bacteria and produce vitamins to protect your liver from exposure to toxins. An easy way to get those beneficial enzymes and bacteria, plus supportive nutrients to help them thrive in your gut, is to take probiotics along with digestion- boosting enzymes that are often lacking in those who suffer from LGS.  Additionally, consuming fermented foods like sauerkraut or kim chi are an excellent source of food based probiotics.
  • Eat More Fiber: To keep your gut healthy, you want to eat both insoluble and soluble fiber. Insoluble fiber (found in whole grains, nuts, and brans) passes relatively unchanged through your gut, acting mainly as a street sweeper, to keep things moving rather than festering. Soluble fiber (found in oats, fruit, vegetables, beans, and lentils) feeds friendly bacteria, which ferment it to produce short-chain fatty acids—a critical food source that provides fuel for the cells lining the gut.  But there’s one note of caution. In the early stages of treating leaky gut syndrome, large amounts of soluble fiber can make the permeability worse, though. So, for the first month or so you want to eat foods from a low FODMAP diet, or a GAPS diet, which reduces certain carbohydrates and fibers that may exacerbate the leaky gut. 
  • Take L-Glutamine: L-glutamine is an amino acid produced in muscle tissue and is involved in the promotion of muscle growth, repair, and maintenance. It also aids in protein synthesis and helps maintain the kidney’s acid-base balance. It is considered a nonessential amino acid under normal physiological conditions. When the body is under stress from prolonged exercise, infections, trauma, or radiation-induced damage, blood L-glutamine levels drop. L-glutamine helps to regulate cell growth in your intestinal lining, keeping the lining strong. Plus, some research suggests that L-glutamine can protect the tight junctions between cells, so foreign substances and toxins can’t “leak” out of the intestines into your bloodstream. L-glutamine can be found in food sources including meats, fish, vegetables (cabbage, spinach, parsley), whey protein, lentils, beans, and eggs. It can also be found in supplement form. I always recommend taking L-glutamine in a powder form as gram doses are needed for noticeable symptom improvement. Although reactions to L-glutamine are very rare, anxiety can be a side effect, so I suggest starting off with 2.5 g (2,500 mg) per day, and slowly working your way up to 5-10 g (5,000-10,000 mg) a day.
  • Consider taking botanical medicines with demulcent properties such as Slippery elm, Aloe, and Marshmallow root. These herbs are commonly used to help heal a damaged intestine by helping soothe inflammation.
  • Drink bone broth.

By committing to follow these recommendations, you can get your gastrointestinal tract back in shape, and get your life energy back. Imagine how wonderful it’ll feel to fully digest good food without having to worry about bloating and gas, glean maximum nutrition from that food, and slam the door on toxins and contaminants. 

Dr. Drew Sinatra

Meet Dr. Drew Sinatra

Dr. Drew Sinatra is a board-certified naturopathic doctor and self-described “health detective” with a passion for promoting natural healing, wellness, and improving quality of life by addressing the root cause of illness in patients of all ages. His vibrant practice focuses on treating the whole person (mind, body, and spirit) and finding missed connections between symptoms and health issues that are often overlooked by conventional medicine.

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