What Causes Leaky Gut?


What Causes Leaky Gut?

Leaky gut syndrome has recently received significant attention in the health world. It has been a hot topic of debate among researchers, doctors, nutritionists and dieticians, regarding what it is, how to treat it, and whether it actually even exists.

Over the past ten years or so, most health practitioners have come to a consensus that leaky gut syndrome (known by different names) is, indeed a serious health problem that may be affecting hundreds of thousands of people. The problem is, however, that since they are still in the process of understanding how and why it occurs, there are still significant gaps of knowledge regarding the best ways to treat it.

To help you see through the confusion, in this article we will review the basics of leaky gut syndrome and what causes it. We will discuss how to prevent and treat leaky gut in separate articles.

An Introduction to “The Gut”


We often talk about “the gut” when we refer to what lies below the skin in the softer stomach area of the body. The official term is the gastrointestinal tract.  The gastrointestinal tract is a group of connected, hollow organs through which the foods we eat move and are digested. It is made up of the esophagus, stomach, small intestine, large intestine, rectum, and anus.

The gastrointestinal tract is part of the digestive system, which also includes other organs that produce juices that are important for digesting food. These include the liver, the gallbladder, the pancreas, and the appendix.

A very thin layer of cells that cover the surface of the intestine, called the epithelium, is responsible for absorbing nutrients into the body from the intestinal tract. It is also important for keeping the body protected from potentially harmful substances, or simply for keeping the body separate from the external environment.

A healthy epithelium is selective in what it lets through to the body. It absorbs nutrients, electrolytes and water through many pathways, and gets them to all of our cells and organs to keep them working in a healthy manner. At the same time, the epithelium acts as a barrier to keep out toxins, bacteria, and other elements that might cause infection or illness. It also keeps out fiber, but fiber feeds the healthy bacteria in our gut and forms part of the “bulk” in our stool, which will soon make its way out of the digestive system with other substances that can’t be absorbed.

Of course, if the health or structure of the epithelial barrier is compromised, it is possible that it can no longer be as selective to the entrance of different substances, making way for what is popularly known as a “leaky gut”.

What is Leaky Gut Syndrome?

Another name for leaky gut syndrome is increased intestinal permeability, and this is probably the best way to talk to your doctor about it. Over the past decade or so, researchers have recognized that the barrier function of the intestine can be disrupted by a range of factors, which we will discuss below. This can lead to inflammatory diseases and immune system disfunction, among other issues.

When intestinal cells, groups of cells, or bonds between the cells are damaged, microscopic holes are formed in the intestinal barrier. Here, potentially harmful substances can get through, like bacteria or bacterial fragments, incompletely digested proteins, toxic substances, or waste products. In a healthy intestine, all of these things would be removed from the body in our stool and urine, but when there are “leaks” in our gut, many of these things can get through.

If these pathogens get through our gut, our immune system responds immediately. Sometimes, however, if the leak is big enough or persistent enough, our immune cells are unable to take appropriate control of the situation, and this can cause large-scale inflammation.

What’s more is that undigested proteins and other molecules which penetrate through the “leaky” gut barrier can often closely resemble the proteins and compounds found in our very cells and tissues. However, these foreign proteins and molecules are just slightly different enough to cause our immune cells to recognize them and mark them for destruction. The problem with this is that now our immune cells are primed and ready to recognize and attack these foreign proteins and molecules, which also happen to closely resemble our own proteins and molecules. This leads to immune cell attack and antibody production against these foreign proteins and molecules. But since these are similar to our own proteins and molecules, this also then leads to an attack on our own proteins and molecules, thus paving the way for the development of autoimmune complications.

7 Causes of Leaky Gut

In some people, leaky gut develops quickly, and in others it develops over several years.

Most of the elements that cause leaky gut are lifestyle factors. In some cases, the relationships between lifestyle choices and leaky gut are not what you might imagine. Below are 7 potential causes of leaky gut syndrome.

1) Diet and Food

Certain dietary patterns are suspected to promote leaky gut syndrome. These include foods with gluten, like breads and wheat tortillas, grains like rice and spelty, soy, dairy, and refined sugar.  This means that, in order to preserve intestinal health, stay away from bread, especially white bread and processed foods, milk and yogurt, and others.

2) Stress

Light or intermittent stress is normal. As humans a reasonable amount of stress helps us stay focused and driven, while also helping us adapt to new situations. Health problems arise when the stress is no longer transient, and instead is here to stay. This sort of stress is known as chronic stress. While stress should only be “felt” in our mind, it connects to other parts of our body, like our gut, as well. The relationship between our gut and our brain has a name – known as the “gut-brain axis”.

What happens in our gut can affect our brain (think about how constipation can make us feel irritable), but what happens in our brain can also affect our gut. Chronic stress can affect the environment of our intestine, killing off “good” bacteria and promoting the growth of resistance “bad” bacteria. The change in environment together with the disbalance in bacteria can make the gut more permeable to potentially pathogenic elements.

3) Alcohol

Drinking copious amounts of alcohol on a regular basis can damage the intestine in a number of ways. It can damage the bonds between intestinal cells, which can create the holes in the intestinal lining that cause leaky gut syndrome. It can also promote the accumulation of substances that increase the permeability of the intestine.

4) No Sleep

Alterations in sleep patterns can also disrupt the gut microbiome (the population of bacteria in the intestine), thus, damaging the intestinal lining. Fragments of bacteria then pass through the barrier and attempt to enter the circulatory system. The immune system responds, causing inflammation and changes in metabolism, including insulin sensitivity.

5) Gut dysbiosis

As we’ve mentioned above, a disbalance in healthy bacteria in the intestine can also cause leaky gut. Healthy bacteria is important because it fights off pathogenic bacteria, and because it helps our bodies to digest certain substances, and in the production of some nutrients, like vitamin K.

Our healthy gut bacteria population can be altered by many of the previously mentioned causes, but also as a result of illness or of taking antibiotics. When the population of healthy bacteria in our intestine is no longer in balanced, it is known as “gut dysbiosis”.

6) Toxin overload

Toxins are elements that are damaging to our cells and organs. They either result of a biological process or they come from the environment (in this case, from the food we eat). Usually, our body tries to get rid of these toxins through excretion, but when there are too many, they can cause damage before our body can remove them.

Toxins can come from the “wrong” bacteria in the gut, from food additives, improper digestion, gut inflammation, infections, and others. If we already have leaky gut, it is more likely that we will have a greater toxin concentration in our gut, thus creating a vicious cycle.

Regularly eating processed foods that contain additives may also contribute to toxin overload.

7) Too much exercise

Regularly exercise in reasonable amounts has numerous benefits for your health. When we don’t exercise regularly for long periods of time, we are at risk of illness, stress, and chronic diseases. However, too much of a good thing also has health consequences. Too much intense physical activity can cause hormonal distress, immune suppression, and leaky gut.


For several centuries, the idea of having a “leaky gut” (though by different names) was only present in traditional medicine models. Modern medicine is now recognizing how lifestyle factors can damage the intestine, and, as a result, affect its ability to act as a barrier between the outside and inside of the body.

It is important to note that there are several factors that can increase your risk of leaky gut syndrome, usually it is not attributed to one specific factor, but rather several occurring at the same time. For example, if you aren’t getting enough sleep, it is likely that you are under a lot of stress and not eating very well. Each factor individually will not necessarily result in leaky gut, but all three factors occurring at the same time for several months or years can certainly influence your risk of experiencing leaky gut.

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What is Leaky Gut?


Recent discoveries in nutritional science show that dysfunction of the digestive system plays a significant role in the spread of disease. Research involving the GI tract, and particularly the gut biome, is now the most studied area of nutrition and biology.

Although there is a myriad of research on the subject, digestive disorders such as “leaky gut” are still not recognized officially by the medical community. This adverse digestive condition presents uncomfortable symptoms that are often brushed off by people living with the disorder.

Here is a brief guide to understanding leaky gut, its symptoms, and how to treat it. (1)

What Is Leaky Gut?

The GI tract covers over 40,000 square feet and is home to trillions of live bacteria known as the gut microbiome. When working as intended, the intestinal wall forms a tight barrier controlling the release of nutrients into the bloodstream.

While it is perfectly normal for the gut to leak a little, there are health risks involved when the intestinal wall is severely compromised. This occurs when intestinal inflammation is chronically elevated, hence the digestive disorder is known as “leaky gut”.

Leaky gut creates uncomfortable gastrointestinal, skeletal, and neurological symptoms in the human body. These symptoms may be confused with other digestive issues such as irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), or gluten and lactose intolerance.

Changes in gut biome health occur as a result of a leaky gut and research shows that this issue could play a significant role in the development of several other chronic diseases. (2)

What Does Leaky Gut Affect?

The advanced intestinal permeability that results from leaky gut is responsible for developing gastrointestinal conditions such as Crohn’s disease, celiac disease, and IBS. Along with these diseases, there is convincing research that shows that disorders of the digestive tract may be responsible for the development of autoimmune conditions such as acne, fibromyalgia, allergies, asthma, and obesity.

What Causes Leaky Gut?

Aside from some people who may have a genetic predisposition to sensitive adjustments in the GI tract, the main culprits of a leaky gut are a sedentary lifestyle, chronic stress, and inflammatory and immunogenic foods.

You are what you eat. Diets that consist of poor food choices can cause high levels of inflammation to develop in the gut. Furthermore, certain foods are immunogenic and can act to destroy the gut barrier and cause the immune system to activate. The gut houses the largest concentration of immune cells in the body since it is the only place, aside from the lungs, where the outside world comes into contact with the “inside world”, and since the gut contains trillions of bacteria. Hence, immune cells need to be primed and ready to prevent bacteria and foreign invaders from entering into the bloodstream from the gut.

Foods that are inflammatory or immunogenic can increase intestinal barrier permeability. Here are three primary food sources associated with the development of leaky gut…

Wheat, Barley, Rye and Other Foods Containing Gluten

Gliadin is a gluten protein found in grains such as wheat, barley, and rye. Studies show that some people may have an allergy to gluten known as celiac disease or non-celiac gluten sensitivity.

Eating gluten-based foods increases intestinal permeability which can lead to symptoms of a leaky gut. Research suggests that gluten will degrade in the GI tract to form substances known as exorphins. These compounds act as a natural painkiller and mask the damaging effect of the intestinal wall lining.

Even non-gluten containing grains can increase intestinal permeability. Grains, in general, can contain saponins or lectins. Saponins are molecules that effectively “punch holes” in the gut. Lectins are molecules that look exactly like our own bodies proteins (e.g. tissue proteins) and are transmitted intact and undigested into the bloodstream, setting up the stage for autoimmune issues.

Trans Fat

Trans fat is another culprit of leaky gut syndrome. Trans fat increases oxidative stress and permeability of the intestinal wall.

Food Additives

Food additives also play a significant role in the degradation of the gut membrane. Glucose, emulsifiers, and other preservatives have been linked to the increased permeability of the intestinal wall as well. Nanoparticles such as microbial transglutaminase and nanoparticles breach the junctional complex. (3)

How is Leaky Gut Diagnosed?

If you are showing signs of a leaky gut, visit your doctor’s office for an official diagnosis. Blood work and an antigenic permeability test may be necessary to determine if leaky gut has led to other chronic illnesses of the digestive system.

Zonulin Test

A zonulin test is the most effective means of identifying leaky gut syndrome. Zonulin is a specific protein which controls the opening and contraction of the tight junctions in the small intestine. We require these openings for the transport of nutrients and zonulin regulates their function.

Zonulin tests are a useful marker for understanding intestinal health and function. An enzyme-linked immunosorbent assay test (ELISA) is used to determine zonulin function. If zonulin is present in the serum, this may indicate that the gut barrier has been compromised. (4)

Leaky Gut Symptoms

The early stages of gastrointestinal stress, due to a leaky gut, are mild and often disregarded.

As the degradation of the intestinal wall progresses, symptoms escalate in both variety and intensity. Reduction of intestinal surface area reduces nutrient absorption and creates micronutrient deficiencies in vitamins and minerals. Nutrient deficiencies manifest in different GI tract and health disorders.

Some of the gastrointestinal symptoms you may experience as a result of a leaky gut are:

  • Bloating
  • Abdominal pain.
  • Constipation or diarrhea.
  • Gas, nausea, and vomiting.
  • Acid reflux, heartburn, and belching.

Leaky gut also affects the skin. If you have any of the following dermatological disorders, you may be living with a leaky gut.

  • Dry skin, psoriasis, or eczema.
  • Acne, rashes, or hives.

Neurological disorders may develop from a leaky gut. These include:

  • Brain fog.
  • Fatigue.
  • Anxiety and depression.
  • Insomnia.
  • ADHD.

Can Leaky Gut Be Dangerous to Health?

Random particles that pass through the intestinal barrier into the blood set off an aggressive immune response. Unfortunately, this event causes systemic inflammation in all biological systems within the body. (5)

The primary danger of leaky gut syndrome is chronic inflammation. This stressful condition prevents the body from naturally healing itself. Systemic inflammation creates the perfect biological environment for the development of other chronic diseases.

Diseases Linked to Leaky Gut

A leaky gut presents uncomfortable symptoms. If left undiagnosed and untreated, the condition could result in the development of other chronic diseases. Here are a few of the adverse health conditions that might develop as a result of an untreated leaky gut.

Increased intestinal permeability has links to a vast variety of chronic diseases including the following:

  • Chronic fatigue syndrome
  • Celiac disease
  • Crohn’s disease
  • Ulcerative colitis
  • Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS)
  • Rheumatoid arthritis
  • Diabetes
  • Multiple sclerosis
  • Chronic inflammation

The medical community is divided on the subject of chronic disease manifesting from a leaky gut. Medical professionals are unsure if leaky gut causes these diseases, or the diseases cause leaky gut.

How to Heal and Recover from Leaky Gut

It’s possible to repair and heal a leaky gut. It takes time, patience, and consistency to experience a full recovery back to normal digestive health.

Heal Your Gut

The first step to rehabilitating your GI tract is a visit to your local health professional. Try to visit a specialist; they will have a more complete understanding of GI disorders than your regular M.D.

Your doctor will draw blood and submit it for testing to diagnose your condition. The diagnosis will also show any mineral and vitamin deficiencies, and you can begin to plan your recovery diet with the results.

Experiment with Different Dietary Principles

Plan a new diet based on paleo or ketogenic principles. Both of these diets avoid refined carbohydrates. If the thought of abandoning carbs scares you, then opt for the paleo diet over the ketogenic diet. The paleo diet requires the majority of daily calories to come from protein and healthy fats, with limited carbs coming from vegetables and fresh fruits.

The ketogenic diet focuses on healthy fats for 90% of daily caloric consumption, with very little protein and hardly any carbs. Choose the diet that suits your lifestyle and plan your meals for the week. You might struggle to calculate the right macronutrient percentages and calorie goals correctly, in this case, visit a nutritionist.


A nutritionist will analyze your blood work results and plan a diet for you that consists of foods and supplements to heal your gut. Your new diet should include fermented foods, such as sauerkraut and kimchi, which are excellent sources of prebiotic fiber for gut biomes.

Reduce Stress

Reduce stress in your life wherever you can and start a beginner exercise program. Hire a personal trainer to help you build an exercise program and stay consistent with your training. Revisit your doctor after 6 months on your new diet and exercise program. Repeat the testing process and have your doctor analyze the results.

The results of your second test should show significant improvement in the health of your digestive system. Take the results to your nutritionist and have them adjust your diet to keep your progress moving along. Keep a journal of your road to recovery and include all of your medical history, diet changes, and workouts.

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  1. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/26760399
  2. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4253991/
  3. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2898551/
  4. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3458511/
  5. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4036413/