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Home to an estimated 70% of your immune system, and the site of your enteric nervous system—your so-called “second brain”—the gut is a vital part of your well-being. From start to finish, your entire intestinal tract covers more than 4,000 square feet of surface area.
When working properly, the intestinal tract acts like a selective barrier. It allows digested nutrients to reach your bloodstream. At the same time, it protects your bloodstream from potentially harmful substances, including bacteria, toxins, and partially digested food.
Sometimes, this critical barrier can fail, causing unwelcome substances to travel from the intestinal tract to the bloodstream. This is what doctors call leaky gut syndrome. While not technical in name, it’s a very real concern.
According to Harvard Medical School, leaky gut may cause rampant inflammation, increase the body’s toxin load, and impact your ability to absorb nutrients from food (1). Left unchecked, a leaky gut can set you on a path toward chronic illness.
Digestive issues including gas, bloating, lower stomach cramps, and diarrhea are common symptoms of leaky gut. One study, for example, found that people with diarrhea and irritable bowel syndrome have increased permeability of the lower intestinal tract or colon (2).
It’s important to note that common digestive discomforts are not defining characteristics of leaky gut. Many other digestive issues such as food intolerances or dysbiosis (abnormal gut bacteria) cause bloating and gas as well, so any digestive issues have to be taken in context of other symptoms.
Our skin’s appearance is closely connected to our internal health, and evidence shows our gut microbiome can affect the condition of our skin (3). This includes acne, rosacea, and eczema.
In one study from the United Kingdom, children with atopic dermatitis (a form of eczema) showed signs of leaky gut (4). The study also noted that the children without dermatitis did not show any signs of leaky gut.
Researchers also suggest that overgrowths of harmful bacteria in the gut can promote acne by compromising the barrier of the small intestine, further supporting the idea that skin health is connected to gut health (5).
When partially digested food particles inappropriately enter the bloodstream due to a weakened gut barrier, it can trigger inflammation. This happens because the immune system doesn’t recognize the foreign particles.
When the immune system doesn’t recognize something, it typically treats it as a threat. This ultimately triggers a cascade of events that leads to inflammation. This means that if you have leaky gut for a long time, it can contribute to chronic inflammation (6).
Evidence suggests there is also an association between leaky gut and joint pain (7). The handful of studies that have looked at this relationship point out that leaky gut is often seen in patients with rheumatoid arthritis (8). It is unclear, however, whether the leaky gut is a cause of the joint pain or if the frequent use of pain medication is causing leaky gut.
Perhaps one of the most well-studied consequences of leaky gut is autoimmunity—when your immune system mistakenly attacks your body. Studies have found, for example, that leaky gut is associated with autoimmune conditions including type 1 diabetes or systemic lupus erythematosus (9). The details of why this happens are still not fully understood.
Some believe that when the contents of the intestines get into the blood it causes the immune system to react. If this continues over time, the immune system can become hyperactive and mistakenly attack your own body.
While there is not yet strong evidence to support this connection, it’s believed that leaky gut can result in nutrient deficiencies since your gut is less efficient in absorbing nutrients if the intestinal barrier is compromised. Plus, if you experience diarrhea in combination with leaky gut, this can further decrease the number of nutrients you get out of your diet.
Leaky gut is also associated with extreme or chronic fatigue (10). This is thought to be caused by the widespread inflammatory response that occurs when intestinal contents leak into the blood.
Cornell University researchers led a breakthrough study that analyzed the stool and blood samples of volunteers and found that chronic fatigue syndrome (CFS) was tied to changes in the gut microbiome. They also found inflammation markers in the blood, thought to be tied to leaky gut (11).
The inflammation caused by leaky gut may also play a role in migraines or headaches (12). A leaky gut specifically stimulates the release of molecules called pro-inflammatory cytokines. Through several mechanisms, these cytokines can produce the pain that is associated with headaches or migraines.
Some evidence suggests that having a leaky gut is correlated with mood disorders (13, 14). This makes sense when you consider that most of the body’s serotonin (a key neurotransmitter) is made in the gut (15). An unhealthy gut can impact the brain. This means if you suffer from stress, mood swings, or even feel hopeless, it could be another indicator of leaky gut.
So far, no single cause for leaky gut has been found. It’s likely it may happen due to a variety of genetic disposition, lifestyle, and environmental factors. If you suspect you have a leaky gut, talk to your healthcare provider to determine the best approach for your care.
The good news is there are a variety of strategies that you can take to support overall digestive health that support the gut. Try thinking of it as a “bad-out and good-in” approach.
Taking out the bad means cutting back on processed foods, and eliminating any foods you may have a sensitivity or intolerance to, such as gluten. Reduce stress levels, and eat organic when you can to reduce exposure to pesticides.
To reduce the toxic burden on your gut, add a natural mineral zeolite supplement for a gut and body detox. One study on zeolite Clinoptilolite found that 12 weeks of supplementation “exerted beneficial effects on intestinal wall integrity” indicating favorable gut effects (16).
Adding in the good means increasing your intake of organic fruits and veggies, eating fermented foods or taking a probiotic for digestive health, incorporating digestive enzymes into your meals, and eating anti-inflammatory foods.