A leaky gut is when our intestinal lining develops holes that allow harmful substances to leak into our bloodstream. Our intestinal lining has two main jobs. The first is to digest food so that we can absorb nutrients and water into our bloodstream for distribution throughout the body. The second job is to act as a barrier, restricting the entry of harmful substances. In fact, our gastrointestinal tract contains a huge number of immune system cells that at as our first line of defence against toxins and infections.
The intestinal epithelium of our small intestine is formed from a single layer of columnar cells called enterocytes whose surfaces consist of multiple finger-like projections called villi. The villi maximize the absorptive surface of the enterocytes. The majority of nutrient absorption occurs through the small intestinal villi.
Between each enterocyte along the gut lining are a group of proteins that form a seal that holds adjacent cells tightly together. These are called tight junctions. Water and nutrients pass into the enterocytes through the villi while the tight junctions act as physical and biological barriers that block large molecules and harmful substances from entering the body. The intestinal lining is functioning well when the tight junctions between enterocytes are strong and intact. But, if the tight junctions between cells are damaged, larger particles, toxins, and infections are able to pass between the enterocytes into the blood stream. This is known as leaky gut or leaky gut syndrome. Other names for this type of functional defect of the intestinal epithelium include increased intestinal permeability or hyperpermeability of the intestinal tract.
There is some controversy regarding leaky gut among conventional medical practitioners and those who practice in a more holistic or complementary fashion. While leaky gut syndrome may not currently be recognized as a medical diagnosis, increased intestinal permeability is noted to be present in a range of diseases. It is like the chicken or the egg situation. Which came first, the symptom or the cause? In conventional medicine, leaky gut, although real, is regarded as a symptom of various gastrointestinal diseases such as inflammatory bowel disease and celiac disease. From a holistic point of view, the impaired intestinal barrier allows toxins and harmful substances into the bloodstream which then results in a cascade of inflammatory responses that can manifest as a wide range of disease states throughout the body.
The gut microbiome is a complex ecosystem of microorganisms that lies as a biofilm on the surface of the intestinal epithelium. It is well established that the microorganisms in our gut, made up of mostly beneficial and some harmful bacteria, viruses, and fungi, are fundamental for nutrient absorption, metabolism essential nutrients, and proper immune system function. Leaky gut, aka increased intestinal permeability, can result from gut inflammation and an imbalance of the gut microbiome. Imbalance or overgrowth of the normal microbiome with pathogenic microorganisms is known as gut dysbiosis.
Gut dysbiosis contributes to leaky gut and the movement of pathogens and harmful metabolites into the blood stream. A plethora of diseases have been linked to dysbiosis of our gut microbiome. These include gastrointestinal diseases such as Crohn’s disease, irritable bowel syndrome, and colon cancer. Interestingly, gut microbiome-related diseases are not limited to the digestive system. Substantial evidence links asthma, food allergies, cardiovascular disease, obesity, diabetes, hepatic encephalopathy, and eczema to an imbalance in our gut microbiome and leaky gut syndrome. Even more interesting, some mental disorders and autism have been shown to have an association with gut dysbiosis and leaky gut syndrome.
Main Causes of Leaky Gut
Dr. Stephanie Seneff has researched how glyphosate disrupts our gut microbes. The most widely used herbicide in the world, glyphosate is both an herbicide and crop desiccant that is used heavily in agriculture. Dietary exposure to glyphosate harms the gut and the gut microbiome. Glyphosate disrupts an important enzyme in the shikimate pathway, which is essential for the health of our beneficial bacteria. Damage to this pathway also stops our good bacteria from making nutrients that essential for our own health. Glyphosate is also a very efficient metal chelator, makes ingested minerals unavailable to our gut microbes. For the microbes to function properly, they rely on those minerals and the shikimate enzyme pathway.
Dr. Seneff has noted a strong correlation between the rise of gluten intolerance over time and the rise of glyphosate used on wheat as a desiccant before harvest. Chronic exposure to glyphosate disturbs our gut microbiome creating a starting point for many diseases, including arthritis and neurological diseases.
In the recent Epoch Health Podcast, The Legal Poison in Our Foods: Dr. Stephanie Seneff on What Glyphosate Does and How to Avoid It Dr. Seneff told us, “Glyphosate basically kills important bacteria in our own gut microbiome that are essential for producing proteins, neurotransmitters, and many other essential things. Once this happens, it allows for the overgrowth of pathogenic bacteria that make us sick.”
Our immune system responds to substances it considers harmful by causing an inflammatory reaction. Gluten, a protein found in wheat, rye, and barley, can cause inflammation of the intestinal lining in susceptible individuals. This is diagnosed as gluten sensitivity or celiac disease. Inflammatory molecules damage the integrity of gut’s tight junctions leading to leaky gut. Gluten has been shown to activate zonulin. Zonulin is a protein that opens the tight junctions of the small intestine and can be measured as a marker for intestinal permeability.
Research indicates that mold toxins, also called mycotoxins, can induce leaky gut. Dietary toxic mold exposure may result in leaky gut through interactions between ingested mycotoxins, the gut microbiome, and the intestinal epithelium. Mycotoxins from exposure to water damaged buildings enter the body through the airways or through the skin. Some of the mycotoxins that enter the mouth and nose can be swallowed and contribute to leaky gut.
Our gut microbiome helps to detoxify harmful substances. Certain beneficial bacteria protect us by binding and metabolizing ingested mycotoxins. Unfortunately, over time or if dysbiosis is present, mycotoxins can alter the gut microbiome and reduce its detoxification capacity. This results in an accumulation of mycotoxins that disrupts the integrity of the intestinal epithelial barrier which in turn contributes to the development of leaky gut. Moreover, mycotoxins impair gut health on a structural and functional level. Not only do they displace beneficial bacteria with increased pathogenic bacteria, increasing intestinal permeability, but mycotoxins also cause nutrient malabsorption, exacerbate oxidative stress and inflammation, and allow harmful bacteria, viral, and parasitic infections through the intestinal wall.
Other Causes of Leaky Gut
There are many other causes of leaky gut. Toxins can disrupt the intestinal epithelial layer. Deficiencies of certain vitamins and minerals can weaken the epithelial lining of our intestines. An imbalance or dysbiosis of our gut microbiome is a significant etiology of leaky gut. Other factors contributing to leaky gut include:
A low fibre diet:
Gastroenterologist and gut health expert, Dr. Will Bulsiewicz, MD MSCI, wrote “Fibre Fuelled,” a best-selling diet and lifestyle book. He describes the benefits of increasing fibre in the diet. Eating a broad range of fiber-rich foods found primarily in whole plant foods leads to billions of well-fed, high-functioning gut microbes. A low-fiber diet, on the other hand, starves out beneficial microbes. This creates dysbiosis by making room for pathogenic and harmful microbes.
A diet based on highly processed foods, refined sugars, and unhealthy fat content can lead to increased intestinal permeability or leaky gut.
Exposure to stress changes our brain-gut interactions. This can lead to a wide range of gastrointestinal disorders including inflammatory bowel disease, irritable bowel syndrome, food allergies, motility problems, and other digestive issues. Physiological effects of stress on the gut include negative effects on intestinal microbiota and an increase in intestinal permeability.
Zinc positively influences the barrier function of the intestinal lining. There is evidence that zinc’s action on intestinal tight junctions and enterocyte barrier function makes the mineral a potential therapeutic agent to help heal gastrointestinal dysfunction and leaky gut.
Medications that may cause leaky gut:
- Antibiotics kill both good and bad microorganisms, including those that inhabit our microbiome, which can lead to leaky gut.
- NSAIDS, non-steroidal anti-inflammatory medications are disruptive to our intestinal barrier and can contribute to leaky gut.
- Steroids may suppress the immune system leading to leaky gut, which in turn leaves us open to infection.
- Birth control pills contributes to excess estrogen which may lead to the overgrowth of Candida, a species of yeast that can cause leaky gut.
- Antacids suppress gastric acids and can alter the gut microbiome over time and cause an overgrowth of bacteria which may lead to leaky gut.
Fixing Leaky Gut
- Avoid glyphosate and environmental toxins.
A recent article by Sherra Vorley, Glyphosate, Too Complex to Ignore, discussed several ways of counteracting our exposure to glyphosate. It was recommended to choose high-nutrient organic foods such as fruits, vegetables, nuts, seeds, and legumes along with herbs and spices to help fight the effects of glyphosate. A lifestyle with special attention to digestive health along with optimized liver and kidney function will also help.
- Limit exposure to gluten to help heal from leaky gut.
Wheat, barley, and rye are the main grains that contain gluten. Those familiar with gluten sensitivity and celiac disease will know just how challenging gluten avoidance can be. Many beverages, snack foods, candy, and prepared foods have gluten hidden in their ingredients. Keeping to a whole-food diet is one way to limit exposure to wheat, barley, and rye. It is also important to diligently search ingredient lists for the many possible sources of gluten such as: wheat, barley, rye, spelt, bran, flour, modified food starch, natural flavours, hydrolyzed vegetable protein, soy sauce, malt vinegar, farina, durum, semolina, and barley enzymes.
While limiting exposure to gluten, support the digestive tract and the microbiome with a healthy diet and dietary supplements such as zinc, L-glutamine, grass-fed collagen peptides, pre and probiotics, and fibre. Other potentially helpful supplements include deglycyrrhizinated licorice, curcumin, berberine, and mucilaginous herbs like marshmallow root.
- Be aware of toxic mold exposure and its potential for causing chronic illness and leaky gut.
Dr. Ann Corson discusses chronic illness of mycotoxin exposure and ways to mitigate exposure and return to health in the article, Toxic Mold Illness 101. Protect yourself from exposure whenever possible while augmenting strategies to reinstitute gastrointestinal health.
- Increase fibre in the diet.
A whole-food, plant-based diet might sound hard to achieve at first. Start by simply increasing the amount and diversity of plant foods in the diet. Begin by eating nuts, fruit, grains, beans, vegetables, and seeds. Evidence shows a fiber-rich diet will help to modulate the gut microbiota.
Find a support program to help treat and heal leaky gut.
Zach Bush MD is an internationally recognized doctor, educator, and thought leader on the microbiome in health and disease, and food systems. He is triple board certified in internal medicine, endocrinology, and hospice care. He has developed a support system for the microbiome called ION* which promotes strengthening the integrity of the barriers of your body’s gut, sinuses, and skin.
The 4Rs are described by Dr. Amy Myers. They include: Removing toxins, inflammatory foods, and gastric irritants; Restoring essential ingredients for proper digestion; Re-inoculate beneficial bacteria; and Repairing the gut lining with nutrients. She provides supplements and valuable information in The Myers Way® protocol to fix leaky gut.
Healthy lifestyle choices will help to improve digestive health while naturally repairing a leaky gut. Reducing stress, improving sleep, and getting sufficient exercise are always helpful, but are also proven to aid in the recovery of leaky gut. Taking probiotics can help inoculate your microbiome. We can also feed our microbiome with a high-fiber diet for improved digestive health while recovering from leaky gut.
Collective Spark articles are for informational purposes and are not a substitute for individualized medical advice. Please consult a trusted professional for personal medical advice, diagnoses, and treatment.