Over the last several years, we’ve come to appreciate that the gut is a LOT more complex than just the organ that digests food and absorbs nutrients. It’s kind of embarrassing that it’s taken this long considering Hippocrates, the “Father of Modern Medicine,” was dropping not-so-subtle hints about the role the gut plays in overall health thousands of years ago.
Be that as it may, we’re learning more about gut health and the microbiome—the community of microbes that lives inside us—daily. Without question, one of the most prevalent topics in this area is leaky gut, which has gained enormous attention in recent years.
What Is Leaky Gut?
In addition to being responsible for digestion and absorption, the digestive tract also serves a crucial protective role. The gut lining (called the epithelium) makes up the largest and most important barrier against our external environment.
Under normal circumstances, the cells that make up the intestinal epithelium form “tight junctions,” selectively allowing the absorption of nutrients, electrolytes, and water, while blocking potentially harmful substances. When these tight junctions are “loosened,” the result is increased intestinal permeability. More commonly called, “leaky gut.” The once highly discriminatory gut barrier becomes less selective, allowing harmful bacteria, toxins, and undigested food particles into the bloodstream.
Leaky gut may lead to:
- Gas and bloating
- Constipation and diarrhea
- Poor digestion and malabsorption
- Food sensitivities
- Skin issues
- Joint discomfort
- Brain fog
What Causes Leaky Gut?
Many factors are believed to contribute to leaky gut, and guess what? They’re pretty much all under your control. Here are some of the top factors:
- Gluten: Dr. Alessio Fasano, one of the world’s leading researchers in the area, has shown that gluten triggers a compound called zonulin, which is known as the “permeability regulator.” Sounds pretty sinister, doesn’t it? Zonulin loosens those normally tight junctions of the intestinal barrier, making it more permeable. Gluten is found in grains like wheat, spelt, kamut, farro, bulgar, barley, rye, and triticale.
- Dysbiosis: An unhealthy bacterial imbalance can also contribute to leaky gut. Bad bacteria secrete a toxin called lipopolysaccharide (LPS), which increases intestinal permeability. Besides gluten, small intestinal exposure to bacteria is another potent trigger of zonulin. On the other hand, probiotics have been shown to reduce LPS and help promote healthy intestinal permeability.
- Fructose: Recent research suggests that fructose can increase intestinal permeability as well as increase LPS. You’re best off limiting your intake of added sugar, but don’t worry about fruit. It also contains fiber and antioxidants, which help support normal gut barrier function.
- Lectins: Lectins are found in a variety of plant-based foods where they serve as natural defenders against insects and mold. Lectins, which are considered anti-nutrients, can cause increased intestinal permeability. Lectins can be found in wheat, rye, barley, corn, oats, rice, and soy.
- Standard American Diet: The typical calorie-dense Western-style diet, which is characterized by processed foods high in fat (pro-inflammatory refined vegetable oils) and carbs (refined grains and added sugars), has been shown to lead to dysbiosis, elevated levels of LPS, and increased intestinal permeability.
- Excessive Alcohol: When is the last time you heard something good come out of binge drinking? As with most things alcohol-related, excessive consumption contributes to negative consequences like dysbiosis, high levels of LPS, and leaky gut.
- NSAIDs: Non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs have been shown to increase intestinal permeability.
- Stress: Your intestinal barrier can also come under attack and be destroyed by your body’s own immune response and pro-inflammatory chemicals. Have you ever noticed your digestion is worse when you’re stressed? There are several factors in play, but both psychological and physiological stress can increase intestinal permeability.
- Exercise: Heavy exercise can cause loosening of tight junctions, leading to increased intestinal permeability. Research has shown that up to 93% of athletes report digestive-related issues that may trace back to leaky gut.
End Leaky Gut Concerns
There are many potential factors that could underlie a leaky gut, and this list is just a starting point. If you believe you’ve been struggling with leaky gut, then take an honest inventory of the above areas and let us know what you find!