Have you heard of “leaky gut”? It’s a term that gets tossed around often, but it’s a bit confusing. How does a gut become “leaky,” and what does it mean for your health? As we’ll cover, it goes far beyond digestive health. Healing the gut impacts the immune system and every other system of the body.
What is Leaky Gut Syndrome?
“Leaky gut” is the informal terminology for abnormally increased permeability  in the small intestine. The gastrointestinal lining is made up of a mucosal layer that’s semi-permeable. That means it works like a screen, allowing tiny particles to go through it and into the bloodstream and preventing the larger ones from getting through.
The “screen,” regulated by tight junctions  between the cells, is only one cell layer thick. This extremely fragile lining allows the absorption of food constituents like amino acids, fatty acids, and simple sugars into the bloodstream. If food molecules are too large, they are kept inside the gut barrier for further breakdown.
Inflammation of the intestinal lining can cause the tight junctions to become loose. When that happens, larger, undigested food particles end up in the bloodstream, triggering an immune response. Because they aren’t broken down into their constituents, they aren’t recognized as “safe” and are seen as invaders.
The resulting immune response can cause autoimmune disease  and other conditions when it continues for too long.
Symptoms of Leaky Gut
Many symptoms of a leaky gut are due to disturbances in the gut microbiome. When harmful bacteria get out of balance with the beneficial bacteria, it can lead to digestive symptoms and inflammation in the gut lining. Some potential symptoms of a leaky gut include the following:
- Constipation and other digestive issues
- Food allergies (mistakenly called food sensitivities)
- Chronic fatigue syndrome (CFS)
- Brain fog
- Joint pain
- Skin conditions
- Chronic inflammation
- Dysbiosis, as shown on lab test results
While many symptoms affect the digestive system, you’ll notice the list includes other symptoms outside the digestive tract. That’s because of the Swiss Watch Principle.
The Swiss Watch Principle and Leaky Gut
At The Wellness Way, we continuously talk about the body being like a Swiss watch. It’s a great illustration because if you look at the gears inside a ticking watch, you’ll notice they are all turning together. Each gear affects all the others.
But let’s say the watch ends up with a tiny pebble inside, which clogs one of the gears. Do the others keep going? Nope. All the gears depend on each other. So, if one cannot move, they are all stuck in place.
That’s how it works in the human body. If one system has issues, it will affect all the others. That’s how you can end up with non-gut-related health conditions from a leaky gut.
Health Conditions Associated with Leaky Gut
Here is a brief list of health conditions associated with a leaky gut.
- Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS)
- Small intestinal bacterial overgrowth (SIBO)
- Celiac disease
- Inflammatory Bowel Disease (IBD) — Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis
- Joint pain
- Other autoimmune diseases
- Obesity and metabolic disorders
- Chronic health problems in general
You can see how significantly a leaky gut can affect overall health. But what are the causes of a leaky gut? How did we get here in the first place?
Causes of Leaky Gut
Like all other forms of dis-ease or imbalance, leaky gut goes back to the 3 T’s, Traumas, Toxins, and Thoughts. There’s seldom one root cause. A combination of several factors contributes to a leaky gut.
Trauma (Physical Stressors)
The concept of “traumas” from the chiropractic view of dis-ease is broad. Traumas are events that affect your body physically — physical stressors. They may be life-changing events like accidents or injuries. But they can also be minor traumas, like spinal subluxations, poor posture, sitting too much, or even carrying excessive weight.
Toxins (Biochemical Stressors)
When we talk about toxins, it can mean several types, both naturally derived and synthetic. Some aren’t inherently toxic; they only cause problems when we lose immune tolerance to them.
- Gluten and gliadin  (wheat, barley, rye, corn)
- Poor diet (processed foods and sugar!)
- Food allergens 
- Toxic metals – there’s research on lead, cadmium, and aluminum
- Glyphosate (Roundup) and other pesticides, herbicides, and fungicides
- Mold toxins like Ochratoxin A 
- Infections like Clostridia 
- NSAIDS and other medications  (Ibuprofen is an example)
These toxins and others can affect gut health by decreasing good bacteria, increasing harmful bacteria, or causing chronic inflammation.
Thoughts (Mental and Emotional Stressors)
Chronic stress is a major cause of dis-ease. It contributes to a constant state of “fight or flight,” creating chronic inflammation and lowering the immune response to pathogens. Research published in 2020  confirmed the link between psychological stress (acute or chronic), the development of dysbiosis, leaky gut, and GI symptoms. A stress-induced leaky gut was also associated with autoimmune disease.
How do You Heal a Leaky Gut?
To heal a leaky gut, you first need to know what’s keeping it from healing naturally. That’s where testing comes in. Your Wellness Way practitioner can then guide you through which supplements and dietary plans will best support healing.
Inflammation aggravates a leaky gut. Eating the foods you’re allergic to keeps the gut chronically inflamed and unable to fully heal. That’s why food allergy testing is such a priority at The Wellness Way. Once you’re no longer eating your food allergens, it’s easier to see what else might be causing inflammation and address those things.
Gut health testing is usually next up. It’s important to know what’s going on with your gut microbes because infections can contribute to an inflamed, leaky gut. Your Wellness Way practitioner may also recommend other tests based on what they see on the food allergy and gut health test results. A viral panel or hormone panel can also give insight.
Avoid Inflammatory Foods
This means avoiding your food allergies, processed foods, gluten, sugar, and industrial seed oils like canola and soybean. Cow’s milk dairy can also be inflammatory for many people. The dietary component is huge. You cannot heal a leaky gut while eating processed foods and sugary foods.
Focus on Whole Foods
To promote a healthy gut, focus on gluten-free whole foods with plenty of leafy greens, healthy fats, and grass-fed meats, including organ meats. If you’re currently far from that kind of diet, start somewhere. (The linked article gives you some ideas of how.)
Including some fermented foods may also help nourish the gut lining and create a hospitable environment for your gut bacteria. These are foods like sauerkraut, kimchi, or kefir.  However, it’s important to work with a practitioner because a leaky gut can cause mast cell issues, leading to elevated histamines. In that case, fermented foods could do more harm than good.
Each person is unique, which is why Wellness Way practitioners create a personalized nutrition program to heal intestinal hyperpermeability / “leaky gut.” Depending on what else you have going on, these or other supplements may be recommended based on your test results:
- Probiotic supplements
- Prebiotics (fiber/food for the gut bacteria)
- Enzymes (help break down food)
- Bone broth protein
- The amino acid L-glutamine
- Omega-3 fatty acids
- Herbs like Slippery Elm, Albizia, Nettle, Gotu Kola, or other supplements may be recommended.
Getting high-quality supplements is important because the form can make a difference in whether they are effective in promoting healing. Powdered versions of certain herbs aren’t as effective as alcohol-based extractions. Learn more about Leaky Gut and common misconceptions by watching Dr. Zach Papendieck in this video.
The Wellness Way Can Help!
Your body can heal itself if you provide the right environment. Wellness Way practitioners can help you find out what’s creating inflammation and keeping you from healing. The Wellness Way Approach includes delving deep into underlying traumas, toxins, and thoughts that lead to inflammation and dis-ease in the body. We don’t guess; we test. It’s exciting to watch biomarkers go back to normal ranges as the body becomes balanced. Contact a Wellness Way clinic near you to get started on your healing journey.
- Intestinal permeability – a new target for disease prevention and therapy – PMC (nih.gov)
- Zonulin, regulation of tight junctions, and autoimmune diseases – PMC (nih.gov)
- Leaky Gut As a Danger Signal for Autoimmune Diseases – PMC (nih.gov)
- Gliadin, zonulin and gut permeability: Effects on celiac and non-celiac intestinal mucosa and intestinal cell lines – PubMed (nih.gov)
- Association between increased intestinal permeability and disease: A systematic review – ScienceDirect
- Intracellular zinc stores protect the intestinal epithelium from Ochratoxin A toxicity – PubMed (nih.gov)
- Detection of Clostridium perfringens toxin genes in the gut microbiota of autistic children – ScienceDirect
- Intestinal permeability in the pathogenesis of NSAID-induced enteropathy – PubMed (nih.gov)
- Psychological Stress, Intestinal Barrier Dysfunctions, and Autoimmune Disorders: An Overview – PMC (nih.gov)
One Health, Fermented Foods, and Gut Microbiota: PubMed (nih.gov)