What Is Leaky Gut? (And Why You Should Know)

Leaky gut is another name for intestinal permeability. What this means is that places in the gut that determine what gets to go into your small intestine are not working as they should. This means that substances that you react to, or are toxic to your body, end up where they shouldn’t—in your bloodstream. 

Imagine your gut’s lining is Gandalf in The Fellowship of the Ring. He stands at that bridge (which represents your gut) in front of that cave demon (the intruder) yelling, “You shall not pass!” to things like toxins and other weird food particles Gandalf would normally demand exit your body through your bowels.

Then imagine Gandalf gets confused. He may be under a lot of stress, just taken a round of antibiotics, or even be suffering from a hormone imbalance. So instead of banishing the cave demon, he goes, “Oh, well, sure, I guess you can come in.”

To explain that without a Lord of the Rings analogy, your gut basically functions as a net with very small entrances that let certain things pass through. Your gut works to keep out intruders or things that might otherwise harm you. But when your body gets confused or damaged as a result of stress, illness, or something else, it starts letting things pass through the barrier that shouldn’t be there. 

Enter health problems.

Leaky Gut Has Been Linked to Many Health Problems

Health professionals are coming to realize that leaky gut syndrome can be responsible for many different health problems.  Some of these problems happen when people are young or even in utero if the mother had leaky gut. Other diseases and health problems can develop thorough life, such as autoimmune diseases, allergies, and skin problems like acne or eczema.

Leaky gut can also be linked to rheumatoid arthritis, fatigue, mood disorders, psychiatric problems, irritable bowel syndrome, and many more health issues. When your body starts letting in food particles and toxins that your immune system labels as “invaders”, it releases antibodies that attack these invaders. And where exactly are these invaders going? They’re in your bloodstream, so they’re going everywhere. This is why it could lead to a variety of different health problems that are seemingly unrelated. The even more challenging part is that these health problems will not be the same for everyone! 

Everyone Does Not React to the Same Toxins—Except for Gluten?

There are many things that can cause leaky gut. Among them are antibiotics, stress, pesticides, genetically modified organisms (GMOs), environmental toxins, and gluten.

People with celiac disease typically experience gastrointestinal problems. Gluten intolerance is not the same thing as celiac disease, and its symptoms aren’t limited to these problems. You can have a wide variety of symptoms including skin rashes, muscle and joint pain, psychiatric disorders, and more with gluten intolerance. Research shows that gluten intolerance affects many more people than are actually diagnosed. This is likely due to the fact that its symptoms mimic many other health problems combined with the fact that doctors are often not trained to look at food as the source of your problems.

Gluten irritates your gut. It might be a minor irritation or a larger one—you may only get diarrhea once in a while, or you could be immobilized (happened to me). I’m not on a crusade against gluten here, merely pointing to evidence that shows that many people have trouble digesting not just gluten but a variety of grains and other foods that cause inflammation in our gut, therefore leading to health problems.

Bottom line is—you may react gluten. Someone else may not. Not everyone will react to the same things, but gluten and dairy are among the most infamous gut irritators that anyone who has adverse health symptoms should consider cutting out. There's also something to be said for the fact that many foods people have trouble processing--such as corn, soy, eggs, and nuts--are in nearly all processed foods. It's best to stick to whole foods when it comes to healing your leaky gut.

What Is the Solution to Leaky Gut?

The solution to leaky gut sounds simple, but is less so than it sounds: get rid of everything that’s irritating your gut for a few weeks. In some cases, however, you may not be able to eat the food again—or only eat it every once in a while—in order to stay in optimal health. But how do you know what’s irritating your gut?

Some signs are obvious, such as an immediate allergic reaction to a food you just ate (trouble breathing or breaking out in hives within minutes). Other signs are not so obvious, such as when you develop a headache later in the day.

It’s a good idea to get tested by a doctor that understands holistic health and will run blood tests for antibodies in your blood that will show which foods or toxins you're reacting to. If you can’t afford this or can't find a doctor who is capable of running the tests, you might start by eliminating some of the more common problematic foods like gluten, dairy, and refined sugar from your diet to see how you react.

As you can see, healing leaky gut isn’t complicated, but finding out what’s problematic for your body can be. Begin by getting tested and talking with your doctor about how you can alter your diet to heal your leaky gut. It’s not easy to change your diet, but the good thing about leaky gut is, you usually don’t have to do it forever. Just for a few weeks until your gut “resets”, so to speak.

Remember to avoid chronic stress as much as possible, avoid antibiotics unless absolutely necessary, and optimize your diet. Get plenty of healthy fats, vegetables, and protein from wholesome meats or beans and other grains like quinoa if you’re vegan. Educating yourself about your body is one of the best things you can do to feel your best. Journal about what foods bother you. Recognize patterns. Talk with your doctor. Learn about supplements and if you need them.

Leaky gut might be a sneaky culprit that’s gone largely unrecognized in the medical world, but more and more research indicates that it could be responsible for many, many health problems. If you suspect leaky gut could be the cause of your symptoms, get tested and get better!

2/1/2016 8:00:00 AM
Jenn Ryan
Written by Jenn Ryan
Jenn Ryan is a health and wellness extraordinaire who's fascinated by secret truths. She was last photographed at a tea shop in Washington DC wearing way too much glitter.
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This is a fantastic article!! It is well written and clearly describes in plain wording why I am taking this particular approach with my 15 year old daughter suffering from unexplained headaches. We have cut out dairy entirely for 10 days now and have seen a drastic reduction in her headache pain. Albeit frustration form her inability to eat her favorite foods. I would like to understand if I should also cut out gluten or address the two (gluten and dairy) in a separate trial. Or is it the dairy causing her headache and the gluten that is the possible caused for a leaky gut? Therefore we would need to cut out both to address the headache (gluten) and heal her leaky gut (gluten) From the sound of the article this might be a temporary food restriction? Perhaps a month? Would you have a recommendation? With great thanks, Beth
Posted by Beth
This leaky gut has me worried...I have been diagnosed with diverticulitis and not sure if they are simuler.I need help..dr. is getting lazy. Seriously.
Posted by Georgia Hartsfield
This explained a lot. Thank you
Posted by Pat
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