Signs of Leaky Gut and What to Do

Leaky gut

You probably wouldn’t consider that the cause of your joint pain, seasonal allergies, or chronic fatigue originates in your gut. Digestive issues, sure. But joint pain? If you regularly have these issues, these could be signs of leaky gut. 

Let me back up a bit. A leaky gut may not directly cause these symptoms. It’s more that if you have gut issues such as leaky gut, you are more likely to have several health problems. That’s because increased intestinal permeability tends to occur together with other dysfunctions, such as food sensitivities, thyroid problems, nutrient deficiencies, and autoimmune disease.[1]

In my gut health module for my functional medicine practitioner program at the Institute for Functional Medicine, I learned about the gut’s connection to our health. I wanted to share some of what I’ve learned so far, particularly regarding leaky gut. 

Table of Contents

What is Leaky Gut Syndrome?

The father of modern medicine, Hippocrates, once said, “All diseases begin in the gut.” Nearly 80% of your immune system lives in your gut. It’s also where 90% of your serotonin gets produced.[2] Serotonin is your feel-good hormone that impacts your mood. 

In fact, the gut-brain axis (GBA) is the communication portal between your central nervous system and the enteric nervous system, and a leaky gut can disrupt it.[3] For example, leaky gut increases LPS (lipopolysaccharides) levels, which causes anxiety.[4] ​​ 

So what exactly is leaky gut syndrome? 

A wall with tight junctions protects your gut to allow nutrients from your food to pass through the bloodstream. Your gut uses villi to grab micronutrients floating in your gut that was broken down from the food you eat. The villi push the micronutrients through the tight junctions into the bloodstream for your body to use. 

Your gut is naturally semi-permeable to allow micronutrients to travel to the bloodstream. External factors such as a poor diet, toxin exposure, and stress break apart these tight junctions. This is known as leaky gut. 

If you have a leaky gut, objects that aren’t supposed to be in your bloodstream, such as toxins, undigested food particles, and microbes, can escape through the tight junctions. Your immune system identifies these as foreign invaders and begins to attack them, causing any of the following seven signs of a leaky gut.

11 Signs of a Leaky Gut

If you feel bloated or tired after eating, get nasal congestion, or suffer from seasonal allergies, these could all be signs of a leaky gut. A lot of research on intestinal permeability has linked numerous symptoms and conditions, including some autoimmune diseases, to leaky gut[5]

Here are 11 signs of a leaky gut:[6]

  • Food sensitivities
  • Seasonal allergies or respiratory infections
  • Widespread inflammation 
  • Digestive issues such as gas, diarrhea, bloating, irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) 
  • Inflammatory bowel diseases (Crohn’s, ulcers) 
  • Diagnosis of autoimmune diseases (lupus, multiple sclerosis, type I diabetes, Hashimoto’s) 
  • Chronic fatigue 
  • Hormonal imbalances
  • Brain fog
  • Mood imbalances such as depression or anxiety
  • Acne, eczema, or rosacea. 

While a leaky gut may not directly cause these symptoms, it does keep your immune system response on high alert. Problems in the GI tract can be the root cause of many chronic health problems we face today. The good news is that there is something you can do about it! 

Before I talk about how to repair a leaky gut, let’s discuss what causes a leaky gut in the first place. 

Causes of Leaky Gut

Our modern lifestyles are not doing our health any favors. You are constantly exposed to toxins and face more daily stressors. The Western diet is ultra-processed and contains added sugars, GMOs, industrialized oils, and synthetic food preservatives and additives. These factors keep your immune system in hyperdrive, leading to chronic inflammation, which is the root cause of many diseases. Here are four underlying causes of leaky gut.

A Poor Diet

Diet is one of the primary causes of leaky gut. Today’s modern diet is full of highly-proceed foods, gluten, GMOs, industrialized oils, and added sugars that our bodies simply weren’t made to digest. 

Research by Dr. Alessio Fasano proves that gluten signals the release of zonulin, a protein that signals the tight junctions in your gut lining to be open, leading to a leaky gut.[7] Once you have a leaky gut, the gluten protein enters the bloodstream where they aren’t supposed to be. Your immune system identifies these as pathogens and attacks them. 

Because gluten and dairy protein casein have similar molecular structures, your immune system can’t tell the difference. If your gut remains leaky and these proteins escape into the bloodstream, your immune system sends constant waves of inflammation to attack these pathogens. This is known as molecular mimicry.[8]

If you suspect you have a leaky gut, eliminate inflammatory foods such as dairy, gluten, added sugars, alcohol, and GMOs.  

Toxin Overload

We come into contact with more than 80,000 chemicals yearly, but many are not tested for safety. They are found in the food you eat (GMOs, pesticides, antibiotics), the water you drink (heavy metals), the air you breathe, your clothing, cleaning products, body products, makeup, and even your skincare products.  

Imagine your body is a cup of water. Each exposure to a toxin adds more water to the cup. If you have a leaky gut, dress, these small exposures to toxins can make your cup overflow. This includes high alcohol and drug consumption. Some of the worst offenders for causing leaking gut are antibiotics, unfiltered tap water, NSAIDs, such as ibuprofen or acetaminophen, and alcohol. 

While you can’t completely stop being exposed to toxins, you can limit your exposure by buying water filters, air purifiers, eating organic foods, and limiting alcohol consumption. 

Gut Dysbiosis

Dysbiosis happens when there is an imbalance between beneficial and harmful bacteria in your gut. Many studies show that gut microbiota is crucial in supporting the gut barrier. When you have yeast overgrowth or bacteria colonizing in your small intestine, this creates gut dysbiosis. If the imbalance is not addressed by changing your diet and taking a daily probiotic, biofilms will develop and increase your risk of leaky gut. 

Chronic Stress

Your body is designed to handle acute stress. When faced with a stressful situation, your body responds with cortisol. When the threat is gone, cortisol levels return to normal. This response is ideal when chased by an animal, as in our ancestors’ days. In today’s modern society, we face constant physical and emotional stressors. 

When your stress response is always on, and cortisol levels remain high, your immune system weakens, and it’s harder to fight harmful bacteria or pathogens. This leads to chronic inflammation and a leaky gut. 

The connection between a leaky gut and many health conditions is still being researched. There’s still a lot that is unknown about leaky gut syndrome. The good news is that functional medicine practitioners better understand leaky gut. The even better news is that the power is in your control. 

How to Repair a Leaky Gut

If you are concerned about a leaky gut, several tests are available to give you insight. Talk to your doctor about a zonulin or lactulose test, or you can do a micronutrient and mineral deficiency test from LestGetChecked. Nutrient deficiencies are a common sign of leaky gut. 

You could take a food sensitivity test or do an elimination diet to determine your food sensitivities. If you choose an elimination diet, you eliminate gluten, dairy, nightshade vegetables, legumes, soy, eggs, and citrus fruits from your diet for 14 days and reintroduce them one by one and record your symptoms. If a particular food causes no symptoms, you are not sensitive to it. Food sensitivities are one of the most common signs of leaky gut, along with nutrient deficiencies. 

Once you know your food sensitivities and nutrient deficiencies, you are ready to repair your gut. Functional medicine uses the 4R approach– remove, replace, reinoculate, and repair.

Repair Your Leaky Gut with the 4Rs

The 4Rs is a four-step protocol to address leaky gut and other gut health issues. Here are the steps to take: 

1. Remove

The first step is to remove anything that triggers gut inflammation, such as inflammatory foods, alcohol, caffeine, and over-the-counter medications (NSAIDs). You should also remove inflammatory foods from your diet, including gluten, soy, dairy, added sugars, corn, and any foods you are sensitive to. 

2. Replace

Next, you replace inflammatory foods with nutrients and gut-healing foods. These foods include anti-inflammatory spices such as turmeric, rosemary, and garlic, extra virgin olive oil, organic fruits and vegetables, mushrooms, and omega-3 fatty acids found in wild-caught fish. It’s also a good idea to add a digestive enzyme supplement to support the optimal absorption of nutrients. An HCL supplement can help restore stomach acids. 

3. Reinoculate

The third step is to reintroduce beneficial bacteria to your gut microbiome. Take a probiotic supplement with at least 30 billion colony-forming units (CFUs) that have living strains of bacteria in them. Look for a probiotic with the Bifidobacterium and Lactobacillus species. 

4. Repair

The final step of the 4R process is when repair begins. To accomplish this, you will want to find specific herbs and supplements that have been shown to repair a leaky gut. Examples of these nutrients include: 

  • L-Glutamine 
  • Deglycyrrhizinated licorice (DGL)
  • Aloe vera
  • Marshmallow root 
  • Licorice root 
  • Reishi mushrooms
  • Lion’s mane mushrooms
  • Vitamin D
  • Zinc

Several leaky gut supplements combine all essential nutrients to repair your gut and support optimal gut function. You can find them at your local health food store or online.

Final Thoughts on Leaky Gut

Leaky Gut has been called a “danger signal for chronic illness.”[9] Many of your diet choices and lifestyle factors negatively impact your gut health and contribute to several health conditions. After all, the gut is where health begins. Using the 4Rs minimizes factors that lead to a leaky gut and inflammation and adds factors that support digestive health. 

If you want to learn more about leaky gut, the signs of leaky gut, and how you could benefit from the 4Rs, schedule a free discovery call, and let me help you get on the path of Living Very Well™.

About Michael

Michael is a functional health coach and sports nutritionist based in Austin, Texas. He has a master’s degree in kinesiology from the University of Texas and advanced certification in sports nutrition from the International Society of Sports Nutrition.