Leaky Gut Syndrome can be tricky. For most people, it is very difficult to find the root cause of their gut problems, making treatment a cumbersome event. The reason why this happens is simple: leaky gut (also called increased intestinal permeability) can be the result of a great variety of health issues and cause a myriad of symptoms that also make it difficult to diagnose! If you suspect you may be suffering from leaky gut but are not sure, keep on reading! We’re going to uncover the 19 hidden reasons why you may be suffering from leaky gut.
Leaky gut is sometimes used as an umbrella term that encompasses different medical problems that affect your digestive tract. However, Leaky Gut Syndrome actually refers to a condition where your intestines have cracks or fissures (1). These small holes, then, allow for the passing of bacteria and undigested food into your blood, triggering inflammation and an immune system reaction that produces other types of problems in your body.
Let’s examine them below.
Signs and symptoms of leaky gut fluctuate a lot, ranging in severity all the time. These are some of the most common ones:
- Brain Fog
- Skin problems
- Nutritional deficiencies
- Immune response
Several health issues can lead to leaky gut (or cause its symptoms to worsen over time). Here are the 19 most common causes of leaky gut, backed up by scientific studies so you can understand exactly how and why they happen (and even how to avoid them!).
Large Intestinal Candida or Fungal Overgrowth is a health condition where the fungi that live in your large intestine grow uncontrollably, causing inflammation, pain, cramping, bloating, and leaky gut, among other symptoms (2). These fungi can include:
- Galactomyces. These fungi in the yeast family improve your skin barrier against bacteria in healthy conditions. They also live in your intestines, though problems start when they overgrow. This study, for example, asked participants to take a faecal test, discovering that those in the control group had a lower number of galactomyces than those who suffered from leaky gut (3).
- Candida. More than 20 different species of candida live in your body and can cause overgrowth in your large intestine, potentially damaging your mucosal barrier and provoking cell death and inflammation, leading to leaky gut (4).
Your large intestine is home to thousands and even millions of bacteria, even when it’s healthy. And when certain conditions are met, the number of these microorganisms can skyrocket, leading to inflammation and damage to the cells of your intestinal lining. This is particularly bad if the levels of harmful bacteria outweigh the good ones. The most common bacteria that can cause leaky gut (5) include:
- Clostridium. This is a type of bacteria that releases toxins and causes cell damage and eventual death. Research proves that having an increased number of Clostridium can affect the levels of good bacteria in your gut, increasing permeability and producing even more inflammation (6).
- Streptococcus. Similarly, streptococcus can cause inflammation not only in your intestines but in your whole digestive tract. This study took over 30 healthy people and another 30 who were infected with streptococcus to check their intestinal permeability (7). They found that the sick group had higher levels of inflammation in their large intestines than those who were healthy.
Small Intestinal Bacterial Overgrowth is a health issue where your microbiome gets out of control and too much bacteria grows in your small intestine. Sometimes, it’s bacteria that typically live in other parts of your body and start colonising your gut, disrupting its healthy balance (7) and sometimes resulting in intestinal permeability.
One study carried out in 2010 asked 20 patients to go through the hydrogen glucose breath test (which is useful to diagnose SIBO). All of them tested positive while 55% of them had damage to their intestinal lining and low-grade inflammation (8).
Similar to SIBO, Small Intestinal Fungal Overgrowth (SIFO) refers to the overgrowth of fungi in your small intestine. Symptoms of this disease are similar to those of SIBO (inflammation, bloating, pain and intestinal permeability). Though anyone can get SIFO, people with liver disease or autoimmune disorders are at a higher risk of suffering from it (9).
This study took a look at the intestines of 19 patients who were undergoing fungal infections and compared their inflammation levels to those of 10 healthy patients, discovering that people with Candida colonisation had higher inflammation levels that can rupture cells (which can lead to leaky gut) (10).
Celiac disease is, simply put, a very high sensitivity to gluten that can lead to other health conditions. Gluten is a protein present in many foods, like wheat and rye, which provokes a strong immune response in people who suffer from celiac disease. This results in inflammation, pain, bloating, diarrhoea, and damage to the intestinal lining (11).
Research has explored the relationship between celiac disease and leaky gut, discovering that patients on a gluten-free diet had almost no inflammation when compared with untreated patients, who suffered from constant inflammation (that can eventually lead to leaky gut, as cells cannot heal from damage) (12).
You can also be sensitive to gluten without being celiac, with symptoms that include brain fog, inflammation, bloating, constipation, nausea, vomiting and pain. This condition is called non-celiac gluten sensitivity and is triggered when you eat something that contains gluten and your body reacts as if it were a threat it has to eliminate (13).
Being sensitive to gluten can also lead to leaky gut, as it increases the levels of inflammation in your intestines, leading to long-term tissue damage. This study, for example, asked people with celiac disease, people with non-celiac gluten sensitivity and a healthy control group to take lactulose and mannitol probes to understand whether they had intestinal permeability, too. They determined that those with celiac disease and non-celiac gluten sensitivity had higher inflammation levels and intestinal permeability than the control group (14).
With the hectic lifestyle we lead, it’s difficult not to feel stressed out or anxious on a regular basis. However, watch out for chronic stress, as it can lead to a wide variety of health issues which include, as you may have guessed, leaky gut (15).
When you feel stressed out, your body responds in many ways, including raising the levels of stress hormones in your blood. When constant, these hormones can damage your gut lining and disbalance your microbiota. Research suggests that the links between chronic stress and gut issues are strong. For example, this study (16) discovered that stressed-out participants had higher levels of gram-negative bacteria in their gut than patients who didn’t suffer from chronic stress. This, in turn, produces inflammation as the body produces an immune response to fight off this microorganism (17).
Parasites can also affect your gut health and lead to leaky gut. You can get parasitic infections in different ways that go from sexual contact, contaminated food or a bug bite. And many of these parasites end up settling in your digestive tract (19). Here are some examples.
- Protozoa. These are single-celled parasites that spread in your digestive tract and provoke inflammation and damage to your epithelium. This study compared 39 patients suffering from protozoa infections to 10 healthy people, discovering that infected patients had more inflammation, an unbalanced microbiome, and a thinner intestinal barrier (19).
- Helminths. This type of parasite includes pinworms, tapeworms, and roundworms, which survive by feeding on living hosts, many times making them ill. They can lead to leaky gut and cell death because they decrease the electrical impedance in your intestinal lining, affecting how cells work (20).
Traditional pills are of great help when fighting infections and disease, but certain medications can have side effects and damage your digestive tract—particularly if you take them long term— leading to leaky gut. These are some of them:
- Antibiotics: Antibiotics can modify and alter the delicate balance that exists in the microbiota that lives in your gut. As a result, you may end up suffering from overgrowth and, consequently, from inflammation, diarrhoea, pain, and bloating, among other symptoms (21).
- PPIs: These medications are meant to relieve GERD symptoms and reduce the amount of acid produced by the stomach. But one of their side effects include the possibility of developing ulcers, particularly when prescribed in combination with NSAIDs (22)
- NSAIDs: These are anti-inflammatory drugs that can be bought without a medical prescription (such as ibuprofen or aspirin). However useful they might be, they can irritate your intestinal walls if you take more than you should, affecting the way your mucosal barrier works and restricting the blood flow through your gastric muscles (23).
Having a glass of wine after a hard day at work is absolutely fine, but binge drinking can wreak havoc on your body, particularly if your blood alcohol concentration rises above 0.08 gr. Among the many consequences of excessive alcohol usage is the irritation of your digestive tract (24) and alterations in your lining and metabolism. This damage modifies the way your mucosal barrier works, leading to ulcers and lesions that are unable to heal, together with chronic inflammation that can lead to leaky gut (25).
One research study with over 80 participants compared the intestinal permeability of patients with alcohol abuse problems to the permeability of the control group. They discovered that permeability was almost 5 times higher in the alcoholic patients (together with the levels of inflammation) (26).
Consuming dairy products, like milk, cheese, butter or yoghurt on a daily basis can affect your gut and produce inflammation, particularly if you have sensitivities (27). This research study, for example, aimed to understand whether dairy could really cause inflammation in the digestive system. For this, they asked 70 of the 140 participants to follow a dairy-free diet for 4 weeks, while the control group ate a dairy diet. By the end of the study, researchers discovered that the group that ate dairy products had higher levels of inflammation than those who didn’t (28).
People with lactose intolerance also suffer from digestive problems when their bodies are not able to break down lactose, which results in bloating, inflammation, pain and eventually, leaky gut (29).
A diet that lacks enough fruits, vegetables and whole grains while having too much red meat, dairy, eggs and processed foods can end up hurting your digestive system in the long run. The artificial ingredients and preservatives are hard for your body to digest and can lead to inflammation. Diets high in fatty acids, like the Standard American Diet, promote inflammation and disrupt the normal function of the epithelial cells in your intestines (30).
Many times, it is common to be exposed to small amounts of radiation when getting diagnosed or receiving treatment for many health issues. MRIs, CT scans or X-rays are common studies to diagnose disease, together with radiation therapy for cancer patients. But, as you can imagine, being constantly exposed to radiation can lead to health issues (33), many of them related to the gut.
As an example, this study carried out with rats suggests that exposure to radiation can have an impact on one’s intestines in as little as two weeks, affecting the epithelium cells and increasing intestinal permeability (34).
In addition to making you feel tired and stressed out, poor sleep can affect your circadian rhythm (that is, your internal “clock”) and your gut. Your circadian rhythm controls how long you sleep, how long you stay awake, your hormone production, and your digestion, among many other essential functions. If you are unable to sleep well, your circadian rhythm may be altered, therefore affecting many other processes in your body (35). One of them is your intestinal barrier.
A study in mice discovered that alterations in their circadian rhythms lead to inflammation and small fissures in their intestinal linings (36). Other studies carried out with people who suffered from sleep disorders also found out they had higher levels of inflammation, which also affected how their digestive tract worked and healed (37).
A healthy microbiome has thousands of different types of bacteria. People who have a limited number of species inside their intestines, in turn, are more prone to having leaky gut, as they will find it harder to maintain a healthy balance between the good and bad bacteria in their microbiome (38).
Research in this area has not been conclusive and needs more depth, but in the last few years, it has started examining the relationship between low microbial diversity and inflammation, which ends up leading to cell damage, fissures, and in some cases, leaky gut (39).
Exposure to heavy metals in your food, medications or water can lead to toxicity, particularly when it comes to your gut. These are some of the heavy metals that can cause intestinal permeability (40):
- Lead, which can enter our food through contaminated soil, can disrupt the bacteria levels in your gut, causing inflammation and leaky gut (41).
- Arsenic can also affect your microbiome, causing low-grade inflammation in your whole digestive tract and fissures in your lining (42).
- Mercury is also responsible for causing significant damage in your mucosal layers and disrupting the balance in your gut bacteria (43).
Similar to what happens with heavy metals, mould can also intoxicate your body and manifest symptoms like depression and anxiety, brain fog, and leaky gut. Mould toxicity appears when you live in a damp and humid place and are exposed to spores in your environment (44).
The particles responsible for the subsequent inflammation in your body are mycotoxins, which impair your gut’s health, preventing the digestive system from healing, altering your “good” bacteria levels, and weakening the bonds between your epithelial cells, decreasing the level of mucus and, many times, causing leaky gut (45).
Drinking tap water is common in many parts of the world, though it may not be the healthiest practice. Tap water may contain chemicals that irritate your gut lining, such as fluoride (which prevents tooth decay) and chlorine (a substance very effective when doing away with bacteria) (46) (47).
These two chemicals can alter the bacteria levels in your intestines, as proven by this study carried out with mice. In this experiment, mice who drank tap water had altered bacteria levels while those who drank filtered water did not (48).
Vitamins are essential for the correct functioning of your body. Vitamin D, in particular, helps with the absorption of calcium and the reduction of inflammation, among other important functions (49). A vitamin D deficiency, then, can lead to leaky gut as your body may be unable to reduce inflammation in your intestines.
This study, for example, split participants into a group that took daily vitamin D supplements and another one that took a placebo. By the end of the study, those who took the supplement had fewer inflammatory markers than the other group (50).
Certainly, leaky gut can come from different sources, which makes it difficult to diagnose and treat. But don’t let this discourage you! There is a natural solutions that can help you regain the quality of life you miss.
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