Leaky Gut

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Leaky Gut Syndrome

What is it?

When we eat, food passes through the stomach into the small intestine.  It is here that nutrient absorption occurs through the semi-permeable mucous lining of the bowel wall.  This membrane also shields the bloodstream from unwanted toxins, pathogens and undigested food.  In this respect, the gut lining is a vital part of the body’s immune system because it limits the volume of potential invaders.  Leaky gut syndrome is a condition that develops when the mucous lining of the small intestine becomes too porous, allowing entry of toxins, microorganisms and food particles, as well as pathogens, into the bloodstream.  The function of the mucous lining of the small intestine can be compared to that of a window screen, which lets air in but keeps bugs out.  It is also like the skin, in that it sloughs off a layer of cells naturally every 3-5 days and produces new cells to keep the lining semi-permeable.

 What causes it?  

When digestion is impaired by such factors as stress, processed food consumption, inadequate chewing, excessive fluid intake with meals, improper food combining and overeating, it can lead to an excessively permeable (leaky) gut.  Here’s why: When bacteria present in the intestine act upon undigested food particles, toxic chemicals and gasses are produced. These intestinal toxins, known as endotoxins, can damage the mucosal lining, resulting in increased intestinal permeability.  As a result of repeated attacks by these toxins, the gut lining erodes over time.  This is the basic mechanism by which leaky gut comes into being.  It can also be caused or aggravated by a number of other factors, including:

·         Alcohol (gut irritant)

·         Caffeine (gut irritant)

·         Parasites (introduced into the body by contaminated food and water)

·         Bacteria (introduced into the body by contaminated food and water)

·         Chemical food additives (dyes, preservatives, flavorings, etc.)

·         Enzyme deficiencies (as found in celiac disease and lactose intolerance)

·         Diet of refined carbohydrates (“junk” food)

·         Prescriptive hormones (like birth control pills)

·         Mold and fungal mycotoxins (in stored grains, fruit and refined carbohydrates)

·         Free radicals (damage chemical compounds present with toxicity)

·         Heightened exposure to environmental toxins

·         Dental toxins (from restorative materials and invasive procedures)

·         Stress

Perhaps the greatest contributors to leaky gut are the drugs listed below:

·         NSAIDS (Non-sterodial anti-inflammatory drugs, like aspirin and Motrin)

·         Antacids

·         Steroids (includes prescription conticosteroids such as predisone and hydorocortisone)

·         Antibiotics (which lead to overgrowth of bad bacterin the GI tract)

According to respected author and holistic healer, Elizabeth Lipski, MS, CNN, “NSAIDS can cause irritation and inflammation of the intestional tract, leading to colitis and relapse of ulcerative colitis… (They) can cause bleeding and ulceration of the large intestine and may contribute to complications of diverticular disease.” 1 Prolonged use of NSAIDS blocks the body’s natural ability to repair the intestinal lining.  Once endotoxins have eroded this membrane, it becomes permeable, rather than semi-permeable.  (The “screen” on your “window” gets holes in it).  Now the toxins, pathogens and food particles, which would normally not be permitted to enter the system, literally leak into the bloodstream.  The body then becomes confused and attacks these unwanted toxins, developing antibodies to fight them, as if they were foreign substances.  

Who Gets it?  


People of any age can have leaky gut syndrome.  Those who regularly take any of the drugs listed above would very likely suffer from the syndrome, whether they’ve been diagnosed with it or not.

People with digestive problems (with or without symptoms) will probably have an underlying leaky gut condition, as will people who routinely use large amounts of alcohol and caffeine and those who eat a diet that is high in refined carbohydrates and chemical food additives, which is, unfortunately, the standard American diet.

Anyone who has had significant toxic exposure may develop increased intestinal permeability – leaky gut.  Gut-damaging toxins may come from pathogens, such as bacteria, parasites and fungi, or from chemicals and heavy metals in the environment (or in the mouth in the form of dental restorations).

Folks who have autoimmune diseases such as those listed below most likely have an underlying gut permeability problem, as well.

What Are The Signs & Symptoms?

The net result of the leaky gut is development of autoimmune disease, where the body attacks its own tissues.  There are some 80 recognized autoimmune diseases.  These include:

  • Lupus
  • Rheumatoid arthritis
  • Multiple sclerosis
  • Fibromyalgia
  • Vitiligo
  • Vasculitis
  • Ulcerative colitis
  • Diabetes
  • Alopecia areata
  • Polymyalgia rheumatic
  • Chronic fatigue syndrome
  • Sjogren’s syndrome
  • Thyroiditis
  • Crohn’s disease
  • Urticaria (hives)
  • Raynaud’s disease

Physicians are becoming increasingly aware of the importance of the GI tract in the development of autoimmune diseases, including allergies.  In fact, researchers now estimate that more than two-thirds of all immune activity occurs in the gut.2  Allergies can develop when the body produces antibodies to the undigested proteins derived from previously harmless foods.  These antibodies can get into any tissue and trigger an inflammatory reaction when that food is eaten.  According to Zoltan P. Rona, MD:

If this inflammation occurs in a joint, autoimmune arthritis (rheumatoid arthritis) develops.  If it occurs in the brain, myalgic encephalomyelitis (a.k.a. chronic fatigue syndrome) may be the result.  If it occurs in the blood vessels, vasculitis (inflammation of the blood vessels) is the resulting autoimmune problem.  If the antibodies end up attacking the lining of the gut itself, the result may be colitis or Crohn’s disease.  If it occurs in the lungs, asthma is triggered on a delayed basis every time the individual consumes the food that triggered the production of the antibodies in the first place. 3

Other  disorders that are associated with leaky gut include eczema, psoriasis, pancreatic insufficiency, candidiasis and multiple chemical sensitivities.  Leaky gut can aggravate existing conditions as well, for it can give rise to such symptoms as fatigue, joint pain, muscle pain, fever, abdominal discomfort, diarrhea, skin rashes, a toxic feeling, memory deficit and shortness of breath, among others. 4

Leaky gut syndrome can also cause malabsorption and thus deficiencies of many important nutrients – vitamins, minerals and amino acids – due to inflammation and the presence of potent toxins.  This malabsorption can also cause gas, bloating and cramps.  It can eventually lead to such complaints as fatigue, headaches, memory loss, poor concentration and irritability.  The set of symptoms known collectively as irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) – bloating and gas after eating and alternating constipation and diarrhea – has also been linked to leaky gut syndrome, as has the  more serious inflammatory bowel disease.

Leaky gut has been associated with such cognitive dysfunctions as autism in children.  It has been found that some autistic children seem to react to the MMR (measles, mumps, rubella) vaccine with inflammation the gut lining.5  It is this inflammation that causes the gut to leak, allowing proteins such as gluten (from most grains) and casein (from milk) to enter the bloodstream, causing an allergic reaction to foods containing those proteins.

Once toxins enter the bloodstream through the leaky gut, their first stop is the liver.  When the liver is called upon to work overtime, due to toxic overload, toxins either re-circulate or are deposited in the liver.  When they re-circulate to the intestines, they further irritate the lining, increasing its permeability.  The reciuculation of toxins is medically known as entero-hepatic recirculation:  toxins go from liver to bile to intestines to the bloodstream and then back to the liver to start over.  The food allergies that result from leaky gut create inflammation, which causes the gut to leak even more.  So, once leaky gut develops, it tends to become progressively worse if measures aren’t taken to correct it.

How is it Diagnosed?

The intestinal permeability assessment, which measure levels of mannitol and lactulose (two non-metabolized sugars) is described in the appendix.

What is the Standard Medical Treatment?

Since leaky gut syndrome is not an accepted medical diagnosis, there really is no standard medical treatment.  This conventional medical doctor will focus upon treating conditions that arise from leaky gut syndrome – and that treatment will likely be through use of drugs and/or surgery.  Those nutritionally oriented physicians familiar with leaky gut will take a different approach, described, at least in part, in the “Optional Nutritional Approaches” section.

Optional Nutritional Approaches

Reducing toxic exposure is of prime importance in preventing and reversing leaky gut syndrome.  Some toxins (called exotoxins) enter the body from the outside as the result of exposure to a polluted environment; other (endotoxins) are generated internally.  These endotoxins can arise from poor digestion, which allows for adverse bacterial transformation of the undigested food.  Digestion can be improved by thorough chewing, avoiding fluid intake with meals, combining foods properly (eat fruit alone, and don’t mix protein foods with starchy carbohydrates), reducing stress, eliminating processed foods and eating moderate protions.  Maintiaining good elimnination is also very important.  Partially digested food staying in contact with the gut lining and bacteria for long periods of time will exacerbate the problem. Increased exposure will increase the likelihood of creating and delivering immune-reactive substances through the intestinal lining.  These immune-reactive substances will be acted upon by the immune tissue in the gut and then sent to the liver for even more immune and detoxification responses that can be harmful.

Leaky gut is associated with a long and growing number of disorders, as stated.  It is also the underlying issue in most of the conditions discussed in this section.  The following protocols are already listed in most of the conditions in this book.  If you have been diagnosed with one of those conditions, then follow that protocol; if not, and you think you have a leaky gut condition, follow the guidelines below:

Test for Leaky Gut

  • Intestinal Permeability Assessment


Follow the Candida Diet in Chapter 4 (candidiasis) for one month.  Then follow the digestive Care Diet in the appendix.


  • A plant enzyme blend.  This supplement should include protease (at lease 20,000 H.U.T.), amylase and lipase, as well as papaya and bromelain.  Other ingredients in this formula might include soothing herbs like marshmallow and slippery elm.  Additionally, a good digestive enzyme formula would contain glutamine (an amino acid) and N-acetyl-glucosamine, which helps soothe an irritated mucosal lining.
  • Take HCI/pepsin supplements before meals if stomach acid levels are low.  Start with one capsule, and increase by one capsule daily with meals until symptoms are gone.  (if you feela burning sensation, back off to previous dose.)  the supplement may contain other soothing ingredients like quercitin, bromelain, gamma oryzanol, L-glutamine and N-acetryl-glucosamine

Select one of the two enzyme formulas described above to take with meals.

  • Take a probiotic (good bacteria) supplement with multiple strains as a daily supplement.  It should contain a minimum of two to six billion cultures.  A prebiotic could be helpful.
  • Take EFAs (essential fatty acids) to lubricate the digestive tract.  A combination of fish and flax (Omega-3) with borage oil (Omega-6) is good to reduce inflammation in the gastrointestinal tract.  Absorption of the oils may be enhanced with the addition of lipase (a fat-digesting enzyme).  Take three to six 1000 mg. capsules twice daily with food.  Add extra fish oil capsules, three twice a day.
  • Take 10,000 mg. of L-glutamine powder with N-acetyl-glucosamine (NAG) and gamma oryzanol once daily on an empty stomach.
  • B complex
  • Take antioxidant supplements (vitamin C – 500 mg. to 3,000 mg.; Vitamin A – 5,000 I.U. daily; Vitamin E – 400 I.U. to 800 I.U.; zinc – 30 mg. to 60 mg. daily) after meals.  Other antioxidants may also be taken with these.
  • Take a fiber supplement that provides a balance of both soluble and insoluble fibers.  A flax/borage seed combination is a good choice, particularly one that contains other beneficial ingredients such as a probiotic blend with fructooligosaccharides (FOS) and herbs like slippery elm bark, marchmallow and fennel seed.  Another key ingredient would be L-glutamine, which is the intestine uses as fuel to regenerate.  This fiber supplement may be added to juices and taken any time of day.  When beginning to add dietary fiber to the diet, remember to go slowly, as this can cause some gas if added too quickly.

Please Note: If you have Candida and parasites, the supplements can be taken simultaneously.  For example, you may follow the anti-fungal, anti-parasitic and leaky gut protocols at the same time.


  • Avoid or minimize the use of NSAIDS (aspirin, ibuprofen, etc.) and antibiotics
  • Avoid use of antacids
  • Reduce toxic exposure to chemicals.  Clean up your environment, and eat organic food as much as possible.

Complementary Mind/Body Therapies

  • Colon hydrotherapy / Colonic Irrigation / Colonic
  • Massage
  • Yoga
  • Biofeedback
  • Music therapy
  • Meditation
  • Acupuncture
  • Chiropractic

Dr. Smith’s Comments

Increased intestinal permeability, whether it be intermittent or chronic, may be a major contributing factor to most disease.  It has been well established that there are at least four factors that can lead to increased permeability: 1) food allergies, 2) malnutrition, 3) dysbiosis (abnormal immune response to flora of low virulence or even normal flora); 4) hepatic stress.  (Please go to www.mdheal.org by Leo Galland, MD, for further details).  Maintaining a well nourished intestinal lining and overlying mucus, with beneficial bacteria from birth throughout life, is of paramount importance in controlling intestinal permeability.  There is an excellent review article in the American Journal of clinical Nutrition, October 2003, pages 675-683.  This is a hallmark description of how mucus is made by the intestinal lining, how it is the gel layer of the mucus that allows for bacterial adhesion, how there is cross-talk between the bacteria and intestinal lining and how these vibratory signal profoundly affect what type of system.  Suffice it to say that a balance of soluble and beneficial bacteria, digestive enzymes and supplements for building and maintaining the gut lining would b a very wise dietary choice for everyone to make on a regular basis.

1 Elizabeth Lipski, MS, CCN, Digestive Wellness, Keats Publishing, Inc. 1996, p. 78

2 Wendy Marson, “Gut Reactions”, Newsweek, November 17, 1997, p. 95-99

3 health n energy . com /ronagut. htm

4 Lynn Toohey, MD, PhD, “Leaky gut – Detoxification,” Nutri Notes, Vol. 5, #2, March-April 1998

5 Dr. John McKenna, Hard to Stomach, NewLeaf, 2002, p. 10

To read more, click on link below. 

From Gut Solutions by Brenda Watson, N.D. and Leonard Smith, M.D. , pages 153-156.

Click here to read chapter on Leaky Gut

from Gut Solutions

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