Is leaky gut a real thing? Harvard Health calls leaky gut a “medical mystery” and “mysterious ailment.” It’s been linked to everything from gut troubles, autoimmune diseases, and even mental health concerns.
Yes, I’m talking about a condition called “leaky gut” or “intestinal permeability”—have you heard of it?
Many doctors and the established medical community may not recognize it, but there is growing research to suggest it is associated with many health conditions.
What exactly is “leaky gut?” Do you have leaky gut? How does it happen? What can you do about it?
Do I have “leaky gut?”
Your gut (gastrointestinal system) is not just a 30-foot-long muscular tube (tract) that starts in your mouth and ends with you going to the bathroom. It’s, in fact, is a vast and complex system with many functions. It breaks down food into smaller digestible bits, keeps it moving through the gastrointestinal tract, and skillfully absorbs water and nutrients while keeping out harmful substances. More and more research show that these essential gut functions are interconnected throughout your body—to everything from your heart to your brain.
Your gastrointestinal tract is lined with millions of cells, all side-by-side in a single layer. In fact, this layer, if spread out flat, is as large as a studio apartment! Those intestinal cells help the body to absorb what we need from foods and drinks, while keeping out what needs to stay out. It acts as a gatekeeper allowing in what your body uses and keeping out the rest which ends up as waste. This ability to selectively allow some things in our gut to be absorbed while keeping others out is only possible if the cells are working properly and physically joined together very tightly. The bonds that keep the cells tightly together are called “tight junctions.”
Leaky gut happens when the tight junctions aren’t so tight anymore. The cellular barrier is irritated and weakened, allowing tiny holes to appear. These perforations allow things that normally would stay out of the bloodstream get into the bloodstream. Things like undigested food particles, waste products, and bacteria.
When these get into the bloodstream your immune system is triggered to start fighting them. Similarly, to how your immune system starts fighting the cold virus and causes inflammation. This immune reaction is normal and helps keep you healthy.
Signs of leaky gut.
The symptoms of leaky gut are like those of other digestive conditions like inflammatory bowel disease, celiac disease, and Crohn’s disease. Symptoms can include diarrhea, constipation, cramps, bloating, developing food sensitivities, or nutrient deficiencies.
But, because the undigested food particles, toxins, and bacteria have been absorbed into the bloodstream which travels throughout your body, symptoms can appear anywhere. Studies show that leaky gut may feel like fatigue, headaches, confusion, and difficulty concentrating, joint pain, or skin problems (e.g., acne, rashes, eczema). Leaky gut is also linked with diabetes, polycystic ovarian syndrome, liver disease, chronic fatigue syndrome, and autoimmune diseases such as lupus and multiple sclerosis. There may even be links to anxiety and depression.
Many of these gut and non-gut symptoms and conditions are linked to chronic inflammation, but more research is needed to understand how they are connected.
Even if you have some of these symptoms, the fact is, it’s very difficult to diagnose a leaky gut, or how leaky it is. This means that, while there are some biomarker tests, there isn’t a reliable diagnostic test available just yet. So, it’s difficult to say whether your symptoms are from leaky gut, or whether leaky gut is a symptom of another issue.
What causes leaky gut?
It’s not 100 percent clear what causes those bonds to loosen and result in tiny perforations in the gut barrier. In fact, we’re just starting to understand how the gut barrier functions and there is a lot of ongoing research.
Part of leaky gut may be due to the genes you inherit from your parents. It can also be from medications or gut infections. Leaky gut is also linked to eating a diet that is low in gut-friendly fiber (adults should aim for 25-30 grams of fiber per day) and high in processed foods. It can also be from consuming too much added sugar and saturated fat. Leaky gut may even result from ongoing stress or an imbalance in the diversity and numbers of your friendly gut microbes.
Also, as you age your cells can get damaged more easily and heal slowly, including the cells that line your gut. This can leave you more susceptible to loosening and thinning of the protective gut barrier.
How to treat leaky gut?
One way to approach a suspected leaky gut is to address inflammation and eat a more gut-friendly diet. This means reducing excessive alcohol and processed foods that tend to be high in bad fats and sugars or artificial sweeteners. It’s also a good idea to avoid foods that you’re allergic or sensitive to. For example, if you have diagnosed celiac disease, you want to be sure to stay away from gluten, or if you are sensitive to peanuts, avoid eating peanuts. Exposing your gut to the foods that you are allergic or sensitive to, can cause a large inflammatory response.
Instead, enjoy more foods rich in gut-friendly probiotics, and various types of fiber which are prebiotics, or food for your friendly gut microbes.
Some examples of prebiotic foods include –
- fermented foods (e.g., kimchi, sauerkraut, and miso)
- variety of fruits and vegetables, including starchy vegetables (e.g., berries, oranges, broccoli, carrots, garlic, onion, leeks and zucchini)
- variety of nuts and seeds (e.g., walnuts, hemp seeds, pecans, and chia seeds)
- variety of whole grains (e.g., oats, millet, amaranth and quinoa)
(Pro Tip: If you’re going to proactively increase your fiber intake, do it over several days or weeks because sudden increases in fiber can cause gas, bloating, and other gut discomfort).
If you are struggling with gut issues, are unsure how to start fixing your gut or what the first step is to take in your gut healing journey, download the FREE guide – “Fix your Gut”. This explains everything you need to know about your gut health and will help jumpstart your gut healing journey.
Also, regular exercise can help your digestive system. This means taking even a 15- or 20-minute walk after you eat to help you digest your food. And don’t forget the importance of stress management, quality sleep, and not smoking.
If you plan on making changes to your diet and lifestyle, consider keeping a journal to help see if the changes are helping your symptoms.
~ A Word From Me ~
When it comes to leaky gut, a few simple shifts toward a gut-friendly diet can help you treat leaky gut symptoms.
A leaky gut is associated with gut and non-gut symptoms. It’s an inflammatory condition that has been linked to metabolic disorders, autoimmune conditions, diabetes, and even mental health. There is no one single diagnostic test currently to know for sure if you have leaky gut or not. And remember, scientists are still exploring and performing on-going research, so more information emerges all the time.
In the meantime, if you have symptoms that suggest a leaky gut, you can move toward a more gut-friendly diet. Try cutting down on alcohol, processed foods, foods with added sugars and foods that you may be allergic or sensitive to. Replace these foods and drinks with ones higher in gut-friendly probiotics, prebiotics, and fiber rich foods. Make your diet 75% plant based. And remember that regular exercise, stress management, and quality sleep are equally important and great lifestyle strategies for your gut and the rest of your body.
If you are experiencing leaky gut symptoms and/or struggling with digestive issues, let’s connect for a 15 min complimentary phone call to learn more about how my services can help you fix your gut. Click the link below to schedule a complimentary call with me.
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Harvard Health. (2018). Putting a stop to leaky gut: What can you do about this mysterious ailment? Retrieved from
Leech, B., Schloss, J. & Steel, J. (2019). Association between increased intestinal permeability and disease: A systematic review. Advances in Integrative Medicine. 6(1), 23-34. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.aimed.2018.08.003
Mayo Clinic. (2016). Food sensitivities may affect gut barrier function. Retrieved from
Medical News Today. (2019). What to know about leaky gut syndrome. Retrieved from
Medical News Today. (2019). What is the best diet for leaky gut syndrome? Retrieved from
Medscape. (2019). Is ‘Leaky Gut’ the Root of All Ills? Retrieved from
Mu, Q., Kirby, J., Reilly, C. M., & Luo, X. M. (2017). Leaky Gut As a Danger Signal for Autoimmune Diseases. Frontiers in immunology, 8, 598. doi:10.3389/fimmu.2017.00598
National Institutes of Health News in Health. (2017, May). Keeping Your Gut in Check. Retrieved from
Obrenovich M. (2018). Leaky Gut, Leaky Brain? Microorganisms, 6(4), 107. doi:10.3390/microorganisms6040107
US Department of Health and Human Services and US Department of Agriculture. (2015). Dietary Guidelines for Americans 2015-2020, eighth edition. Appendix 7. Nutritional Goals for Age-Sex Groups Based on Dietary Reference Intakes and Dietary Guidelines Recommendations. Retrieved from