What Is Leaky Gut?

Dr. Tarrin P. Lupo, D.C.

what is leaky gutChronic inflammation of the mucosal lining of the gut causes a breakdown in the integrity of the walls of the intestine

Leaky gut is an extremely common condition, and if someone grew up eating a Standard American Diet (SAD), they most likely have some degree of it. Eating a lifetime's worth of genetically modified foods laced with chemicals and preservatives creates chronic inflammation of the mucosal lining of the gut. This inflammation causes a breakdown in the integrity of the walls of the intestine. 

The digestive system is supposed to be one continuous tube that runs from the mouth to the anus. This seems like an obvious statement, but I want to drive home that the digestive tract should be self-contained and separate from the rest of the body. Although nutrients pass through the intestinal wall, bacteria and food particles should stay inside the intestinal lumen and not spill into the rest of the body.

The cells on the intestinal wall are woven together in a tight web so no foreign particles a person eats can get into the rest of their body. People often forget that the gut is one of the most important parts of the immune system. You can get very sick when the intestinal wall is breached. To understand how important the integrity of the wall is, let me give you an example. One of the most dangerous medical conditions is when an appendix ruptures and allows the fecal matter to leak into the blood stream. Gone untreated, a person can die of septic shock pretty quickly.

Leaky gut is less severe than an appendix rupturing, but it also involves fecal matter leaking into the bloodstream. Over time this can cause big health issues. Tiny holes and the loss of intestinal cell junctions can allow fecal matter to slowly spill into the blood. When undigested food particles and bacteria leak into the bloodstream it can cause chronic sickness. Many times leaky gut can start when someone is young and go undetected the rest of their lives. When a patient tells me they have been feeling terrible for decades, I check them for leaky gut.

Symptoms Of Leaky Gut

what is leaky gutChronic inflammation, a leaky gut, food intolerances, and autoimmune conditions all go hand in hand
  • Are you gaining weight that is impossible to lose?
  • Do certain foods give you headaches?
  • Do you have very low energy?
  • Do you have frequent colds?
  • Do you have brain fog?
  • Anxiety or depression
  • Poor concentration
  • Adult acne
  • ADHD
  • Hives

Autoimmune Issues Will Begin To Develop

what is leaky gutOver time the immune system begins marking the foreign food molecules as invaders

If food particles escape from the intestine and get into the blood stream, the body’s immune system has to clean them up. Over time the immune system begins marking the foreign food molecules as invaders. The immune cells will then begin to create antibodies against that food. Once the antibodies are made, someone can have an inflammatory immune reaction whenever they eat the offending food particles. 

The terrible thing about leaky gut is that a person becomes sensitive or allergic to whatever foods they eat the most. They slowly start having negative reactions to all their favorite meals. When a patient tells me, as they get older they can no longer tolerate their favorite foods, I start suspecting leaky gut. Wheat, dairy, and nightshades are usually the most common offending foods that cause immune reactions.

what is leaky gutWheat, dairy, and nightshades are usually the most common foods that cause immune reactions

In adults, one of the worst autoimmune developments from a leaky gut is Hashimotos Hypothyroidism. After eating wheat for many years with a leaky gut, a person develops sensitivity to a particle made during the breakdown of gluten. The body responds to the gluten-like particles by creating antibodies. Unfortunately some of the wheat molecules look very much like the thyroid cells, they are biochemically similar in structure. The body gets confused and starts attacking its own thyroid. This causes terrible misery for the person. You can read all about it here.  

  • One note of warning: Do not get pregnant while you have high thyroid antibodies active or you will most likely pass them onto your unborn child. Be sure to manage the leaky gut until the antibodies go back down to dormant levels. You can never get rid of the antibodies once you develop them, but you can turn down their reaction and drive them into a dormant state

Let me repeat this, because it is so important. Unfortunately once you develop antibodies to foods because of your leaky gut, you will have them the rest of your life. There is also a good chance you will pass your new food-sensitive antibodies to your children.

Leaky gut-generated autoimmunity is sweeping the new generations at frightening levels. When I was a child, I knew maybe 1 or 2 children with food allergies or sensitivities. These days it seems like it is the complete opposite; there are just a few children without food sensitivities or allergies. We are creating a nation of kids who no longer can tolerate even basic food groups. There is also a wave of children with autism and thyroid issues developing.

  • Much debate and new studies are pointing to leaky gut being a large contributor to the development of autism 

Testing For Leaky Gut

what is leaky gutOne of the first things we do is identify and remove offending foods

There are now some great blood tests to confirm leaky gut that did not exist a decade ago. One of the best is the Cyrex Lab Array 2: the Intestinal Antigenic Permeability Screen. However, in my own practice I found this test to be kind of an overkill.

Leaky gut is extremely common and most practitioners safely assume leaky gut is present based on history, symptoms, and standard blood tests. If a patient has a large budget and wants the full panel, I'll order the pricey test just to confirm the finding. Since it is not covered by most insurance companies, the majority of patients would rather use their resources toward managing their leaky gut, not just ordering a test that just confirms on paper that they have it.

  • When patients come in with leaky gut, one of the first things we do is identify and remove offending foods. This can be pretty tricky sometimes, so food sensitivity tests can come in handy

When I finally tested myself I found out I was highly sensitive to unusual foods like broccoli. I would have never figured that out without a blood test. I generally run one on every patient I suspect with leaky gut to uncover the hidden foods they would probably never figure out they are sensitive to.  

These tests can get rather expensive, but luckily they now have much more affordable kits you can do right from home. The kits are not perfect, but they are great for the price and convenience. A good place to start is to order this at-home kit and test yourself. Here is the home food sensitivity kit I recommend.  If you remove the offending food and still have leaky gut symptoms, then you will want to go to a functional medicine doctor for deeper testing. 

Leaky Gut Diet Plan

what is leaky gut

What is the best diet to manage leaky gut and help repair the intestines? The short answer is to first use the kit mentioned above to find and eliminate the offending foods.

If you are still having issues after eliminating the foods, then more testing is required. Go to a functional medicine doctor to get to the bottom of your specific issues. 

If the home food sensitivity kit is out of your budget you can do a low budget elimination/provocation diet. Basically you go to ground zero and eat a raw low fat plant-based diet. Just follow this eating plan

After about six weeks start adding your favorite foods back in one by one. Wait at least three days between adding foods to give you enough time to monitor for a reaction.

If you react to a food, eliminate it for another six months and stay on the raw low fat plant-based diet. You can try to reintroduce the food every six months to see if you can tolerate it. Unfortunately, some foods you will never gain a real tolerance to again and must be eliminated for life.

Bacterial Imbalance, Parasites, & Yeast

what is leaky gutNever attempt to rebuild the intestinal probiotic bacteria by eating cultured yogurt or kefir; it's highly inflammatory

If you have unhealthy levels of bacteria, or a parasite or yeast infection, leaky gut probably will never resolve until you deal with these issues.

The uninvited invaders can cause terrible inflammation of the intestinal lining and even punch new micro-holes through the intestinal wall.

This will continue to allow feces to leak into the blood stream and perpetuate a person's leaky gut. Therefore its critical to deal with a leaky gut before any of these other issues. When in doubt, focus on healing your leaky gut.

  • One must deal with the gut infection first before the leaky gut can be managed. In my experience patients never stabilize their leaky gut or start healing with bacterial overgrowth, parasites, or yeast infections going on

This is a situation when you really want to work with a good functional medicine doctor. They will test your eosinophil, monocyte, lymphocyte, neutrophil, and basophil levels with a blood test. If those come back suspicious they will order a stool test to determine exactly which bad guy is invading your gut.

Then the doctor will recommend a nutraceutical (therapeutic-strength natural supplement) to manage the particular bacteria, parasite, or yeast. After that cycle the doctor will recommend rebuilding the gut with the proper probiotics and then using a protocol to help stop the leaky gut.

  • One word of caution: Never attempt to rebuild the intestinal probiotic bacteria by eating cultured yogurt or kefir. Although the bacteria culture could be healthy, it does not outweigh the inflammation damage caused by ingesting dairy products. Just use this probiotic instead

Leaky Gut, Brain, & Lung

what is leaky gut

There are 3 main barriers in your body: the gut, the blood/brain barrier, and the linings of the lungs. The only molecules that should be able to pass through these protective barriers are beneficial nutrients and gases. The tight junctions between the cells also keep out undigested food particles, bacteria, yeast, and parasites.  

When someone has inflammation of their gut there is a good bet they also have inflammation and permeability issues in their brain and lungs. When a person has leaky gut, in time they will also develop leaky brain and leaky lung. 

A leaky brain can cause inflammation of the brain which will make most neurological conditions much worse. This is why symptoms like brain fog are so highly correlated with leaky gut.

  • Leaky brain can exacerbate Alzheimer's, dementia, Parkinson's, ADHD, and especially autism
  • Speaking from clinical experience, every single ADHD or autistic child I tested had leaky gut and severe food sensitivity. Leaky gut syndrome autism and ADHD can dramatically improve with a plant-based diet

A leaky lung can make breathing conditions much worse. This is why there is such a high correlation with asthma and obesity. Although the extra weight can make it harder to breathe, the majority of the problem comes from inflammation of the leaky lung lining.

  • People who have breathing issues should stay away from all dairy products, which are highly inflammatory, and adopt an anti-inflammatory plant-based lifestyle  

Supplements For A Leaky Gut

In the beginning, proper nutraceuticals can be a great help to heal leaky gut. After a few months of eliminating the offending foods or eating the raw low fat plant-based diet, they should no longer be needed.

These products should just be used to get your from point A to B so your gut can heal quickly. Once your intestinal walls heal enough and you are no longer inflaming them, hopefully you won’t need supplements anymore.

Depending on the severity of your leaky gut, it could be beneficial to have a doctor review your blood work and make specific recommendations based on their findings.

I always recommend not going at this alone, and finding a good functional medicine doctor who can coach you through the repair of your leaky gut.

When starting out I recommend this product. It has a good mix of ingredients to help support healthy intestinal walls and manage leaky gut.

One last word of advice: Although I try to give you low cost ways to manage your leaky gut yourself, you need to also be under care and supervision of a qualified doctor. Just let them know what you are planning on doing at home before you do it and get their go-ahead. Please consult a doctor you trust before trying anything I talked about in this article. 

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