Understanding Intestinal Permeability or Leaky Gut

Understanding Intestinal Permeability or Leaky Gut

Understanding Intestinal Permeability or Leaky Gut

Intestinal permeability or leaky gut has been on the radar of naturopathic doctors and others in the complementary and alternative medicine field for years without much notice from conventional medicine. In the last decade or so, things have changed. Medical researchers and doctors are increasingly interested in the health issues surrounding intestinal permeability.

The Intestines

About twenty-five to twenty-eight feet long, the small and large intestines run from the stomach to the anus. Their primary job is to aid the digestion process and produce smooth bowel movements. They also regulate water balance, fight germs, and break down nutrients that are absorbed back into the body through the bloodstream.

The intestinal barrier allows for both the absorption of substances and the release of them into the body. When working optimally, the intestinal barrier keeps potentially harmful material from entering the rest of the body. Intestinal permeability occurs when there is a breakdown in the intestinal barrier.

When this happens materials that can be harmful are released into the body through what are tight junctions (TJ) in the intestines. Normally, the TJ as the name implies is tight. However, when they become loose, food molecules and other substances are released into the bloodstream. The body thinks of these molecules as foreign invaders and creates antibodies to fight them which can lead to health issues, such as autoimmune diseases.

Diseases and Intestinal Permeability

How widespread is intestinal permeability? Several autoimmune diseases have been linked to it, such as Crohn's, irritable bowel disease (IBS), celiac, lupus, diabetes, Hashimoto's (hypothyroidism), and type 1 diabetes among others.

Also, studies suggest that a leaky gut may influence chronic fatigue syndrome, obesity or easily gaining weight, and Parkinson's disease. However, there isn't enough evidence yet to show a direct relationship between the disorders and leaky gut.

In studies of irritable bowel disease (IBS), the mucus layer in the intestinal barrier was seen to be permeable to bacteria. The proteins zonulin and occludin were found in the stools of inflammatory bowel disease (IBD), such as Crohn's and ulcerative colitis. They are also found in stools samples of those with celiac disease. Zonulin and occludin are the building blocks of TJ.

"Essentially, material from your "brown river" (undigested food particles, environmental contaminants, bacteria, viruses, fungi, and their toxins) enters your "red river" (bloodstream). Once this "sewage" gets into the bloodstream, the immune system immediately recognizes it as foreign material and goes to work trying to destroy it by initiating an inflammatory response.[i]

Causes of Intestinal Permeability

One of the regulators of an intact intestinal barrier is intestinal microbiota. The intestines have the largest bacterial community (microbiome). They are involved in the breakdown and absorption of nutrients, assist in the making of vitamins and hormones, and help to prevent harmful bacteria. Changes in the microbiota appear to play a large role in intestinal permeability.

Research also shows that loss of the intestinal barrier function can happen suddenly from significant trauma or gradually. Factors that can gradually lead to leaky gut are:

  • Genes – some people are predisposed because their bodies are sensitive to autoimmune response triggers

  • Viruses

  • Unhealthy diet, especially one with high fats, simple carbohydrates, and food additives

  • Chronic stress

  • Toxins from the environment or found in food, such as herbicides

  • Alcohol

  • Medications such as non-steroidal anti-inflammatories (NSAID)

  • Microbiota imbalance

Symptoms of intestinal permeability can vary from person to person. They can also be the same symptoms for other illnesses. So, if you suspect you have leaky gut, it's best to see a doctor for a thorough examination. She can also run tests that check for intestinal permeability markers. Naturopathic doctors have been familiar with this condition for quite a while.


Axe, Dr. 7 Signs and Symptoms You Have Leaky Gut Syndrome. Retrieved from https://draxe.com/7-signs-symptoms-you-have-leaky-gut/.

Hollander, Daniel. Intestinal permeability, leaky gut, and intestinal disorders. Retrieved from https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007%2Fs11894-999-0023-5

How does the intestine work? (May 17, 2018). Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmedhealth/PMH0072487/.

Intestinal permeability and inflammation in patients on NSAIDs (October 1998). Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1727292/.

What is Intestinal Permeability & How Can It Be Prevented? Retrieved from https://www.sovereignlaboratories.com/intestinal-permeability.html

[i] Sovereign Laboratories, What is Intestinal Permeability & How Can It Be Prevented? Web.

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