What Causes Leaky Gut (and Is It Real)?

What Causes Leaky Gut (and Is It Real)?

Written by Tye Medical on Jun 1st 2021

The phrase "leaky gut" sounds gruesome, but the reality is less like science fiction and more like a crash course in human biology. Keep in mind that many in traditional medicine don't recognize this condition.

However, integrative and functional medicine doctors have been treating the condition for years. Now, science is mounting increased evidence that intestinal permeability plays a role in many diseases, especially autoimmune disorders.

So, what causes leaky gut?

The medical community also refers to it as intestinal permeability, which means that something has damaged the lining of the small intestines. When this happens, it allows larger particles to permeate the intestinal barrier and enter the bloodstream. This often triggers an immune reaction and a host of related symptoms.

Additionally, you're not absorbing nutrients through your small intestines like you should, which drastically affects your health.

This article will dive into specific causes and take a closer look at the difference between a healthy gut and a leaky one.

Inside a Healthy Gut

Woman pointing at shirt with digestion tract depicted and chart with illustration of good bacteria and bad bacteria

You absorb most nutrients as food passes through your small intestine. This space should be free from bacteria (that will feed on these nutrients) and anything that would interfere with the absorption of digested nutrition. The intestinal lining acts as a gateway, allowing small, properly digested proteins, fats, and starches to pass through intestinal cells and into your bloodstream.

But the spaces between these intestinal cells are tight to prevent the passage of larger, harmful particles. After all, you don't want everything traveling through your intestine to make its way into your blood. (Yikes!)

Additionally, a healthy gut houses a variety of "good" bacteria or beneficial flora with minimal "bad" bacteria and fungi like candida (yeast). For more information on the gut microbiome and gut bacteria, check out our article, How Gut Health Dramatically Impacts Your Life (and Tips for Keeping It Balanced).

Inside a Leaky Gut

Illustration of digestive tract

Before asking what causes leaky gut, it's helpful to understand what's happening inside one.

When something irritates, inflames, or damages the intestinal lining, you're well on your way to intestinal permeability. Most of the time, the irritation or inflammation becomes chronic, meaning that it's not fleeting or short-lived. It lingers.

The "something" that triggers the irritation or inflammation could be food, stress, or even bacteria (more on this below). Over time, the barrier or seal between intestinal cells is broken down, increasing the space between cells and allowing larger particles (toxins, bacteria, and undigested food particles) to pass through your intestinal wall and into your bloodstream.

Not good. Your immune system has never seen these strange particles before (as they've always been confined to your intestines), so it initiates an attack on the foreign invaders. This triggers an antibody reaction, as your system sends them out like soldiers to war.

As more particles invade your bloodstream, your immune system goes on a rampage, releasing cytokines to incite white blood cells to action against the invaders. The ensuing battle produces oxidants that trigger widespread inflammation and a host of uncomfortable symptoms (below).

What Causes Leaky Gut?

Illustration of digestive tract and small bacteria

There isn't always a single cause, although that's possible. Many times it's a convergence of different causes that create the irritation and inflammation that erodes your intestinal barrier.

1. Poor Diet

Hallmarks of the Standard American Diet (SAD) include foods that are low in fiber, high in sugar, high in saturated fat, and processed. These foods promote poor gut function, irritation, and inflammation that can lead to leaky gut syndrome.

2. Chronic Stress

Cells in your intestines have receptors for stress hormones like cortisol. But too much stress triggers the release of excessive cortisol. In time, it inflames or damages your intestinal lining (intestinal permeability), increases cytokine secretion, and creates an imbalance in your gut flora (bacteria). This causes a host of problems and symptoms.

3. Intestinal Infections

These infections (like e-coli and viral infections) irritate, inflame, or damage your intestinal lining, creating serious permeability.

4. Bacterial or Candida Overgrowth

A healthy gut has various good bacteria in the large intestine that feed on undigestible fiber, but it also a small amount of intestinal candida (yeast). The good flora or bacteria keep the volume of yeast in check. But if something allows the bad bacteria to overtake the good due to (i.e., poor diet, stress, etc.), it allows yeast to flourish. Meanwhile, the bad bacteria and yeast spread to your small intestine, consume nutrients, deplete energy, and cause leaky gut.

5. Alcohol, Antibiotics, NSAIDs, and Steroids

All of these can irritate and damage the intestinal lining and are known to create an imbalance in your gut bacteria (dysbiosis). Recall that this causes bacterial and yeast overgrowth in the small intestine, leading to leaky gut and disease.

It's debatable how much it takes to cause damage. Alcohol in moderation is usually not a problem providing the gut is otherwise healthy. Antibiotics and steroids shouldn't be used frequently or long-term. Talk to your doctor if this is a concern.

There is no conclusive way to determine what causes a person's leaky gut, but patient history often provides knowledgeable doctors with insights.

Leaky Gut Symptoms

Woman holding illustration of a bladder with a smiley face on it

The problem with diagnosing this condition is that the symptoms are vague and associated with many other diseases. That's why functional medicine takes a holistic approach, considering a person's overall health, their history, and even seemingly unrelated symptoms. Sometimes blood, stool, and urine tests are requested to help with a diagnosis, although no test is definitive.

Some of the most common symptoms include:

  • Fatigue
  • Headaches
  • Chronic diarrhea, constipation, bloating
  • Nutritional deficiencies (like vitamins A and D, B vitamins, selenium, magnesium, Omega 3, and zinc)
  • Brain fog (difficulty concentrating, memory problems)
  • Joint pain
  • Muscle pain
  • Anxiety/nervousness
  • Recurrent infections (bladder, vaginal)
  • Widespread inflammation
  • Skin problems (eczema, acne, rashes)

Conditions Associated with Intestinal Permeability (Leaky Gut)

Book with the words "Autoimmune Disease"

  • Autoimmune diseases
  • Chronic fatigue syndrome (CFS)
  • Food allergies and sensitivities
  • Rheumatoid arthritis
  • Arthritis (inflammatory joint disease)
  • Eczema
  • Psoriasis
  • Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS)
  • Ulcerative colitis
  • Crohn's disease
  • Acne
  • Allergies

If you have any of these conditions, it might be worth considering if leaky gut has played a role. Sometimes, patients can determine what causes leaky gut and take steps toward greater health. But this doesn't necessarily resolve medical conditions that have fully developed.

Caring for Your Bladder Health While Caring for Your Gut Health

While you work toward improving gut health and boosting your overall well-being, TYE Medical is here to supply premium, cost-effective products for managing incontinence. Sometimes chronic fatigue, gut problems, and autoimmune disorders affect your bladder too.

For light leaks, try our Ultra-Thin Pads for discreet, comfortable protection.

For moderate to heavy leaks, check out our Protective Underwear that employs the latest advances to keep you dry and comfortable. 

Protective Underwear

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