What Causes Food Intolerances?
Nobody really knows for sure what causes food intolerances. Research is beginning to help us uncover some of the likely ...
Leaky gut is also known as ‘intestinal permeability’, or ‘leaky gut syndrome’.
When the microscopic gaps between the cells that line your gut get bigger, unwanted particles enter your bloodstream and cause an immune response. These gaps are supposed to open and close: that’s how your body make sure the right nutrients get to the right parts of your body.
However, in leaky gut syndrome, the process goes wrong and your gut starts to let out things it shouldn’t.
For a simple overview of what causes leaky gut, check out our symptom page for Leaky gut.
Leaky gut syndrome is linked to many medical conditions, including celiac disease, Crohn’s disease, Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS), and some autoimmune diseases. It’s important to say that we don’t know for sure if leaky gut causes these conditions, but we do know that it’s involved in the way they develop and progress [Source: PubMed].
To find out what you can do to repair your leaky gut, read on.
Leaky gut happens when your digestive tract is irritated by food sensitivities, bad bacteria, or dysbiosis.
So if you want to heal leaky gut, you need to address the things that are irritating it. That means taking care of any dysbiosis (an imbalance of the communities of microbes in your gut)—whether that’s SIBO (small intestinal bacterial overgrowth) or dysbiosis in your large intestine.
While it’s impossible to say whether or not you can completely heal leaky gut, you can certainly make it better.
Everyone’s guts are ‘leaky’ to some extent: our small intestine is supposed to let out certain particles into the rest of the body. It’s only a problem when it starts to let out the wrong types.
You need your gut to ‘remember’ what to let out and what to keep in. The good news is, there’s a lot of evidence that you can help it do that.
Your timeline for healing leaky gut is individual to you. Again: it’s not possible to heal or reverse leaky gut completely. It’s definitely possible to improve leaky gut, but because our bodies and microbiomes (the communities of bacteria and other microbes in your gut) are all so different, nobody can tell you how long that might take.
It depends on too many factors to list here, and there’s not enough evidence to give any definite answers.
However, many serious diseases of the gut, including Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis have been shown to improve in weeks or even days with changes to diet and specific supplements. One study showed that the symptoms of children with Crohn’s disease improved significantly when they went on a special diet. Interestingly, researchers found that their guts showed far less permeability (leakiness) after the diet too [Source: PubMed].
IBS—which is a collection of symptoms rather than a disease—has strong links to leaky gut. While different studies have produced different conclusions on the exact nature of the connection between leaky gut and IBS symptoms, diarrhoea-predominant IBS especially is often found alongside leaky gut [Source: PubMed].
We can’t say what will work for you individually, but we can look at what research tells us about how long it takes to heal leaky gut. A good amount of studies have looked into this over recent years.
Gluten has been found to irritate the lining of your gut, even if you don’t have coeliac disease. Some people are more intolerant to gluten than others. If you’re sensitive to gluten, cutting it out of your diet could improve your IBS symptoms and leaky gut [Source: PubMed].
Diarrhoea-predominant IBS sufferers noticed a significant improvement in their symptoms after cutting gluten out of their diets for six weeks in one study [Source: PubMed].
Many studies have found that the symptoms of diarrhoea-predominant IBS improve after as little as one week on a low-FODMAP diet [Source: PubMed]. There are currently no studies on leaky gut and a low-FODMAP diet, however.
You shouldn’t follow a low-FODMAP diet without the guidance of a professional, or for any longer than six weeks.
One study found that children with coeliac disease improved leaky gut in three days by cutting out sugar and dairy products, in addition to gluten [Source: PubMed].
Many studies have found that certain types of sugar increase intestinal permeability [Source: PubMed].
One study showed that three months of vitamin D supplements had a massive impact on the intestinal permeability of people with Crohn’s disease [Source: PubMed].
Prebiotics are tiny fibres in your food that provide fuel for your gut bacteria. You can buy many prebiotic supplements too. Prebiotics are powerful tools for tackling leaky gut [Source: PubMed].
Some examples of prebiotics:
PHGG: eighteen weeks
FOS: two periods of two weeks
Short for ‘fructooligosaccharide’, a type of sugar, FOS was found to improve leaky gut over two periods of two weeks [Source: PubMed]. Find it in onions, chicory root, garlic, asparagus, and leeks.
Inulin: two weeks
Found in asparagus, bananas, garlic and Jerusalem artichokes, inulin is a leaky gut superstar. It improved the leaky gut scores of healthy people in two weeks [Source: PubMed].
Probiotics are friendly bacteria that live in our gut. You can also buy probiotic supplements. Many types of probiotics have been found to help leaky gut [Source: PubMed].
Lactobacillus rhamnosus GG (LGG) [Source: PubMed]
LGG is one of the best-studied probiotic bacteria in clinical trials for treating and/or preventing several gut disorders, including inflammatory bowel diseases and diarrhoea. LGG promotes digestion, boosts your immune system, increases resistance to infection, inhibits growth of unfriendly bacteria and reduces gut permeability [Source: PubMed].
A probiotic mixture containing a range of bifidobacteria, including B. longum, B. infantis and B. brevo was found to improve gut permeability in one study [Source: PubMed].
While it’s important to remember that we need evidence from human studies, it’s encouraging that B. bifidum and B. lactis have been consistently found to reduce gut permeability in studies on mice [Source: PubMed].
As you can see, many studies have shown that it’s possible to improve leaky gut in a matter of weeks, or even days.
The fastest way to heal your own leaky gut completely depends on why your gut is leaky. Everyone has their own unique set of reasons.
It’s important to remember that leaky gut is only ever just one element of an unhappy gut. Bad diets, stress, dysbiosis and infections are all part of the picture too. Leaky gut is unlikely to exist without some or all of those things.
Leaky gut is involved in an almost infinite number of diseases and gut symptoms, but we don’t know what comes first: the disease, the gut symptoms or the leaky gut. What we do know is that looking after your gut health can kill all these birds with one stone.
That’s because your gut health affects the health of your entire body and mind, and vice versa. It’s all connected. So rather than trying to heal your leaky gut as fast as you can, we recommend taking a step back and digging deep into your gut health.
There is no one main cause of leaky gut. Here are some of the most common drivers:
Stress and depression contribute to leaky gut [Source: PubMed].
One study even found that couples in unhappy marriages had leakier guts than couples in happy marriages [Source: PubMed].
Sugar has been shown to increase intestinal permeability [Source: PubMed].
Lack of fibre
Your gut bacteria need fibre. When they ‘eat’ the fibre you eat, they produce a long list of chemicals to keep your gut healthy. Some of the most important of these are short-chain fatty acids (SCFAs). Without enough SCFAs, your gut can become leaky [Source: PubMed].
Additives in processed foods
If there’s an ingredient on your food label you can’t pronounce, don’t eat it: emulsifiers in particular have been found to increase leaky gut [Source: PubMed]. Plant milk and processed sauces and ready meals often contain emulsifiers.
Too much exercise
High-intensity exercise over a long time contributes to leaky gut [Source: PubMed]. This is because your body releases stress hormones when you exercise. While moderate exercise or intense exercise in short bursts is very good for you, too much isn’t.
Small intestinal bacterial overgrowth—an overgrowth or imbalance of microbes of the small intestine—appears to exist hand-in-hand with leaky gut [Source: PubMed].
SIBO has been found in upto 85% of people with IBS symptoms. To find out more about SIBO, check out our blog SIBO symptoms: what they mean and what to do next.
If you want to find out how to take a SIBO test, read What does a SIBO test show: diagnosis, accuracy and results.
While technically you can’t get rid of a leaky gut (that would be impossible), you can heal a leaky gut naturally.
As you’ve just learned, evidence tells us that the most powerful ways to heal leaky gut are all-natural: diet, prebiotics, probiotics and lifestyle.
As far as we’re aware, there are no ‘unnatural’ ways to heal leaky gut: nobody has created a pharmaceutical product to address intestinal permeability.
Some conventional medical practitioners are skeptical about leaky gut, and say that there’s not enough evidence to link it to any medical conditions. However, the evidence is mounting. The many studies we’ve listed here are just the tip of the iceberg.
There are tests for leaky gut, which can be useful if you want hard evidence that you need to address your gut health. In other words, having ‘proof’ that something is going on in your body might help to motivate you to make changes in your lifestyle or stick to a protocol.
For a more detailed rundown of how you can know if you have leaky gut, read our blog How do you know if you have leaky gut? Some quick answers
At Healthpath we use a ‘PEG’ test to look at leaky gut. Together with your symptom survey, our Registered Nutritional Therapists and Functional Medicine Practitioners use the results to build you a personal diet, lifestyle and supplement protocol to get you great gut health.
For all you need to know about leaky gut testing, read Testing for leaky gut syndrome: the complete guide (2021).
For most people, we recommend a deep-dive into the workings of your gut: a Gut Health Test. Some of our Gut Health Tests look at your zonulin level, which is one marker of leaky gut.
However, there’s really no comparison to a stand-alone leaky gut test and a Gut Health Test, which is a fully comprehensive analysis of the goings-on of your gut. It looks at:
Bonus elements on more advanced tests include:
The bottom line? If you have gut symptoms like constipation or diarrhoea [Source: PubMed], or an autoimmune disease [Source: PubMed], then you’re likely to have leaky gut. And, because leaky gut improves with many of the tools that we use to improve gut health in general, any good gut health protocol would be likely to address leaky gut by default.
Alexandra Falconer MA (Dist) DipCNM mBANT is a Registered Nutritional Therapist specialising in IBS and related conditions. A graduate of Brighton’s College of Naturopathic Medicine, she is committed to fighting the root causes of chronic illness and bringing functional medicine to everyone who needs it.
Before her natural health career, Alex was a journalist and copywriter. She continues to write for magazines and media agencies, and now combines her two great passions—writing and health—by creating content that empowers people to claim their right to a healthy body and mind.
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