Is leaky gut to blame? .... Probably!

Have you ever heard of leaky gut?

It sounds pretty dumb, in my opinion, but it turns out that Naturopaths of the ages were really onto something, long before it was backed with peer-reviewed research… once again.

Intestinal hyper-permeability is a much fancier way to explain the same concept and problem that is leaky gut.

So, what is it and what does it mean for our health?

Firstly, let’s get intestinal hyperpermeability out of the way…

Intestinal hyper-permeability means that the gut lining (also called the intestinal lining or the epithelial lining) has become more permeable than it should… AKA leaky gut.  

So, what’s the problem with that?

Well, our gut lining is supposed to be strong and largely impenetrable.  

Our gut lining is made up of a whole bunch of cells (called epithelial cells), and they stick together nice and tightly.  Where these cells join is called a “tight junction” I know, not a very fancy term, is it?

Think of the tight junctions as doorways to the outside environment of the body.  These doorways are supposed to open and close with great discernment and regulation.

You can imagine why when you think about the environment within our gut/intestines.

There’s a whole bunch of digestive secretions that help break down our food, like hydrochloric acid (AKA stomach acid) and enzymes.  

There’s food as well… in all different stages of digestion/break down.

There’s bacteria and microbes throughout the intestinal tract.

It’s a busy place inside our gut, and it’s important that all the chemicals and byproducts and food particles remain in closed quarters within the intestinal tract so as not to aggravate other parts of our body.

Without getting too technical (though, if you’re into that, keep an eye out for our ebook All You Need To Know About Gut Health), there are a few different chemicals that act to open and close the doorways of our gut lining (AKA the tight junctions).

If the doorways open, we have permeability occurring within the gut… something that should not happen for prolonged periods.

And, if the doorways are open like all the damn time then we have intestinal hyperpermeability occurring… something that definitely should not happen.

We know, thanks to the last decade in gut health research, that certain chemicals increase these doorways (AKA tight junctions) opening and staying open.

Some of these chemicals include:

  • Gliadin (the protein in gluten)

  • High amounts of sugar

  • High amount of salt

  • Chemicals like transglutaminase in processed foods 

We also know that high stress creates inflammation within the gut, furthering intestinal hyper-permeability.

And we know that intestinal hyper-permeability is a part of the development of autoimmune conditions (which is why Naturopaths always treat the gut!).

So, what else can happen when we have intestinal hyper-permeability?

Well, the immune system, which is our gut’s neighbour (specifically, gut-associated lymphoid tissue AKA GALT) and sits right outside the epithelial lining, starts to freak out.

You would too if you suddenly had a bunch of foreign particles appearing in your backyard.

The immune system responds to this influx with an increase in inflammatory chemicals, to help fight the foreign invaders… without realising the foreign invaders are just half-digested food proteins that have escaped the safe confines of the gut wall.

These inflammatory processes within the body then escalate.

Intestinal hyper-permeability encourages the body to create inflammation… and, the funny thing is, when there is increased inflammation in the body, this inflammation encourages intestinal hyper-permeability! A phenomenal catch-22!

We then end up with systemic inflammation.

It disrupts immune function.  

It disrupts the microbiome (AKA the ecosystem of bacteria and microbes that live within the gut and keep us healthy).

So, how do we know if this is something we should worry about?

The symptoms of intestinal hyper-permeability (AKA leaky gut) are what I like to call “umbrella symptoms”, meaning that the symptoms you might experience can be linked to a bunch of other things too.

They are symptoms that come up frequently in consultation, and can fit into many different causative categories.

These symptoms might include:

As I said, the symptoms above can be linked to several other conditions and are symptoms that I hear most of my patients tell me about. 

For example

  • Candida overgrowth + acne can also be signs of hormone imbalance like estrogen dominance.

  • Joint and muscle pain + depression can also be signs of viral infection or an underactive thyroid.

  • Alternating bowel motions + flatulence + bloating can also be signs of parasitic or microbial infection.

Always bear this in mind when reading articles that claim that everything you’ve been experiencing is due to The One Thing they’re explaining!  

Our bodies are usually more complicated than that, and it’s important to have “umbrella symptoms” like these properly assessed by a practitioner to make sure you’re not going gun-ho down a path that might not give you any results.

Anyway, I digress.

Back to intestinal hyper-permeability!

How do we know if this is something that should be addressed?

In my opinion, after years of clinical experience, I know that when we dig deep enough, we always come back to gut health.

So, I always address gut health on some level with nearly every patient I see.  

Inflammation within the gastrointestinal tract can be responsible for many symptoms that may not seem gut-related, like insomnia and anxiety.  

This is because our gut environment, including the cells, the secretions and the microbiome, are so intrinsically balanced, and a change in the equilibrium can affect many distant organs.

And, our microbiome affects a million things that you wouldn’t even think would be affected by bacteria, like anxiety, insomnia, mood and metabolism.

I always treat intestinal hyper-permeability when I see inflammatory markers within the gut through blood screening and where there is autoimmunity.  

After years of practise, I am pretty good at seeing where intestinal hyper-permeability is a part of the clinical picture, and I would say about 80% of the time… it is.

But, there are also tests that can be done to confirm if this is a problem.  

These include zonulin testing and intestinal permeability markers; all things that we do in-clinic if needed.

Sometimes it can help to see the level of permeability that we are dealing with so that we can treat accordingly.

Sometimes it helps just to show the patient that this is something that’s real and measurable and happening… because “leaky gut“ does sound made up.

What can you do for yourself?

We do a lot of food testing in our clinic to ensure that we are giving dietary advice that works for each person rather than blanket statements.

But in lieu of knowing what is and isn’t compatible with your body without food testing, our general advice is to increase your intake of gut-healing compounds like:

  • Glutamine

  • Glycine

  • Vitamin C

  • Collagen

One of the best things to consume is bone broth (organic and slow cooked) as it contains all of these important components.

Avoiding the known food and chemical constituents that contribute to intestinal hyper-permeability and gut inflammation is also imperative.

This includes:

  • Excess or frequent alcohol intake

  • Foods high in sugar and/or salt (bearing in mind, most processed foods are high in both)

  • Transglutaminase 

  • Gluten

  • Non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs like Ibuprofen

Care for your gut, and it will care for you.

For a super in depth look at gut health you can check out our e-book, The Guts of Us.

If you are considering seeing a practitioner to get some help with your guts, I’d recommend thinking about the following information (which I always ask in consultation!).

  • What foods, if any, make the problem better or worse?

  • Do your symptoms (like bloating, flatulence, cramping) get worse throughout the day or is it constantly there?

  • How much water do you drink?

  • What is your bowel function like (easy to pass or hard to pass, daily regular or days in between motions)

  • How long has this been a problem for?


Emily Banks (Naturopath)