Characteristics and Causes of Leaky Gut

Leaky gut has many causes although many of them are linked to general unhealthy habits. Poor diet and stress are two factors that lead to this disorder.
Characteristics and Causes of Leaky Gut
Marta Guzmán

Written and verified by Nutritionist Marta Guzmán.

Last update: 25 May, 2022

Do you often consume ultra-processed food, medications, and other drugs? Be careful because these may trigger a leaky gut. The symptoms manifest in the skin and stomach, and can cause mental disorders and autoimmune diseases.

Read on to learn more about the causes of leaky gut.

What causes leaky gut?

A paper gut.

While leaky gut is a disease that starts in the digestive tract, it affects many other systems as well. This condition happens when there’s damage to the enterocytes or to the proteins that bind them together. When this happens, it increases the likelihood that some of the contents of the intestinal lumen (the inside of the intestine) might leak into the bloodstream or lymphatic system.

It doesn’t leak large chunks of food, but a combination of many different elements:

  • Incompletely digested proteins
  • Bacteria or bacterial fragments
  • A variety of toxic substances or waste products you’d normally excrete

You should know that these substances shouldn’t pass the intestinal barrier, as the body reacts by activating the immune system as protection against new “invaders.” The response is such that the body might make mistakes and even attack its own cells if this goes on for a while.
Multiple studies show how these autoimmune attacks play a role in the development of diseases such as Hashimoto’s thyroiditis or type 1 diabetes. This excessive immune activation leads to inflammation of the whole organism. In fact, this inflammation can affect not only the intestine itself but other organs and tissues such as the skeletal system, pancreas, kidney, liver, and brain.

You don’t necessarily have intestinal symptoms with a leaky gut but it could manifest as:

  • Migraine
  • Dysmenorrhea
  • Skin problems such as eczema or psoriasis
  • Psychological disorders such as depression
  • Autoimmune diseases that affect the thyroid gland or joints

Find out How to Tell if the Gut Microbiota is Damaged

Factors that cause leaky gut

The following can induce leaky gut:

  • A diet based on industrial products
  • Wheat can trigger certain autoimmune diseases
  • Factors that affect the regeneration of the epithelium such as stress or hormonal imbalances
  • Medications that destroy the microbiota or affect the integrity of the epithelium like antibiotics, non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs, and antacids

How to restore intestinal permeability?

Illustration of the gut microbiota.
We learn more about the microbiota as time goes by and thus we can use this knowledge to improve intestinal health.

1. Skip anything that causes intestinal inflammation

This means avoiding:

  • Diets rich in ultra-processed food, and refined carbohydrates, simple sugars, and industrial pastries
  • Medications such as antibiotics and anti-inflammatory drugs
  • Diets low in fermentable fiber
  • Dietary toxins such as wheat seed oils
  • Chronic stress

Read about Irritable Bowel Syndrome and its Role in Your Diet

2. Taking care of the intestinal microbiota

The human gut contains the same number of bacteria as there are cells in the entire organism. With more than 400 different species of bacteria, we’re just beginning to understand the role of microbiota in health. Among other things, it promotes normal gastrointestinal function, provides protection against infection, regulates metabolism, and strengthens the immune system.

In order to take care of the microbiota you should:

  • Remove toxin-ridden food from your diet
  • Maximize your digestive capacity by eating when you’re hungry and leaving space between meals for your gastric juices to function normally
  • Eat fermentable fibers such as resistant starch, pectins, and fructans
  • Eat fermented goods like yogurt, kefir, sauerkraut, kimchi, and any other quality probiotic
  • Treat the presence of intestinal pathogens such as parasites.

3. Regulating the acidity of your stomach helps control leaky gut

Stomach acid is a basic requirement for healthy digestion. The breakdown and absorption of nutrients occur at an optimal rate only within a narrow range of stomach acidity. The normal chemical reactions that are required to absorb nutrients suffer if there isn’t enough stomach acid.

Low stomach acid also impairs carbohydrate digestion so if the pH of the stomach is too high then pancreatic enzymes won’t secrete and carbs won’t break down properly.

Furthermore, these undigested carbohydrates lead to bacterial overgrowth in the small intestine. It can also lead to increased gas production and digestive discomfort.

Things to keep in mind about intestinal health

Leaky gut has different causes, but many are linked to an unhealthy lifestyle. Thus, you’ll have made great progress in taking care of your intestinal health if you improve your diet, avoid toxins, and control stress.

Consult a nutritionist if you have doubts about what you’re eating, or if you want to adopt a healthier diet. They’ll advise you about what’s best for your intestines and for your diet overall.

All cited sources were thoroughly reviewed by our team to ensure their quality, reliability, currency, and validity. The bibliography of this article was considered reliable and of academic or scientific accuracy.

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  • Miller AH, Raison CL. The role of inflammation in depression: from evolutionary imperative to modern treatment target. Nat Rev Immunol. 2016;16(1):22–34.
  • Tlaskalova-Hogenova H, Stepankova R, Hudcovic T, Tuckova L, Cukrowska B, Lodinova-Zadnikova R, et al. Commensal bacteria (normal microflora), mucosal immunity and chronic inflammatory and autoimmune diseases. Immunol Lett. 2004;93(2-3):97–108.
  • Hooper L V., Littman DR, Macpherson  a. J. Interactions Between the Microbiota and the Immune System. Science (80- ). 2012;336(6086):1268–73.

This text is provided for informational purposes only and does not replace consultation with a professional. If in doubt, consult your specialist.