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Leaky Gut: The Gateway to Chronic Disease

December 7th, 2012
leaky gut syndrome

All diseases begin in the gut.
Hippocrates, 460-370 B.C.
This is a very important topic that I wish more people were aware of, so I want to pass this information along.  Leaky gut is something that I have personally been healing from for the past few years.  It ended up being the underlying issue behind my chronic skin and immune system issues.  It took YEARS and many health practitioners to connect my skin issues with dysfunction of the gut.  Luckily, more and more practitioners are becoming aware of leaky gut and how to treat it.  Research continues to emerge regarding the connection between leaky gut, inflammation and many chronic disease conditions.  Hippocrates really knew what he was talking about when he said “All diseases begin in the gut.”  Please take the time to read this and be aware of how important your digestion and the health of your gut are to your overall health, immunity and vitality.  If you have a chronic disease condition, especially autoimmune or skin issue, consider looking into the integrity of your gut health as a key culprit in the manifestation of your symptoms. 


As we discussed in our last blog post about digestion, the gut makes up at least 70% of our immune system.  It is responsible for:  

  • breaking down and assimilating the food we eat
  • eliminating waste products
  • protecting our bodies from toxins and foreign invaders from the environment

It’s a pretty big and important job and therefore it is VITAL that we bring awareness to the health of our digestive systems.  The ability of our digestive system to function properly will ultimately be a huge factor in how we feel, the state of our overall health and our ability to avoid chronic disease as we age.  


The digestive tract (a 25-35 foot long hollow tube that runs from mouth to anus) is coated with a protective mucosal or intestinal barrier that protects our organs and insides from the outside world.  The gut consists of trillions…yes trillions of microorganisms that make up our gut flora.  We essentially have more bacteria than human cells in our own bodies.  Pretty crazy, huh?  According to Dr. Campbell-McBride, a healthy adult carries an average of 3 to 4.4 lbs of bacteria in the gut.  This bacteria consists of beneficial flora or “good” bacteria, opportunistic flora or “bad” bacteria and transitional flora that we ingest from the environment, food and drink.  All these types of bacteria are normal and in a healthy individual.  The beneficial gut flora keeps the “bad” bacteria under control and is able to keep the transitional flora from harming the body. The beneficial gut flora keeps your intestinal lining intact and functioning properly.  Think of your beneficial gut flora as your little army that protects your entire body.  It allows properly broken down food particles to enter the bloodstream to nourish the cells and keep us alive and healthy AND keeps the harmful invaders (pathogens, improperly digested food and toxins) out.  Maintaining a healthy army keeps our guts healthy, keeps our intestinal barrier intact and allows for our bodies to thrive.


What happens if this army of beneficial gut bacteria is weakened or unable to do its job properly? Our intestinal lining also becomes compromised and the tight junctions between our cells begin to loosen. In other words…little openings begin to develop in the intestinal lining and the gut becomes leaky.  This is called leaky gut or increased intestinal permeability.  As you can imagine, this is a huge problem! A breach of security in our intestinal lining translates into a weakening of our immune system.  


leaky gut cure

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A leaky gut can allow harmful organisms and toxins into the bloodstream where they don’t belong to wreak havoc on the body.  Harmful pathogens (fungi, parasites, bacteria, viruses) and toxic chemicals like heavy metals or BPA can now enter the bloodstream unchecked.  With a healthy intestinal barrier and gut flora, these harmful substances would be broken down in the gut and excreted to protect the body.  Imagine a garden hose with a bunch of holes poked in it.  As the water is turned on from the spigot, water begins to disperse coming out of the holes uncontrolled.  The water is most definitely not ending up at its appropriate or desired location.  In the same way, harmful pathogens are not broken down and excreted, but are now given access to travel to various parts of the body where we do not want them to be.


Another big problem with leaky gut is an impaired ability to absorb nutrients (a key function of a healthy gut).  People become malnourished because food isn’t properly absorbed and assimilated.  Partially digested food particles are now allowed to pass into the bloodstream where they don’t belong, which cases the immune system to kick into “red alert”.  If this continues to happen the body’s immune system is kicked into overdrive and it’s ability to fight off other infections/toxins is reduced.  Proteins can also make their way into the bloodstream where they don’t belong.  Some proteins may look similar to our own body’s proteins.  The body can get confused and begin attacking itself, thus initiating an auto-immune cascade.  “Auto-immune” means that the body gets confused and creates an immune response against its own tissues.  Research studies reveal that the integrity of the mucosal barrier is a major factor in autoimmune diseases.


These extra toxins and partially digested food particles in the blood stream put an extra burden on the body, immune system and liver.  One of the main functions of the liver is to filter everything that comes into the bloodstream so it can be excreted safely by the bowels and kidneys.  The liver becomes so overwhelmed with its daily tasks of filtering out environmental pollutants, byproducts of metabolism, chemicals from food/water, alcohol, etc AND extra irritants from a leaky gut that it can no longer keep up.  These toxins and irritants cannot be filtered properly and begin to take up residence in the body and further inflame tissues and organs throughout the body.  The body becomes more and more toxic and this situation creates chronic inflammation.  This “breach of security” in the gut creates a toxic and inflamed body and becomes a gateway for chronic disease.  


We are beginning to see more and more research showing that many of the “diseases of civilization” that we are experiencing such as diabetes, obesity, and neurodegenerative conditions, etc…can all be traced back to the gut.  A leaky gut can manifest differently in different people and can ultimately lead to chronic diseases such as Crohn’s disease, Celiac disease, autism, rheumatoid arthritis, multiple sclerosis and various autoimmune conditions to name a few OR a wide range of seemingly unexplained symptoms such as: skin problems (rashes, acne), food and chemical sensitivities, allergies, migraines, bloating, anxiety, depression, joint pain, fatigue, headaches, etc. Not all symptoms of a leaky gut will manifest as stomach symptoms.   


What causes leaky gut?

There isn’t one thing that causes leaky gut or increased intestinal permeability, but generally diet and environment play a key role.  Some of the common contributors to this condition include:  diets high in processed/packaged foods, sugar and refined grains/carbohydrates (A.K.A the Standard American Diet), prolonged use of NSAIDs (non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs) or other medications like antibiotics, steroids, birth control pills etc., dietary toxins such as gluten and industrial seed oils, chronic infections, food allergies and sensitivities, chronic stress, and overuse of alcohol.  Our modern diets and lifestyles lend itself to poor digestion and poor gut flora, which ultimately can lead to a leaky gut.


What can you do to avoid a leaky gut and improve your gut flora?

  • Eliminate toxic foods – processed/packaged foods, sugar, refined grains/carbohydrates, and industrial seed oils.  Remove grains, legumes and pasteurized dairy from your diet in order to remove foods that contain anti-nutrients that disrupt or prevent proper digestion.  Our recommendation is a paleo/primal approach to eating with focus on quality meats, veggies and fats and the addition of nourishing foods like bone broth.
  • Optimize digestion – (see Top 10 Keys for Optimizing Digestion)
  • Eat fermented foods regularly and/or take a good quality, multi-strain probiotic
  • Learn healthy ways to manage stress
  • Avoid food sensitivities/allergies


What if you have a chronic disease condition, autoimmune condition or expect you may have a leaky gut?

Check out this link where you can find a questionnaire (from the Keats Good Health Guide: Leaky Gut Syndrome by Elizabeth Lipinski MS, CCN) to fill out to see if you may have leaky gut.  Of course, this isn’t a definitive diagnostic tool, but may help alert you to a possible leaky gut issue. 


Inflammation is the underlying pathology for all chronic disease and autoimmune conditions.  We always want to do what we can to decrease inflammation and stress load on the body. We would recommend following a strict paleo diet with focus on quality, nourishing foods such as bone broths and fermented foods.  Consumption of bone broth help to heal the intestinal lining and we recommend consuming it daily.  Those with autoimmune conditions may need to eliminate eggs, nightshades, and nuts as they can also provoke an immunological response.  There may be other foods that your body can not tolerate either, as a leaky gut can create multiple food intolerances.  This is highly individual.  We recommend working with a qualified health practitioner to assist with fine tuning your diet and testing for reactive foods.  Also, work on eliminating toxins from your home, personal care products, etc.  Drink clean, filtered water and find effective ways to manage stress.  Bottom line, we want to decrease toxic load and stress on the body from as many sources as possible.


In addition to dietary and lifestyle considerations, you will likely need to follow a gut healing protocol using supplementation.  It is best to work with a qualified healthcare practitioner to do this.  A qualified practitioner can help you work through identifying stressors/toxins that are present (pathogens/parasites, food sensitivities, etc.) and help individualize a program to get rid of toxins and heal the gut lining.  Generally, alternative health care practitioners such as naturopathic doctors, functional medicine practitioners, etc. are the ones that know quite a bit about healing the gut.  Unfortunately, these practitioners typically don’t take insurance so often times you may have to pay out of pocket for these services.  It is highly recommended to work with a qualified health practitioner, but If you cannot afford to, you may find this resource helpful.  Check out this link to Karen Brimeyer’s Leaky Gut Cure e-book.  It costs about $40 and will help guide you through a basic gut healing program and protocol.  I found the book to be very informative and helpful.   


I hope the information in this article sheds some light on a very important and often overlooked subject.  Again, if you are experiencing chronic symptoms that doctors cannot explain, a chronic degenerative disease condition, autoimmune condition, or skin condition it is worth the effort to look into the functioning of your digestive system as being a possible culprit.  For those that do not have any of the above issues, it is vitally important you make dietary and lifestyle choices to optimize digestion and immunity as you age.  Keep in mind, it may take years of dysfunction in the gut before symptoms to actually manifest.  Bottom line…nourish your body and your gut by making quality food choices (paleo/primal diet), take steps to optimize digestion, avoid environmental toxins, sleep well and manage stress!  

Brenda Walding, DPT, FDN


Photo ofBrenda Walding
Brenda Walding
Job Title
DPT, Physical Therapist
The Paleo Secret

5 Responses

  1. Before going paleo I ate fresh, raw goat milk yogurt and now I don’t eat any food in the fermented area, do you recommend any thing in particular? Thanks for any suggestions.

    • reaver c, hickman says:

      tThanks for the helpful information,keep sending good informaton.

    • chad.walding says:

      Fermented foods are a great way to keep a balanced and healthy gut…and cheaper than probiotic supplements. I would recommend any of the fermented veggies…sauerkraut, kimchi, etc, as well as homemade raw goat yogurt or homemade kefir for those that can tolerate quality dairy. Goat milk is better tolerated than cow’s milk for most. If you have been on a paleo diet and have that dialed in pretty well, you can play with adding in some raw goat yogurt or kefir and see how you feel. Some people thrive on it! I have uses small doses of kefir medicinally to repopulate my gut with good bacteria and I did very well. Everyone is different so try it and see how you feel.

  2. Martin says:

    Excellent summary! I have had this condition myself and learned that even a small amount of alcohol can make a big mess with your gut. Also it is very important to assure sufficient level of vitamin D which plays significant role in intestinal repair as well as in (non) development of subsequent autoimmune diseases.

  3. Biff Ingels says:

    This information needs to be included in the next State of the Union address, in textbooks, on billboards and hollered out from every mountain top in the land. THE most important information that there is to offer, and it is just not allowed to be heard (corporations). They’ll look back on this in 50 years (or less) and wonder why our heads were in the sand for so long.

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