The gastrointestinal tract is a hub for numerous medical conditions that are poorly understood, such as irritable bowel syndrome, inflammatory bowel disease, and leaky gut syndrome. These ailments share complicated pathophysiology, which makes them especially challenging to break down or treat.
While pharmacological drugs might help in mitigating the severity of symptoms, they often carry some serious adverse effects, especially when used for a long time.
For this reason, it is vital to address diseases, such as leaky gut syndrome, with a holistic approach that takes into consideration what you eat, the supplements you take, and the herbs that may benefit your condition.
In this article, we will cover everything there is to know about leaky gut syndrome, including its causes, symptoms, treatments, and research. But first, we will detail the physiology of digestion to understand what goes wrong with leaky gut syndrome.
What is leaky gut syndrome?
Leaky gut syndrome describes hyperpermeable intestinal walls that allow the content of your gut to leak into the bloodstream and lymphatic circulation.
This translates into the direct absorption of indigested compounds, such as toxins, bacteria, and fiber, which can wreak havoc on several organ systems.
To get a full understanding of leaky gut syndrome, we first need to tackle some digestive physiology.
The physiology of the gastrointestinal tract
Generally speaking, there are three macronutrients that compromise our daily diet. These are carbohydrates (i.e., sugars), lipids (i.e., fats), and protein.
Each of these nutrients serves specific structural and biochemical roles in the cell. Moreover, these macronutrients go through a long process of digestion to break down the complex compounds into simple molecules that your body can use.
Example of sugar digestion
If you eat some bread right now, the digestion of the complex carbohydrates found in this food begins in the oral cavity (i.e., the mouth), where digestive enzymes, such as amylases, get released. This process continues to occur in the stomach and small intestines until the large carbohydrates get broken down into simple sugars (e.g., glucose) that your gut can absorb.
In summary, the journey begins with a piece of bread that contains complex carbs (e.g., starch) and ends with simple sugars, such as glucose and maltose.
To organize the absorption of these sugars, there are special receptors in the intestinal wall that take in specific macronutrients. For instance, a specific transporter absorbs sugar and does not allow other molecules to get in.
Additionally, the spaces between the intestinal cells are impermeable thanks to structures known as tight junctions. Their role is to prevent molecules from sneaking between the gaps.
As you can see, this process is extremely sophisticated and organized to carefully choose which molecules to absorb and which to exclude.
Other macronutrients (e.g., lipids, protein) go through similar steps with a few changes.
Now that we understand normal physiology, let’s see the defect in leaky gut syndrome:
The primary process in leaky gut syndrome is the increased intestinal permeability that allows all sorts of compounds to get inside the bloodstream.
According to hypotheses, the tight junctions of the intestinal cells become floppy, leaving spaces between the cells.
You should keep in mind that many mainstream physicians do not recognize leaky gut syndrome as a real medical condition.
What causes leaky gut syndrome?
A protein called zonulin is responsible for regulating intestinal permeability. In genetically predisposed individuals, a disruption in this protein can cause leaky gut syndrome.
According to researchers, the only known factors that can upregulate the action of zonulin are bacteria and gluten.
With that being said, scientists believe that gluten uniquely increases gut permeability in patients with celiac disease or inflammatory bowel disease (e.g., Crohn’s disease, ulcerative colitis).
If you are on a fructose-rich diet, your risk of developing leaky gut syndrome is higher due to the damaging properties of this sugar on the intestinal walls.
Chronic alcohol consumption activates the action of mast cells, which are notoriously known for causing destructive damage to the intestines by releasing massive amounts of pro-inflammatory compounds (e.g., histamine).
Several vitamin deficiencies can trigger leaky gut syndrome. However, the evidence to support this theory is lacking.
What are the risk factors for leaky gut syndrome?
There are several risk factors that may increase the incidence of leaky gut syndrome, including:
Poor diet – A diet rich in processed foods can put you at risk of leaky gut syndrome.
Excessive alcohol consumption – Chronic alcohol consumption may damage the intestinal lining and increase the risk of leaky gut syndrome.
Chronic stress – There is some evidence that links chronic stress with a higher incidence of leaky gut syndrome.
How to know if you have leaky gut syndrome?
As you probably concluded from the pathophysiology of leaky gut syndrome, the clinical presentation is widely diverse.
However, if you are dealing with the following signs and symptoms, you may be having an episodic flareup of leaky gut syndrome:
- Digestive symptoms (e.g., chronic diarrhea, constipation, bloating)
- Exacerbated nutritional deficiencies even after taking dietary supplements
- Chronic fatigue
- Recurrent headaches
- Distractibility (i.e., difficulty concentrating)
- Joint and muscle pain
- Dermatological problems (e.g., acne, rashes, eczema)
When investigating the incidence of leaky gut symptoms, researchers came up with the following percentages:
Participants with leaky gut syndrome experienced abdominal pain (93%), bloating (90%), diarrhea (82%), constipation (79%), and fatigue (73%). Other symptoms reported by the participants included skin rashes (61%), joint pain (58%), and food sensitivities (54%).
How to diagnose leaky gut syndrome
However, some healthcare professionals may use a combination of symptoms, laboratory tests, and other methods to diagnose leaky gut syndrome. Some of the symptoms to diagnose leaky gut syndrome include abdominal pain, bloating, gas, diarrhea, constipation, and nutrient deficiencies.
As for laboratory tests, inflammatory markers, such as C-reactive protein (CRP), is standard practice. In addition, food sensitivity testing or allergy testing to identify potential triggers of leaky gut syndrome can be helpful.
If you are at high risk, your doctor may order imaging tests (e.g., CT scans, MRIs) to assess the integrity of the gut lining.
It is important to note that these diagnostic approaches are not well-established or supported by all doctors. Some experts argue that the symptoms associated with leaky gut syndrome may be due to other underlying conditions, such as inflammatory bowel disease (IBD) or food allergies.
Given the lack of consensus and the limited scientific evidence on leaky gut syndrome, it is important to consult with your primary care physician if you experience the symptoms we listed above.
General treatments of leaky gut syndrome
There is no specific medical treatment for leaky gut syndrome. Most protocols focus on addressing the underlying cause of the condition and relieving symptoms.
Some potential treatments for leaky gut syndrome include:
Diet changes – Making dietary changes can help to reduce inflammation and promote healing of the intestinal lining. This may include avoiding foods, such as alcohol, caffeine, and spicy foods. You should also include fiber-rich foods and fermented foods. This can help to restore the balance of your gut microbiota.
Taking supplements – Certain supplements, such as probiotics, glutamine, and zinc, may help improve the health of the intestinal lining and support the immune system. It is important to speak with a healthcare provider before taking supplements.
Medications – In some cases, medications may be beneficial to dampen inflammation and promote healing of the intestinal lining. These may include corticosteroids and immunosuppressive drugs.Lifestyle modifications – Making lifestyle changes, such as reducing stress, exercising regularly, and getting enough sleep, can be helpful in managing leaky gut syndrome.
Natural treatments of leaky gut syndrome
As we mentioned earlier, treating leaky gut syndrome with pharmacological drugs can lead to severe adverse effects with questionable efficacy since many doctors don’t acknowledge this condition as a real pathological disease, which limits the available treatment options.
For this reason, most patients with leaky gut turn to herbal medicine for alternative therapies since it addresses digestive problems in a holistic fashion. This helps in the treatment of acute flare-ups and the prevention of future episodes.
Therefore, instead of treating this disease with drugs, herbal medicine focuses on providing patients with the appropriate herbs that carry therapeutic properties for leaky gut.
For instance, the American Herbal Guild (AHG) states that the best approach to treating leaky gut syndrome can be divided into 4 steps:
1. REMOVE – Exclude all the factors that increase your risk of flare-ups (e.g., yeast, bacteria, alcohol, caffeine).
2. REPLACE – Replace digestive enzymes (e.g., amylases, bile salts).
3. REINOCULATE – Take leaky gut supplements (e.g., probiotics, prebiotics).
4. REPAIR – Supplement your gut with the necessary nutrients to repair the inflicted damage (e.g., zinc, L-glutamine, Omega 3 fish oils, DGL licorice, vitamins A, C, E, D, and B vitamins)
Research about leaky gut syndrome
There is limited research on leaky gut syndrome. However, we still have some evidence that suggests a connection between this disease and other conditions.
One study examined the effects of leaky gut syndrome in patients with Crohn’s disease. The study included 45 participants. Researchers found that those with Crohn’s disease had significantly high levels of lipopolysaccharides (LPS), which are molecules found on the outer surface of certain bacteria. LPS can trigger inflammation in the body. What’s more, a high level of LPS is a biological hallmark of leaky gut syndrome.
Another study inspected the relationship between leaky gut syndrome and type 2 diabetes. To exclude biases, researchers included 100 participants. After that, they divided them into two groups:
- Group One – 50 participants had type 2 diabetes
- Group Two – 50 healthy individuals (a control group)
Researchers found that those with type 2 diabetes had significantly higher levels of LPS in their bloodstream. This suggests a state of chronic inflammation. The authors concluded that leaky gut syndrome may contribute to the development of type 2 diabetes by increasing inflammation and disrupting the normal function of the immune system.A review of the literature found that leaky gut syndrome may also be linked to autoimmune conditions such as celiac disease, rheumatoid arthritis, and multiple sclerosis. The review suggests that the leakage of toxins and microbes from the gut into the bloodstream may trigger an immune response, leading to the development of autoimmune disorders.
Leaky gut syndrome and mental disease
There is evidence to suggest that leaky gut syndrome may be associated with mental health conditions such as anxiety and depression.
A study published in the journal Psychosomatic Medicine found that patients with depression had significantly increased levels of LPS in their bloodstream. Another study concluded that patients with anxiety had higher levels of LPS and other markers of gut inflammation compared to healthy controls.
The benefits of breastfeeding leaky gut syndrome
Breast milk has a number of properties that make it very beneficial for the gut. For instance, it contains all the necessary probiotics and prebiotics to promote the growth of healthy gut microbes. As a result, your baby is less likely to suffer from indigestion, constipation, and other gastrointestinal symptoms.
Moreover, since there is a connection between leaky gut syndrome and several autoimmune disorders, breast milk might also prevent this condition by mitigating your risk of immune diseases.
Researchers found that having a healthy gut microbiome lowers the risk of several autoimmune disorders.
Unfortunately, there is lacking evidence that studies the causes of leaky gut syndrome and the factors that help with it.
leaky gut causes
Leaky gut syndrome, also known as increased intestinal permeability, is a condition that can be caused by a variety of factors. One of the most common causes is an unhealthy diet, which can lead to inflammation and damage to the lining of the intestines. Processed foods, refined sugars, and unhealthy fats can all contribute to this damage.
Other factors that can cause leaky gut include chronic stress, alcohol consumption, and the use of certain medications such as antibiotics or nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs). Additionally, gut dysbiosis, or an imbalance of bacteria in the gut, can also play a role in the development of leaky gut syndrome.
When the balance of good and bad bacteria is disrupted, it can lead to inflammation and damage to the gut lining. Certain medical conditions, such as celiac disease and Crohn’s disease, can also cause leaky gut syndrome. These conditions can damage the gut lining and lead to increased intestinal permeability.
Finally, environmental toxins such as pollutants, pesticides, and heavy metals can also cause damage to the gut lining and contribute to leaky gut syndrome. Overall, there are many factors that can contribute to the development of leaky gut syndrome, and it’s important to identify and address these causes in order to effectively treat the condition.
Leaky gut syndrome is a poorly understood medical condition that manifests with a diverse clinical presentation, which needs proper attention and self-care to improve the symptoms.
We hope that this article managed to shed some light on the importance of herbal medicine in controlling the symptoms of leaky gut syndrome.