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The Far Reaching Effects of Leaky Gut Syndrome

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Intestinal permeability, or leaky gut as it is commonly known, is a condition that is attracting more attention from medical professionals as current scientific evidence points to strong links between many chronic conditions and the health of the intestines.

From Irritable bowel syndrome, to eczema, psoriasis, asthma, arthritis and acne, studies are increasingly showing an underlying association with leaky gut syndrome.

In the simplest terms, the digestive system can be described as a continuous tube that processes food and eliminates the remaining waste. Incoming food is chewed and digested with the help of enzymes, then when broken down enough, the nutrients are drawn out of the tube into the bloodstream where they are carried to the cells of the body. What remains in the tube is eliminated in the faeces. But what if the processing and extraction system is not in proper working order? Some of the elements that are supposed to remain within the tube may exit the tube and find their way into the bloodstream.

This is a simplified explanation of leaky gut. The cells that make up the walls of the intestinal “tube” are supposed to sit together snugly enough that only the smallest nutrients are able to pass between them, from inside the intestine to the blood outside. When these cells become inflamed or damaged, the spaces between the cells become wider, allowing larger, undigested food particles into the bloodstream. It is here that the immune system perceives the particles as “foreign” and launches a response normally reserved to fight an invading bacteria or virus.

In the case of long term leaky gut, the persistent immune activity can lead to auto-immunity via a process known as molecular mimicry. Here, the immune system identifies foreign particles as being similar to the cells of a particular organ, and creates antibodies which attack not only the “invader” but also the similar body tissue. For example, in the case of Thyroid auto-immunity (Hashimoto’s thyroiditis and Grave’s disease), the molecular structure of the foreign particle so closely resembles that of the cells of the thyroid gland that the immune system cannot distinguish between the two, and creates antibodies that inadvertently damage thyroid tissue. Rheumatoid arthritis is a similar case where auto-antibodies attack the joints. Fibromyalgia, Ankylosing spondylitis and Lupus are other examples where the immune system creates antibodies that damage different body tissue. All these have been associated with leaky gut syndrome via molecular mimicry.

What causes leaky gut?

Like most conditions and syndromes, there is not one definitive cause of leaky gut. The cells in the lining of the intestinal wall are susceptible to damage from many sources, and vary significantly from person to person in the degree to which they are susceptible. Additionally, any damage to the gut lining is not immediately apparent with a clear and sudden onset of symptoms, so it is challenging to identify the culprit when determining the trigger of leaky gut.

  1. Insufficient digestive enzymes: Digestive enzymes break down food particles to their smallest components, aiding the absorption of nutrients. A deficiency in digestive enzymes leads to larger, undigested food particles reaching the intestine.
  2. Dysbiosis: An imbalance in the gut flora has an inflammatory effect on the wall of the digestive system, which promotes the formation of gaps between cells. This leaves the lining susceptible to the passing of larger molecules into the bloodstream. Refined sugars are particularly damaging in terms of feeding harmful bacteria and causing an inflammatory response in the gut.
  3. Food sensitivities: Reactions to certain foods can cause inflammation of the digestive tract. Of particular note are foods containing gluten as this compound stimulates the intestinal cells to produce zonulin, a molecule that promotes permeability of the gut lining. Other common food sensitivities relate to milk and other dairy products.
  4. Environmental toxins: Pesticides, fungicides, chlorine, heavy metals and especially glyphosate (found in Round-up) are potentially damaging to the intestinal tract and can be largely avoided by consuming organic produce.
  5. Stress: Chronically elevated cortisol has a detrimental effect on the health of the digestive system in that it reduces the diversity of the gut microbiome and causes inflammation.
  6. Medications: It is well known that antibiotics can wipe out the entire microbiome, so should be utilised only when necessary. Additionally, the use of non-steroidal anti-inflammatories (NSAIDs) such as ibuprofen can cause significant damage to the gastro-intestinal lining, leading to leaky gut syndrome
  7. Processed foods and alcohol: Artificial flavours, artificial colours, refined sugar, trans-fats, emulsifiers and alcohol all compromise the composition of the microbiome and the integrity of the intestinal lining.

How can the gut lining be repaired?

Obviously, avoidance of foods and additives that damage the gut or promote dysbiosis, is the primary step to take in healing the gut, but in addition to this, there are foods and supplements which will soothe the gut lining, help repair damaged cells and promote the proliferation of beneficial gut flora.


Collagen-rich food such as meats, egg whites and bone broth help to repair the lining of the gut wall.

Fermented foods such as sauerkraut, Kim Chi, tempeh, miso and yoghurt help to populate the gut with beneficial flora and “crowd out” harmful bacteria.

Fresh Fruit and vegetables naturally contain digestive enzymes and fibre. Sprouted foods such as mung beans and alfalfa have particularly high enzyme levels which help the body to metabolise food, whilst plant fibres act as a prebiotic that nourish beneficial gut bacteria.

A teaspoon of apple cider vinegar before meals helps to increase gastric acid in the stomach, thus augmenting digestion.


Glutamine is an amino acid that helps to repair damaged gut cells, and is usually the first listed ingredient in over-the-counter gut powders.

Digestive enzymes will increase food digestion, so that large particles of food are broken down and metabolised effectively.

Vitamin D3 helps to repair the mucosal barrier of the gut.

A high quality probiotic, with a variety of strains, will help to crowd out harmful bad bacteria whilst repopulating the microbiome with beneficial bacteria.
Omega-3 rich oils such as fish oil help to reduce inflammation


Lastly, the most difficult factor to change when dealing with leaky gut, is lifestyle. In an ideal world, we would enjoy at least eight hours of deep, restorative sleep each night, followed by a day in a rewarding and stress-free work/study environment. If this is not possible, stress-reducing activities such as exercise, meditation or hobbies can help to offset the cortisol “high” and show our guts we love them.

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About the Author: Lesley Jenkinson

Lesley has recently completed her Advanced Diploma of Nutritional Medicine and Advanced Diploma of Naturopathy at Nature Care College, Sydney. She is currently working as Naturopath/Nutritionist at Healthy Life Retail. Lesley is a Guest Contributor of The Silver Life.

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