Have you been super forgetful lately, losing your keys all the time? Does your brain feel foggy? Do your joints hurt? Have you been struggling with losing weight, no matter how little you eat and how much you exercise?
These symptoms may seem unrelated, but actually indicate a compromised digestive system. The health of your digestive tract impacts your overall well-being, from how well your brain functions, to your weight, hormone regulation, mood, and how often you get sick. Having a damaged gut, commonly referred to as “leaky gut syndrome,” causes more than just problems with digestion. It affects your entire body (1). So, how do you know if your symptoms are caused by a leaky gut?
What is Leaky Gut?
First, it’s important understand leaky gut syndrome and how it causes seemingly unrelated symptoms. In simple terms, it’s damage to your intestinal lining. All along the gut wall are little gateways called tight junctions. When these tight junctions function normally, they keep bad things out (viruses, bacteria, harmful toxins), and allow good nutrients into the bloodstream. But, when the tight junctions are not doing their job, all sorts of havoc ensues. The tight junctions can loosen up, not holding anything back, leading to what is called leaky gut syndrome or “intestinal permeability,” (2). When this happens, partially digested food particles, toxins, viruses and bacteria freely enter the bloodstream.
When the flood gates are opened and bad things leak through, these foreign substances in the blood cause the immune system to react, thinking it is under attack. This leads to it initiating an inflammatory response, pretty similar to what it would do to help your body heal an injury. Immune cells are called to action and sound the alarm that something is really wrong. This is fine if there really is a damaging substance to fight. If once the battle is over the soldiers go back to their barracks, the body would handle it. But with leaky gut, the struggle is constant. The body is always fighting. This leads to a chronic, body-wide immune response, called systemic inflammation (3).
The surprising thing is that the inflammation doesn’t just stay inside or around your GI tract. The inflammation affects all areas of the body, even those that seem like they would be completely unrelated or are located far away from the gut. Immune cells that are constantly activated begin to turn on the body’s own tissues, leading to damage and illness. This type of inflammation has been linked to almost every chronic disease, from diabetes and heart disease, to cancer. But, since the symptoms caused by inflammation are so varied, it makes leaky gut syndrome hard to diagnose, and a bit of a mystery to most doctors (4).
To be clear, although many health conditions have been linked to leaky gut, research has not yet established a black and white relationship between these symptoms and leaky gut. At this time, we do know of a connection between chronic inflammation and leaky gut. It is still unclear if leaky gut is the cause of these symptoms or if there is another variable at play. To make matters even more complicated, there is no official “test” for this type of intestinal damage, so all you (and your doctor) have to go on is how you feel.
Surprising Symptoms of Leaky Gut
Maybe you have been feeling off for a long time now and have been tested for all sorts of conditions with no real answers. Unfortunately, most medical doctors are not trained to identify leaky gut syndrome as a cause of illness. And since there is no real test for it, your doctor may not have suggested it as a possibility. Most people figure out they have leaky gut because of their unexplained symptoms, or after loads of medical tests. So, if you have some mysterious symptoms, what might be linked to leaky gut?
If you have a diagnosis of any type of autoimmune disease, such as rheumatoid arthritis, Hashimoto’s or lupus, you likely also have leaky gut. The autoimmune disease doesn’t even need to be a gut-related disease, like Crohn’s, to be connected to a leaky gut, but can occur in any part of the body.
The connection between leaky gut and autoimmune disease is two-fold. First, as you know, leaky gut causes inflammation, and autoimmune diseases are all triggered, or exacerbated by, inflammation. Second, leaky gut initiates a process called molecular mimicry. As we discussed, when your gut is leaky, it allows various proteins into the bloodstream that shouldn’t get through. The immune system sees these proteins as an enemy and begins to mount an attack against them. The problem is that many of these proteins are similar to your body’s own tissues.
Once the attack is formed against the foreign invader, the immune cells are unable to differentiate between the foreign substances and your own tissues. Therefore, you inadvertently mount an attack against your own body, leading to destruction and disease. Depending upon where the attack occurs (in the thyroid, joints, or other organs) is where the autoimmune disease develops. Healing leaky gut completely is one way to send many autoimmune diseases into remission, helping improve symptoms (5).
Although the thyroid gland in your neck is pretty far away from your gut, these two are more connected than you think. The responsibility of the thyroid is to make hormones that regulate metabolism, and the gut is where this process begins. The digestive tract is where some of the conversion of the thyroid hormones T4 to T3 occurs. T3 is the more active form of thyroid hormone, and without it the thyroid becomes sluggish, leading to hypothyroidism. Damage to the gut prevents the effective conversion of these hormones, leading to a variety of symptoms such as fatigue, hair loss, and weight issues (6, 7).
Mood Disorders: Depression, Anxiety, Irritability
People who struggle with mood disorders, such as depression and anxiety, also tend to have chronic low-grade inflammation. It has been well-documented that leaky gut is a trigger of inflammation that specifically impacts brain function. Also, when the gut is leaky, it allows certain types of bacteria into the bloodstream that would normally not be allowed into the body. These microbes then trigger damage in the brain by interfering with brain chemistry, resulting in a variety of mood disorders. The degree of permeability of the gut, the microbes that live in the GI tract, and the nervous system, are all interconnected. That influences one another, and impacts your mood (8).
Poor Immune Function
Do you seem to catch every illness going around and it lasts for weeks, not days? A poorly functioning immune system may be a sign of leaky gut syndrome. Your digestive tract is actually one of the main organs of the immune system. One of its primary jobs is to keep viruses and bacteria out. But, when it is “leaky” and not working properly, it can’t do its job well. This allows all sorts of harmful microbes to enter without any resistance, leading to infection and illness. Not to mention, inflammation also increases the risk of getting sick because of “system overload.” This makes it difficult to spend any additional resources fighting an illness.
Brain Fog and Difficulty Concentrating
In the case of depression and anxiety, leaky gut leads to problems with brain function related to inflammation. The digestive tract is highly connected to the brain via what is called the gut-brain axis. When one is damaged, it causes the other to function poorly too. The hormone serotonin, primarily produced in the gut, is one of the main communication hormones of the gut-brain axis. When the gut isn’t working properly, it affects the communication system, causing problems with concentration and a feeling of fogginess (9).
Leaky gut even affects your skin. Eczema, rosacea, and unexplained rashes have been connected to intestinal permeability. Acne has also been linked to problems with the gut and an imbalance of digestive bacteria. Systemic inflammation caused by leaky gut can translate to inflammation on the skin. So, if you experience uncontrolled breakouts or other chronic skin conditions, your gut could be to blame (10).
When your body is inflamed from leaky gut syndrome, you don’t feel well. After all, your body is under attack from the inside! People with leaky gut report feeling achy all over, and struggle with muscle soreness and joint pain. Sometimes leaky gut triggers symptoms similar to rheumatoid arthritis, like achy joints and swelling. But, when doctors test for RA, the tests tend to come back negative, leaving people with no explanation for their pain. Unfortunately, the recommendation for general aches and pains is to use over the counter anti-inflammatory medications, called NSAIDs, which make leaky gut worse.
Vitamin and Mineral Deficiencies
One of the main jobs of the digestive system is to extract nutrition from food. But when damaged, it fails to do this job well. Nutrients affected by leaky gut syndrome include: vitamin B12, zinc, iron, and magnesium. Many times people with leaky gut also have digestive disturbances, such as diarrhea, making it even more likely that the body becomes deficient in vitamins and minerals. If the food moves through too quickly, their body cannot absorb the nutrition it needs. If you do suspect leaky gut, get tested for vitamin and mineral deficiencies. Correcting these could help you start to feel better.
Leaky gut makes it difficult to lose weight in several ways. First, it impacts your thyroid function, which slows metabolism, making it hard to burn calories properly. Second, it increases cravings for salty and sweet foods, mostly because of hormonal issues and bacterial imbalances caused by a poorly functioning GI tract. Repairing leaky gut helps make losing weight a little easier (11).
The Path to Healing Leaky Gut
Healing leaky gut syndrome requires attacking it from various angles, and the treatment often varies person to person. The basics to get started…
- Remove food triggers. The most obvious trigger of leaky gut is diet, so follow a leaky gut meal plan. First, eliminate damaging foods. Start by eliminating refined sugar, gluten, processed foods, alcohol, dairy, and caffeine, all common culprits of leaky gut.
- Add healing foods. Foods to add to your diet include: fermented foods, bone broth, and foods high in omega-3s.
- Consider supportive supplements. A few suggested supplements to nourish the digestive tract and lower inflammation include: L-glutamine, digestive enzymes, and omega-3s.
- Include prebiotics and probiotics. Healthy gut microbes help quickly heal the gut and reverse symptoms.
- Manage lifestyle triggers. Stress, lack of sleep, and other digestive illnesses can all trigger leaky gut, therefore, take a multi-pronged approach.
- Avoid medications-triggers of leaky gut, especially NSAIDs.
Healing leaky gut syndrome may not be a simple process. It takes time to figure out your personal inflammatory triggers. Knowing you have leaky gut and identifying a cause for your symptoms is the first step to starting the healing process. Work with a practitioner trained in how to heal leaky gut to target your individual triggers.
A foundational component of the 131 Method is healing leaky gut. Instead of trying to figure out all the steps by yourself, join our community and have an immediate support system on your journey!