The gut is the gateway to our health; if your gut is healthy chances are you are too. In fact, our gut is where 75% of your immune system lives and where over 80% of your serotonin, the primary neurotransmitter responsible for your mood, is produced. It is said that the health of our gut impacts everything from hormonal issues to joint pain and seasonal allergies, and there is a commonly overlooked condition called ‘leaky gut’ that is linked to a whole host of health issues that can be improved if treated. Fortunately, leaky gut can be addressed and improved, the first step is merely to identify it, so here are 10 common signs of leaky gut.
What is leaky gut?
Leaky gut, also known as intestinal permeability, is a condition that increases the permeability of the intestinal barrier. Think of your gut as a sponge that is designed to allow nutrients and water into your body, while keeping toxins and antigens out. This sponge is made of tight junctions that are only large enough to allow the required nutrients into the bloodstream and keep foreign invaders out.
However, certain factors can cause these tight junctions to become impaired and enlarged, which leads the intestine to become more permeable. When this happens toxins, microbes, and undigested food particles that should not fit through the barrier are able to escape the intestines and pass into the bloodstream. Because 75% of your immune system is located around your gut, and it is designed to protect you, your immune system marks these particles are “foreign invaders” and responds to attack them. When this occurs, the response of the immune system can present in the body in many different ways.
What causes leaky gut?
As I mentioned in my previous post, many aspects of modern lifestyle and the standard North American diet can negatively impact your gut health and microbiome. Some of the most common include:
- Diet high in refined sugar and refined carbohydrates
- Diet high in processed foods and additives
- Diet low in fermentable fiber
- Long-term use of antibiotics or birth control
- Lifestyle with chronic stress
While leaky gut and poor gut flora may manifest as digestive trouble, in many people it does not. In fact, you do not need to have digestive symptoms for your gut health to negatively impact you. Instead, leaky gut can manifest in many different ways:
10 Signs of Leaky Gut
Here are some of the top signs you may be experiencing leaky gut.
1. Food Sensitivities
Notice certain foods that used to agree with you no longer do? Unfortunately, leaky gut and food intolerances are so tightly connected that one tends to affect the other because it is often the same foods that you are reacting to that are causing the increased permeability. As undigested food particles pass through the intestinal barrier the immune system will often react to defend against them, so foods you previously tolerated can all of the sudden become intolerable as the body is now fighting against them every time they show up. Grains, gluten, dairy, and soy are some of the worst offenders.
2. Digestive Issues such as IBS, Chronic Bloating, and Gas
The link here is quite clear as these symptoms are appearing directly in the gut. The term irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) was often given as a label to address symptoms in the gut, however, it is now rather widely accepted that if you have IBS you have leaky gut.
3. Skin Issues such as Acne, Psoriasis, or Eczema
The skin is a barrier system for our body and is a representation of your health on the inside of your body. As inflammation in the gut increases symptoms can present externally on the skin. Although these symptoms are often treated topically with creams and lotions, the root cause of these symptoms is located in the gut, and therefore treating leaky gut can help to alleviate symptoms such as acne, psoriasis and eczema.
4. Excessive Chronic Fatigue
Gut health and energy levels are tightly linked together. Given our gut is our ‘second brain’, what impacts our gut health will in turn impact our mental state. When you have leaky gut it is like having tiny holes in your intestinal lining. Undigested food particles travel through these ‘holes’ and into the bloodstream where it triggers the immune system to try and protect you by launching an attack on particles that shouldn’t be there. This process results in the release of many inflammatory messengers, notably cytokines, that are directly associated with fatigue.
5. Auto-Immune Conditions
The first thing to understand about autoimmune diseases is that they are diseases of the immune system. The second thing to understand is that 75% of your immune system is located in your gut. When you have leaky gut, food particles, toxins and bacteria are able to enter your bloodstream and your immune system marks them as dangerous invaders and creates inflammation to get rid of them. As more and more particles enter your bloodstream, your immune system becomes stressed and is less accurate with its identification. Your immune system will continue to make antibodies against items in the bloodstream, however many of these foreign invaders can look similar to your own cells, and, therefore, your body will begin to attack them. The autoimmune diseases that manifest are determined by which tissues are being attacked; if it’s the joints, rheumatoid arthritis may develop; if it’s the thyroid gland, the result could be Hashimoto’s or Grave’s; if it’s the gut lining itself, Crohn’s or colitis could develop.
6. Chronic Joint Pain
Aching knees? Sore back? You might be surprised to learn that joint pain may actually be linked to leaky gut. As the permeability of the gut increases so does the production of antibodies in the bloodstream to help protect the body from “foreign invaders” or antigens. However, when an antibody binds with an antigen, an immune complex occurs. Therefore, a persistent leaky gut increases the number of immune complexes which circulate in the body and deposit into various tissues and organs including skeletal muscles and joints. This increase in inflammation can therefore lead to aching joints and pain.
7. Seasonal Allergies
Since an allergy is the result of your immune system overreacting, a persistent leaky gut can exacerbate the problem and worsens seasonal allergy symptoms. When your gut is comprised, your immune system is comprised as well, so leaky gut can worsen seasonal allergies as well as create new ones.
8. Mood Imbalances
Given over 80% of your serotonin (mood-boosting neurotransmitter) is housed in your gut, it is no wonder we call the gut the second brain. The intestinal wall of the gut contains a network of nerve fibers and neuron cell bodies that are influenced by signals from the brain, so what happens in your gut will directly affect your brain and vice versa. So one’s mood, in addition to symptoms such as depression and anxiety, has been shown to be affected by leaky gut.
9. Brain Fog or Lack of Concentration
In addition to mood, cognitive function is also linked to leaky gut. Some of the most common signs include increased confusion, an inability to focus, poor memory, or lack of mental clarity. The gut-brain axis exists between the gut and the brain and is dependent on the health of your gut and gut bacteria.
10. Hormonal Imbalances or PCOS
Hormonal imbalances such as PCOS are associated with chronic low-grade inflammation which is known to impact on insulin resistance and weight gain. However, it is the gut flora in the body that help to mitigate this inflammatory process and studies have shown that women with PCOS have a disrupted microbiome. Although it is unclear if leaky gut is the cause or the symptom, it is clear that it is part of the vicious cycle and only worsens the symptoms. If you have a disrupted microbiome then you are more likely to develop PCOS, and the excess androgens in PCOS can cause the microbiome to become worse.
Read part 1 and part 3 of my overview on gut health and learn how to heal leaky gut.
Part 3: How to Heal Leaky Gut