Leaky Gut Syndrome: Origins, Causes, Symptoms and Treatment

The concept of a leaky gut is confusing and odd-sounding. It evokes an image of a tin pail riddled with holes, or a faucet with a constant drip. How can our guts be leaky?
Let's start with normal digestion. The intestines are not solid barriers, as tin pails and faucets tend to be, but are permeable - like filters. The digestive tract serves as a filtering system, much like the ones people use in their homes to purify water.


A healthy filtering system has a wall of cells which are closely bound together in what are called tight junctions. This filtering system has three important jobs:

  1. Absorb food filtered through the intestinal wall.
  2. Serve as a protective barrier by preventing the passage of toxins, partially digested food, bacteria, yeast, and viruses into the blood stream. These larger molecules are too big to properly filter through and are shuttled to the large intestine where they are expelled.
  3. Act as a key element of the immune system.

Now that you’re able to picture a healthy gut, let’s compare it to a leaky gut. Have you ever gone camping and tried to purify water that was filled with sludge and debris? Even if you haven't, try to imagine filtering drain pipe run-off in your home Brita filter. It probably wouldn't be something to serve to friends. Those with leaky gut syndrome have malfunctioning intestinal filters, often caused by what they have been forced to filter.

Digestive tracts can be stressed by undetected food allergies, overuse of antibiotics, and excessive alcohol consumption, among other things. Over time, these stressors wear microscopic holes that allow toxins and undigested food to enter into the blood stream. This triggers a defensive reaction from the liver, lymphatic system, and an immune response. White blood cells attack the undigested food and inflammation increases. Cells that make up the wall of a healthy small intestine are closely bound together. The stress of increasing inflammation causes these tight junctions to give way and gaps appear between the cells.  This is the essence of a leaky gut. 

Once our filtering system begins to fail, its job performance suffers:

The gut cannot absorb nutrients properly, leading to malnutrition and nutrient deficiencies.

The protective barrier is compromised and toxins, partially digested food, bacteria, yeast and viruses enter the blood stream. However, with increased permeability, it is not only the “sludge” and “debris” that cause problems. Healthy foods can trigger immune responses as they escape through our permeable gut into our blood stream. Our immune system begins to label these healthy foods as toxins too. What may have initially been only one food allergy or sensitivity could turn into many.

Additionally, nutrient absorption dysfunction leaves our immune system constantly activated and overstressed. An overstressed immune system can potentially cause an autoimmune illness such as rheumatoid arthritis or thyroid problems.

So, how do we know if we have a leaky gut? Since 70% of our immune system is located in our digestive tract, poor digestion and absorption becomes a systemic problem - our whole body feels the effects. This is why discovering and treating a leaky gut is so important.
While the following is not an exhaustive list of symptoms or systems affected by a leaky gut, here are some of the most common: abdominal pain, diarrhea/constipation, asthma, chronic join/muscle pain, skin rashes, acne, eczema, migraines, fuzzy or foggy thinking, mood swings, poor memory, aggressive behavior, anxiety, fatigue, poor immunity, and bed wetting.


Michael Pollan, one of the more recent critics of the industrial food system, has commented that “populations that eat a so-called Western diet (including commercially prepared and stored foods)...invariably suffer from high rates of the so-called Western diseases: obesity, type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and cancer.[...].Four of the top ten killers in America are chronic diseases linked to this diet.” (Food Rules, xii) As Michael Pollan sarcastically quipped in his most recent book, Westerners “have developed the one diet that reliably makes its people sick!” (Food Rules, xiii) But what are we excluding or including in our diets that is making us so sick that some of us even have holes in our guts to prove it? The following are a few examples of the general causes of a permeable digestive tract:

  1. Chronic Inflammation
    Induced by stress, IBS, or a food allergy, chronic inflammation is one of the biggest causes of a leaky gut.
  2. Antibiotics
    Excessive use of antibiotics harms our guts in two ways. Firstly, antibiotics kill beneficial bacteria, which is responsible for metabolizing wastes and building immunity, causing our bodies to be more susceptible to leaky gut syndrome. Secondly, antibiotics promote the growth of Candida, one of the largest contributors to the development of leaky gut syndrome.
  3. Excessive alcohol consumption
    Alcohol consumption can irritate the stomach and intestinal lining and can impair some of our body’s natural reparative defenses called Prostaglandins. 
  4. Food Sensitivities/allergies
    Food sensitivities can cause inflammation and worsen a leaky gut. Food sensitivities are also symptoms of a leaky gut because once our digestive tract becomes permeable, additional food sensitivities may develop.

 Leaky gut syndrome is implicated in many other serious health complications, such as: Rheumatoid arthritis, ADD, ADHD, Autism, Schizophrenia, Crohn's disease, and IBD.

So how do we “mend” the leak? Luckily, most elements of a leaky gut are often tied to a food allergy, so the discovery and removal of certain foods can drastically improve our health. After the offending food is removed, many health practitioners recommend taking additional supplements to strengthen your digestive tract. Once we know what food is causing us problems, we can jump start our healing with some natural remedies such as, supplements such as quercetin and curcumin and vitamin D. 

One of the most commonly used food allergy tests and healing agents for leaky gut syndrome are stool samples. They serve as excellent barometers of human health. Since the majority of the body's immune cells are present in the intestinal tract, a stool sample is the best place to search for evidence of food allergies. 

Fortunately, The Salveo Diagnostics Gut Health Assessment is a simple, inexpensive stool-based test that can be taken at home. This stool test will tell you if you have a leaky gut and if you do, how severe it is. It tests for gut inflammation by checking for indicators such as Eosinophil Protein X, which is a glycoprotein that is released when fighting infectious parasites and bacteria. Increased levels of it may reflect infection, inflammation, and tissue damage caused by food allergies. Salveo Diagnostics Gut Health Assessment also tests for intestinal permeability, among a few other things, by checking for levels of Zonulin, a protein which regulates the permeability of tight junctions. Increased levels of this indicates bacterial or fungal overgrowth. To take The Salveo Diagnostics Gut Health Assessment, please contact Gary Merel at garymerel@annarborholistichealth.com or call 734-222-8210.