Leaky gut, also known as intestinal permeability, has been linked to a variety of health concerns including IBS, headaches and migraines, skin conditions, and autoimmune disease– to name a few. What is leaky gut and how does it lead to these health concerns?

Understanding the Gut
If we looked at the inner lining of our gut (small & large intestines) with a microscope, we would see a single layer of cells that are held closely together by proteins called tight junctions. Altogether, this single layer of cells is called the intestinal epithelium and it plays an important role in the digestion of food, absorption of nutrients, and offers us protection from microbial infections.         

How Leaky Gut Occurs
Leaky gut occurs when there is enough damage to the layer of cells causing the tight junctions to separate. This separation results in openings between cells allowing unwanted items through the cell layer that normally wouldn’t pass through. This is where the term “leaky gut” comes from.
Some of the most common causes of leaky gut include: medications (antibiotics, advil, aspirin, stomach acid medication, birth control pills), stress, infections, overconsumption of alcohol, IBD (Crohn’s & Ulcerative colitis), and Celiac Disease.

What Leaks Through That Shouldn’t?
1. Food protein molecules – normally food is broken down into its small protein molecules in order to be absorbed through the intestinal epithelium. When there is leaky gut, larger undigested protein complexes are now able to pass through the cell layer.

2. Bacterial toxins – “Bad” bacteria that cause infections have molecules on their outer membrane called LPS (lipopolysaccharides). LPS is a bacterial toxin, or endotoxin. Normally the gut epithelium is an effective barrier preventing LPS from passing through, but when there is leaky gut, the bacteria’s toxin can pass through the gut barrier and enter the blood stream.

How Does Leaky Gut Contribute to Autoimmune Disease?
Autoimmunity happens when our immune system mistakenly attacks our own tissue and organs. This occurs under a state of immune system overactivity.

Our genetics predispose us to developing an autoimmune condition, however recent research suggests that only about one-third of an individual’s risk of developing autoimmunity is due to genetics. The remaining two-thirds is due to environmental factors such as diet, chemicals, pathogens (bacteria, viruses, parasites, mold), and leaky gut.

Leaky gut allows undigested food proteins and bacterial toxins to pass through the damaged intestinal lining and enter the blood stream evoking an immune response. This immune response can become overactive and lead to the mistaken attack on our own tissues and organs, therefore developing an autoimmune condition.  

Dr. Stephanie Liebrecht, BSc, ND
Naturopathic Doctor