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Leaky gut syndrome is gaining momentum as a relevant root cause for many chronic conditions, especially in the field of functional medicine. Technically known as intestinal hyperpermeability in the medical field, this syndrome isn’t quite the leaking gut you may be picturing in your head.

A leaky gut occurs when there is damage to the gut lining of your intestinal barrier. People afflicted with stubborn health conditions such as inflammation, insulin resistance, asthma, allergies, weight gain, depression, ADHD, and autoimmune disease are rediscovering a new level of health by addressing a leaky gut. But what exactly is leaky gut, and how do you know if you have it?

Let’s start by going back to the beginning when your gut was developing in infancy.

An infant’s gut is leaky by design.

In the first few days of life outside the womb, the gut is intentionally hyperpermeable to allow pathogenic particles to pass into the bloodstream, which primes baby’s new immune system. Within these first seventy-two hours, the colostrum in the mother’s breast milk works to seal the leaky gut—sealing it enough to still be permeable for nutrition absorption but not hyperpermeable that it compromises proper immune function.

Did you know?

Seventy percent of the body’s immune system is in the gut lining and is in communication with our nervous system, including our brain (Oh, hello, gut-brain connection!). The mother’s breast milk seeds the infant’s gut with beneficial bacteria for a healthy microbiome—a critical step for preventing leaky gut complications into adulthood. Isn’t nature rad? But, even if all the magical steps of early life development are available, stressors of modern life beyond the baby stages can often take a toll on gut health.

Adult Causes of Leaky Gut

Stressors from medications (especially antibiotics and NSAIDs), environmental toxins, alcoholism, nutritional deficiencies (especially zinc and vitamin D), unaddressed emotional trauma, inflammatory food triggers (especially gluten and dairy), excessive exercise, and microbiome disruption are all factors that can cause leaky gut syndrome.

In 2012, research specifically identified a physiological link of leaky gut syndrome: damage to zonulin, a protein that moderates the permeability of the gut lining. When zonulin is compromised, it weakens the intestinal barrier. Food, bacteria, and waste particles—that are usually waiting to be eliminated and aren’t meant to exist outside the digestive tract—leak into the bloodstream, triggering the immune system to attack anything it doesn’t recognize. The immune system revs into overdrive, triggering an overabundance of antibodies that result in chronic inflammation. This is why leaky gut is the root cause of so many chronic conditions.

Signs and Symptoms of Leaky Gut Syndrome

Unique or more complex cases require a stool analysis, but many people can identify leaky gut by observing and documenting their symptoms without expensive testing. People with leaky gut often complain of constipation, gas, abdominal cramping, acid reflux, loose stools, or bloating. However, it is possible to have leaky gut and have no digestive complaints. Systemic inflammation symptoms such as swelling, irritability, fatigue, eczema, allergies, and brain fog are also signs of a leaky intestinal wall.

Lifestyle and nutrition changes addressing gut health often require a minimum commitment of three to six months. As a functional medicine coach/counselor, I work with clients as their advocate and to help them navigate their unique relationship toward improved gut care. Working with an experienced professional will increase your success of achieving lifelong healthy habits.

Whether or not you have the syndrome, these four food tips for a leaky gut diet can benefit everyone:

  • Use ghee instead of butter. It is free of casein and whey (two proteins that can be an irritating food trigger) and is high in a short-chain fatty acid (butyrate) that reduces inflammation.
  • Use bone stock/broth in your cooking. It contains amino acids such as glutamine, which is the most beneficial food for the cells lining the intestinal wall.
  • Eat cultured/fermented foods such as kimchi, sauerkraut, miso, raw apple cider vinegar, and pickles. These foods contain digestive enzymes that help digest and absorb nutrients, and they contain probiotics, too—the good bacteria your gut microbiome needs and the “army” that supports a healthy gut wall.
  • Remove gluten and dairy casein from your diet. These are the most common irritant food triggers for leaky gut and in some cases may need to be removed or limited for a lifetime. Dairy casein is commonly found in yogurt, kefir, cheese, ice cream, and other milk-based products.

It’s easy to understand the concept of how leaky gut occurs in the human body, but our modern lifestyles can make addressing the condition quite complex. Are your health issues stemming from your food choices, your lifestyle, the medications you take, the environment you live in? Phew! The list can go on and on. Thankfully, the functional medicine model has paved an evidence-based path for you to make sense of your unique root causes, so you can finally start to address your chronic conditions systemically and live a more healthful, productive life.