Symptoms of Leaky Gut

Support gut health to improve symptoms of leaky gut.

Leaky gut can cause a wide variety of symptoms, both in the digestive system and in the rest of the body. But to improve the symptoms of leaky gut, it’s not necessary to try to address all those symptoms individually. Because leaky gut syndrome is more of a side effect of a gut imbalance, working to improve your overall gut health will improve your leaky gut symptoms.

What is Leaky Gut?

Leaky gut, also called “intestinal permeability” or “gut hyperpermeability”, is when the tight junctions between the cells that line your small intestine loosen.

Most of your nutrition is absorbed through the cells of your small intestine. Natural digestive enzymes help prepare the food you eat to be absorbed in the digestive system. But inflammation of the gut lining and gastrointestinal tract from poor diet, [1] stress, [2] NSAIDs (nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs) such as ibuprofen or aspirin, [3, 4, 5] alcohol, [6] or other causes can cause larger gaps to develop. These irritants increase a protein called zonulin, which causes gaps in the intestinal lining to open up.

Undigested food particles, bacteria, or other irritants can then “leak” through the gaps in your intestinal wall and into your bloodstream. This can cause an unwelcome immune response. These food particles and bacteria are thought to contribute to the wide variety of leaky gut symptoms.

Symptoms of Leaky Gut

The immune response that results from leaky gut can lead to a wide variety of digestive and non-digestive symptoms.

Because leaky gut is often caused by digestive issues, the most common are gut symptoms. These include:

  • Gas and bloating
  • Diarrhea or constipation
  • Heartburn or reflux
  • Symptoms from digestive disorders like celiac disease, inflammatory bowel disease (IBD), irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), colitis, and Crohn’s disease.

Many of these symptoms and digestive disorders are associated with an overgrowth of bacteria or other microorganisms, and the gut inflammation that they cause. This irritation of the gut lining can be a main cause of leaky gut symptoms.

However, because leaky gut allows unwelcome undigested food particles and bacterial fragments to enter your bloodstream, symptoms can also occur elsewhere in the body as your immune system tries to get rid of these intruders. As the immune system responds, it releases compounds called inflammatory cytokines, which create inflammation. Depending on where in your body this battle is happening, it can lead to a variety of inflammatory symptoms.

Here are some of the non-gut symptoms that are associated with leaky gut:

Body SystemLeaky Gut SymptomsResearch
Brain/Neurological Brain fog 7
Joints Joint pain 8,9,10
Energy Production Fatigue (especially after eating) or chronic fatigue 11,12,13
Immune System Food sensitivities or food allergies 14,15,16
Digestive Food cravings, especially for carbs 17
Brain/Neurological Mood symptoms like anxiety and depression 18,19,20
Skin Skin irritation or lesions, like acne or rashes 21,22,23,24
Blood Nutritional deficiencies, like anemia 25,26

The Link Between Leaky Gut and Diseases

Many digestive and autoimmune disorders are associated with a leaky gut, but it is not yet clear whether leaky gut causes all autoimmune disease, as some claim.

Symptoms of a general digestive disorder—like irritable bowel syndrome, for example—are also symptoms of leaky gut.

There is clear evidence linking celiac disease and Crohn’s disease with increased intestinal permeability. When a person with celiac disease consumes gluten, there is a very immediate and clear increase in leaky gut along with digestive symptoms. [27] Likewise, when a Crohn’s disease patient is having a flare, their intestinal permeability clearly increases, and appears to decrease as their symptom flare resolves. [28]

There is suggestive evidence linking other forms of inflammatory bowel disease, like ulcerative colitis, autoimmune disorders like rheumatoid arthritis and Hashimoto’s thyroiditis, ankylosing spondylitis, and chronic fatigue syndrome with intestinal permeability. [29,30,31,32,33,34,35,36]

In fact, it’s been suggested that intestinal permeability may be associated with the onset of Type 1 diabetes [37], and that even the arterial inflammation of cardiovascular disease may be caused by leaky gut. [38] Research is still in the early phases, and it is difficult at this stage to make generalizations.

Some in the alternative medical community claim that all autoimmune disease is caused by leaky gut. The research data do not yet support this claim. At this time, it’s not clear whether autoimmune disease is preceded by leaky gut, or if leaky gut is a consequence of the disease. There is an association, but not clear causation.

In any event, if you have a digestive or autoimmune health condition, improving your gut health will likely improve your intestinal permeability and symptoms of leaky gut as well.

Leaky Gut Causes and Risk Factors

A few key risk factors increase your likelihood of having a leaky gut. Research does indicate that the following factors increase your risk of having a leaky gut.

Risk FactorResearch
Poor diet high in sugar, carbs, or processed foods. A diet with gluten may increase your risk, especially if you are celiac or have Crohn’s disease39,40
Chronic stress 41,42
Frequent use of NSAIDs or alcohol 43,44,45
Lack of quality sleep46
Over-exercising or overtraining47
Gut infections, like SIBO or dysbiosis48,49,50,51

How to Improve Symptoms of Leaky Gut

Even though leaky gut isn’t a recognized diagnosis, anything you do to improve digestive symptoms will indirectly improve symptoms of leaky gut.

There are three main categories of supports:

  1. Diet Changes
  2. Habit Changes
  3. Key Supplements

Diet Changes

With any gut health problem, improving your diet is one of the most important steps. This is because if you continue to eat things you have a food intolerance to, you continue to create gut inflammation and irritation. I like to use this example: If your skin reacts to a deodorant you’re using, you wouldn’t go get a prescription for cortisone cream. You would find a different brand that didn’t cause a reaction!

Three diets that show promise for helping heal a leaky gut are the low FODMAP diet, the Paleo diet, and a gluten-free diet, but no single diet is right for everyone. It’s important to find an anti-inflammatory diet template that works for your body.

Working with a nutritionist or health coach may help you find the right diet plan faster.

Habit Changes

Many people get wooed with fancy supplement protocols and special diets, but some simple changes to your behavior can significantly improve leaky gut. You don’t need to necessarily do ALL these things to experience a benefit. Chances are there are one or two of these options that you know are most out of balance.

  • Reduce stress, however best works for you
  • Get regular, moderate exercise
  • Get enough sleep, ideally 7-9 hours per night
  • Reduce alcohol consumption
  • Use alternatives to NSAIDs (nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs)

Supplements to Heal Leaky Gut

There are lots of leaky gut supplements that benefit the intestinal barrier function and gut health. The top three I encourage you to start with are probiotics, l-glutamine, and vitamin D.

SupplementBenefit
Probiotics Good gut flora that encourages a healthy gut microbiome, which helps maintain a healthy intestinal barrier. [52, 53, 54, 55]
L-Glutamine Amino acid that has a significant body of research showing its restorative properties for the gut lining, especially during stress. [56, 57]
Vitamin DHelps maintain immune system balance in the gut and prevent gut health problems. I recommend safe sun exposure for increasing your vitamin D levels.

Conclusion

Leaky gut can cause symptoms both in the digestive tract and beyond. But this doesn’t mean that improving symptoms of leaky gut is difficult.

It’s not necessary to try to work separately on all the symptoms of leaky gut. Rather, a general approach to improve overall gut health, by focusing on eating an anti-inflammatory diet, adopting good self-care habits, and using a few key support supplements should improve your leaky gut symptoms.

References (click to expand)
  1.  2009 Sep;20(9):657-62. doi: 10.1016/j.jnutbio.2009.05.006.
  2.  2011 Dec;62(6):591-9.
  3.  2017 Jun 14;23(22):3954-3963. doi: 10.3748/wjg.v23.i22.3954.
  4.  2005 Jan;3(1):55-9.
  5.  1993 Jun;104(6):1832-47.
  6.  2006 Apr;168(4):1148-54.
  7.  2011;6(12):e28330. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0028330. Epub 2011 Dec 2.
  8.  1989 Aug;3(2):271-84.
  9.  2016 Dec 17;17(12). pii: E2126. doi: 10.3390/ijms17122126.
  10.  1984 Nov 24;2(8413):1171-4.
  11.  2008 Dec;29(6):902-10.
  12.  2007 Dec;28(6):739-44.
  13.  2008 Feb;29(1):117-24.
  14.  2006 Oct;38(10):732-6. Epub 2006 Jul 31.
  15.  1994 Sep;43(3):87-8.
  16.  2009 Jul;124(1):3-20; quiz 21-2. doi: 10.1016/j.jaci.2009.05.038.
  17.  2019 Jul 20;11(7). pii: E1662. doi: 10.3390/nu11071662.
  18.  2019 Aug 31;18(1):50. doi: 10.1186/s12937-019-0475-x.
  19.  2012 Dec 1;141(1):55-62. doi: 10.1016/j.jad.2012.02.023. Epub 2012 Mar 11.
  20.  2008 Feb;29(1):117-24.
  21.  2014 Jun 1;5(2):185-99. doi: 10.3920/BM2012.0060.
  22.  1981 Jun 13;1(8233):1285-6.
  23.  1986 Feb;86(2):101-4.
  24.  2005 Apr;3(4):335-41.
  25.  2007 Jan;39(1):20-2.
  26.  1992 Jan;14(1):17-20.
  27.  2016 Oct 21;4(4):e1251384. doi: 10.1080/21688370.2016.1251384. eCollection 2016.
  28.  2015;2015:628157. doi: 10.1155/2015/628157. Epub 2015 Oct 25.
  29.  2016 Dec 17;17(12). pii: E2126. doi: 10.3390/ijms17122126.
  30.  2009 Sep 29;106(39):16799-804. doi: 10.1073/pnas.0906773106. Epub 2009 Sep 15.
  31.  2016;22(40):6058-6075.
  32.  1984 Nov 24;2(8413):1171-4.
  33.  2008 Aug;47(8):1223-7. doi: 10.1093/rheumatology/ken140. Epub 2008 Jun 7.
  34.  2016 Oct 21;4(4):e1251384. doi: 10.1080/21688370.2016.1251384. eCollection 2016.
  35.  2020 Jan 28. doi: 10.4274/jcrpe.galenos.2020.2019.0186. [Epub ahead of print]
  36.  2006 Apr;41(4):408-19.
  37.  2016;22(40):6058-6075.
  38.  2020 Jan 2. doi: 10.1111/1440-1681.13250. [Epub ahead of print]
  39.  2017 Dec 1;75(12):1046-1058. doi: 10.1093/nutrit/nux054.
  40.  2019 Feb 20;14(2):e0211436. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0211436. eCollection 2019.
  41.  2014 Aug;63(8):1293-9. doi: 10.1136/gutjnl-2013-305690. Epub 2013 Oct 23.
  42.  2017 Aug;46(3):246-265. doi: 10.1111/apt.14157. Epub 2017 Jun 7.
  43.  2017 Jun 14;23(22):3954-3963. doi: 10.3748/wjg.v23.i22.3954.
  44.  2005 Jan;3(1):55-9.
  45.  1993 Jun;104(6):1832-47.
  46.  2017 Dec;46(4):881-893. doi: 10.1016/j.gtc.2017.08.014.
  47.  2017 Aug;46(3):246-265. doi: 10.1111/apt.14157. Epub 2017 Jun 7.
  48.  2020 Feb;27(1):28-35. doi: 10.1097/MED.0000000000000523.
  49.  2009 Sep 29;106(39):16799-804. doi: 10.1073/pnas.0906773106. Epub 2009 Sep 15.
  50.  2002 Nov;123(5):1607-15.
  51.  2017 Jun;76(6):1123-1132. doi: 10.1136/annrheumdis-2016-210000. Epub 2017 Jan 9.
  52.  2012 Sep 20;9(1):45. doi: 10.1186/1550-2783-9-45.
  53.  2009 Feb 16;9:15. doi: 10.1186/1471-230X-9-15.
  54.  2013 Oct;172(10):1321-6. doi: 10.1007/s00431-013-2041-4. Epub 2013 May 24.
  55.  2018 Apr 25;6(2). pii: E35. doi: 10.3390/microorganisms6020035.
  56.  1996 Mar;83(3):305-12.
  57.  2012 Jan;5(Suppl 1-M7):47-54.

Need help or would like to learn more?
View Dr. Ruscio’s additional resources

Get Help

Discussion

I care about answering your questions and sharing my knowledge with you. Leave a comment or connect with me on social media asking any health question you may have and I just might incorporate it into our next listener questions podcast episode just for you!