Leaky gut: What you need to know

Written by Katherine Maslen | 3 December, 2019

Gut health is so critical for our overall health, yet there are so many issues that we face day to day. One of the biggest issues that we encounter when it comes to gut health is excessive intestinal permeability, also known as ‘leaky gut’.

Leaky gut is used to describe an increase in the permeability or ‘leakiness’ of the intestinal wall. The intestinal wall is only one cell thick but has such a critical role for absorbing nutrients and preventing disease. This membrane helps to protect you from the outside world, allowing microscopic particles like glucose, amino acids and vitamins to pass through, while keeping other not so desirable things out.

First of all, it is important to note that some leakiness is normal. The permeability of the gut is tightly governed by a number of factors. Proteases and antiprotease enzymes work to regulate the intercellular junction proteins by cleaving them or activation of specific receptors. Proteases also regulate the activity of specific cytokines and growth factors which play a role too.

One of the known components in the regulation of gut permeability is zonulin. Zonulin is a protein that is produced on the gut wall. In healthy levels, zonulin helps to control the balance between absorption and protection. An increase in zonulin leads to an activation of a pathway that causes disassembly of the tight paracellular junctions between the gut epithelial cells. In simple terms, this makes your gut more ‘leaky’ and allows bigger molecules to pass through.

The reason leaky gut is such a huge issue is that the components that pass through the intestinal wall that do not belong in the human body, begin to cause inflammation and immune dysregulation. Leaky gut is associated with inflammation, including neuroinflammation, autoimmune conditions and liver disease.

One of the components that have been shown to be problematic are lipopolysaccharides (LPS). LPS are part of the outer membrane of bacteria and it is then released when they die (as billions do each day). When they are released into the bloodstream, they can trigger the inflammatory cascade and may also affect the thyroid, and even trigger depression.

The other major issue is whole bacteria, and their DNA, passing through into the bloodstream. This is thought to be a large contributing factor to the development of autoimmune disease and the subsequent chronic immune dysregulation as a result of this.

What can we do about it?

Leaky gut is becoming increasingly common due to several factors, many of which we can begin to change right away.

Ditch gluten

It is now well known that gluten, which is found in wheat products, spelt, Kamut, barley and rye, increases zonulin levels. A gluten-free diet is therefore very important when it comes to trying to repair a leaky gut.

Drink bone broth

Bone broth contains collagen, which helps to provide the building blocks for tissue healing. Make some organic bone broth and have 2-3 cups a day to assist in healing any inflamed or damaged tissue in the gut.

Restore your microbiome

Alterations in the microbiome can lead to leaky gut due to the dysfunction triggering local inflammation, which leads to increases in permeability. To enhance the microbiome, look to avoid sugar and wheat products, and increase beneficial fibre in the form of fruit, vegetables, gluten-free whole grains, nuts, seeds and legumes.

Have a solid stress reduction plan

Studies show us that when we are stressed, it directly impacts our gut permeability via several mechanisms. It is important to help to keep stress levels low, and to ensure the body has adequate periods of relaxation to allow for gut healing. Including meditation, time in nature and being conscious about what you need to stay out of stress is very important.

Get some support

A naturopath is an excellent choice when it comes to healing leaky gut, restoring the gut function and microbiome health. Herbal medicines can be used to help you deal with stress more effectively, modulate the microbiome, reduce inflammation and heal the intestinal membrane. Probiotics and nutritional support can also be very useful, but make sure you know what you’re getting.

When it comes to leaky gut, a multifaceted approach is best. We need to be aware of all of the factors, and actively act to support this vital part of us that prevents disease.

For more on gut health, check out Katherine's podcast The Shift, with season 1 being all about gut health. 

Please note, everyone’s body is different so we recommend seeing a professional before undergoing a diet or lifestyle change.

Katherine Maslen

Katherine is a mother, clinical naturopath and nutritionist, entrepreneur and leader in the natural health space. Katherine has a unique story; after overcoming a violent childhood with domestic violence and a heroin addiction by the age of 15, she discovered natural health and healing, worked on her own recovery and has been a passionate health advocate ever since. It is through making her own shifts and guiding thousands of people through their health journeys that has lead Katherine to become a force for good in the natural health industry.

Katherine is the author of the best-selling book Get Well, Stay Well and the host of the world-renowned podcast, The Shift. The Shift is the first of its kind – and audio-documentary series featuring 25 world experts with season one focusing on gut health.

Katherine is on a mission to change the face of health and to empower people to take responsibility for their own health and healing journey. She is a regular media commentator, international speaker and the founder of Shift – the world's first natural health membership service available online and in their Australian clinics.

Read more by Katherine Maslen

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