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(Woodpath is an education site focused exclusively on gut health. Our articles are researched by clinical nutritionists and contain citations at the end of the page.)

Leaky gut syndrome (or intestinal permeability) is a condition where the gut lining is compromised with microscopic holes, allowing partially digested food into the bloodstream.

Similar to having a leaky pipe in your home — which can lead to dangerous mold and ruined floorboards — a leaky gut can create a host of health problems, spurring several inflammatory reactions, including hyper-immunity and autoimmunity. (Bischoff, et al., 2014)

The digestive system is an incredibly complex set of organs, bacteria, signaling chemicals, and gastric juices, working together to transform ingredients from the outside world (your food) into usable fuel for the body.

When this process breaks down, disease can ensue.

The bottom of this page contains product recommendations. First, let's learn the science so we understand which to choose.

Leaky gut supplements

Gut healing supplements can support your body’s ability to heal and seal your digestive tract and remedy digestive issues.

You may want to consider supplementing your natural stomach acids with hydrochloric acid (HCl). This can support your digestive process and help increase the likelihood that the food you're eating is as well-digested as possible before it hits your small intestine.

Other leaky gut supplements you might consider are those that help rebuild the mucosal membrane and reduce inflammation. These include:

  • Marshmallow root
  • Deglycyrrhizinated licorice root (DGL)
  • Slippery elm
  • Aloe vera

Various nutrients are essential for restoring the integrity of the gut lining and supporting immune modulation. These include:

  • Vitamin A
  • Zinc
  • Vitamin D
  • L-glutamine

Specific probiotic strains are known to improve tight junction integrity:

  • Lactobacillus rhamnosus GG
  • Lactobacillus salivarius UCC118 and CCUUG38008
  • Saccharomyces cerevisiae var boulardii
  • E. coli Nissle 1917 (Mutaflor)
  • Lactobacilus casei Shirota (Yakult)
  • Lactobacillus casei DN-114 001

(Hechtman, et al., 2018)

The final set of supplements to consider are natural anti-inflammatory and antibacterial herbs and acids.

These are especially important if you experience signs of SIBO, food allergies, joint pain, or candida overgrowth. They include:

  • Caprylic acid (anti-inflammatory and  antimicrobial/fungal)
  • Turmeric (anti-inflammatory)
  • Berberine (anti-microbial and helps to reduce endotoxin)
  • Pomegranate husk (anti-microbial and anti-inflammatory)
  • Ginger (anti-inflammatory, pro-motility and antimicrobial/fungal)
  • Cardamom (anti-inflammatory)
  • Thyme (antimicrobial/fungal)
  • Fish oil (anti-inflammatory)

We'll recommend specific products at the bottom of the article.

Functional foods

Functional foods (like bone broth) and fermented foods contribute some of the raw ingredients to get you started in the healing process.

Amino acids in bone broth help form collagen, an essential protein in rebuilding the gut lining (and the most prevalent type of protein in your entire body), while probiotics and enzymes help improve the digestive process and microbiome related immune function.

If these functional foods don't work for you, you might consider trying probiotic supplements, digestive enzyme capsules, collagen powders, or l-glutamine on its own.

Proper Approach to Treatment

It's important to work with a professional to help you identify your symptoms and the best course of action for you as an individual.

If you're suffering from a mood disorder or chronic fatigue, for example, your treatment plan should not only address the root cause of the problem. It should also come with emotional support and possibly some herbal supplements to help boost your mood and energy levels in the meantime.

If you're dealing with food intolerances or sensitivities, work with a professional to try an elimination diet and understand which foods you need to remove as you heal. Then strategically and systematically reintroduce them after you've treated your leaky gut.

In just about all cases, supplements alone won't be enough. Leaky gut can be a chronic issue (and can result in chronic health challenges). It may, therefore, require on-going lifestyle changes.

Symptoms

Before repairing a leaky gut, it’s important to know if that is, indeed, what you have.

Your doctor will be able to identify if your symptoms are potentially caused by leaky gut. However, here are some common symptoms and associated conditions:

  • IBS-like symptoms (constipation, diarrhea, feelings of incomplete bowel movements, bloating, and cramps)
  • Inflammatory bowel diseases (celiac, Crohn’s disease, ulcerative colitis, etc.)
  • SIBO (Small Intestinal Bacterial Overgrowth)
  • Candida overgrowth (yeast infections, thrush, breakouts, jock itch)
  • Hormonal imbalances (PCOS, PMS, and estrogen dominance)
  • Nutrient deficiencies
  • Unexplained weight gain or weight loss
  • Difficulty losing weight (despite eating healthy)
  • Migraines
  • Brain fog
  • Mood disorders like depression and anxiety (Mayer, 2011)
  • Autism spectrum disorders (de Magistris, et al., 2010)
  • Asthma
  • Joint pain
  • Chronic fatigue syndrome/HPA axis dysfunction (Rao et al., 2009)
  • Skin conditions (rosacea, acne, eczema, psoriasis)
  • Allergies, food sensitivities, hypersensitivity, and food intolerances (Vighi et al., 2008)
  • Autoimmune disease (lupus, Hashimoto’s, Grave's,  rheumatoid arthritis, type I diabetes, etc.) (Vaarala, 2008)

What Causes Leaky Gut?

A widely agreed-upon link to leaky gut is chronic inflammation. A confounding issue is the circular nature of the condition: inflammation causes leaky gut, and leaky gut causes inflammation. So which comes first?

The Standard American Diet (SAD) is high in processed sugars, fats, and meats. It’s also relatively devoid of nutrient-dense foods (fruits, veggies, organic meats and dairy, and fermented foods). This type of pro-inflammatory diet can wreak havoc on the gut microbiome, creating an imbalance of good and bad bacteria — known as dysbiosis.

Good bacteria, also known as "probiotics,” feed on vegetable fibers and other nutritious foods, while the more harmful bacteria (the ones that cause inflammation in the large intestine) feed on sugars, refined carbohydrates, and excess or undigested proteins and fats.

If the inflammatory-causing bacteria begin outnumbering the probiotics, they can break down the mucosal barrier and create irritation and inflammation to the epithelial tissue that lines the gut. This can loosen the tight junctions that seal the gut wall and allow partially digested proteins and toxins through the intestinal lining.

Once the undigested proteins (and bad bacteria along with them) break through and enter the bloodstream or the lymph, it sets off an inflammatory immune response that can lead to the list of symptoms and conditions listed above, including an overactive immune system or one that is geared towards autoimmunity. (Bischoff et al., 2014)

The Gut-Brain Axis

Other risk factors for leaky gut include chronic emotional and environmental stress. There's a well-established link between the gut and the brain (called the gut-brain axis), through which the brain and the gut communicate.

This is another question of which comes first. Research has shown that the lines of communication are active in both directions, with the gut communicating back to the brain just as often as the reverse.

There's a reason you get a nervous stomach before a big competition or presentation. There's a reason that digestive problems accompany most mood disorders — because of the feedback loop between the gut and the brain. (Mayer, 2011)

Calming things down emotionally, finding ways to manage your stress, and consistently getting a good night's sleep will all contribute to your body's ability to heal leaky gut.

Healthy digestion is the cornerstone to good health. When the digestive tract starts leaking, seemingly unrelated issues can arise. Consult with your healthcare practitioner about your best treatment options. This may include diet and lifestyle changes, supplements, and, potentially, medication.

Product Recommendations

If you and your healthcare practitioner decide that supplements are right for you, we recommend the following:

And, as always, you can get gut updates and stunning nature imagery from our popular Facebook page. Also, scroll down for our best gut articles.

Research Citations

  • Bischoff S.C., Barbara G., Buurman W., Ockhuizen T., Schulzke J-D., Serino M., Tilg H., Watson A., Wells J.M. Intestinal permeability – a new target for disease prevention and therapy. BMC Gastroenterology. 2014; 14: 189. Published online 2014 Nov 18. doi: 10.1186/s12876-014-0189-7. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4253991/
  • Mayer E.A. Gut feelings: the emerging biology of gut–brain communication. Nature reviews. Neuroscience. Author manuscript; available in PMC 2013 Dec 2. Published in final edited form as: Nat Rev Neurosci. 2011 Jul 13; 12(8): 10.1038/nrn3071. Published online 2011 Jul 13. doi: 10.1038/nrn3071. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3845678/
  • de Magistris, Familiari V, Pascotto A, Sapone A, Frolli A, Iardino P, Carteni M, De Rosa M, Francavilla R, Riegler G, Militerni R, Bravaccio C. Alterations of the intestinal barrier in patients with autism spectrum disorders and in their first-degree relatives. Journal of pediatric gastroenterology and nutrition. 2010 Oct;51(4):418-24. doi: 10.1097/MPG.0b013e3181dcc4a5. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/20683204
  • Rao A.V, Bested A.C., Beaulne T.M., Katzman M.A., Lorio C., Berardi J.M. & Logan A.C. A randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled pilot study of a probiotic in emotional symptoms of chronic fatigue syndrome. Gut pathogens. 2009; 1: 6. Published online 2009 Mar 19. doi: 10.1186/1757-4749-1-6. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2664325/
  • Vighi G., Marcucci F., Sensi L., Di Cara G., Frati F. Allergy and the gastrointestinal system. Clinical and experimental immunology. 2008 Sep; 153(Suppl 1): 3–6. doi: 10.1111/j.1365-2249.2008.03713.x. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2515351/
  • Vaarala O. Leaking gut in type 1 diabetes. Current opinion in gastroenterology. 2008 Nov;24(6):701-6. doi: 10.1097/MOG.0b013e32830e6d98. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/19122519
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