What are the causes of leaky gut syndrome? Symptoms, tests, treatment, and diet

leaky gut syndromeLeaky gut syndrome is a risk factor for celiac disease and other autoimmune diseases. Leaky gut syndrome is not a fully-recognized condition across medical boards, but there is a theory that ingesting too many antibiotics or painkillers damage the mucosal barrier that lines the intestines. The purpose of the barrier is to allow nutrients in but keep harmful bacteria out.

In leaky gut syndrome, nutrients and harmful bacteria enter the bloodstream, which leads to inflammation throughout the body.

Leaky gut syndrome, celiac disease, and autoimmune diseases


An autoimmune disease is when the immune system mistakenly targets healthy cells as bad ones, so it essentially begins to attack itself. In celiac disease, the body targets gluten as being bad, thus contributing to inflammation, abdominal pain, and even diarrhea, just to name a few.

Gluten is protein found in grains—most commonly wheat. It holds together the nutrients in the plant it is located in. It is also commonly used as a binder in other foods due to its stickiness. When we consume gluten, our intestines work to break it down into its building blocks, known as gliadin and glutenin.

As gluten makes its way through the digestive system, the digestive immune system checks it for harmful substances. In individuals who don’t have issues with gluten, it passes like normal. In a person with celiac or another autoimmune disease, it causes discomfort.

A gluten intolerance can lead to leaky gut syndrome because, while the immune system is continuously fighting and attacking gluten, the gut is releasing zonulin—a protein that breaks tight junctions apart. It is these broken junctions that cause leaky gut.

Worse yet, the same antibodies that attack gluten can also attack other parts of the body, such as the thyroid or even the skin. For this reason, having celiac disease can contribute to a higher risk of developing a second autoimmune disease as well.

Causes of leaky gut

The is no singular cause for leaky gut syndrome, but there are several possible reasons for its occurrence. The following are such causes:

Chronic Stress

Stress is a normal part of life, and when the body is exposed to it for prolonged periods of time, it can lead to changes in the immune system. Our immune system is designed in such a way to quickly respond to any perceived harm to the body and chronic stress can harm the body in the long run. The immune system produces less IgA antibodies and less DHEA (an anti-stress hormone) in response to stress. The body itself slows down digestion and peristalsis, reducing blood flow to digestive organs and producing toxic metabolites. It is important to try to limit stress throughout the day, as over time, our bodies will not be able to compensate, leading to conditions such as leaky gut syndrome.


This refers to a microbial imbalance in the body. Organisms such as candida have the ability to push their way into the lining of the intestinal wall and break down the brush boarding of the gut, which is responsible for nutrient absorption. Other organisms such as blastocysts hominids, giardia, helicobacter, salmonella, shigella, Yersinia enterocolitis, amoebas, and other parasites also have the ability to irritate the intestinal lining leading to gastrointestinal symptoms.

Environmental contaminants

We are constantly exposed to external chemicals that put stress on the immune system and the body as a whole. This constant exposure makes the body allocate resources to help repair any damaged caused as a result, leading to a delay of necessary routine repairs elsewhere in the body. Environmental chemicals deplete our reserves of buffering minerals, causing acidosis in the cells and tissue, leading to cell swelling, which can lead to leaky cells.

Overconsumption of alcoholic beverages

Alcohol contains empty calories, as it contains very few nutrients to metabolize. The fact of the matter is alcoholic beverages contain substances that are toxic to our cells, which gets metabolized by our livers and then stored in the body. Alcohol is well known for putting undue strain on our livers, which affects our ability to effectively digest food. It also can damage the intestinal tract.

Poor food choices

An unhealthy diet can have a negative effect on the body over time. Not eating enough fiber increases the amount of time the stool remains in the gut, allowing for toxic by-products of digestion to concentrate and irritate the gut mucosa. Highly processed foods are pumped full of chemicals and preservatives, which can also irritate the gut lining, not to mention their usually poor nutrition value.

Use of medication

The use of over the counter painkillers, such as Advil or aspirin, can damage the brush borders of the intestines. This may allow for microbes, partially digested food particles, and toxins to enter the bloodstream. Other medications such as prescribed steroids or even the birth control pill can help feed fungi, which can damage the gut lining. Medications involved in chemotherapy are notorious for significantly disrupting the gastrointestinal balance.

Food and environmental sensitivities

Being sensitive to certain foods can be a cause of leaky gut syndrome. It is estimated that 24 percent of Americans today have some sort of food or environmental sensitivity. These sensitivities, also called delayed hypersensitivity reactions, differ from true food allergies, also called type I or immediate hypersensitivity reactions.


Primarily found in legumes and can induce an immune reaction though the production of mast cells that release histamine into the body. Soaking grain and beans before cooking will release minerals and make them more digestible.

Signs you have a leaky gut

If you’re concerned about your gut and want to figure out if it’s leaky or not, look out for these nine signs.

  • You suffer from gas, bloating, diarrhea and irritable bowel
  • You have seasonal allergies or asthma
  • You have hormonal imbalances
  • You’ve been diagnosed with another autoimmune disease like rheumatoid arthritis
  • You suffer from chronic fatigue or fibromyalgia
  • You have a mood disorder or mental health issue
  • You have skin conditions like eczema
  • You have a yeast infection
  • You have food intolerances or food allergies

Leaky gut versus gluten intolerance

Even though a gluten intolerance can contribute to leaky gut, the two are not the same thing. With gluten intolerance, or celiac disease, the tiny hair-like villi that line the intestines become damaged and reduce the intestine’s ability to absorb nutrients. Over time, the tight junctions become loose, making the intestines permeable, which then allows bacteria to enter the bloodstream.

As you can see, gluten intolerance can contribute to a leaky gut, but even without a gluten intolerance a person can still develop the condition. Over-medication, severe stress, and other food allergies can all contribute to a leaky gut.

Furthermore, even though gluten intolerance and a leaky gut share many common symptoms, they have unique ones as well. For example, leaky gut symptoms may be closer to allergic reactions and autoimmune symptoms like eczema, inflammatory arthritis and chronic fatigue. For this reason, leaky gut is often much more debilitating than a gluten intolerance and harder to treat as well.

In gluten intolerance, symptoms can range in severity but as long as gluten is eliminated from the diet it can be well controlled.

Leaky gut syndrome test

There are various tests that can be done to help determine if a leaky gut is a factor for your chronic health issues

Food intolerance test

Having certain sensitivities to food can be a sure-fire indicator that your immune system is not compatible with that particular item. This may present as mild GI upset, but severe hypersensitivity reaction food should be avoided at all costs.

Parasite test

Often associated with tropical or developing countries, contracting a parasite can compromise the intestinal system. Parasites can also be found in the western world by drinking water not properly treated or filtered.

Bacterial dysbiosis test

A weakened GI system can cause an imbalance of bacterial life or dysbiosis. Conditions such as small intestinal bacterial overgrowth can lead to pH imbalances in the system, leading to higher levels of invasion of opportunistic bacteria such as H. pylori and E. coli.

Lactulose/mannitol test

A highly specific test that analyzes the urine for two sugars, lactulose, and mannitol; byproducts of leaky gut syndrome.

Stool analysis

Can test for the presence of candida, a harmful bacterium. It can also be used to test for sufficient food enzyme production that aids in breaking down food for their nutrients. The stools can be used as a valuable diagnostic tool for the evaluation of how your digestive system is functioning.

Organic acid test

Looking for errors in metabolism through the analysis of intestinal yeast or bacteria. Deficiencies or overgrowths of particular organisms can cause abnormalities in your health.

Sugar test

Similar to the Mannitol/Lactulose test, looking for changes in blood sugar in the body can help provide evidence for various abnormalities.

Breath test

Bacterial growth often emits hydrogen and methane chemicals. This can be evaluated through tests such as this that helps determine if there is bacterial overgrowth based on how much hydrogen and methane are present.

Allergy test

Testing for antigens and antibodies in the blood

Blood test

Looking for specific markers produced by a causative organism. For example, the presence of IgT or IgG in a blood test could hint at a candida infection.

IgT or IgG test

Can be done using dried blood or by drawing blood, this test measure potential infection with candida as well as potential sensitivities to food. Most people with leaky gut syndrome will develop food intolerances along with the risk of containing candida in their blood.

Spit test

Comes in two options. The first, known as the Adrenal Stress index measures cortisol levels and IgA – an immune system marker. The second option is a home test to evaluate candida overgrowth which involves spitting into a glass of water and if after 15 minutes your spit looks like dangling lines, akin to spider-legs, it possibly indicates excessive candida.

Treating leaky gut


Stress reduction can help reduce the symptoms and flare ups of leaky gut syndrome. This can be mitigated by doing all you can to reduce your stress levels in your life. The following are some strategies to help achieve this:

  • Taking time out of your day for meditation
  • Laying or sitting quietly for 15-20 minutes
  • Taking peaceful walks
  • Drinking herbal tea before bed
  • Spending at least half an hour winding down before bed to release stressful thoughts
  • Taking on a relaxing hobby, such as putting together puzzles
  • Going out in nature for hikes or for camping


It is recommended to speak with your doctor before beginning or stopping any type of medication. That said, the use of antibiotic, pain killers, or other types of medication can be hard on the digestive tract, so by avoiding them you can help promote gut healing. However, this should be done under the guidance of your doctor.



Cleaning out the colon can help get rid of excessive bad bacteria, candida overgrowth, and/or parasites that may contribute to poor health.


By maintaining healthy habits, even after your digestive tract problems are healed will help maintain your recovery and avoid a repeat of leaky gut syndrome.

Healing foods for leaky gut

The best way to treat leaky gut syndrome is to follow the four R’s: remove, replace, repair and rebalance.

  • Remove foods and factors that can trigger a negative reaction
  • Replace the bad with good, healing foods
  • Repair with specific supplements
  • Rebalance with probiotics
  • Bone broth contains collagen, gelatin, and glutamine, all of which help to repair the gut lining.
  • Steamed vegetables are packed with vitamins that help you break down your food and reduce inflammation
  • Non-dairy fermented foods this includes unsweetened coconut milk yogurt, coconut milk kefir, sauerkraut, kimchi. All of these items contain beneficial bacteria called “probiotics”.
  • Coconut oil considered one of the best fats a person can eat as it contains lauric acid which has antimicrobial and antifungal properties.
  • Fish oil/Wild fatty fish an excellent source of anti-inflammatory omega-3 fatty acids.
  • Grass-fed meats these animals tend to be fed a diet rich in grass and other plants, making their meat rich in anti-inflammatory omega-3 fatty acids and other beneficial vitamins and nutrients that promote gut health.

Author Bio

Devon Andre has been involved in the health and dietary supplement industry for a number of years. Devon has written extensively for Bel Marra Health. He has a Bachelor of Forensic Science from the University of Windsor, and went on to complete a Juris Doctor from the University of Pittsburgh. Devon is keenly aware of trends and new developments in the area of health and wellness. He embraces an active lifestyle combining diet, exercise and healthy choices. By working to inform readers of the options available to them, he hopes to improve their health and quality of life.



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