SuperNature | Gut The Inside Story

Gut: The Inside Story

Contributed by Eve Persak, Nutrition Advisor, MS RD CNSC CSSD

What is a leaky gut?
Leaky gut is a laymen’s term for what medical professionals refer to as intestinal hyper-permeability, a condition in which changes occur within the lining of the gastrointestinal or GI tract. All of us possess a protective cellular barrier along the entire length of the intestines that separate what we consume from the bloodstream.  

In a healthy person, this layer is covered with little gaps that are large enough to allow safe and beneficial nutrients through, but small enough to prevent problematic compounds such as toxins, infectious microbes from entering our vital blood supply.    

When a gut becomes leaky, these once perfectly-sized pores widen, allowing free and unregulated movement of substances across the lining and into the blood stream.  In other words, the defence system breaks down, and unwanted outsiders make their way past border patrol. 

Why is this a problem?
Once inside the blood stream, these intruders may cause allergic, inflammatory and infectious effects within the GI tract and body-wide.   At the site of entry, they can cause additional damage: they can upset the bacterial balance of the microbiome, and compromise food processing and nutrient absorption.  Since the gut is the “home” of the immune system and has substantial influence on metabolism, mental function, hormones and other vital functions, these changes are believed to have head-to-toe consequences.  

What are the signs?
Interestingly, while scientific literature makes ample reference to “intestinal hyper-permability”, it’s only recently that the term leaky gut has gained currency within the medical community. Natural wellness practitioners and conventional doctors alike have since tried to define inconclusively the hallmark symptoms of a leaky gut. While symptoms tend to vary from person to person, some common ones include:

-       Digestive distress (gas, bloating, indigestion, abnormal stooling)
-       Nutrient deficiencies
-       Skin changes
-       Mood swings
-       Severe fatigue
-       Weight gain
-       Joint pain
-       Frequent cold/flu

While there is no direct causal correlation, a leaky gut is often seen alongside conditions such as:
-       Digestive dysfunction (coeliac disease, IBS, dysbiosis, reflux, gastritis, some cancers)
-       Thyroid & metabolic disorders
-       Allergies (food & environmental)
-       Asthma & serial respiratory infections
-       Auto-immunity
-       Chronic disease (diabetes, heart disease, fatty liver)

What makes a gut leak?
While the factors leading to a leaky gut remain inconclusive, most professionals agree that the following factors can deteriorate the integrity of the intestinal lining:

-       Stress
-       Poor diet – diets high in sugar and artificial ingredients and deficient in key nutrients
-       Toxin exposure – pesticides, pollutants, chemical residues
-       Frequent use of non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDS)
-       Excessive alcohol intake & smoking
-       Microbial imbalances in the gut – bacteria, as well as yeast 


What can you do?
Prevention is the best cure.  Go on a diet rich in whole, fresh, and minimally processed foods.  Include fermented and cultured foods in daily food intake and consider a quality probiotic supplement for added support. Wherever possible, opt for organic – edible and topical. Moderate sweets and alcohol consumption, and explore smoking cessation if needed.  If you identify with many of the manifestations of leaky gut, pursue personalised treatment with a healthcare professional experienced with such conditions – like a registered dietitian, certified naturopath, or gastrointestinal doctor. He or she will likely suggest additional testing which allows for a targeted integrated plan that includes diet and lifestyle modification, as well as supplementation and medication as indicated.