Leaky Gut? Understand the Cause and Repair the Damage Naturally

Selection of nutrients for vegetarian diet, copy space

The right balance of carbohydrates, fats, proteins, vitamins and minerals helps people to not only gain more mobility, balance and speed, but also increased energy levels, higher endurance and explosive power. A nutritionally balanced diet plan strengthens the immune system, helps maintain a healthy body weight and speeds up recovery times if injured.

Now how about a peson who has been following all the right rules regarding nutritional intake and yet is facing a plethora of medical issues ranging from allergies and other autoimmune disorders, joint pains, decreased energy levels, lack of endurance and even a foggy brain. The source of his misery might be something never suspected – a leaky gut!                                

How real is the “Leaky gut syndrome”?

The ‘leaky gut’ is a trending phenomenon, especially among natural health enthusiasts and is touted as the cause of all things from asthma to autism. The emergence of the “Leaky Gut Syndrome” has created a big market for supplements and other related products. It is a hot topic for that has sparked numerous discussions among the medical and natural health communities.

The purpose of this article is to dig deep and debunk the myths regarding treating a condition that is surrounded by medical controversies. However, there is strong scientific proof that leaky guts do indeed exist and maybe the root cause of many health issues, especially autoimmune disorders. A leaking gut may also result in many nutrients not being absorbed properly though a person is eating a well balanced diet.

Gastroenterologist Donald Kirby, MD from the Center for Human Nutrition in Cleveland confessed that ““From an MD’s standpoint, it’s a very gray area. Physicians don’t know enough about the gut, which is our biggest immune system organ.”

Understanding Intestinal permeability

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The nutrients in the food eaten by a person is absorbed from his intestines. The walls of the intestine are permeable and they allow allow specific substances to pass through them. This barrier is made up of a single layer of cells which are linked by (TJ) tight-junction proteins. This barrier uses about 40% of the body’s total energy expenditure and is said to be renewed every five days.

Increased intestinal permeability is a concern for martial artists as it leads to a variety of symptoms from food sensitivities, bloating due to digestive issues, painful stomach cramps to chronic diarrhea and even autoimmune disorders such as Hashimoto’s thyroid disorder. These issues can be debilitating for a martial artist and will interfere with their ability to train and practice their art. Symptoms are discussed in detail later on.

The intestinal walls have two functions – to absorb the nutrients as well as to keep out inflammatory agents, toxins and harmful bacteria.  It can be compared to a net with tiny holes that keep the bigger particles from passing through it. The beneficial gut bacteria, antimicrobial molecules, immunoglobulins, mucus and cytokines help support this barrier and keep it strong.

But if this net gets damaged and bigger holes are created, then obviously many undesirable substances manage to pass through to the other side – into the bloodstream. The undesirable elements that pass through the walls of a leaking gut may include undigested food particles, bad bacteria and proteins like gluten.

Dr. Alessio Fasano, director of the Mucosal Immunology and Biology Research Center at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston says “We now believe that under certain circumstances, fissures open up in the intestinal barrier that may allow things to get through.”

Zonulin and the microbiotic makeup of the  gut

Dr. Alessio Fasano has spent over 30 years studying role of the gut in human health. His research team discovered “zonulin,” which is a protein that controls the gaps between the cell walls in the intestine. This gut protein can widen or reduce these gaps.
Fasano says it maybe a person’s genes that determine when and where these openings appear, and whether the larger molecules that slip through produce adverse reactions.

Fasano’s discovery of zonulin along with subsequent research findings have caused a “paradigm shift” in the scientific community’s understanding of the gut and the way it functions. Fasano acknowledges that the so-called “leaky gut syndrome” is legit, and likely plays a role in food allergies and other digestion-related maladies.

Zonulin levels are said to be raised when a person who is gluten sensitive ingests gliadin [gluten component]. This leads to increased permeability at the tight junctions which allows these particles into the blood leading to the progression of celiac disease and other autoimmune disorders.

Even though ‘leaky gut syndrome’ is a controversial marketing term, a leaking gut is a real thing in medicine. Damage to the gut lining is a serious medical issue. Doctors have found increased intestinal permeability in people suffering from:

  • Crohn’s disease,
  • Celiac disease,
  • those undergoing chemotherapy
  • among people who consume high amounts of bowel impairing substances like aspirin or alcohol.

But in these conditions, the damage to the gut lining is considered a symptom, not the cause. The belief behind the leaky gut syndrome is that the leaking gut is the cause of many minor health issues related to deficiencies and autoimmune disorders in an otherwise healthy individual. But these minor issues snowball into major health problems in the long run. As they say ‘little drops of water make the mighty oceans’. The little leaks add up to form a devastating flood of damage if not rectified in time.

Triggers for Leaky gut

Intestinal damage is primarily caused by two factors: Genetics and lifestyle. Some people as genetically inclined to immune responses to foreign matter which in turn activates many pathways related to intestinal permeability.

Though genetics is somethings that out of a person’s control, lifestyle triggers such as diet and stress are preventable contributors. Some of the lifestyle factors that contribute to the leaky gut syndrome are:

1. A poor diet:

A diet that’s too low in fiber diet, too high in saturated fat or processed sugar ranks high among the common causes of a leaking gut.

2. Alcohol:

Drinking alcohol increases intestinal permeability for up to four days after drinking it. In some people, this effect may last for up to 2 weeks. Too much alcohol consumption can lead to a leaky gut.

3. Strenuous exercise:

People exercising at 70% of their maximum capacity have a 60–70% decreased blood flow towards their gut. If they exercise at 100% maximum capacity this blood flow decreases by 80%. Running or cycling at 70% capacity for long durations increased gut leakiness and the quantity of allergens reaching the bloodstream. The symptoms were more pronounced in those who already suffered from gut related problems. Martial artists who continuously exercise and train at high intensities for long periods may compromise the gut barrier integrity, putting such people at a higher risk of chronic gut inflammation.

However, a study based in Netherlands found that gut barrier can be ‘trained’ just like the muscles. In response to strenuous exercise in well-trained young men, the gut adapted to intensity and duration of the exercises.

Practice moderation in everything including martial arts training. It’s all about quality over quantity and consistency in scheduling training sessions. Rather than going at maximum capacity and less frequency, plan regular sessions and work out at a moderate pace with focus on the correct form and technique.

“I fear not the man who has practiced 10,000 kicks once, but I fear the man who has practiced one kick 10,000 times. – Bruce Lee”

Don’t try to practice the same kick 10,000 times on the same day, it can be done 100 times a day for 100 days. To sum up, intense practice sessions for long durations will leave the martial artist with chronic gut inflammation due to increased intestinal permeability

4. Unbalanced gut flora:

Bacterial imbalance in the gut can cause gut barrier dysfunction. In a study conducted using 100 overweight pregnant women, those with high zonulin levels [indicating a leaky gut] had a reduced diversity of gut bacteria.

5. Bacterial Infections:

Some harmful bacteria like the H. pylori can alter the tight junctions in the intestinal barrier leading to increased gut permeability. Those suffering from malaria also suffer from a leaky gut.

6. Fungal infections:

Fungal infections such as candida a common commensalism of the human mucosa, has the ability to traversing the intestinal barrier and establish systemic disease within the human host. Intestinal parasites such as tapeworms can cause leaky gut.

7. Vitamin and mineral  deficiencies:

The human body requires zinc for maintaining the intestinal barrier, so a lack of zinc in the diet can lead to intestinal permeability. Deficiency in vitamin A as well as vitamin D can also lead to a leaky gut. A vitamin C deficiency is another trigger for leaky gut which should be addressed at the earliest by consuming more foods rich in this vitamin rather than taking supplements as the artificial medicines cannot really duplicate all the goodness of natural vitamin C.

Understanding the importance of gut bacteria

Gut dysbiosis which is the imbalance of the gut bacteria is believed to play an important role in altering gut permeability. Gut bacteria seems to have quite an influence in stress-related psychiatric disorders, such as anxiety and depression. Research is underway to determine if a “leaky gut” may catalyze communication between the bacteria in the gut and the key signaling pathways of the brain.

According to the University of Loughborough nutrition lecturer Dr. Carl Hulston, if the microbiotic makeup of the gut is out of whack, the “tight junctions” between the cells lining the gut may break down. He believes that probiotics have the potential to shore up these gut-wall breaches.

Other than zonulin, gut bacteria imbalance and some infectious agents, several inflammatory mediators particularly TNF and IL-13, have displayed the ability to influence intestinal permeability by regulating the tight junction size and function.

The LAMA test for Leaky Gut

The LAMA or the lactulose mannitol ratio test is a popular method for evaluating intestinal permeability in humans. Lactulose and mannitol are indigestible sugars that are passed out through the urine.

Lactulose is used to test barrier integrity as it is a rather large particle which can cross the intestinal barrier only through a “leak” or damage in the wall. Mannitol is used for measuring surface area of the leak as it is one-third as large as lactulose.

It is important to note that this test only confirms that there is increased intestinal permeability or rather the gut is actually leaking. It does not clarify whether this leaking is a cause or the symptom of a certain disease. It’s like finding blood in a stool sample. The blood should not be there – meaning there is a malfunction in the system, but the test cannot not reveal the cause. The LAMA test is best done under a doctor’s guidance though there are many vendors offering it online.  

Common Diseases Linked to Leaky Gut

The most common issues believed to be caused or aggravated by leaky gut are food sensitivities or intolerances, abdominal discomfort due to digestive issues such as bloating and cramps, chronic diarrhea and autoimmune disorders such as Hashimoto’s and celiac disease.

The symptoms of leaky gut are difficult to isolate and identify as being caused by the same as they share many similarities with other numerous health conditions. A leaking gut or increased intestinal permeability is linked to:

Inflammatory bowel diseases

Increased intestinal permeability is a major factor in inflammatory diseases of the gastrointestinal tract such as Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis.

Crohn’s disease is an inflammatory bowel disease which may affect any part of the gastrointestinal tract from mouth to anus. Common symptoms include abdominal pain, diarrhea, fever, and weight loss. The stool may be bloody if inflammation is severe.

Ulike Crohn’s disease, ulcerative colitis causes inflammation and ulcers only in a limited area of the gastrointestinal tract. Though it commonly affects the lower section of the colon and the rectum, it can affect the entire colon.

Those who are able to spot early symptoms of a leaky gut and change their diet/lifestyle to heal the gut will be able to avoid developing more serious inflammatory diseases of the digestive system such as Crohn’s disease or ulcerative colitis.

Celiac Disease

Gluten is a set of proteins that is present in grains such as wheat, barley and rye. The two main proteins in gluten are glutenin and gliadin. Celiac disease is a serious autoimmune disorder estimated to affect 1 in 100 people worldwide. Consuming gluten or more specifically, gliadin, is what triggers this disease in people with this particular food sensitivity. iron deficiency anemia, loss of bone density, headaches, fatigue, joint pain, acid reflux and heartburn are some of the symptoms experienced by people suffering from celiac disease and gluten intolerance.

Gliadin has been found to increase Zonulin concentration in people suffering from Celiac disease which in turn increases their intestinal permeability. If such a person goes on a gluten-free diet, zonulin levels have been found to decrease significantly.


Asthma is a chronic disease with inflammation of the air passages. This causes temporary narrowing of the airways that carry oxygen to the lungs leading to asthmatic symptoms such as coughing, wheezing and shortness of breath. Certain physical activities help fight asthma, reducing and alleviating symptoms. Swimming in warmer water and exercising in more humid air, walking, yoga and light cycling are helpful.

Martial arts are considered suitable for helping asthma patients overcome their disabilities as it requires fast and explosive movements along with short pauses that are very useful for asthma patients. Kung- Fu, Karate, Taekwondo, Aikido, Hapkido, and Judo are some of the martial art forms that insist on paying attention to special breathing techniques. The using the right breathing techniques during a practice session can be beneficial.

Martial arts is obviously great for asthmatics. But ending up with asthma because of digestive issues that result from wrong diet, lifestyle habits or overtraining is a whole different story. Asthma can cause breathing difficulties that slows down a fighter and makes them lose focus during their Karate sparring or BJJ rolling session.

Elevated zonulin levels and increased intestinal permeability is found in approximately 40% of asthmatics. This may be one of the reasons behind their heightened sensitivity to allergens and other environmental triggers

Type 1 diabetes:

People suffering from type 1 diabetes have been found to have increased intestinal permeability. Gliadin and Zonulin have both been linked to the progression of this disease.

Type 1 diabetes is also known as juvenile diabetes or insulin-dependent diabetes. It is an autoimmune disease in which the body attacks and destroys insulin producing beta cells in the pancreas. Without adequate insulin in the body, the cells are unable to absorb the glucose needed for producing energy. This leads to high blood sugar levels in the body. Frequent urination, increased thirst or hunger, weight loss, blurry vision, feeling tired, and poor healing are some of the symptoms of Type 1 diabetes.

Healing the Leaky gut

In health problems like celiac diseases, simply restoring the barrier function is not effective enough to treat the condition. Prescribed medications and a dietitian-approved meal plan should be followed as part of the treatment plan.

How to treat a leaky gut depends on the symptoms experienced by a martial artist, their age, nutritional status and their risk for additional health problems. There some basic dietary changes that seem to benefit all those who suffer from a leaky gut.

1. Avoid added sugar:

Regular consumption of drinks and foods high in added sugar leads to obesity and metabolic disorders. While sugar does provide a quick boost of energy, it is definitely not the optimal energy source pre or post workout. It upsets the balance of gut bacteria which in turn leads to increased gut permeability.

2. Avoid gluten:

Avoiding gluten is not an easy task as most processed foods contain gluten. Unless specified gluten free, almost all baked good including cookies, cakes, muffins, breads, buns and so on are made of refined wheat.

Though those suffering from celiac disease are the ones who cannot tolerate gluten in any manner, those with other types of autoimmune disorders also tend to be gluten intolerant. Considering the link between gliadin and zonulin, attempting a gluten free diet for a while is advisable to see if there is any improvement in the symptoms.

3. Address deficiencies:

Zinc strengthens the intestinal barrier. Amaranth is a good source of zinc for vegetarians while non-vegetarians can get it from oysters, beef, liver and seafood. 25-75 mgs of zinc, 400-1200 mgs of magnesium and 400-1200 mgs of Coenzyme Q10 can help address the stress response and assist in healing a leaky gut. Omega fatty acids are anther food supplement that has a whole host of benefits to it including helping repair a leaky gut.

4. Eat plenty of vegetables and fruits:

Vitamin deficiencies, especially that of vitamin C is said to be one of the causes of leaky gut. So have plenty of citrus fruits and vegetables high in this vitamin. Cruciferous vegetables and green leafy vegetables both provide plenty of folate as a gluten free diet may be deficient in this vital nutrient.

Fermentable starchy vegetables are a great way to feed and increase healthy gut bacteria. Fat soluble vitamin D is found in fatty fishes and egg yolk. A deficiency of vitamin D is linked to numerous gut disorders including Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) and colon cancer. Vitamin D had antibacterial properties that ward off infection in the gut.

5. Probiotics:

Probiotics seem to assist in increasing the levels of vitamin D and also soothe intestinal inflammation. Since gut bacteria plays such an important role in gut health, probiotic supplements play an important role in healing a leaky gut.

Studies are being conducted to determine what strains and dosages are most effective. Gut bacteria helps in the digestion and absorption of nutrients. They stimulate immunity and prevent colonization by harmful bacteria. Having a good balance of gut bacteria has shown to improve mood.

6. Glutamine or whey protein supplements:

Glutamine is an amino acid that is utilized as a fuel source by the gut cells. Intravenous glutamine injections are given to patients with Crohn’s disease. Bone broth, grass-fed beef, spirulina, cabbage, asparagus and broccoli are some of the best food sources for glutamine.

A  study which supplemented its subjects with with equal amounts of whey protein or  Glutamine recorded that intestinal permeability and morphology improved significantly in both groups. Another study aimed at finding more about the protective effect of glutamine on the intestinal barrier function found that glutamine can alleviate the damage of gut barrier caused by trauma and helped modulate the immune function of the small intestinal mucosa.

7. Coconut oil:

Coconut oil has the ability to soothe and helps heal intestinal lining. The MCFA’s in coconut are easy to digest and they provide instant energy. The saturated fats present in coconut oil have antimicrobial and antifungal properties. It also aids the absorption of nutrients in the gut.


The scientific community is increasingly associating various diseases to the state of the gut or rather to increased intestinal permeability which is also known as the ‘leaky gut’. It is now believed to play a major role in autoimmune diseases, chronic fatigue syndrome, allergies, bowel diseases and even depression.

There is a simple protocol that works wonders in treating a leaky gut and it is quite easy to implement:

  • Identify and remove foods and lifestyle triggers that damage the gut
  • Replace such foods with healing foods
  • Identify deficiencies and include specific supplements in the diet
  • Have plenty of probiotics and re-balance the gut flora

Those who are experiencing any of the symptoms discussed earlier should take the effort to find out if its the diet, lifestyle or their overtraining that’s leading to their digestive issues and other related symptoms discussed above. They must adjust not only their diets, but also their training regimes to allow their bodies to heal, recover and be stronger than ever.

Treating a leaky gut is not a complicated matter. All it requires is acknowledgement of the problem and a willingness to do what needs to be done. It takes a certain amount of discipline to implement such a diet and lifestyle. If you believe you are suffering from leaky gut syndrome then should discuss this issue your doctor.

About Tilottama Bose 61 Articles
With a Masters in Food Science and Nutrition, Tilottama has carved a niche for herself in the Health Writing Industry. She is passionate about helping her readers make informed decisions about the food they eat. She believes in the healing power of food and in food as medicine. Tilottama is an editor and writer at Fitnesshacks.org.