The leaky gut syndrome is also known as intestinal permeability.
Leaky gut is a condition in which the lining of your intestines becomes damaged and allows harmful substances to leak into your bloodstream.
This can trigger a range of health issues, including autoimmune disorders, digestive problems, and even mental health conditions.
To reduce your risk of developing a leaky gut, manage the condition, and improve your gut health, you need to understand what’s triggering it in the first place.
Let’s take a closer look at what causes a leaky gut and explore some of its key triggers.
Triggers for Leaky gut
Damaged intestinal walls and an unbalanced gut microbiome can be considered the main culprits responsible for a leaky gut.
The triggers we are exploring here are the ones that damage your intestinal walls and/or disrupt your gut flora.
1. Damage to Intestinal Walls
Intestinal damage is primarily caused by two factors: Genetics and lifestyle.
Genetics: Some people are more genetically prone to having immune responses to foreign substances in their gut.
This can activate various pathways related to intestinal permeability. This means that their gut lining can become damaged more easily, leading to the development of the leaky gut syndrome.
Lifestyle: Though genetics is something that is out of a person’s control, lifestyle triggers such as diet and stress are preventable contributors.
2. Imbalance of Gut Bacteria
Gut dysbiosis (the imbalance of gut bacteria) plays an important role in altering gut permeability.
If the microbiotic makeup of the gut is out of whack, the “tight junctions” between the cells lining the gut may break down (1). Probiotics may have the potential to shore up these gut-wall breaches (2).
Gut bacteria can influence stress-related psychiatric disorders, such as anxiety and depression (3).
Read more: The Real Science Behind Leaky Gut Syndrome: Separating Fact from Fiction
Lifestyle Factors that Trigger Leaky Gut
Knowing the triggers of a leaky gut is important because it can help you prevent or manage the condition.
A leaky gut can be caused by a variety of triggers, including a poor diet, stress, environmental toxins, certain medications, and even exercise. Let’s take a look at these in detail.
1. Diet and Nutrition
1. High Intake of Processed Foods
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 (4).
When you consume large amounts of processed foods, your body has to work hard to break down the various additives, preservatives, and chemicals in these foods. This can cause irritation and inflammation in the gut, which can lead to damage to the intestinal lining.
2. Eating Sugary Foods
Sugar is also a common trigger of inflammation in the gut. When you consume large amounts of sugar, it can promote the growth of harmful bacteria in the gut, which can damage the intestinal lining and contribute to a leaky gut.
Additionally, high levels of sugar in the bloodstream can cause insulin resistance, which can further promote inflammation and damage to the gut lining.
3. Unhealthy fats
Unhealthy fats, such as those found in processed and fried foods, can also contribute to inflammation in your gut.
These fats can interfere with the balance of healthy bacteria in your gut, leading to an overgrowth of harmful bacteria. This promotes inflammation and damages the intestinal lining.
4. 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 (5).
Deficiency in vitamin A, as well as, vitamin D can also lead to a leaky gut (6), (7).
A vitamin C deficiency is another trigger for a leaky gut which should be addressed at the earliest by consuming more foods rich in this vitamin (8).
Too much alcohol consumption can lead to a leaky gut.
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 (9).
2. Stress and Anxiety
Stress and anxiety can have a significant impact on gut health and contribute to the development of a leaky gut.
The gut and the brain are closely connected through a complex network of nerves, hormones, and chemicals, known as the gut-brain axis.
When you experience stress or anxiety, this can trigger changes in the gut, including an increase in inflammation and permeability of the intestinal lining.
Disrupts gut microbiome balance:
Stress can disrupt the balance of healthy bacteria in the gut, leading to an overgrowth of harmful bacteria and increased inflammation. Bacterial imbalance in the gut can cause gut barrier dysfunction.
Researchers have observed that overweight pregnant women, with high zonulin levels [indicating a leaky gut], had a reduced diversity of gut bacteria (10).
Damages gut immunity:
Stress can impair the function of the gut’s immune system, making it more susceptible to infections and damage. This can result in a leaky gut.
Some harmful bacteria like H. pylori can alter the tight junctions in the intestinal barrier leading to increased gut permeability (11). Those suffering from malaria also suffer from a leaky gut.
Candida, a common fungus found in the human body, and tapeworms can cause leaky gut by crossing the intestinal barrier and causing systemic infections (12), (13).
To prevent a leaky gut caused by stress and anxiety:
Prioritize relaxation and stress-reducing activities such as:
- Mindful meditation
- Deep breathing exercises
- Regular exercise
These techniques can help to lower stress levels and reduce inflammation in the gut, promoting a healthy gut environment.
It is important to address the underlying causes of stress and anxiety, such as work-related stress, relationship issues, or financial problems.
3. Strenuous Exercise
Intense and prolonged exercise can damage the gut barrier, increasing the risk of chronic gut inflammation.
- People exercising at 70% of their maximum capacity have a 60–70% decreased blood flow toward their gut (14).
- 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 number of allergens reaching the bloodstream (15) (16).
The symptoms were more pronounced in those who already suffered from gut-related problems.
However, researchers have observed that your gut barrier can be ‘trained’ just like your muscles (17). In response to strenuous exercise, the gut adapts to the intensity and duration of the exercises.
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 a focus on the correct form and technique.
To sum up, intense practice sessions for long durations will leave you with chronic gut inflammation due to increased intestinal permeability
4. Environmental Toxins
Environmental toxins are harmful chemicals and pollutants that can be found in food, water, air, and even everyday household products.
Common environmental toxins include heavy metals such as lead, pesticides, industrial chemicals, and pollutants like air pollution and cigarette smoke.
These toxins can enter the body through various routes, including inhalation, ingestion, and skin contact. They damage the intestinal lining and disrupt the balance of gut bacteria, contributing to the development of a leaky gut.
Reducing exposure to environmental toxins is an important step in preventing leaky gut. Ways to this include:
- Choosing organic produce and grass-fed meat
- Using natural cleaning products
- Avoiding plastic food containers and water bottles
- Reducing exposure to secondhand smoke and air pollution.
Additionally, regular exercise and sweating can help to eliminate toxins from the body through the skin.
5. Medications and Antibiotics
Certain medications can have a negative impact on gut health and contribute to the development of a leaky gut.
Some medications directly damage the intestinal lining, while others disrupt the gut microbiome balance.
Common medications that can cause leaky gut include:
- Non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs)
- Proton pump inhibitors (PPIs)
These medications are often prescribed to treat conditions such as pain, acid reflux, infections, and autoimmune diseases.
Use these only when necessary and under the guidance of a healthcare professional. While on such medications, make sure to supplement with probiotics to promote the growth of healthy gut bacteria.
In addition, making dietary and lifestyle changes can help to reduce the impact of medications on gut health. To reduce inflammation in the gut:
- Eat a diet rich in whole, nutrient-dense foods
- Avoid processed foods and sugar
- Do regular exercise
- Manage stress
- Get enough sleep
By understanding the potential causes of leaky gut, individuals can take proactive steps to prevent this condition from negatively impacting their health.
This may include making dietary changes, reducing stress, and minimizing exposure to environmental toxins.
You should take a closer look at your lifestyle and make the necessary changes to improve your gut health.
Small changes can have a big impact on gut function and overall health.