A lot has been said about leaky gut and gluten today, and in this post, I will help you connect the dots between gut health, gluten, celiac disease, and everything in between. This post contains affiliate links. Please see my disclosures.
The gut microbiome is something that researchers and doctors are finally taking seriously. Cutting edge research is confirming what holistic practitioners, and Hippocrates, the father of modern medicine, have known all along: All disease begins in the gut.
Your gut bacteria are diverse and plentiful, and they comprise about 1 to 3 percent of your body mass (or 2 to 6 pounds of bacteria in an average 200-pound adult), according to the Human Microbiome Project.
And while many people think of “bacteria” as a bad thing, the truth is that diverse gut bacteria is an essential ingredient in maintaining good overall health. In fact, good bacteria is essential for the following reasons, according to the Human Microbiome Project:
- They produce vitamins humans do not have the genes to make.
- They break down food to extract nutrients humans need to survive.
- They teach the immune system how to recognize dangerous invaders.
- They produce helpful anti-inflammatory compounds that fight off disease-causing microbes.
Many experts say they believe (with good science behind it) that if you change the composition of the bacteria in your gut, you’ll not only be able to create more healthy outcomes, but also you’ll prevent many devastating diseases from surfacing in the first place.
In this article, you’ll learn about gluten’s role in leaky gut, as well as other contributors to intestinal permeability. You’ll also learn some simple changes you can make to achieve optimal gut health in your own life.
What is Leaky Gut?
Leaky gut, also known as intestinal permeability, is a condition where food, bacteria and other toxins escape the small intestine and “leak” into your bloodstream.
Your intestinal lining covers more than 4,000 square feet of surface area and forms a tight barrier to prevent foods and other particles that move through your digestive system from getting absorbed or leaking into your bloodstream.
When there are breaks or tears in the intestinal lining of the small intestine, undigested food particles prematurely penetrate the barrier wall (mucosal lining) and make their way into your bloodstream where they can trigger inflammation and poor digestion and disease.
How Does Gluten Contribute to a Leaky Gut?
A lot of research suggests that gluten contributes to a leaky gut in one of two ways:
(1) Celiac Disease
First, in people with celiac disease, gluten is the trigger food that sends the body’s immune system into attack mode. Every time a person with celiac disease eats gluten, their immune system attacks the tissue surrounding the small intestine, impairing digestion and preventing much-needed nutrient absorption. Additionally, should the small intestine become damaged and leaky, instead of nourishing every cell in your body, the small intestine becomes a source of chronic and widespread inflammation.
Diagnosing celiac disease is a challenge for many practitioners, mainly because celiac disease presents itself in a slew of symptoms, with a large number of those symptoms having nothing to do with the digestive system. In fact, three million people have celiac disease in the U.S., but a whopping 97 percent of those individuals don’t know they have it according to the Celiac Disease Center at the University of Chicago.
If you have a leaky gut, and suspect it might be caused by celiac disease, talk to your doctor about getting tested via a simple blood test. You also can order an at-home celiac disease test without a doctor visit, just be sure to discuss the results with your doctor. (Read: At-Home Celiac Test: Is It Reliable?)
If you have celiac disease, the only treatment option is life-long adherence to a gluten-free diet. Gluten is a protein found in wheat, rye, barley and sometimes oats, and can be challenging to avoid. (Read: What Is Gluten?)
(2) Gluten Sensitivity
If you’ve ruled out celiac disease, gluten may still be the source or root cause of your leaky gut. Why? Simply put, gluten is a difficult food for humans to digest.
Another study, which you can read more about in this article, found that gluten caused an inflammatory response in all humans who ate it regardless if they had celiac disease.
While many people feel fine after eating gluten, there are some 18 million people in the U.S. who suffer from non-celiac gluten sensitivity or gluten intolerance. Some of these individuals have been tested for gluten intolerance with the currently available diagnostic tests, many of which haven’t been reliably backed by science (yet). Others have identified gluten as an issue, either through food sensitivity testing and/or elimination diets.
Ashamedly, a lot of doctors do not consider gluten intolerance as a “real” disorder. However, one study by a team of researchers in Italy may have validated non-celiac gluten sensitivity, helping millions of people see its not just in their heads.
These researchers found that individuals with gluten sensitivity harbor high levels of an inflammatory protein called zonulin. This is the same protein found in high levels in patients with celiac disease.
What is Zonulin?
In 2000, Dr. Alessio Fasano and a team of researchers first discovered zonulin; they found that zonulin helped to regulate the gut’s leakiness by opening and closing the spaces or “junctions” between the cells found in the digestive tract lining. Researchers knew prior that zonulin was triggered by harmful bacteria, and with this research, they found that gluten to be a strong trigger of zonulin too.
Dr. Fasano told NPR, “No human being completely digests gluten. And in a small percentage of us, that undigested gluten triggers the release of [high levels of] zonulin.” He added, that zonulin is important in a lot of illnesses, as many “illnesses link back to loss of barrier function in the gut.”
Regardless, gluten intolerance remains a topic of much debate by today’s medical world, mainly because there isn’t a lot of research that has sufficiently studied this disorder. Do not, however, mistake lack of research with lack of disorder, as millions of people take issue with gluten, and denying this truth without explanation beyond “it’s all in your head” does nothing to validate or remedy the experiences of 18 million people.
Other Triggers of Leaky Gut
It’s important to know that celiac disease and gluten aren’t always the underlying cause of leaky gut. In fact, there are many causes and contributors to leaky gut, including the following:
Poor diet: Poor diet is likely the largest contributor to poor gut health. A diet that is high in sugar and saturated fats, but low in fiber and nutrients, contributes to poor gut health and a lack of diversity in gut bacteria.
Diseases: Research suggests that digestive health can be tied to other diseases including Crohn’s, IBS, arthritis, allergies, acne, obesity and more.
Birth Control: Hormonal birth control can also contribute to poor gut health outcomes. Many experts, including Dr. Jolene Brighten in her book, Beyond the Pill, tout that hormonal birth control negatively impacts gut flora and makes you more susceptible to intestinal permeability (aka, leaky gut).
Antacids and PPIs: Antacids and proton pump inhibitors, such as Prilosec, Nexium, and Prevacid, reduce the amount of stomach acid produced by the lining of your stomach, allowing undigested bits of food to make their way into your small intestine. Such undigested bits of foods can tear through the intestinal walls and leak into your bloodstream.
Antibiotics: Antibiotics also can negatively change gut bacteria. While antibiotics are necessary and can save your life when needed, be mindful that they not only kill the bad bacteria causing disease, but also they kill the good bacteria in your gut. Excessive or continued use of antibiotics, no doubt, contribute to deteriorating gut health. (If you must take an antibiotic, be sure to take a probiotic supplement for at least one month post-antibiotic. More on probiotics below.)
Excess alcohol consumption: Much research has implicated heavy alcohol usage with poor intestinal health. One study found alcohol can “overwhelm the gastrointestinal tract (GI) and liver and lead to damage both within the GI and in other organs.” Researchers went on to say alcohol promotes intestinal inflammation which can “exacerbate” alcohol-induced organ damage.
Stress: Researchers have long known that stress can lead to unfortunate changes in the gut’s microbiome. This is because stress hormones, like cortisol, damage the gut lining over time. When cortisol is produced in excess, your body’s sympathetic nervous system, or flight or fight reaction, takes over. Blood and nutrients are diverted to saving your life because it thinks you’re in danger, whereas functions such as digestion get tabled until your body thinks the danger (stress) is averted. If you live in a chronic state of stress, it’s likely that it’s coming at a cost to your digestive health.
How to Fix Leaky Gut
While there are no quick fixes, there are a few things you can do to improve your overall gut health. While I could list a lot of ways to improve your gut health, and I do in my book, three that I think give you the most bang for your buck include:
(1) Remove Gluten
If you have celiac disease, you’ve got to break up with gluten for good. I document my experiences breaking up with gluten in my book, Dear Gluten, It’s Not Me, It’s You.
It can become more complicated if you don’t have celiac disease (which you must first rule out via testing) and instead believe you have non-celiac gluten sensitivity or gluten intolerance.
Another food intolerance testing method, and one that isn’t proven by science, is to take a food sensitivity test. You can order one online from this reputable company, however, keep in mind that results from a food sensitivity test often are detecting foods you eat vs. foods you’re intolerant too. The science is evolving, and with time, we’ll see food sensitivity tests will come with greater accuracy and scientific backing. (Read: My Everlywell Food Sensitivity Test Results Are In!)
The other option is to eliminate gluten from your diet for 4-6 weeks, and then slowly reintroduce it. This is called an elimination diet and it can help you uncover hidden food intolerances. I recommend working with a nutrition professional specializing in gluten-free diets to help you through the difficult process of eliminating gluten from your diet.
(2) Limit Sugar Intake
Sugar is a key contributor to poor gut health because it feeds the bad bacteria in your gut and can lead to disorders like candida and SIBO. In fact, the unwanted yeast and bacteria in your gut feed off of sugar and need it to survive. If you limit sugar, or even eliminate sugar for a short while, you can slowly kill off the “bad” bacteria taking asylum in your gut. Just be prepared for those bad bacteria to scream at you to eat some sugar!
You don’t have to take sugar out of your diet forever. Simply eliminate or severely limit your sugar for a few weeks. Give your gut time to heal. Once it’s stronger, you can resume eating a moderate amount of sugar daily without experiencing digestive symptoms.
If you struggle with limiting sugar in your diet, read 10 Tips to Breaking Your Sugar Addiction. And while your in the business of limiting sugar, load up on plenty of anti-inflammatory foods to nourish your gut and whole body.
A great way to accelerate the healing of your gut microbiome is through probiotics. Look for probiotic supplements that contain lactobacilli and bifidobacteria and talk to your doctor about taking a therapeutic dosage (90 billion CFUs or greater). Once you heal your gut, you can reduce your dosage to 30-50 billion CFUs daily for maintenance.
You also can load up on fermented and cultured foods, which are loaded with natural probiotics. Enjoy foods like kimchi, sauerkraut, fermented pickles, yogurt, kefir and my personal favorite, kombucha (fermented tea). These living foods promote healthy gut flora by introducing good bacteria into your belly and helping that good bacteria to proliferate.
Gut Health Matters
Talk to a doctor to help you figure out what’s behind your leaky gut symptoms and then work with a nutritionist to help you heal your gut for good. I encourage you to sign up for my free 7-Day Heal Your Gut Challenge as well.