A lot has been said about leaky gut and the gluten connection. In this article, I’ll help you connect the dots between gut health, gluten, and celiac disease. 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 confirms what holistic practitioners, and Hippocrates, the father of modern medicine, have known all along: All disease begins in the gut.
According to the Human Microbiome Project, your gut bacteria are diverse and plentiful. They comprise about 1 to 3 percent of your body mass (or 2 to 6 pounds of bacteria in an average 200-pound adult).
And while many people think of “bacteria” as bad, the truth is that diverse gut bacteria are essential in maintaining good overall health. The Human Microbiome Project says bacteria are vital for the following reasons:
- 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 the gut, you’ll be able to create healthier outcomes and deter a slew of devastating diseases.
In this article, you’ll learn about gluten’s role in leaky gut and other contributors to intestinal permeability. You’ll also learn some simple changes you can make to achieve optimal gut health.
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. It 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 the bloodstream, where they can trigger inflammation, poor digestion, and disease.
How Does Gluten Contribute to a Leaky Gut?
Much research suggests that gluten contributes to a leaky gut in one of two ways:
(1) Celiac Disease
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. When the small intestine becomes damaged and leaky, it becomes a source of chronic and widespread inflammation rather than the source of fuel for every cell and organ in the body.
Diagnosing celiac disease is a challenge for many practitioners, mainly because it presents itself in a slew of symptoms, with many of those symptoms having nothing to do with the digestive system. Three million people have celiac disease in the U.S. Still, 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 can instead 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 it can be extremely challenging to avoid when eating at restaurants and traveling.
(2) Gluten Sensitivity
If you’ve ruled out celiac disease, gluten may still be the source or root cause of a 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 of celiac disease.
While many people say they feel fine after eating gluten, some 18 million people in the U.S. suffer from non-celiac gluten (wheat) 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 through food sensitivity testing and elimination diets.
Ashamedly, many doctors don’t consider gluten intolerance 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 it’s 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 it helped 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 harmful bacteria triggered zonulin and then discovered that gluten also was a strong trigger of zonulin.
Dr. Fasano told NPR, “No human being completely digests gluten. And in a small percentage of us, undigested gluten triggers the release of [high levels of] zonulin.” He added that zonulin is important in many illnesses, as “illnesses link back to the loss of barrier function in the gut.”
Regardless, gluten intolerance remains a topic of much debate in today’s medical world, mainly because few have sufficiently studied the disorder. Never mistake lack of research with lack of disorder. Millions of people say they cannot tolerate 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 a leaky gut. There are many causes and contributors to leaky gut, including the following:
Poor diet: Poor diet is likely the most significant contributor to poor gut health. A diet high in sugar and saturated fats, but low in fiber and nutrients, contribute to poor gut health and a lack of diversity in gut bacteria.
Birth Control: Hormonal birth control can 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 the stomach, allowing undigested bits of food to make their way into the small intestine. These undigested food particles can tear through the intestinal walls and leak into the bloodstream.
Antibiotics: Antibiotics can negatively change gut bacteria. While antibiotics are necessary and can save your life by killing bacteria responsible for an illness, they also kill good bacteria necessary for maintaining good health. If you must take an antibiotic, take a probiotic supplement for at least one month post-antibiotic. Excessive or continued use of antibiotics may contribute to deteriorating gut health.
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 said alcohol promotes intestinal inflammation, which can “exacerbate” alcohol-induced organ damage.
Stress: Researchers have long known that stress can lead to unfortunate gut microbiome changes. 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 your immune system thinks you’re in danger. 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 coming at a cost to your digestive health.
How to Fix Leaky Gut
There are no quick fixes to a leaky gut; however, you can make the following changes to improve your overall gut health:
(1) Remove Gluten
I would venture to say that 99 percent of the time, someone suffering from a leaky gut has an issue with gluten (wheat). But you want to know for sure, so it’s important to do some testing vs. guessing.
Your first order is to get tested for celiac disease, which you can discuss with your doctor or take this at-home celiac disease test. If your celiac disease test is negative, get tested for gluten sensitivity, which I write about how to do in this article. Most people with leaky gut have an issue with gluten (wheat).
(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. The unwanted yeast and bacteria in your gut feed off 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 intense sugar cravings as those harmful bacteria scream at you to feed them by eating sugar!
Remember, 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, chances are you’ll be able to resume eating moderate 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 you’re 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 favorite, kombucha (fermented tea). These living foods promote healthy gut flora by introducing good bacteria into your belly and helping the good bacteria 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 also sign up for my free 7-Day Heal Your Gut Challenge.