Leaky Gut Syndrome – The Basics

by Dr. Jason Barker June 09, 2016

Leaky Gut Syndrome – The Basics

By now you may have heard of “leaky gut syndrome”. It’s a condition that affects the small intestines, and can be the source of many other health issues.

Leaky gut isn’t a symptom itself, however. Rather, it’s a condition caused by poor digestive health.

In order to understand leaky gut though, we first need to understand the basics of digestion.

Digestion Basics

When we eat a food, it’s first broken down in the mouth by chewing and mixing with saliva, which contains enzymes that begin the true digestive process. In the stomach, food must then be turned into a liquid so it can be absorbed in the small intestine. At this point, foods are broken down into their most basic components where they can be absorbed through the small intestinal barrier. 

The interior of the small intestine is layered with microscopic finger-like projections known as villi. The villi are covered with tiny “pores” which selectively absorb all types of different nutrients. Think of this as a very fine net that only allows the smallest particles through –everything else that wasn’t completely digested isn’t allowed in and passes through the gut unabsorbed.

On the other side of the small intestinal wall, a large component of our immune system lays in wait, ready to defend us against any foreign proteins that might enter our body. (Nothing is truly within our bodies until it’s been absorbed across the small intestine into the bloodstream.)

Beginnings of Leaky Guy Syndrome

If the villi become damaged, those tiny pores can become enlarged, allowing larger particles across the small intestinal barrier. In other words, we now have increased intestinal permeability – or leaky gut. 

Once this occurs, the immune system standing guard here will begin to attack those previously unabsorbed particles. And because we eat so often, the immune system will continually fight against those molecules that are absorbed across the damaged intestinal lining.  

The immune system’s job is to protect us by destroying anything it deems foreign and it does this by orchestrating the release of many different chemicals that activate immune cells and destroy foreign proteins. Unfortunately, as smart as our bodies are, the actions of an immune reaction left unchecked (as in leaky gut) can lead to symptoms throughout the body – not just the gut.

Most Common Symptoms Associated With Leaky Gut Syndrome:


  • Joint pain
  • Asthma
  • Rashes
  • Brain fog
  • Fatigue
  • Digestive problems
  • Food sensitivities


Most commonly, a person with leaky gut will complain of excessive bloating and digestive problems. But they may also have chronic sinus infections, joint pain (that isn’t rheumatoid arthritis), muscle aches and pains, skin problems, brain fog and food sensitivities.

Typically, a person with leaky gut will have been to numerous doctors and have had many conventional medical tests that don’t reveal any kind of health problem. In turn, they are treated symptomatically with things like antibiotics for sinus infections and chronic diarrhea, prednisone for joint pain, acid-blockers for digestive issues, and of course antidepressants because they’re so often told nothing is wrong them but maybe they’re depressed! Sound familiar?

Leaky gut itself isn’t a disease as much as it’s a condition that allows other symptoms to occur – hence the confusion with treatment.

When toxic substances (improperly digested food proteins, chemicals, drugs, etc) pass through the normally tight digestive barrier and the immune system becomes activated, we can end up with diverse symptoms through the body.

Treating these symptoms individually only brings about short-term relief, but if the gut isn’t directly treated they will come back over and over again.

What Causes Leaky Gut Syndrome?



By now I’m sure you’re asking, “So what’s the cause of this?” There’s a lot of ongoing research in this area, and there are a few situations that have a close relationship with the development of leaky gut.  These include:

  • Chronic Stress: Over time, stressors can weaken how responsive the immune system is. In turn, you might not be able to fight off the normal bacterial and viral infections; chronic infections can upset the delicate balance of healthy gut bacteria, which in turn may damage the intestinal lining.
  • Diet: A high sugar diet also contributes to, and feeds unhealthy bacteria and yeast. Preservatives and chemicals, junk food, excess alcohol and certain proteins found in dairy and wheat can damage the gut lining.
  • Medications: A certain class of medications known as non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) are notorious for how they damage the gut. Antibiotics kill both the bad and good bacteria, often leading to an imbalance between disease-causing and protective bacteria.
  • Imbalance Of Healthy Versus Bad Gut Bacteria: 
Known as dysbiosis, this is probably the most important causative factor in leaky gut. Parasitic infections, chemotherapy and radiation also damage the sensitive gut lining.

Key points to remember are that leaky gut syndrome is a causative factor for other conditions – especially if there’s a history of heavy NSAID, alcohol or antibiotic use, and conventional diagnosis and testing have lead nowhere for you.

Athletes! -NSAIDs (ibuprofen, aleve, motrin, etc) are a major cause of leaky gut!

That’s a lot of info, and we still need to cover how leaky gut syndrome is diagnosed and treated in a future blog.

Dr. Jason Barker
Dr. Jason Barker


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