Leaky gut syndrome: Here’s how to treat it

Whether it’s increased visits to the toilet or you’re baffled by seemingly unrelated symptoms, leaky gut syndrome might be giving you a belly ache.

Also known as increased intestinal permeability, leaky gut is what it sounds like – essentially a “leak” within the gastrointestinal tract.

“That allows bacteria, toxins and undigested food particles to seep out of the gut and into the bloodstream,” dietitian Nicole Dynan explains.

What causes leaky gut?

Conditions that can lead to a leaky gut are varied but tend to be related to:

  • Unbalanced gut microbiota
  • Poor nutrition
  • Some medications (such as anti-inflammatory medication)
  • Chronic stress
  • Excess alcohol

Integrative gut health specialist Dr Iggy Soosay says the standard Australian diet, with a predominance of refined carbs and high fats, is pro-inflammatory and can damage the gut lining.

As a result, poor fibre intake can cause an imbalance in the gut microbiota, increasing bacteria that can release pro-inflammatory substances.

“These can damage the gut lining, resulting in leaky gut,” Dr Soosay says.

“The immune system is then activated and, over time, chronic inflammation leads to the release of chemicals by the immune system that further damages the gut lining.”

What are the symptoms of leaky gut?

It’s likely you are clocking up lots of time on the toilet if you’re dealing with increased intestinal permeability.

“Some things to look out for include excessive bloating, as well as changes in bowel movements including constipation,” Nicole says.

However, it can be hard to get a diagnosis as the symptoms can be non-specific.

“In the long-term, undigested foods, bacterial byproducts and toxins being absorbed can lead to brain fog, fatigue, headaches, joint pains, memory issues, anxiety, depression, insomnia and autoimmune diseases – depending on individual pre-dispositions,” Dr Soosay says.

Is leaky gut a real illness?

“I would not classify it as a real illness, but a part of many illnesses,” Dr Soosay says.

“A PubMed search for ‘leaky gut’ comes up with over 600 references; a search for ‘increased intestinal permeability’ comes up with over 10,000 references,” he explains.

“So, it is well recognised in the scientific literature.”

How is leaky gut diagnosed?

If you suspect you have increased intestinal permeability, seek guidance from a GP or health professional who specialises in gut health.

Two tests – the lactulose-mannitol test and the zonulin test – can indicate the presence of leaky gut.

How is leaky gut treated?

While treatment depends on the cause, general advice includes improving diet, sleep and exercise, eliminating food intolerances, cutting down on alcohol and correcting any imbalance in the microbiota.

Including more fibre in your diet is a good place to start

“Consuming cereals high in fibre is one of the easiest ways to improve your intake,” Nicole says.

“Other fibre-dense foods that help keep the gut healthy are fruit, vegetables, lentils and beans.

“Foods with probiotics also help to maintain a healthy gut environment, such as fermented foods like kefir, yoghurt, tempeh and sauerkraut.”

Written by Samantha Allemann.