20 Little-Known Leaky Gut Symptoms & How to Heal Your Digestion

Written By


Expert Reviewed By

Dr. Lauryn Lax, OTD, MS

Dr. Lauryn, OTD, MS is a doctor of occupational therapy, clinical nutritionists and functional medicine expert with 25 years of clinical and personal experience in healing from complex chronic health issues and helping others do the same.

Side Effects Of Bulimia And Anorexia

Pop question: What do bloating, constipation, stomach pain, skin breakouts, allergies, brittle nails and hair, and low energy all have in common? They are ALL leaky gut symptoms.

Do you have a leaky gut? Here’s all you need to know about leaky gut—what it is, what causes it, common leaky gut symptoms, and how to heal your digestion ASAP.

What is Leaky Gut?

Leaky gut, or intestinal permeability, is a condition or “syndrome” that happens when the tissue lining of your small intestine becomes permeable, weak and “leaky,” allowing undigested food particles, bacteria, and toxins into your bloodstream, leading to a potentially outsized immune response. Leaky gut is NOT a disease or something you’re stuck with for life. Instead, it is a byproduct of various stressors (like processed foods and NSAIDs) and “wear and tear” of poor digestion or poor digestive hygiene that occurs over time.

Sort of like what happens if you don’t brush your teeth (you get cavities), the same thing goes for your gut health:

If you don’t have healthy gut hygiene (like chewing your food well, eating a balance of real whole foods, drinking clean filtered water, probiotics, etc.) and if you don’t manage lifestyle stress, then, more often than not, you get a leaky gut. 

How this affects you?

Inflammation! If the damage to the lining of your gut is bad enough that such substances regularly leak through, it can wreak havoc on your health.

Inflammation & Leaky Gut

When food particles and wastes get OUTSIDE your digestive system, your body signals an autoimmune response from its helper cells to “come to the rescue.”

Like stepping on an ant hill of fire ants or poking a wasp nest, a swarm of inflammation happens in order to “kill” the culprits (food particles, toxins, wastes) that escaped outside your digestive tract.

Hello bloating, constipation, skin breakouts, allergies, nutrient deficiencies, hormone imbalances—and hundreds of other side effects of poor gut health!

Hippocrates was right when he said, “All disease begins in the gut.”

This is particularly true for “leaky gut.” If digestion is sub-optimal, so is the rest of your health (because your digestive tract is UNABLE to complete the full process of digestion and deliver optimal nutrients to the rest of your body).

 What SHOULD a Healthy Gut Be Like?

You were born to have a strong gut.

By design, your intestinal lining, or intestinal barrier, covers a surface area of 400 square meters (about the size of a running track) and requires approximately 40 percent of the body’s energy expenditure. (Fun Fact: Your brain only requires 20%!).

Digestion | 20 Little-Known Leaky Gut Symptoms &Amp; How To Heal Your Digestion

In an ideal world, your intestinal lining acts as a “gatekeeper” to help your body maintain ideal health—letting good things “in” (like water, electrolytes, nutrients from the foods you eat) and keeping “bad guys” out (like environmental toxins, mold, viruses, bad bacteria).

Your gut barrier also allows a peaceful coexistence between you (the host) and commensal microorganisms (which are the “beneficial bacteria” that live in our gut) without provoking chronic inflammation. A healthy gut lining allows you to coexist with these organisms without treating them as if they’re foreign invaders—maintaining the “just right” Goldilock’s amount of bacteria in your gut to make you healthy.

If we look back to our ancestors and indigenous cultures (even in modern day) (Khan et al, 2017), we do NOT observe the same chronic diseases we face in our modern day lifestyles. Overall both our ancestors and humans who live in connection to the land, real food, community and the “good ol’ days” have better digestive health—how we are all designed (Gomez et al, 2016 ).

Why? These people have a slower way of life and are less exposed to the environmental pathogens we are in mainstream culture.

Indigenous and ancestral peoples with a healthy gut do NOT:

  • Consume processed and packaged foods;
  • They are not contaminated with chemicals and additives in their water, meat, plastics and hygiene and cleaning products;
  • They use herbs as “medicine”
  • They naturally have more bacterial diversity in their guts due to the soil based organisms and the variety of organic, seasonal foods they ingest year round.

In short: A “healthy” gut microbiome is a gut with plenty of bacterial diversity, a healthy dose of “good” (commensal) bacteria, and less stress (wear and tear) from outside forces.

What Causes Leaky Gut?

Leaky gut doesn’t happen over night.

In fact your intestinal barrier or linking is VERY strong (after all it IS responsible for digesting the hundreds of foods and meals you eat throughout your lifetime).

However, just like a strong Dallas Cowboys Linebacker or highway bridge, with plenty of wear and tear that Linebacker or bridge CAN become weak.

If a Linebacker doesn’t eat his 6-egg omelets, meat and potatoes, and protein shakes, or bench, deadlift, squat and press, he loses his strength.

If a bridge is not maintained, weathers a hurricane, and supports thousands of two-ton cars and semi-trucks day in and day out, it can fall.

Annnnnd… if we don’t maintain “good gut health” and healthy lifestyle practices to support a healthy gut lining throughout our lifetime, our gut lining can get weak and irritated.

Leaky gut is also like a picked scab. Imagine if you were to scratch a scab on the top of your hand over and over and over and over again, all day long.

What would happen? Eventually, that scab would leak open and may even ooze a bit. Similarly, your gut can open and become leaky too with constant stressors present.

Leaky Gut Causes

Common “stressors” that wreak havoc on your gut lining include:

  • Not chewing your food well, eating fast or on the go
  • Processed and packaged foods
  • Artificial sweeteners
  • Low protein diets (low in complete amino acids that comprise the gut lining)
  • Sugar and hydrogenated oils
  • Conventional meats, dairy and produce with high amounts of antibiotics, pesticides and hormones
  • Additives
  • Medicines (NSAIDS, birth control, PPI’s, antibiotics)
  • Some vaccinations
  • Cigarette Smoking and high-alcohol consumption
  • Moldy or instant coffee or high coffee consumption
  • Poor gut health development in infancy (formula-fed, C-section baby)
  • Environmental exposures (mold, pollution, plastics)
  • Food Poisoning2
  • Toxic chemicals in hygiene and beauty products
  • Heavy metals (lead, mercury, copper) in tap water, some fish, dental fillings, etc.
  • Low stomach acid and/or enzymes (triggered from a stressful lifestyle: low sleep, overtraining or under-training, burning a candle at both ends, over-screen exposure)
  • Genetic susceptibility (70% of relatives of those with an autoimmune disease like Celiac Disease are at risk for intestinal permeability)

The causes of leaky gut are vast, but couple several of these over time, and your intestinal wall “goes to war” with the stressors constantly trying to make it weak.

Similar to what happens to your health if you neglect water and greens, opting for McDonald’s, diet cokes, TV time and donuts instead, if and when you are not mindful of practicing daily healthy gut habits for maintaining a healthy, strong gut, your gut can become unhealthy, weak and leaky.

20 Leaky Gut Symptoms

Leaky gut goes far beyond bloating and gas. While bloating and gas ARE common side effects, here are 20 total little-known leaky gut symptoms that may indicate you have intestinal permeability.

  1. Frequent Bloating & Gas
  2. Chronic Constipation or “IBS”
  3. Loose Stools or Chronic Diarrhea
  4. Stomach Pain (particularly after eating)
  5. Sugar, Carbohydrate & Coffee Cravings
  6. Frequent Headaches and/or Migraines
  7. Joints that Pop or Click &/or Arthritis
  8. Inability to Hold an Adjustment or Heal Muscle Tissue
  9. Craving Foods that don’t make you feel well
  10. Allergies (food and/or seasonal and environmental)
  11. Acne, Skin Breakouts & Rashes (Eczema, whiteheads, etc.)
  12. Autoimmune Conditions and Cancer
  13. High Cholesterol Markers (even with “healthy eating”)
  14. Easily Sick or Run Down
  15. Low Energy (despite sleeping)
  16. Anxiety, Depression, ADD/ADHD
  17. Autism Spectrum Disorder & Neurological Disorders
  18. Dental Cavities
  19. Diabetes or Blood Sugar Imbalances (hypo/hyperglycemia)
  20. Hormone Imbalances (infertility, amenorrhea, horrible PMS or menopause, PCOS)

Is There a Test for Leaky Gut?

The short answer:  Yes. There are 3 types of formal lab tests for assessing “leaky gut” or intestinal permeability:

  1. Genova Lactulose-Mannitol Sugar Urine Test.
    Involves measuring levels of these two sugars in the urine after consuming them orally. Mannitol is SMALL enough in size to pass directly through the cells and SHOULD end up in the urine, whereas lactulose is a larger size, and ideally, should not end up in the urine. If lactulose is found in the urine, then leaky gut is suspected.
  1. Cyrex Array 2 Antigenic Permeability Blood Screen
    A blood test for antibodies that cause “immune responses” or inflammatory attacks—common in leaky gut.
  1. Zonulin Blood Test
    Assesses Zonulin protein levels in the blood. Zonulin protein is responsible for acting as a gatekeeper for of your gut lining (determining what things go in and out of your gut), and it can change the size of the openings in your gut lining. So more Zonulin, means more openings increased in size and a gut lining that becomes more permeable / leaky.

However, testing is not typically the first line of approach for diagnosing or treating leaky gut since leaky gut is almost always caused by something else (poor diet, gut or bacterial infections, chronic stress, SIBOlow stomach acid, etc.)—leaky gut is not just something that happens overnight or at birth.

You FIRST want to assess, test and remove any of the causal triggers BEFORE addressing intestinal permeability specifically. Once you remove the triggers, the gut barrier lining is generally restored without additional interventions required because the intestinal wall regenerates itself every five days.

So if you do things like…

  • Remove the (fake) stevia sweetener in your protein powder
  • Quit your daily NSAID use for headaches
  • Start chewing your food well
  • Aim to sleep 7-9 hours most nights, instead of 5-6
  • Replace your 3 cups of crappy coffee with 1 cup of organic, fresh whole bean coffee
  • Test and treat other “gut issues” (like SIBO, fungal overgrowth, parasites, low stomach acid)

…Typically a “leaky gut” will heal if you figure out what’s REALLY driving your “leaky gut symptoms,” making leaky gut testing generally unnecessary.

How to Heal Your Leaky Gut

So what to do about your leaky gut symptoms?

There is NOT one cure-all for leaky gut. Healing leaky gut and your leaky gut symptoms involves a 5-pronged approach, including:

  1. Assess & Evaluate
    Evaluate and assess current and previous stressors driving leaky gut symptoms, as well as perform possible Gut Testing Assessment with a practitioner for any underlying pathologies or triggers to gut dysfunction (SIBO testing https://drlauryn.com/sibo/ , food intolerance testing, fungal overgrowth testing)
  1. Eat an Anti-Inflammatory Nutrient-Dense Diet
    Give yourself and your gut an opportunity to “heal” by removing inflammatory foods for a minimum of 28 days (4 weeks).
  1. Practice Anti-Inflammatory Lifestyle Habits
    Beyond the food you eat, your lifestyle equally plays a role in the health of your gut and strength of your gut lining. A leaky gut healing protocol involves mitigating and decreasing stressors like overtraining or under-training, eating on the go, eating out more than eating in, spending the majority of your waking hours in front of a screen, not slowing down to chew your food, and beyond.
  1. Rebuild a Healthy Gut Ecosystem
    Introduce healthy gut bacteria (probiotics) and prebiotics into your diet, while ridding of the “bad guys.”
  1. Bonus: Integrate Secret Sauce Gut Healing Supports
    Integrate helpful gut-healing supports (like bone broth, collagen and peppermint and more) for speeding up the process of healing.

Check out this post: How to Heal Leaky Gut for Good: 5 Essential Steps for all you need to know.

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