August 20


Is Leaky Gut Real?

By Sunny Brigham, MS, CNS, LDN

August 20, 2018

minutes read time


Today we chat the gut.  Since I specialize in digestive health, I see a lot of disordered digestion in my clinical practice.  But if I’m being honest with you, many of my clients have no idea their gut is out of whack.  They’re concerned about joint pain or their inability to lose weight.  When I start pealing back the surface, I see all the classic signs of intestinal hyperpermeability aka leaky gut.  Once we start healing the gut, they start feeling better!

I’m going to talk a little about what leaky gut is and how it’s defined by science.  I’ll try to keep this simple but sometimes it’s hard because big words.  I’ll also go over the common symptoms that I see and what you should be looking for.  And, I’ll give you a quick overview of what I do in my practice.  I never recommend someone venture on healing the gut on their own.  There’s just too many variables at play and it could go wrong.

So, let’s dive in, shall we?

What is leaky gut?

If you Google this term, you will find endless blogs referencing leaky gut.  But I bet you’ll find some that say it’s not a real thing.  I assure you…it is.

The gastrointestinal tract aka the digestive tract aka the gut includes the mouth, esophagus, the belly, the small intestine, the large intestine, and the rectum.  It also includes the pancreas, liver, and gallbladder because those aid in digestion.  For the most part, the gut is external to the body.  Yes, I know that it runs through the body but it’s actually a long, connected tube from one end to the other where food goes in one end and waste comes out the other. 

Weird, right?

The purpose of the gut is to breakdown foods that you put in your body.  It digests them and absorbs the nutrients from the food that it can.  It then excretes the waste product.  The gut also acts as a barrier to pathogens or other critters on the food. 

Immune health

The small intestine is where most of the magic happens when it comes to disgestion and absorption of nutrients. Most don’t know that a good majority (about 70-80%) of the immune tissue lies within the small intestine. It’s there to protect us from pathogens, toxins, or other critters on the food we are putting into our bodies.

Our small intestine is lined with epithelial cells…the same cells that make up the skin.  We also have a mucosal barrier and something called tight junctions in the small intestine as well.  These work together to allow for digestion and absorption of nutrients, passing of waste, and neutralization of pathogens on the food. 

But sometimes, we could be taking in a food that our body doesn’t like.  When we consume a food that our body doesn’t agree with, the immune system is activated.  The body sees that food as a pathogen and is ready to attack it.  The more we consume this specific food or foods, the more we activate the immune system.  Over activation of the immune system can lead to a variety of issues, including autoimmune diseases.

Common food aggravators:








Processed meats



Egg whites are surprisingly aggravating to a lot of people. 

Immune system and autoimmunity

We know there is an underlying genetic component to the development of an autoimmune (AI) condition.  But really only about 10% of those that carry the gene for an AI condition develop that condition.  So, like all other gene expression, there is an environmental aspect to it. 

Environmental isn’t just the air we breathe.  It’s the food we take in as well as the lifestyle we lead. All of these can lead to increase gut permeability or leaky gut.  Not only is leaky gut present in those with Celiac Disease, but it’s also been found to be present in those who have developed Type 1 Diabetes and Irritable Bowel Disease (IBD), which includes ulcerative colitis and crohn’s disease. 

AI diseases are on the rise. We have a higher incidence today than we ever have.  That’s because of increased gut permeability.  Leaky gut has been linked to AI, as stated above.  But what causes leaky gut?  We briefly talked about that as well…the air we breathe, the lifestyle we lead, and the food we eat.  But what foods specifically.  It’s been found that various food additives as well as sugar and gluten cause leaky gut.  Now, this is just one aspect.  Recall we chatted about food sensitivities a bit ago. 


Many people have symptoms of leaky gut but attribute it to other things.  I hear the word “hereditary” a lot when it comes to seasonal allergies and eczema.  While there is a genetic component to some these conditions, not everyone carries the genes.  A good indication they are genetic is if you’ve had these issues since infancy or early childhood.  If you developed either later in life, they may not be genetic.

The point is, if you have any symptoms, not dismissing them as something else is a great first step.  Here’s a list of the common symptoms.  There are others, these are just most present:


Tendency to seasonal allergies

Unexplained bloating

Post meal bloating

Unexplained diarrhea or constipation

Being “sickly” or never getting sick


Brain fog


Weight Loss Resistance

What to do?

There are a few key approaches I take in my practice.  I have some clients that will follow and elimination diet and others that will go to food sensitivity testing.  If AI is in play, we tend to get very restrictive.  I also use supportive supplements to help the body heal and maximize nutrient use. 

The end goal is to discover food triggers for you and to heal the gut at the same time.  It is a lengthy process and can be frustrating but usually clients feel better within a few weeks of starting the process. 

So…is leaky gut real?  YES! 

Tell me…do you or have you had leaky gut?  What did you do to help heal your body?


Fasano, A. (2012). Intestinal Permeability and its Regulation by Zonulin: Diagnostic and Therapeutic Implications. Clinical Gastroenterology and Hepatology : The Official Clinical Practice Journal of the American Gastroenterological Association, 10(10), 1096–1100.

Lee, S. H. (2015). Intestinal Permeability Regulation by Tight Junction: Implication on Inflammatory Bowel Diseases. Intestinal Research, 13(1), 11–18.

Lerner, A., & Matthias, T. (2015). Changes in intestinal tight junction permeability associated with industrial food additives explain the rising incidence of autoimmune disease. Autoimmunity Reviews,14(6), 479-489. doi:10.1016/j.autrev.2015.01.009

Vighi, G., Marcucci, F., Sensi, L., Di Cara, G., & Frati, F. (2008). Allergy and the gastrointestinal system. Clinical and Experimental Immunology, 153(Suppl 1), 3–6.

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