Leaky Gut, Gluten, and Inflammation: What’s the Connection?

Do you experience bloating, cramps, or gas?  What about brain fog, allergies, skin rashes, or trouble losing weight? If so, you may have “leaky gut”, and it’s more common than you may think. 

You may have heard of leaky gut lately. That’s because many diseases begin in the gut, and increasingly, leaky gut is seen as a major driving force. 

When you have a leaky gut, bacteria and toxins are able to leak through holes in your intestinal wall into your bloodstream. It can be a serious condition. Leaky gut is linked with widespread inflammation and many chronic health problems such as autoimmune diseases, cancer, brain-related illnesses, and more (1).

There are various risks and factors, but in many cases, what you eat can lead to leaky gut.  And while many foods can be inflammatory and damage your gut, one of the biggest culprits today is gluten

The gut microbiome and intestinal barrier are two significant determinants of gut health. I previously discussed the role of the gut microbiome to overall health.  In this article, I’ll address your intestinal barrier and how to protect it from leaky gut.

What is a leaky gut?

Your digestive system (a.k.a the gut) is responsible for breaking down food and absorbing nutrients for your body. When your gut is healthy, small gaps called tight junctions in your intestinal wall enable vital nutrients from your food to enter into your bloodstream and travel throughout your body. 

When your gut’s not working well, the tight junctions can loosen and break apart. This allows toxins, waste products, bacteria, and undigested food to literally “leak” through your gut lining into your bloodstream — hence, leaky gut. Your body views these leaked substances as foreign, causing your immune system to respond and resulting in various inflammatory and allergic reactions.

What causes leaky gut?

Fundamentally, leaky gut is caused by irritants to your intestinal lining. This irritation can initiate inflammation and increase gut permeability, or continue the inflammation cycle leading to intestinal permeability. And a more permeable gut causes more inflammation in the body. 

Many things can lead to leaky gut. Lifestyle factors that contribute to gut inflammation and leaky gut include diet, stress, lack of sleep, excess alcohol, and overuse of medications like antibiotics, and non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs). 

How can you tell if you have a leaky gut?

Many people struggle with a leaky gut and don’t realize it’s the underlying issue behind one or several of their health concerns. That’s because you don’t have to have gut symptoms to have gut problems. 

However, some clues you may have leaky gut include digestive problems, headaches, rashes, skin problems, brain fog, fatigue, and joint pain. 

What’s the link between gluten and leaky gut?

Gluten (from Latin gluten, “glue”) is a protein that holds food together. While gluten is found naturally in wheat, rye, and barley, it’s also widely used as a filler in practically everything from processed foods to beauty products, medications and supplements. 

The widespread use of gluten along with environmental factors and modern farming practices have contributed to increasing numbers of people who experience symptoms in response to gluten.  

For example, celiac disease, an autoimmune disease characterized by extreme gluten-intolerance, has become far more common in the last 50 years. Even people without celiac disease markers may have non-celiac gluten sensitivity (‘gluten sensitivity’) (1,3). For example, research estimates that over 18 million people in the U.S. alone have gluten sensitivity (9). 

Gluten causes inflammation and leaky gut 

The problem with eating gluten is that it can trigger gut inflammation leading to leaky gut. A recent study at Columbia University Medical Center confirmed that people who had non-celiac gluten sensitivity also had increased intestinal permeability, or leaky gut (9). And in gluten-sensitive people, eating gluten is linked with many diseases. (2,3,8)

In susceptible individuals, eating gluten causes the gut to produce the toxin zonulin, which breaks down the tight junctions in the gut lining. The increased permeability lets foreign substances into the bloodstream causing the immune system to attack, resulting in chronic inflammation (3,4,6). 

How to heal and prevent leaky gut 

While there are several connections, poor gut health, in general, increases intestinal permeability and leaky gut (4,5).  That’s why the best way to protect yourself from a leaky gut is to invest more in your overall gut health (see The Gut-Health Connection). 

However, there is no single approach to fixing leaky gut. You have to try different strategies to see what helps to relieve your symptoms and reduce inflammation. 

Diet plays a huge role in digestion and increased gut permeability. That’s why I recommend you start with what you put into your body. Eating nutrient-dense whole foods that promote the growth of healthy gut bacteria and avoiding foods that can cause inflammation (e.g. sugar, alcohol, processed foods) will help.  

As gluten is such a common cause of inflammation today, this is the first thing I recommend you remove altogether from your diet. Eliminate gluten for at least 30 days, then gauge how you feel before and after.  

For example, after removing gluten, ask yourself these questions. 

  • Do I have more energy?
  • Has my bloating and/or other digestive conditions disappeared?
  • Do I have less brain fog and increased mental clarity?
  • Have symptoms from other food allergies improved?

Several micronutrient deficiencies are also linked to inflammation and leaky gut conditions, particularly when combined with poor diet and overall gut health. And once you have a leaky gut, your body may need some extra support to help it heal. That’s where smart supplementation comes in.

I look to bring down gut inflammation with the support of the following products: 

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Roan Author

About the author

Roan Heming is the founder of Human Performance Hub, as well as a Certified Personal Trainer, Coach and Fitness Nutrition Educator, and qualified chef based in Buckinghamshire, UK.

Roan is passionate about helping people improve their health and performance goals. Human Performance Hub is a labour of love because, from personal experience, Roan knows the right supplements work wonders and can mean all the difference for good health.

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References

  1. de Punder, Karin, and Leo Pruimboom. “The dietary intake of wheat and other cereal grains and their role in inflammation.” Nutrients vol. 5,3 771-87. 12 Mar. 2013, doi:10.3390/nu5030771 https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3705319/
  2. www.beyondceliac.org › celiac-disease › non-celiac-gluten-sensitivity
  3. Uhde M, Ajamian M, Caio G, et al. Intestinal cell damage and systemic immune activation in individuals reporting sensitivity to wheat in the absence of coeliac disease Gut 2016;65:1930-1937. https://gut.bmj.com/content/65/12/1930.full
  4. ani PD, Osto M, Geurts L, Everard A. Involvement of gut microbiota in the development of low-grade inflammation and type 2 diabetes associated with obesity. Gut Microbes. 2012;3(4):279–288. doi:10.4161/gmic.19625 https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3463487/
  5. Escobedo G, López-Ortiz E, Torres-Castro I. Gut microbiota as a key player in triggering obesity, systemic inflammation and insulin resistance. Rev Invest Clin. 2014;66(5):450–459. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/25695388
  6. Bischoff, Stephan C et al. “Intestinal permeability–a new target for disease prevention and therapy.” BMC gastroenterology vol. 14 189. 18 Nov. 2014, doi:10.1186/s12876-014-0189-7 https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4253991/
  7. Lammers KM, Lu R, Brownley J, et al. Gliadin induces an increase in intestinal permeability and zonulin release by binding to the chemokine receptor CXCR3. Gastroenterology. 2008;135(1):194–204.e3. doi:10.1053/j.gastro.2008.03.023 https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2653457/
  8. Arrieta, MC et al. “Alterations in intestinal permeability.” Gut vol. 55,10 (2006): 1512-20. doi:10.1136/gut.2005.085373 https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1856434/
  9. Richard J. Farrell, M.D., and Ciarán P. Kelly, M.D. Celiac Sprue. The New England Journal of Medicine https://www.nejm.org/doi/full/10.1056/NEJMra010852
  10. https://chriskresser.com/gut-inflammation-12-causes-and-12-effects/

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