What Causes Leaky Gut Syndrome?

A digestive expert IDs 8 things that could be causing your mysterious gut symptoms.

February 16, 2015

Leaky gut syndrome has no single cause, but some of the most common contributors are chronic stress, dysbiosis, environmental contaminants, gastrointestinal disease, immune overload, overuse of alcoholic beverages, poor food choices, presence of pathogenic bacteria, parasites and yeasts, and prolonged use of NSAIDs. Let's discuss some of these one at a time.

Chronic Stress
Prolonged stress changes the immune system's ability to respond quickly and affects our ability to heal. It's like the story of the boy who cried wolf. If we keep hollering that there's a wolf every time we're late for an appointment or we need to finish a project by a deadline, our bodies can't tell the difference between this type of stress and real stress—like meeting a vicious dog in the woods or experiencing a death in the family. Our body reacts to these stressors by producing less secretory IgA (or sIgA, one of the first lines of immune defense) and less DHEA (an antiaging, antistress adrenal hormone) and by slowing down digestion and peristalsis, reducing blood flow to digestive organs, and producing toxic metabolites. Meditation, guided imagery, relaxation, and a good sense of humor can help us deal with daily stresses. We can learn to let small problems and traumas wash over us, not taking them too seriously.


Dysbiosis, a microbial imbalance inside of the body, contributes to leaky gut syndrome. Candida push their way into the lining of the intestinal wall and break down the brush borders. Candida must be evaluated when leaky gut syndrome is suspected. Blastocystis hominis, giardia, helicobacter, salmonella, shigella, Yersinia enterocolitica, amoebas, and other parasites also irritate the intestinal lining and cause gastrointestinal symptoms. People who have or have had digestive illness or liver problems have an increased tendency to leaky gut syndrome. Which came first: the chicken or the egg?

More: 9 Weird Things Killing Your Gut

Environmental Contaminants
Daily exposure to hundreds of household and environmental chemicals puts stress on our immune defenses and the body's ability to repair itself. This leads to chronic delay of necessary routine repairs. Our immune systems can pay attention to only so many places at one time, and parts of the body far away from the digestive system are affected. Connective tissue begins to break down, and we lose trace minerals like calcium, potassium, and magnesium. Environmental chemicals deplete our reserves of buffering minerals, causing acidosis in the cells and tissue and cell swelling. This is known as leaky cells—like having major internal plumbing problems!

Overconsumption of Alcoholic Beverages
Alcoholic drinks contain few nutrients but take many nutrients to metabolize. The most noteworthy of these are the B-complex vitamins. In fact, alcoholic beverages contain substances that are toxic to our cells. When alcohol is metabolized in the liver, the toxins are either broken down or stored by the body. Alcohol abuse puts a strain on the liver, which affects digestive competency and also damages the intestinal tract.

More: Grain-Free Alcohol Options

Poor Food Choices
Low-fiber diets cause an increase in transit time, allowing toxic by-products of digestion to concentrate and irritate the gut mucosa. In addition, diets of highly processed foods injure our intestinal lining. Processed foods invariably are low in nutrients and fiber, with high levels of food additives, restructured fats, and sugar. These foods promote inflammation of the GI tract.

It's also important to note that even foods we normally think of as healthful, such as milk, wheat, and eggs, can be irritating to the gut lining.

Use of Medication
Nonsteroidal drugs such as Advil, aspirin, and Motrin damage brush borders, allowing microbes, partially digested food particles, and toxins to enter the bloodstream. Birth control pills and steroid drugs also create conditions that help feed fungi, which damage the lining. Chemotherapy drugs and radiation therapy can also significantly disrupt GI balance.

Food and Environmental Sensitivities
Food and environmental sensitivities may be the result—or, sometimes, even the cause—of leaky gut syndrome. The prevalence of these sensitivities is more widely recognized today than in the past; 24 percent of American adults claim they have food and environmental sensitivities. These sensitivities, also called delayed hypersensitivity reactions, differ from true food allergies, also called type I or immediate hypersensitivity reactions.

More: Are These Foods Making You Sick?

Lectins are found primarily in legumes and induce mast cells to produce histamine. They also bind to the intestinal mucosa, making it more porous and leaky. (Soaking grains and beans before cooking will release minerals and make them more digestible.)

Adapted from Digestion Connection