Can a leaky gut make you ill?

by | Nov 13, 2023 | gut health and digestion

As a practitioner that uses functional medicine principles it is clear to me that to improve the health of someone with a complex, chronic condition, factors that contribute to the progression or the severity of that condition must be addressed. We might start by optimising lifestyle factors, such as diet, quality of sleep, type of exercise, stress management, and so on. But, how well someone digests their food has a key role in any functional medicine assessment, especially in relation to how gut health might be linked to overall health and vitality.

There are thousands of research studies that support the importance of good gut health. This article is about the findings of one of these studies, a 2018 systematic review about the association between a leaky gut and disease.

See What can go wrong with the digestive system?


What is a leaky gut?

The small intestine is meant to be leaky. If it wasn’t you wouldn’t be able to absorb nutrients from your food. Tiny particles can move through gaps between cells or through cells that line the intestine and into the bloodstream for transport to where they are needed in the body. This process is usually tightly regulated so that larger molecules such as toxins do not penetrate the gut barrier and gain access to the body.

Yet sometimes the thin layer of cells that form the intestinal lining become damaged. When this barrier is damaged, the intestines can become more leaky than normal, a situation called increased intestinal permeability. This allows particles that would usually be excluded, to enter the body and cause mischief. These particles might be fragments of foods, or even microbes or bacterial toxins which can trigger a response by the immune system, and may result in inflammation.

We know that inflammation is at the root of many, if not all diseases. And, scientists have found, that increased intestinal permeability is particularly associated with certain health conditions, such as:

  • autoimmune disease
  • non-alcoholic fatty liver disease
  • liver cirrhosis
  • polycystic ovary syndrome
  • irritable bowel syndrome
  • diabetes
  • autism
  • food allergies
  • food sensitivities

What’s more, many studies find that when the gut is more permeable the severity of the associated health condition is worse.

The researchers suggest that the link between these health problems and an increased leaky gut does not mean that this proves the leaky gut is to blame. They suggest that more research is required to study whether healing a leaky gut can improve the symptoms or the severity of these conditions. However, we do know that healthy people have a low likelihood of having a leaky gut, and there is no harm in improving gut health.

4R approach can help to optimise your digestion and may just improve your overall health and vitality. At least that is what I see in practice.


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