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Unraveling Intestinal Permeability: A Closer Look at 'Leaky Gut'

Written by Portland Clinic of Natural Health on May 23, 2023

In recent years, the concept of intestinal permeability, colloquially known as 'leaky gut', has risen to prominence in discussions surrounding digestive health. As our understanding of the gut's role expands, it's become increasingly clear that the state of our intestinal lining can significantly impact overall health. In this post, we'll delve into the science behind intestinal permeability, its causes, potential health implications, and what we can do about it.

What is Intestinal Permeability?

The intestine is lined with a single layer of cells which constitute an important barrier. This barrier allows for the absorption of nutrients and water into the bloodstream while preventing the entry of potentially harmful substances such as toxins, pathogens, and undigested food particles.

However, when this barrier becomes compromised, we face a condition known as increased intestinal permeability or 'leaky gut'. In this state, the tight junctions between intestinal cells loosen, allowing substances that should have remained within the gut to enter the bloodstream. (1)

What Causes Leaky Gut?

Several factors can contribute to increased intestinal permeability. Some key triggers include chronic stress, insufficient sleep, a diet rich in processed foods, certain medications (like NSAIDs), excessive alcohol intake, and imbalances in gut bacteria, or dysbiosis. (2)

Health Implications of Leaky Gut

A leaky gut can potentially have systemic effects, leading to a variety of health issues. These can range from gastrointestinal symptoms like bloating, gas, and irritable bowel syndrome, to systemic conditions such as autoimmune diseases, chronic fatigue syndrome, and even mental health issues like depression and anxiety (3).

Evidence is mounting to suggest that increased intestinal permeability may be involved in more severe diseases such as celiac disease, type 1 diabetes, and inflammatory bowel disease, signifying the critical role of a healthy gut barrier in overall health (4).

Addressing Leaky Gut

From a dietary perspective, including fiber-rich foods that promote a healthy gut microbiome, omega-3 fatty acids that reduce inflammation, and avoiding processed foods can support gut health (5).

Lifestyle changes, such as reducing stress through mindfulness-based practices, improving sleep hygiene, and regular exercise, also seem to positively impact intestinal barrier function (6).

As always, if you suspect you might have a leaky gut, it's crucial to consult with a holistic healthcare provider before making any significant changes to your diet or lifestyle.

The concept of intestinal permeability or 'leaky gut' underscores the gut's critical role in overall health. Recognizing and addressing the factors that contribute to a leaky gut could potentially alleviate various health issues and promote optimal health. More research is warranted to expand our understanding of intestinal permeability and its wider implications on human health.


  1. Vancamelbeke M, Vermeire S. The intestinal barrier: a fundamental role in health and disease. Expert Rev Gastroenterol Hepatol. 2017 Sep;11(9):821-834. doi: 10.1080/17474124.2017.1343143. Epub 2017 Jun 26. PMID: 28650209; PMCID: PMC6104804.
  2. Camilleri M. Leaky gut: mechanisms, measurement and clinical implications in humans. Gut. 2019 Aug;68(8):1516-1526. doi: 10.1136/gutjnl-2019-318427. Epub 2019 May 10. PMID: 31076401; PMCID: PMC6790068.
  3. Aleman RS, Moncada M, Aryana KJ. Leaky Gut and the Ingredients That Help Treat It: A Review. Molecules. 2023 Jan 7;28(2):619. doi: 10.3390/molecules28020619. PMID: 36677677; PMCID: PMC9862683.
  4. Fasano A. All disease begins in the (leaky) gut: role of zonulin-mediated gut permeability in the pathogenesis of some chronic inflammatory diseases. F1000Res. 2020 Jan 31;9:F1000 Faculty Rev-69. doi: 10.12688/f1000research.20510.1. PMID: 32051759; PMCID: PMC6996528.
  5. Singh RK, Chang HW, Yan D, Lee KM, Ucmak D, Wong K, Abrouk M, Farahnik B, Nakamura M, Zhu TH, Bhutani T, Liao W. Influence of diet on the gut microbiome and implications for human health. J Transl Med. 2017 Apr 8;15(1):73. doi: 10.1186/s12967-017-1175-y. PMID: 28388917; PMCID: PMC5385025.
  6. Househam AM, Peterson CT, Mills PJ, Chopra D. The Effects of Stress and Meditation on the Immune System, Human Microbiota, and Epigenetics. Adv Mind Body Med. 2017 Fall;31(4):10-25. PMID: 29306937.

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