To Your Health

How do I find out if I have 'leaky gut syndrome,' and how is it treated?

Q. Some of my symptoms match symptoms that I have read about for a problem called "leaky gut syndrome." Is there any test to determine if I have it, and any treatment if I do?

A. "Leaky gut syndrome" is pretty much described by the name. Large spaces develop in the gut wall, allowing unwanted substances to pass from the intestinal tract into the body. At first it might sound like a good thing, and that a leaky gut should be better able to absorb nutrients. However, the gut does more than just digest our food and absorb the nutrients. It is also responsible for keeping out toxins, bacteria, undigested food, and other things that are harmful to us.

Even in healthy people, small amounts of undigested food and toxins can enter the body through the gut. One of the key functions of the liver is to remove this material before it circulates throughout the whole body. In leaky gut syndrome, the liver is forced to work overtime and its reserves can be depleted. The result is often the appearance of food allergies or sensitivity.

The leakiness or "permeability" of the gut can be measured directly using certain sugars. One sugar, mannitol, is well absorbed by a healthy gut but not used for energy, so it is excreted unchanged. Another sugar, lactulose, is very poorly absorbed by a healthy gut and ordinarily will not show up in urine. By measuring the amount of each of these sugars in the urine after taking a measured dose of both, it is possible to calculate gut permeability. Normally the lactulose level in urine is only about 3% of the mannitol level, so if the lactulose level is higher, this means that the gut is allowing excessive lactulose (and other substances also) to be absorbed.

Recently a protein was identified that makes gut permeability worse. Named "zonulin," it was first found as a toxin derived from the organism that produces the deadly disease cholera. Zonulin damages the tiny places in the gut wall that control absorption. Such damage is associated with conditions like celiac disease and Crohn's disease in which the gut's barrier to bacteria is lost.

Rebuilding the gut so that it functions as it should, by allowing the absorption of essential nutrients while prohibiting absorption of unhealthy substances, is made more difficult because the gut itself is damaged. Repair starts with supplements of amino acids such as L-glutamine, which gives the gut the energy to rebuild, and glycine, which helps the liver in its detoxification work. Adding the friendly intestinal bacteria such as acidophilus and bifudus reduces the population of unfriendly bacteria and so reduces the risk of infection. Essential fatty acids, especially the omega-3 family, are important ingredients of the gut membrane and help reduce the inflammation that usually accompanies a leaky gut. B-vitamins and vitamin C, magnesium, zinc, and trace minerals such as selenium are useful for healing in many ways. Digestive enzymes help ensure that undigested particles of food are not present to stimulate your body's immune response.

In addition to supplements, minimize sugar and caffeine in your diet, and concentrate on high-fiber vegetables and the vegetables that are high in antioxidants, such as onion and broccoli, and the colorful fruits. You may even need to leave off nourishing foods temporarily if you find through your own experience that your stomach is upset after eating them.

A note to readers: Bold and uncensored, The Austin Chronicle has been Austin’s independent news source for almost 40 years, expressing the community’s political and environmental concerns and supporting its active cultural scene. Now more than ever, we need your support to continue supplying Austin with independent, free press. If real news is important to you, please consider making a donation of $5, $10 or whatever you can afford, to help keep our journalism on stands.

Support the Chronicle  

One click gets you all the newsletters listed below

Breaking news, arts coverage, and daily events

Can't keep up with happenings around town? We can help.

Austin's queerest news and events

Updates for SXSW 2019

All questions answered (satisfaction not guaranteed)

Information is power. Support the free press, so we can support Austin.   Support the Chronicle