When the Bad Guys Get In: Understanding Leaky Gut

When the Bad Guys Get In: Understanding Leaky Gut

  • Gut Health

  • By Jef L’Ecuyer, Registered Dietitian

    One of the major jobs of our intestines is to act as a barrier, keeping us safe from the “outside world.” Now, if you’re new to digestive health, this may seem like a strange concept to you, but it’s an important one to grasp, especially when it comes to understanding leaky gut syndrome.

    Our digestive system, the long muscular tube that runs from one end of us to the other, is actually considered to be outside of the body. In a perfect setting, our gut acts as a barrier absorbing the nutrients and water we need to keep us healthy and thriving while protecting us from unwanted invaders like toxins, bacteria and any other nasties that might make us sick.

    But here’s where things get a bit more complicated. Our gut does way more than just absorb nutrients. It plays a vital role in our immune system, has more nerve endings than our spinal cord, and is home to trillions of bacteria that have a multitude of functions. Think of it as a busy intersection where digestive, immune and neurological health meets – with so much happening there’s a big chance for traffic problems.


    Understanding the Barrier Function

    In a healthy gut, the barrier function is tightly regulated and requires co-operation from many players including our gut microbiota, nervous system, resident immune cells, and intestinal cells (known as epithelial cells) that are bound together by what are called ‘tight junctions’.1,2

    When our intestinal cells are healthy, these ‘tight junctions’ fit tightly together (they got their name for a reason!). Anything looking to gain entry into our body must do so via the appropriate channels, so our body can properly metabolize it.

    When our intestines become irritated or inflamed, however, these tight junctions loosen. Bad guys (aka undigested protein molecules, toxins, or bad bacteria) can slip in between the epithelial cells, where they enter into our circulation and cause our immune system to fire.


    What Causes Intestinal Permeability (aka Leaky Gut)?

    In vitro and in vivo animal studies have shown that intestinal permeability may occur due to many factors including inflammatory molecules, immune cells and exogenous factors like alcohol use, taking non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) and various pathogens.3

    Current research supports that leaky gut is a feature of liver dysfunction, Irritable Bowel Disease, Celiac Disease and traumatic burns. That being said, as we learn more about the role of our gut in issues around chronic stress and chronic inflammation more and more clinical practitioners are open to the idea that leaky gut may, in fact, be present in a sub-acute form and contribute to autoimmune and psychiatric diseases.4


    The Role of Your Gut Microbes    

    While there is still a lot to learn about leaky gut syndrome and the role it plays in disease etiology, one thing is becoming clearer– we’ve got to support our gut microbes.

    In a 2016 study published in Cell, researchers used a mouse model to test what a diet completely lacking in fibre would do to our gut microbes. What they found was shocking! Without fibre (the food our gut bacteria live off of), our gut bacteria turn to our gut mucosa as a source of fuel.4

    Our gut mucosa is the layer that covers our epithelial cells, and its integrity is critical to our health, as it contains immune cells needed to kill off pathogens and protects our epithelial cells from inflammatory causing compounds and bacteria.4

    Further this, when our gut bacteria eat fibre (or more specifically, ferments it) they produce short-chain fatty acids (SCFA) that are an important fuel source to our intestinal cells. One such SCFA, butyrate, has been shown to enhance colonic barrier function.5


    Keeping Your Gut Bacteria Nourished

    Keeping your gut bacteria balanced and thriving requires a combination of lifestyle, dietary and supplement interventions.


    Eat Your Fibre

    As you can see, fibre is the food of our bacteria and gives them the fuel they need to remain healthy and strong. Where do we get our fibre? By consuming a leaky gut syndrome diet rich in colourful plants. To ensure you are meeting your daily fibre requirements, aim to fill half your plate with fruits and veggies at every single meal.


    Take a High-Quality Probiotic

    If you have been consuming a poor-quality diet, have been on antibiotics or medications, smoke, or under a lot of stress, you need to replenish your good gut bacteria to promote diversity in your microbiota. Bio-K+ is a unique, patented probiotic that has been clinically proven to help re-balance your gut bacteria by keeping bad bacteria in check, supporting the environment for good bacteria to grow and supporting your immune system.


    Rest & Recharge

    Like us, our gut bacteria need time to rest and recharge to be their healthiest. To help rebalance your gut, make sure you are taking time for self-care, whether that is deep breathing, a hot bath, or a daily meditation practice. Sleep is also critical to the health of your microbiome. Practice good sleep hygiene by making bedtime a priority in your daily routine, ensuring the room is dark and free of distractions, and keeping it cool to promote restful sleep.


    Do you have any other questions concerning the health of your gut microbiome? Let us know in comments below! Join our community for more healthy tips. Click here to find a store near you. Contact us or follow us on Facebook or Instagram



    1. https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/full/10.1111/apt.12950
    2. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4112904/
    3. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4266989/
    4. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5131798/ 
    5. https://pdfs.semanticscholar.org/8a98/8ab1af2f94b8a18246e38f93abb013aa517b.pdf

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    Jef L’Ecuyer Registered Dietitian
    About the author
    After her nutrition training at McGill University, Jef specialized in gastrointestinal health with a special interest in the microbiota and Irritable Bowel Syndrome. With Bio-K+, she continues on this path by making the world of probiotics more accessible to all.
    View all articles by Jef L’Ecuyer
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