Digestive Problems and Leaky Gut Syndrome

If you suffer with digestive problems, you are not alone. According to a recent survey, almost 75 percent of adult Americans complain of chronic gas, bloating, cramping, constipation, diarrhea, abdominal pain, and heartburn. The Western medical approach to these problems is pharmaceutical drugs. No doubt you’ve seen the drug company’s television commercials that claim if you are at war with your food and suffering with heartburn and indigestion—the solution to all your digestive problems is to simply take their medication and keep on eating whatever you’d like.

Ancient wholistic systems of medicine, such as Traditional Chinese Medicine and Ayurvedatake a different and much healthier approach. For example, Ayurveda addresses the source of your indigestion by adjusting your diet and giving you tips to enhance your digestion. By eliminating foods that take you out of balance and aggravate your symptoms, and instead consuming only highly nutritious food that bring you into balance, most of your digestive complaints will easily resolve. You can enjoy even smoother digestion by also incorporating Ayurveda’stop 12 guidelines for enhancing digestion.

1. Eat your main meal at noon.

2. Don’t eat again until your previous meal has been digested-about 3 hours.

3. Keep regular mealtimes.

4. Don’t overeat. Eat to fill three-quarters of your stomach’s capacity.

5. Eat in a settled atmosphere.

6. Don’t eat when you are upset.

7. Always sit down to eat.

8. Don’t talk while chewing.

9. Favor lightly cooked foods over raw foods.

10. Avoid cold drinks.

11. Favor fresh wholesome foods, such as organic fruits, vegetables,

and whole grains.

12. Put your full attention on your food.

Most of these recommendations are self-explanatory, but a few of them need further clarification. Ayurveda recommends that you eat your main meal at noon because your “digestive fires” are at their peak from 10:00 A.M. to 2:00 P.M. In other words, your body’s metabolism is revved up during these hours, and you can digest your food better than you can early in the morning or later at night. If you eat a big meal late at night, it won’t digest well and your sleep will be disturbed. I’m sure you’ve had this unpleasant experience at some time. However, the times you’ve eaten light in the evening and gone to bed early, you more than likely woke up feeling great after a particularly restful night of sleep. Most of the principles and recommendations of Ayurveda are as simple as this one, but don’t let their simplicity fool you. Their effects can be very profound.

Cold drinks should be avoided, especially during a meal, because according to Ayurveda, a cool drink cools down and dilutes the digestive fires. In Western scientific terms, cool drinks slow down the action of your stomach’s digestive enzymes, which work best at body temperature or a little above. At the temperature of an iced drink, the effectiveness of your digestive enzymes is cut almost in half. If you want to drink something with your meals, Ayurveda recommends that you have sips of hot water only. Don’t drink too much water with your meal, either, because water will dilute the enzymes in the stomach, making them less effective.

The Ayurvedic recommendation to favor fresh wholesome foods is a key principle of diet. The 2,500-year-old text of Ayurveda, called the Charaka Samhita, proclaims the importance of a wholesome diet: “The distinction between health and disease arises as the result of the difference between wholesome and unwholesome diet.” Wholesome foods are considered to be primarily fresh organic fruits, vegetables, and whole grains.

According to Ayurveda and confirmed by modern research, when foods are lightly cooked, they are easier to digest and, therefore, more nutrients are absorbed. Overcooking foods or cooking foods at high temperatures should be avoided because it destroys nutrients and creates harmful substances.

Finally, when you eat a meal, it is ideal to put your full attention on your food. Don’t watch TV or read the newspaper. When your full attention is on your meal, you’re more likely to chew your food well, eat smaller portions, and digest your food better.

Bugs and Leaks

Your intestines have over 4,000 square feet of lining and contain trillions of bacteria. Certain types of these bacteria are essential for your health, while others can be damaging. The “good” types of bacteria are crucial for digestion, protect your intestinal wall and support normal immune function. The “bad” types of bacteria can impair your digestion and immune function, and inflame your intestinal lining leading to increased permeability. Increased intestinal permeability (IP) or leaky gut syndrome (LGS) can be extremely damaging to your health, and result in an increased risk of a variety of chronic diseases and disorders discussed below.

Tight Opening Malfunction

The lining of your intestine is only one cell thick. There are “tight openings” between these cells, which allow water and nutrients to pass through into your blood and lymph systems while keeping harmful substances inside the intestines so that they can be naturally eliminated with your stool. When these tight junctions don’t work properly, larger particles of partially digested food, bacteria and toxins get into your blood system and trigger a severe reaction. Your immune system goes on the attack and inflammation is activated throughout your body. Although some people may not experience any symptoms with LGS, most people do suffer with a variety of unpleasant symptoms which may include:

Bloating                             Food sensitivities

Gas                                   Joint Pain

Cramps                              Moodiness and irritability

Chronic diarrhea                   Constipation

Irritable Bowel Syndrome     Insomnia

Fatigue                              Skin problems: rashes, eczema, psoriasis

Immune dysfunction            Headaches, brain fog, and memory loss

Sugar cravings                    Obesity

Widespread inflammation

If left unchecked, LGS can progress from symptoms to disease. A wide variety of diseases and disorders have been linked to leaky gut syndrome such as Crohn’s disease, celiac disease, chronic liver disease, diabetes, chronic fatigue syndrome, fibromyalgia, arthritis, asthma, acne, obesity, autoimmune diseases, and mental disorders such as depression, anxiety and ADD.

Causes of LGS

Increased intestinal permeability can be caused by a number of different factors.

1. Diet: The Standard American Diet, which is high in sugar, refined carbohydrates, processed food, saturated animal fats, and GMO’s. Consuming foods with potentially high risk of sensitivity reactions including gluten, soy, peanuts and dairy.

2. Medications: Antibiotics, steroids, aspirin, Ibuprofen and other over-the-counter pain relievers, acid blocking drugs, chemotherapy

3. Drinking excess alcohol

4. Toxins: Chemical toxins in the environment including home cleaning supplies, building supplies, personal care and beauty products, tap water (chlorinated and fluorinated), and toxins in your food, especially pesticides and herbicides in conventionally-grown food.

5. Chronic stress and emotional trauma

6. Genetics: Certain genes may predispose individuals to gut issues.

7. Infections: Bacterial, fungal, parasitic, yeast (Candida) and viral.


Leaky gut syndrome is generally diagnosed by symptoms and the exclusion of other diseases. There is a provocative test that can be done using two indigestible sugars, mannitol and lactulose. These sugars are given by mouth and then the urine is collected and analyzed. If there is excessive intestinal permeability, these sugars will pass through into the blood stream and filter into the urine. Unfortunately, the reliability of this test is not great.

There is some controversy about the existence of leaky gut syndrome, especially by Western trained physicians because of the lack of a definitive diagnostic test. However, the medical research is now filled with thousands of studies confirming this condition. Beginning in the 1990s, studies on rats showed a clear association with the loss of the intestinal barrier integrity and the development of inflammatory bowel disease, immune system compromise, and various autoimmune diseases such as type 1 diabetes and rheumatoid arthritis.

In 2013, a study described a new technology called a “confocal laser endomicroscope” that allows magnifications of 1000X with 1-micron resolution, enabling visualization of cellular and subcellular structures in the lining of the gut in real time. Increased intestinal permeability due to the openings of the tight junctions was directly observed with this microscope.


The good news is that leaky gut syndrome can be reversed. It doesn’t develop overnight, so it also takes some time and dedication to restore the health of your intestinal lining. First, all of the above factors that are known to contribute to LGS should be modified, eliminated or treated. Next, your body needs to be nourished with healing foods. Specific dietary supplements can help to decrease inflammation and repair your intestinal lining. Finally, a healthy lifestyle is essential and should include exercise, good quality sleep, and the daily practice of an effective stress-reducing technique, such as meditation, yoga or Tai chi.

Diet: Eliminate foods that may trigger inflammation including alcohol, processed foods, sugar, gluten, dairy and soy. Instead, consume primarily an organically-grown plant-based diet filled with fresh vegetables. Include high amounts of healthy oils, especially omega-3 fatty acids found in certain fish such as wild caught salmon and flax seeds, and omega-9 fatty acids found in olive oil. Coconut oil and avocados are also great sources of healthy fats. Add digestive spices to your food, such as turmeric, cumin, ginger, fennel, coriander seed, and cardamom.

Probiotics: You can promote the good types of bacteria in your gut by taking supplemental probiotics. Choose one that includes Lactobacillus acidophilus, Lactobacillus plantarum, and Bifidobacterium. Also eat fermented foods. Great choices include kefir, yogurt, kombucha, sauerkraut, and miso.


Vitamin D3: an extremely important vitamin essential for the proper functioning of all the cells in the body. Deficiencies in this vitamin are associated with a significant increased risk of many different chronic diseases. Research shows vitamin D also plays an important role in decreasing intestinal permeability. Optimal blood levels are 40 to 60 ng/ml. Dose varies from 2,000 IU/day to 10,000 IU/day or more depending on your blood levels.

L-glutamine: an amino acid that acts like sugar in the brain and short circuits or stops cravings for sweets. It is also highly effective at repairing the lining of the gut. Recommended dose is 1000 mg/day

Slippery elm bark (Ulmus fulva): a demulcent that also has lubricating and gut protective properties. It creates a thick protective layer that can cover the entire intestinal tract.

Licorice (Glycyrrhuza glabra): used for thousands of years worldwide, it lubricates and soothes mucus membranes, and acts as a natural lubricant and demulcent for the intestinal and respiratory systems.

Marshmallow Root (Althaea officinalis): protects the stomach lining from excess acid and the intestinal tract from irritants. Helps to coat and protect the intestines.

Slippery elm, licorice and marshmallow root can be prepared as a decoction at home. Chop each of these herbs and add one tablespoon of each to two quarts of purified water. Boil down to half a quart, then cool and strain. Sip 1 tablespoon of the decoction every 2 hours on an empty stomach. These herbs can also be made into a tea. Simply add equal parts of all three herbs totaling approximately one tablespoon. Steep the mixture in hot water for 5 to 10 minutes. Drink 3 to 6 cups/day.

If you suffer with digestive problems, first consult with your physician. Then work with a wholistic or integrative practitioner who can help you with an individualized program to help you to restore your intestinal health. Also use the guidelines described above, and remember you didn’t develop these issues overnight, so it will take at least several months to repair your gut. Digestive problems are reversible—so stick with the program and soon you’ll be amazed at how much better you feel!

Christine Horner, MD is a board certified and nationally recognized surgeon, author, expert in natural medicine, and a relentless champion for women's health. She spearheaded legislation in the 1990s that made it mandatory that insurance companies pay for breast reconstruction following mastectomy. She is the author of “Waking the Warrior Goddess: Dr Christine Horner’s Program to Protect Against and Fight Breast Cancer”, winner of the Independent Book Publishers Award 2006 for “Best Book in Health, Medicine, and Nutrition.” and the author of the recently released “Radiant Health Ageless Beauty: Dr. Horner’s 30-Day Program to Extraordinary Health and Longevity.” For more information go to www.drchristinehorner.com