A leaky gut is a condition occurring when the normally seamless fabric of cells blanketing your intestinal wall becomes torn. Rather than a single big rip, though, a leaky gut results from tons of tiny tears. These tears develop when the proteins that are supposed seal the cells together stop working properly. This allows the cells to pull away from each other, creating gaps between them. Though small, these gaps, are enough to keep the intestines from being able to do its job properly. Normally, the intact fabric of cells works to absorb nutrients and water, while keeping toxins and bacteria out. With even tiny gaps between the cells, however, nutrients from your diet can leak back out of your intestinal wall, and toxins and dangerous bacteria are able to leak in.
You can imagine it kind of like a tent on a camping trip. Normally, the seams of the tent (proteins) tightly link many pieces of canvas (cells) together. A tent with perfect seams keeps heat in and rain and insects out. If the seams of your tent start to come undone, though, gaps start forming between the pieces of canvas. Through these gaps, the heat you want to keep in can escape. Not to mention the rain and bugs you want to keep out can start getting in. Basically, your tent can no longer function perfectly.
The Most Common Effects of a Leaky Gut
Scientists have linked the imperfect function of the intestinal lining caused by a leaky gut to a wide range of health conditions, ranging from obesity and depression to liver disease and autoimmune diseases. Among the most common effects of a leaky gut wall, however, are bowel diseases and abnormal bowel movements. Though symptoms can vary, in most cases, a leaky gut causes these four changes in your toilet habits.
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1. Loose Stools
A leaky gut causes loose stools (diarrhea) primarily because it keeps you from absorbing nutrients out of your gut properly, leaving you with more food in your digestive tract than normal. Though you might assume extra food in your gut would make your stools more solid, it actually makes them waterier. This is because certain components of your food (such as salt and simple sugars) hold onto water like tiny sponges.
When these foods are absorbed, they bring all this water with them into your body. If they are left in the intestines, the water stays with them. What’s more, if there are really large amounts of these foods in your intestines, there is sometimes not enough water to “soak all the sponges”. If this happens, the dry sponges actually suck water out of your body and into your intestines. If there is too much water mixed in with your food when it reaches your large intestine (your large intestine can only absorb about 5 liters of water per day), you will pass loose, watery stools.
2. Frequent or Urgent Trips to the Toilet
A leaky gut leads to more food and water being left in your digestive tract than normal. This causes more frequent and urgent trips to the toilet for two reasons:
- The need to defecate may be more frequent simply because you have more material to get rid of.
- The extra food in your gut triggers a natural reflex speeding up your bowel movements. If a lot of pressure enters the intestine all at once (say from a large, watery stool), it’s detected by special nerves linked to the muscles in the walls of your intestines. This triggers the muscles to start contracting in strong, coordinated waves, propelling food from your stomach to the toilet much more quickly. Naturally, increasing the speed and strength of the contractions pushing your food towards your rectum results in more frequent, but also more urgent, bathroom visits.
Oddly, a leaky gut can cause constipation as well as diarrhea. Constipation describes a condition where you don’t have bowel movements frequently enough. This is associated with hard stools that require straining to pass them caused by extra water being absorbed by the large intestine.
While diarrhea results mostly from the nutrients leaking out of the gut wall, scientists believe constipation may be an effect of the bacteria and toxins that leak into them.
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When bacteria or toxins leak through the gaps in the intestinal wall, they can come into contact with immune cells. These immune cells recognize danger and start producing chemicals intended to protect you from an invader. Unfortunately, some of these chemicals interfere with the nerves telling the walls of your intestines how to move. Normally, these nerves coordinate their signals carefully. But when one area is stimulated by immune chemicals, the nerves may fire differently.
This can break up the waves of contractions that are supposed to push food smoothly through the intestines. If the waves become too uncoordinated (referred to as gut dysmotility by doctors and scientists), food can get stuck. Food getting stuck or moving too slowly through the intestines causes increases your time between bowel movements, leading to constipation.
4. A Combination of Symptoms
If you have a leaky gut, you may experience alternating diarrhea and constipation. Scientists think this might be due to changes in how severe the leakage is. Scientists suspect that more severe leakage is associated with diarrhea, while mild leakage is more likely to result in constipation. So if your gut begins healing, and the gaps between your cells get smaller, your symptoms may switch from diarrhea to constipation. Conversely, if you encounter a trigger that makes your gut leakier (often stress, a specific food, a dangerous bacteria/virus or a medication), your symptoms can switch from constipation to diarrhea.
Since both diarrhea and constipation can occur with lots of food in the intestine, you may also experience the cramps and sense of urgency triggered by the pressure reflex with either of them.
Take Away Message
One of the most common symptoms of a leaky gut is changes in your bowel movements. Due to its ability to cause changes in nutrient absorption, intestinal movements, and immune function, a leaky gut can lead to serious changes in your toilet routine. If you have a leaky gut, you may experience loose stools, frequent or urgent trips to the bathroom, constipation, or some combination of all three.