Leaky Gut and Food Sensitivities

Leaky Gut and Food Sensitivities: A Complicated Relationship, Explained

Leaky gut and food sensitivities are two common modern-day issues that often go hand-in-hand.  Especially when it comes to gut imbalances (like diarrhea), and even autoimmune disorders!

But how does this dynamic work, and which comes first (the leaky gut or the food sensitivities)?!  The relationship here is a bit murky and complicated.  It’s sort of a “chicken-or-the-egg” phenomenon.

Let’s unpack how leaky gut and food sensitivities are connected from a functional nutrition standpoint!

Disclaimer:  This article was written for general education purposes – not to replace customized medical and nutritional advice from healthcare providers. I recommend consulting a certified LEAP therapist if you’d like hands-on guidance addressing leaky gut and food sensitivities on your healing journey.

What exactly is leaky gut?

Think of your gut lining as a gatekeeper, regulating the absorption of nutrients and keeping harmful substances out of your bloodstream. 

However, when the integrity of this lining is compromised, larger molecules like toxins, undigested food particles, and bacteria can pass through and enter your bloodstream.

“Leaky gut” means the lining of your small intestine becomes more permeable than usual, allowing substances like toxins and undigested food particles to pass through into your bloodstream. 

While leaky gut is more of a state than a medical condition, it often occurs as a result of medical conditions (like small intestinal bacterial overgrowth / “SIBO”, dysbiosis, and/or inflammatory bowel disease) left unchecked.

Certain medications, excessive alcohol consumption, stress, imbalanced gut bacteria, and underlying health conditions like celiac disease or Crohn’s disease may also play a role. 

As for symptoms, they can vary widely from person to person. Some individuals may experience digestive issues, such as bloating, gas, or diarrhea, while others may encounter skin problems, joint pain, headaches, or even mental health disturbances.

A leaky gut left unchecked may lead to the onset of adverse food reactions such as food allergies, food intolerances, and/or food sensitivities

Related articles:

What are food sensitivities?

Food sensitivities are a type of adverse food reaction that involves the release of inflammatory chemicals called “mediators”, from white blood cells in our immune system.

You can become “sensitive” or reactive to virtually any food – no matter how healthy!

Food sensitivity reactions are also often delayed and/or dose-dependent, so it can be difficult to pinpoint which food(s) are triggering your symptoms.

This type of reaction can lead to a broad spectrum of symptoms such as:

  • Diarrhea
  • Swelling
  • Joint pain
  • Fibromyalgia
  • Headaches
  • Migraines
  • Anxiety
  • Depression
  • Fibromyalgia
  • Extreme fatigue
  • Polycystic ovarian syndrome (PCOS)
  • Skin rashes / breakouts
  • Autoimmune reactions

On the cellular level, symptoms aside, a food sensitivity reaction is different from allergies in that food sensitivities occur within other types of white blood cells (not just mast cells, which are responsible for histamine production and allergic reactions).

A food sensitivity reaction can also be more delayed compared to an allergic reaction.  

  • Food sensitivity reactions can occur within a few minutes up to a few hours or even days after consuming “reactive” foods, which can range from mild discomfort to more severe symptoms.

If you’re wondering whether or not you have food sensitivities to certain foods/herbs/chemicals, the best way to determine this is to run a Mediator Release Test (MRT) or the ALCAT food sensitivity test, since they both measure the end-point reaction of food sensitivities (mediator release).

Frequently asked questions

Can leaky gut cause food sensitivities?

Theories in the field of integrative and functional nutrition suggest that when the gut lining is compromised, pieces of undigested food particles can “leak” into the bloodstream and interact with the gut-associated lymphoid tissue (GALT). 

Since our immune system can’t recognize undigested food particles, this causes our immune system to flag the food particle as a threat.  This may trigger an immune system response, leading to food sensitivity reactions (aka the release of inflammatory chemicals called “mediators” into your bloodstream) the next time you eat that particular food.

However, more research is needed to fully understand the mechanisms involved and establish concrete connections.

Can food sensitivities cause leaky gut?

In my experience and understanding, food sensitivities aren’t usually the primary cause of leaky gut.  

(I’ve noticed anecdotally in my private practice that leaky gut most often follows a microbial imbalance, pharmaceutical aftermath, substance abuse, eating disorders, and/or trauma which creates a dysregulated nervous system response over time).

However, once you have food sensitivities, they can most definitely make a leaky gut worse!

That’s because food sensitivity reactions can occur in your gut, causing or amplifying inflammation of your gut lining.

Identifying and possibly removing any food sensitivities that you suspect are contributing to diet-induced inflammation may be helpful for you on your journey, but keep in mind it takes more than removing foods you’re sensitive to in order to heal a leaky gut.

“Remove” is only part 1 of the 5R protocol for leaky gut repair!  This is a holistic, integrative and functional nutrition approach to healing leaky gut from all angles.  

Why Do I Have So Many Food Sensitivities - List of 5 Common Reasons

Why do I have so many food sensitivities?!

Knowing and addressing the root cause(s) of food sensitivities is important when addressing leaky gut and food sensitivities head-on.

If you’re among the many nowadays who has uncovered you’re sensitive to LOTS of different foods, please keep in mind that while this isn’t healthy or ideal, it’s figureoutable  – and it never happens for no reason! (Everything happens for a reason).

Some questions and factors to consider include, but aren’t limited to:

  • Leaky gut
  • Inflammatory bowel disease (IBD)
  • SIBO
  • Congenital sucrase-isomaltase deficiency (CSID)
  • Dysbiosis (imbalanced “good” versus “bad” microbes in your gut)
  • Mold/mycotoxin exposure
  • Limbic system hypersensitivity (aka – an overactive stress response, which over time can trigger an over-production of inflammatory mediators like cytokines in your immune system!)

In a nutshell, on the physiological level, food sensitivities are usually a bi-product of imbalances within any combination of the following systems:

  • Your gut lining (the barrier between the inside of your body and the outside world)
  • Your gut microbiome (the ecosystem of microbes living in your gut)
  • Your immune system
  • Your nervous system

All of that said, addressing and managing leaky gut and food sensitivities is a big endeavor, which goes far beyond the scope of a blog article!

But there are some general best practices to keep in mind. 

Managing leaky gut and food sensitivities: general best practices

Generally speaking, while there’s no one-size-fits-all solution, general recommendations include adopting a healthy, balanced diet rich in whole foods, minimizing ultra-processed and inflammatory foods, managing stress levels, supporting your gut health with the right probiotics, and considering targeted supplementation if necessary.

But if you suspect that you may have issues related to leaky gut and/or food sensitivities, it’s ideal to consult with a holistic, integrative, functional medicine dietitian (or a LEAP therapist) for comprehensive guidance and a custom treatment plan tailored to your individual needs. 

We can also help you run specialty testing and develop a personalized approach to address these issues at the root-cause level.

Related articles & recommended reading

Final thoughts

Understanding the intricate connection between leaky gut and food sensitivities is an important step toward optimizing your gut health.  (In my clinic, we reverse-engineer the treatment plan based on the underlying root causes!)

By taking care of your gut through proper nutrition, stress management, and overall healthy habits, you can pave the way toward a happier and healthier digestive system. 

Next steps

If you’d like to address your leaky gut and food sensitivities 1-1, make sure check out my MRT LEAP 1-1 Program! MRT LEAP Program

Or if you’re just in the early stages of learning and understanding more about your gut health, feel free to download a copy of my free guide;  5 Common Diet Mistakes to Avoid When Healing Your Gut!

Free Download - 5 Diet Mistakes to Avoid When Healing Your Gut - by Jenna Volpe RDN LD CLT

XO – Jenna 


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