5 Medications That Can Lead to Leaky Gut
January 29th, 2018
Modern medicine is a double-edged sword. While it has helped us in addressing many acute concerns, the most common challenges in healthcare today are chronic conditions such as autoimmune diseases, diabetes, thyroid dysfunction, depression, cancer, and dementia, for which conventional medicine has no true solution. Instead, the medications relied on for addressing chronic issues treat the symptoms rather than trying to identify and overcome the underlying cause of the condition.1
While medications can help to mask your symptoms, you may not realize that they could actually be contributing to these chronic issues, and it all begins in the gut.
That’s because, as I always say, the gut is the gateway to health! Up to 80% of your immune system is located in your gut and 95% of our neurotransmitters—the molecules responsible for keeping our mood stable—are made there as well. If you don’t have a healthy gut, you can’t have a healthy immune system, so it’s no wonder our gut is the gateway to health!
With the use of many common prescription and over-the-counter (OTC) medications, you could be compromising your gut health without even knowing it, leading to what’s known as leaky gut. In this article, we’ll look at what leaky gut is and why it’s harmful to your health, some of the primary medications that lead to leaky gut, and the steps you can take to repair your gut and start feeling your best again.
What is Leaky Gut?
Your gut lining is naturally semi-permeable to let the macro and micronutrients you get from food pass through your intestinal wall. It’s how we absorb our food.
Think of your gut as a drawbridge. Teeny tiny boats (nutrients in food) are able to go under the bridge without a problem. Leaky gut occurs when certain aspects from our modern life (inflammatory foods, particularly gluten and dairy; toxins, infections, and stress) cause that drawbridge to go up and stay open, letting in much larger boats (bacteria, toxins, and partially digested food particles) that were never meant to go through. When these larger particles leak through your intestinal wall and enter your bloodstream, your immune system reacts by attacking them as it would pathogens or other foreign invaders.
Once your gut is leaky, more and more particles are able to escape into your bloodstream, causing your immune system to send out wave after wave of inflammation to get rid of them. This immune response can lead to a number of wide-ranging symptoms such as bloating, chronic fatigue, skin issues, seasonal allergies, and mood imbalance. Eventually, your immune system becomes over stressed and begins firing less accurately, attacking your own tissues in a full-blown autoimmune condition.
To make matters worse, many of the substances that enter your bloodstream when your gut is leaky look very similar to your body’s own cells. Your immune system creates antibodies to target these foreign invaders, although sometimes it ends up mistakenly attacking your own tissues through a process known as molecular mimicry. Gluten and dairy proteins in particular look a lot like your thyroid cells, which is why these foods are often the culprits behind autoimmune thyroid conditions.
Because of the inflammation and molecular mimicry caused by leaky gut, we now know that leaky gut is a necessary precursor for developing autoimmunity, thanks to the work of Harvard researcher Dr. Alessio Fasano.2 One of the most overlooked causes of leaky gut is medications.
Medications Linked to Leaky Gut
You hope that when you go to the doctor, you can trust her advice on the necessity of taking certain drugs. In conventional medicine, however, that’s not always the case, and in some circumstances those medications could be doing more harm than good.
Below I’ve listed five common medications that may be contributing to your leaky gut.
According to the CDC, almost half of outpatient antibiotic prescriptions are unnecessary.3 Not only does this lead to the formation of antibiotic-resistant strains of bacteria, it puts patients at risk for allergic reactions and infections because of the disruption to the complex ecology of the microbiome.4
I like to think of the gut as a rainforest, home to a vast and diverse range of living organisms known collectively as your microbiome. Trillions of microflora work together to ensure proper digestive functioning, aid in the production of essential vitamins such as B and K, and act as a protective barrier for the immune system, all the while discouraging bad bacteria and Candida (a form of yeast) from flourishing.5
When you take antibiotics, however, they indiscriminately kill both the bad and the good microorganisms in your stomach, disrupting your gut’s natural balance. Without the good bacteria to fight off the overgrowth of other organisms, Candida or SIBO can overgrow and multiply, damaging the lining of your intestinal walls, and leading to leaky gut and a whole host of other issues.
If you do have a bacterial infection that absolutely requires antibiotics, I recommend increasing your daily probiotic supplementation to 100 billion CFUs, and then returning to a maintenance dose of 30 billion CFUs once your gut’s good bacteria has been restored. You can also take my Immune Booster Powder for further immune support and healthy gut repair.
The class of OTC painkillers known as NSAIDs (nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs) such as Advil and Motrin may be responsible for 107,000 hospitalizations and 16,500 deaths every year due to gastrointestinal complications in arthritis patients alone.6 Studies have also shown that NSAID use can significantly impact biodiversity in the gut’s microbiome, causing a bacterial imbalance known as dysbiosis.7 These medicines, which are generally considered safe, can cause stomach and intestinal bleeding even in low doses, and are one of the greatest barriers to recovery for those dealing with leaky gut.8
As a safer alternative to NSAIDs, Omega 3 supplements have been shown to support a healthy inflammatory response and demonstrate an equivalent reduction in arthritic pain compared to ibuprofen–without the harsh side effects. Curcumin has likewise been shown to be as effective, if not more so, than NSAIDs at relieving pain caused by inflammation.9
3. Oral Contraceptives
A survey conducted by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention between 2006-2010 found that as many as 10.6 million women in the U.S. were on “the pill.”10 Considering how many women rely on this method of contraception, it may be shocking to learn how severely the pill could be affecting your gut health and, in turn, your overall wellbeing.
In fact, the estrogen often used in birth control pills can lead to estrogen dominance, meaning too much estrogen in your body. And research has shown that excess estrogen doubles your risk of developing Candida overgrowth, which is a major cause of leaky gut. Additionally, women genetically predisposed to chronic GI troubles may be three times more likely to develop Crohn’s Disease after using the pill for at least five years.11
As a safer alternative to birth control pills, I recommend a non-hormonal copper IUD, which is approved for 10 years of use and may be effective for up to 20 years. You can also use condoms or try the rhythm method, where you track your body’s natural cycles and avoid sex on the days you are fertile.
Corticosteroids, such as prednisone and hydrocortisone, work by suppressing your immune system to help control autoimmune conditions, which occur when your immune system becomes overstressed and mistakenly attacks your body’s own tissues.12 It should come as no surprise, then, that this inhibition of the immune system (located primarily in your gut) can cause your gut to become leaky, which is itself a primary cause for autoimmunity. This means taking steroids can perpetuate autoimmunity, in addition to leaving you open to infection thanks to a suppressed immune system.
Rather than relying on harmful drugs, the key to reversing autoimmunity is to support rather than suppress your immune system, so that it can return to optimal function naturally. I walk you through my 5-step approach to support your immune system by addressing the root causes of autoimmunity in my 6-week Autoimmune Solution Program.
5. Acid-reducing Drugs
Finally, did you know that medications used to control heartburn and suppress stomach acid, such as Prilosec and Zantac, can actually put you at risk for serious gut infection?
Researchers at the Mayo Clinic found that those taking medicines to suppress gastric acid had higher rates of recurrent C. difficile infection compared to those not on acid blockers. Clostridium difficile, or C. diff, is a bacterial strain that can cause swelling of the colon, life-threatening bleeding and lead to leaky gut.13 C. diff exists all around us, though it is most commonly spread in hospitals and other health care facilities, due to antibiotic use that wipes out healthy bacteria combined with the already weakened immune systems of patients.14
As with all medications, it’s important to weigh the benefits and risks, and to consider whether any less harmful alternatives exist to address your symptoms naturally. In terms of acid reflux, in many cases a simple change in diet and lifestyle habits can resolve your heartburn symptoms, eliminating your reliance on acid-reducing drugs and their harmful side effects.15 The foods I’ve found in my clinic that contribute most to acid reflux are gluten, dairy, alcohol, caffeine, and fried foods.
Avoiding the foods mentioned above, as well as adopting stress-relieving strategies such as yoga or meditation can help ease the symptoms of acid reflux. Some people who have acid reflux actually have low stomach acid and may benefit from HCL supplementation for supporting optimal stomach pH. This article walks you through an easy at-home test to see if you are in need of HCL supplementation. For more on natural solutions for acid reflux check out this article.
How to Repair a Leaky Gut and Take Back Your Health
In this world where there is a pill for every ill, it can sometimes feel as though medications are a necessary evil whose side effects you just have to live with. It’s important to remember that you DO have other options and you are empowered to make informed choices about the types of medications that you take.
The good news is, you can use the safer alternatives and lifestyle changes that I’ve mentioned, plus the steps listed below, to restore your gut health and strengthen your immune system.
If you’ve ever taken or are currently taking any of the medications discussed in this article, I recommend following my 4R approach to repair your gut:
Remove the bad. The goal is to get rid of factors that negatively affect the environment of the GI tract, including inflammatory foods such as gluten, dairy, corn, soy, and eggs, as well as toxic foods, including sugar, caffeine, and alcohol. Finally you’ll want to eliminate gut infections from Candida overgrowth, Small Intestinal Bacterial Overgrowth (SIBO), and parasites.
Replace the good. Add back the digestive enzymes required for proper digestion.
It’s critical to restore beneficial bacteria to reestablish a healthy microbial balance in your gut. High-quality, high-concentration, probiotics can help improve a dysbiotic microbiome and are an effective treatment for a wide range of gastrointestinal diseases.16 I recommend 100 billion CFUs (colony forming units) while dealing with a leaky gut, and 30 billion CFUs as a maintenance dose.
It’s essential to provide the nutrients necessary to help the gut repair itself. One of my favorite supplements is collagen which is rich in amino acids that quite literally, “seal the leaks” or perforations in your gut by repairing damaged cells and building new tissue. Another one of my favorites supplements is L-glutamine, an amino acid that helps to rejuvenate the gut wall lining.
You can find all four of the gut-repairing supplements listed above (with a 10% savings!) in my Leaky Gut Breakthrough™ Kit.