Quick Start Guide to Leaky Gut

Learn How Mucous Membrane Health is the Missing Piece to Solving Your Leaky Gut.

What do adult onset allergies, low neurotransmitter levels, ulcerations, and dry cough all have in common? Poor Mucus formation! Your mucus lining is fascinating as it protects many tissues, including your digestive tract from foreign substances and invaders. Including areas where many neurotransmitters are made (including 90% of serotonin) that we use for sleep and happiness.1, 29

Let’s take a deep dive into why mucus is important to solving your digestive issues, what syndromes are effected when it is imbalanced, and natural approaches to support the production and protection of the mucous membrane.

What is Leaky Gut Syndrome?

Leaky Gut or medically called “intestinal permeability” is a problem with intestinal tight junctions or the spaces between the cells. It is important to have hardly no space between the cells of the small intestine. These cells have a very important job, to allow nutrients to enter the blood stream, while remaining small enough to prevent large proteins and disease-causing compounds from entering. 5

The intestinal lining is very thin. It is just 1mm thick (about the thickness of a piece of paper) and has the total surface area of a tennis court. Many processed foods, sugar, food intolerances, stress, toxins, alcohol, infections, and medications can inflame and widen the tight junctions, leading to Leaky Gut.5

What is the result of these compounds entering your blood stream? Unfortunately, it is a who’s-who of horrible disease states. According to an article in the journal Gastroenterology, there are 10 diseases that are related to Intestinal Permeability: 3

  1. Gastric ulcers
  2. Infectious diarrhea
  3. Irritable bowel syndrome; functional GI diseases
  4. Inflammatory bowel disease
  5. Celiac disease
  6. Cancer (esophagus, colorectal)
  7. Infections (e.g. respiratory)
  8. Acute inflammation (sepsis, SIRS, MOF)
  9. Chronic inflammation (e.g. arthritis)
  10. Obesity-associated metabolic diseases (NASH, diabetes type I and II, CVD)
  11. Allergies

You may notice not all of these diseases are in the digestive tract. This may illustrate how these foreign substances impact inflammation and immunity. According to Josh Axe, DC,

“The result (of Leaky Gut)? A disruption of acute inflammation, a normal part of the immune response that serves to fight infection and disease, turns into chronic inflammation, which is at the root of most diseases.”

Goblet Cells make “Snot” from Carbohydrates, Your First Line of Defense

Goblet cells grow on the outside of the mucus membrane. They are shaped like a cup and secrete mucus (commonly called, “mucin” or “snot”).6 The main job of goblet cells is to secrete mucus in order to protect the mucous membranes where they are found. Mucus is actually large glycoproteins formed mostly by carbohydrates.7

Goblet cells are typically found in the respiratory, reproductive and gastrointestinal tracts. The body uses them in many autoimmune diseases and will make more of them when under stress, excessive mucus production is witnessed in asthma and cancer.8

Where are goblet cells found?

  • Stomach Lining (to protect against hydrochloric acid and foreign invaders)
  • Small Intestine Lining (to protect the mucous membrane’s tight junctions)
  • Large Intestine Lining (to protect mucous membrane from “bad” bacteria)
  • Lung Lining (to protect against pathogens in the air)
  • Nasal Lining (to protect against pathogens in air)
  • Bladder mucosa lining (to protect the underlying tissue from urine)
  • Uterus, the mucous membrane is called the endometrium, and it swells each month and is then eliminated during menstruation 1

Isn’t it interesting that the same cells that make “snot” in our noses, also make mucus that protects our intestines?

Excess Mucus: Good or Bad?

Mucus, like most things in the body is about balance. Too much and it can clog lung airways, making it hard to breath or excessively coat the intestines making it hard to absorb nutrients from your diet. Too little and you can develop chronic dry cough, sinusitis, and leaky gut.

Excess mucus can be a warning sign that the body has an infection. This is where you can try herbal bitter tonics to help out. Master Herbalist Lee Carroll, BSc, BHSc, in his presentation, “Neuroendocrine health: New Insights for the modern clinician” commented on the research of the bitter receptors showing the reduction of excess mucus in the lung and decreasing the histamine response. 30

Testing Mucous Membrane Health: Secretory IgA (SIgA)

The main reason that they say, “your gastrointestinal tract is 80% of your immune system” is because of the role that mucus plays (to use a football reference) in blocking, tackling, and removing pathogenic microorganisms.

This process is called “immune exclusion” and can be measured through a saliva test. The labs measure Secretory IgA (SIgA).13 Our favorite test is called the Adrenal Stress Index Test or the ASI. We love this test because it also measures free cortisol along with SIgA. Cortisol can have a negative effect on mucus. The test is offered through Diagnostechs and may be covered by insurance and costs around $120 and $387 if paying cash.15

According to the lab company Diagnostechs, “Short- and long-term stress is known to suppress the immune response in the lungs, throat, urinary tract, and intestines. With lowered levels of mucosal antibodies (secretory IgA), our resistance to infection is reduced and allergic reactions may increase.”14

Top 7 Herbs Leaky Gut Infographic

Natural Support for Mucus Production

A comprehensive plan should include protecting the mucous membrane, stimulating or tonifying the goblet cells to balance mucus production, and healing the tight junctions of the intestinal lining. Most plans also call for the removal of substances that cause intestinal permeability such as NSAIDS.31

Okra, Fake It Before You Make it

Okra or lady’s finger is used in Asian, African, and South American cooking recipes. It has high amount of mucilage (slime) and used in traditional medicine as a way to treat gastric irritation. Okra has the amazing ability to protect the fragile mucous membrane. Especially, if you are not making enough mucus. 16

A recent study attached radioactive components to H. Pylori bacteria (which causes ulcers) to see how much of the bacteria attached to cells when okra was used. The results were amazing! They found that okra inhibited H. pylori from sticking to AGS cells. The same cells that bacteria like to call their home and where ulcers and cancers like to grow! 16

Goldenseal, The Mucus Promoting Herb

Goldenseal is an endangered herb with the amazing ability to not only normalize mucus secretions but to stimulate bile flow. It is natively found in the east coast of the United States, but has been over harvested. Look for products that contain hydrastine and berberine at 40mg per serving or higher.17

According to Kerry Bone, “Natural clinicians in the late 19th-century United States were especially enthusiastic about Golden Seal. They regarded it as specifically advantageous to the mucous membranes: promoting health in the membranes and maintaining healthy mucus.10, 11 Golden Seal was referred to as ‘the king of tonics to the mucous membranes’. As a mucous membrane tonic, natural clinicians use Golden Seal to improve the tone, vigor and function of the mucous membranes.” 12

Chamomile, The Goblet Cell’s Best Friend

Ever wonder why chamomile tea feels so relaxing to the stomach? You may see where I am going with this, it stimulates the goblet cells to make more mucus. I first learned about its use at an autism seminar presented by Patrick Flynn given for functional medicine doctors. They like to use a concentrated extract because the kids would spit it out but still get enough in for a positive effect on their mucous membrane function.

According to a research paper entitled, Chamomile: A herbal medicine of the past with bright future, “Chamomile is widely used to treat inflammations of the skin and mucous membranes, and for various bacterial infections of the skin, oral cavity and gums, and respiratory tract. Chamomile is used traditionally for numerous gastrointestinal conditions, including digestive disorders, “spasm” or colic, upset stomach, flatulence (gas), ulcers, and gastrointestinal irritation. Chamomile is especially helpful in dispelling gas, soothing the stomach, and relaxing the muscles that move food through the intestines.” 18, 20

According to a study from 2006, “specific extracts of chamomile demonstrated that it not only lowered gastric acidity as effectively as a commercial antacid, but was more effective in inhibiting secondary hyperacidity.” 19, 20

Bitters, the Handy-Man of Digestive Herbs

News flash, bitter receptor sites are not just on the tongue! They are everywhere. 22 Bitters help normalize many different digestive actions. Bitter herbal extracts that contain wormwood, gentian, tangerine, and ginger have been shown to increase mucus production, bile acids, gastric acid, and gastrin, pepsin, and pancreatic enzymes.23, 24, 25 Because of how well they work at increasing different enzymes and bile, people with ulcers and/or gallstones will have to wait until the conditions have be treated.

They also have been shown to reduce hunger in patients that are over-eating while increasing satiation (lowering caloric intake by 14%).21

Vitamins A and B3 (Niacin) are Essential to Mucous Membrane Health

Your mucous membrane is considered epithelial tissue. Vitamin A is necessary to maintain and repair it.26, 27 Foods highest in vitamin A include carrots, sweet potatoes, bovine kidney, nutritional yeast, and alfalfa.

Niacin can also help to maintain mucous membranes.9 According to McCord Research, “Severe deficiency (niacin) is known as pellagra, a disease of the skin, gastrointestinal tract, and central nervous system. Pellagra progresses from an identifying dermatitis to diarrhea, dementia, and eventually death. This disease occurs in areas where diets are low in protein and high in corn. In the gastrointestinal tract, the deficiency can cause inflammation of the mucous membranes, leading to digestive abnormalities including swollen tongue and diarrhea.”28 Foods highest in niacin and are easy to digest include turkey, chicken breast, mushrooms, and beef liver. Therefore, vegetarian clients may be more susceptible to this rare deficiency.

Final Thoughts

  • Mucus is the first thing to protect the vulnerable gastrointestinal lining.
  • Leaky Gut Syndrome is a consequence of poor lifestyle habits that erode the mucus and widen the tight junctions of the intestines.
  • The role that excess mucus plays is poorly understood by the general public. Mucus may be a sign of infection and/or poor immunity. Traditional approaches that include bitters and goldenseal have been shown by research to help.
  • Testing mucous membrane health looking through Secretory IGA and “immune exclusion” is an inexpensive and non-invasive approach.
  • Okra, goldenseal, chamomile, bitter herbs, vitamin A, and vitamin B are effective and well-researched to improve mucous membrane health including mucus production.

We recommend finding a practitioner who is trained to utilize testing, whole food nutrients, high quality herbs, and dietary strategies if you think you have mucous membrane issues. It is also recommended to track your plan every couple of weeks to see if you are on track.

Low mucus is a real thing that can be normalized with natural approaches! Learn about your digestive symptom patterns by getting a free assessment here. If your symptom patterns indicate that you have problems digesting carbohydrates, then you should sit down with your functional healthcare practitioner to better understand a plan to normalize your mucous membrane function. If you need a trained Functional Digestion Specialist, find one here.


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Get Your Functional Digestive Assessment

Our 5-minute ‘yes’ or ‘no’ questionnaire will give you a 6-page educational report. Start your journey to feeling great, looking better, and living longer by addressing your digestive health.

Get Your Functional Digestive Assessment

Our 5-minute ‘yes’ or ‘no’ questionnaire will give you a 6-page educational report. Start your journey to feeling great, looking better, and living longer by addressing your digestive health.