Leaky gut in children

A damaged gut can influence various facets of a child’s health and development. Arnika Suska takes a look at the causes, symptoms and treatment available.
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If your child is experiencing perplexing and recurrent health conditions that are not medically explained, you may consider investigating whether your child suffers from gut permeability, also called ‘leaky gut’.

From ongoing gastrointestinal issues to the broader dimensions of their well-being, a damaged gut can influence various facets of a child’s health and development.

More than 2,000 years ago, Hippocrates claimed that “All disease begins in the gut”. With more and more research coming out on gut health, his declaration has proven to be true. 

What is the small intestine? 

Leaky gut occurs in the small intestine which is a long, winding tube extending from the stomach to the large intestine. The small bowel breaks down food, absorbs nutrients and plays a role in the immune system, acting as a barrier, and preventing toxins, pathogens and food particles from passing into the child’s bloodstream.

What is a leaky gut? 

The cells that line the small intestine are called enterocytes. You can imagine them as cells holding hands tightly. They are firmly linked together like bouncers at a nightclub, deciding what stays in the intestine and what gets eliminated. 

However, if the intestinal barrier becomes damaged, the intestine’s selective process of absorbing food becomes loose and sketchy. The cells start to lose connection with each other, not holding on as tightly, and so there becomes little space in the lining of the intestine.

Undigested food particles, toxins, viruses and bacteria can start leaking into the child’s bloodstream, thus the name ‘leaky gut’.

Why do kids get leaky guts? 

Our intestinal bacteria, i.e. microbiome, consists of good bacteria that aid digestion and absorption, as well as viruses, fungi and parasites. The overgrowth of unwanted pathogens living in the gut causes gut permeability. If several undesired gut bugs build up over time, they can overpower the good bugs and cause havoc in the bowel. 

Numerous factors contribute to leaky gut, such as repeated courses of antibiotics that wipe out the beneficial bacteria and trigger yeast overgrowth. Another culprit is a diet rich in refined sugars and white flour that feeds the ‘bad bugs’.

“If several undesired gut bugs build up over time, they can overpower the good bugs and cause havoc in the bowel”

Additives in sliced bread, processed dairy products and some plant-based dairy alternatives also promote inflammation and intestinal permeability. Likewise, being underweight, i.e. less than 15 per cent of a child’s expected weight, can cause a leaky gut.  

What effect can a leaky gut have on a child’s health?

A leaky gut can be detrimental to the health of a growing child, resulting in autoimmune diseases, such as Hashimoto’s thyroiditis. This is because a ‘porous’ intestine impacts the body’s defences, causing immune overreaction and inflammation.

On top of that, the bad bugs steal nutrients, such as zinc and iron, and consequently, kids easily catch colds and struggle to recover from infections. 

Moreover, neurotransmitters that aid mood and stress control are produced in the gut. In a compromised intestine, fewer neurotransmitters are produced, leading to neurodevelopmental and mental health issues. 

Tendencies towards anxiety, depression and learning disabilities are also a part of the picture. Additionally, food allergies and intolerances, as well as skin conditions, are also associated with leaky gut.  

Recognising the symptoms

Children with hyper-permeability can suffer from a wide range of symptoms, usually emerging from the digestive tract, but not solely. Some of the key symptoms include abdominal pain, reflux and a bloated tummy with a tendency towards irritable bowel syndrome. 

Furthermore, you can observe changes in your child’s energy, cravings for sugary and salty foods, and allergy symptoms, as well as brain fog and zoning out.

Practitioners may scrutinise a protein in the stool called ‘zonulin’ via a specific test to check the intestinal permeability, as well as assess the child’s food diary. 


To repair a leaky gut, we need to balance the gut microbe environment with antimicrobials. Then we need to customise the diet to the child, avoiding a one-size-fits-all approach, because every child has individual needs. In general, refined sugars, white flour and foods that cause intolerances should be eliminated. 

Growing children need protein, e.g. from meat, fish, eggs or pulses. We need to add probiotics such as kefir and yoghurt and enrich the diet with fibre, incorporating a wide range of fruits, veggies, wholegrains, pulses, seeds and nuts. Collagen-rich bone broths and some supplements will also help repair the gut. We need to give it at least six months, for the body to respond. 


A compromised intestinal barrier may result in undigested food particles and bad bugs entering the child’s bloodstream. If it is going on day in and day out, it will finally bring about a chronic inflammation that can be directly linked to chronic health conditions.

To heal and seal the leaky gut, we need to make conscious choices about the foods we put on the table for children every day. 

Arnika Suska is a certified nutritionist. If you have any further questions, contact Arnika Suska at www.arnika-healthyhabits.com. You can contact her in English, Polish, or German.

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