How Stress Hormones Cause Leaky Gut (and other digestive problems)

In a previous post, I discussed some of the major signs and symptoms associated with a leaky gut, and I also touched briefly on how problems with the adrenal-brain connection can contribute to a leaky gut. In this post I’ll go into greater detail with this idea, and why you need to start correcting adrenal dysfunction before treating your gut.

In my clinic I’m treating patients with ulcerative colitis, Crohn’s disease, IBS, bloating, gas, constipation. The common factor for all is inflammation. Chronic inflammation tends to break down tissues.


Normally, the body has a balance between breaking down and building up tissue. This is what we call homeostasis. The body should be building up at least as much tissue as it’s breaking down. If you’re growing or building muscle, you’ll be building up more than breaking down. But with chronic inflammation you can get into a state of atrophy, in which you are breaking down more tissue than you’re building up.

Glucocorticoid Steroid Hormones

One of the major players in this is glucocorticoids, such as cortisol and cortisone.

The body uses them to manage chronic inflammation.

Some of you out there may be familiar with a cortisone shot, which is commonly used to reduce pain in joints. It does this by reducing inflammation. Inflammation being a cause of the pain. Hopefully, if you or someone you know has received a cortisone shot, it was with full knowledge about the negative long term effects. Glucocorticoids such as cortisone, and cortisol, contribute to the breakdown of tissues in muscle, ligaments, tendons, cartilage, and other soft tissue. It directly inhibits protein and RNA synthesis, and contributes to their premature degradation. Therefore, that temporary relief from a cortisone shot will lead to further deterioration and dysfunction of the joint later.

The Leaky Gut Connection

I’m sure you can see where this is going. Our stress hormone, cortisol, is produced as a way to manage stress, and it directly contributes to the breakdown of gut tissue, resulting in leaky gut. Our modern way of life is nothing if not stress inducing. As a result, leaky gut is rampant and a common contributor to chronic disease.

The cortisol connection is why it’s important to heal the brain-adrenal communication loop, also known as the HPA axis, before or in tandem with treating the gut. If it goes unresolved, you may find temporary relief from gut treatments, but you may find yourself in the same position in six to twelve months. It also leads us back to distilling chronic disease down to the basics of lifestyle change. Stress management is vital to treatment.

Manage That Stress!

While we’re on the topic, let me just say, many of us are walking around unaware of just how stressed we actually are. We’ve become acclimated to a stressful environment. On the one hand, this acclimation allows us to be resilient. However, if we aren’t honest with ourselves about how stressed we actually are, we cannot change for better health outcomes.


When it comes to testing the adrenals, it’s important to use a functional approach. The functional approach takes several samples of cortisol throughout the day, since cortisol production follows a circadian rhythm. Conventional approaches spot test a single cortisol sample, which works for figuring out a diagnosis in the Western model. However it’s insufficient for a functional approach.


When it comes to treatment of the adrenals, it’s important to understand what we’re actually treating. We’re not really treating the adrenals alone. We’re reconnecting the communication loop between the brain and the adrenals. The dysfunction actually lies in the hypothalamus in the brain, which may have difficulty monitoring the blood for cortisol. This is the underlying problem with what we incorrectly associate with an adrenal problem. Your functional medicine doctor may have a different approach from me. In my clinic I use a method of giving low doses of certain hormones that retrain the brain to complete the communication loop.

If you suspect either leaky gut or your adrenals are creating health problems for you, I am offering consultations. Click the link at the top of the page to schedule an appointment.