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The intestinal barrier function

A key role in health and disease

The intestinal barrier may be the most important protection we have for our immune system and overall health. Mounting evidence indicates that the intestinal barrier plays a key role in maintaining health.

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The intestinal barrier function

The intestinal barrier forms a physical barrier between the outside world and our internal milieu. Across a surface that approximates the size of a tennis field this barrier permits the absorption of nutrients, electrolytes and water, while maintaining an effective defense against toxins, antigens and microorganisms. The intestinal barrier is formed by tightly linked epithelial cells, a mucus layer, antimicrobial peptides and the local immune system. The permeability is, amongst others, regulated by tight junctions, protein structures that allow selective passage of ions and small molecules. The mucus layer plays an important role in keeping the content of the gut away from the epithelial cells while allowing interaction. Via the epithelial cells, immune cells have direct or indirect contact with the luminal content to regulate immune responses to pathogens as well as to develop oral tolerance to commensals and food antigens.

Diseases linked to impaired intestinal barrier function

The barrier function of the intestine can be influenced by different factors, such as heredity, bacterial composition, diet, psychological stress, oxidative stress, exercise, and drugs (1). An increased permeability of the epithelial barrier has been associated with many gastrointestinal inflammatory disorders, such as inflammatory bowel diseases (Crohn’s disease, ulcerative colitis and pouchitis) and celiac disease (2). An increased permeability can also lead to increased levels of endotoxins in the blood, which are linked to systemic inflammatory diseases, such as metabolic syndrome, diabetes, atherosclerosis, chronic fatigue syndrome, autism, depression, migraine and rheumatoid arthritis.




The three levels in the gut


Probiotica en histamine-intolerantie_1860

Effect of probiotics on the intestinal barrier

Probiotics are able to prevent and restore disturbances in the microbiota and positively influence disturbed physiological processes (3). They exert their health effects at three different levels in the gut;

Level 1: the outside of the epithelial cells (the inside of the gut)

Level 2: at the interface between the outside and inside of the gut (the intestinal barrier)

Level 3: the inside of our body (systemic effects).  


On level 2, probiotics can exert their health effects by enhancing the intestinal barrier function. By:

 Promoting mucous secretion

 Producing antimicrobial molecules

 Competing for binding sites on epithelial cells

 Increasing antibody levels

 Strengthening the structure of tight junctions



Future perspectives

In a recent article published in the British Journal of Nutrition, researchers review the potential of probiotics to improve various gastrointestinal disease states by modulating the gut barrier function (4). They systematically catalog the current available preclinical and clinical evidence for various gastro-intestinal disorders, such as obesity, diabetes, inflammatory bowel disease and irritable bowel syndrome.


Read the scientific article:  

Can probiotics modulate human disease by impacting the intestinal barrier function? 


More and more research support the therapeutic potential probiotics have for various diseases, and the capability of probiotics to modulate the intestinal barrier function appears to be key in this. Winclove’s probiotic product development is based on selecting the right bacterial strains for each indication, based on the underlying physiological disturbances of the disease. Many of Winclove’s probiotic formulations contain bacterial strains that are able to enhance the barrier function and their efficacy is tested in in vitro screenings.





1. Farhadi, A., Banan, A., Fields, J. and Keshavarzian, A. Intestinal Barrier: An Interface between Health and Disease. Journal of Gastroenterology and Hepatology 2003;18:479-497.  

2. Marchiando AM, Graham WV, Turner JR. Epithelial BARRIER in Homeostasis and Disease. Annual Review of Pathology-Mechanisms of Disease 2010;5:119-44.  

3. Ohland, CL and Macnaughton, WK. Probiotic Bacteria and Intestinal Epithelial Barrier Function. American Journal of Physiology. Gastrointestinal and Liver Physiology, 2010;298:G807-G819.  

4. Bron PA, Kleerebezem M, Brummer RJ, et al. Can probiotics modulate human disease by impacting intestinal barrier function? 2017;117(1)93-107.




The intestinal barrier function

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