The role played by the gut in nonalcoholic fatty liver disease (NAFLD) is still a matter of debate, although animal and human studies suggest that gut-derived endotoxin may be important. We investigated intestinal permeability in patients with NAFLD and evaluated the correlations between this phenomenon and the stage of the disease, the integrity of tight junctions within the small intestine, and prevalence of small intestinal bacterial overgrowth (SIBO). We examined 35 consecutive patients with biopsy-proven NAFLD, 27 with untreated celiac disease (as a model of intestinal hyperpermeability) and 24 healthy volunteers. We assessed the presence of SIBO by glucose breath testing (GBT), intestinal permeability by means of urinary excretion of (51)Cr-ethylene diamine tetraacetate ((51)Cr-EDTA) test, and the integrity of tight junctions within the gut by immunohistochemical analysis of zona occludens-1 (ZO-1) expression in duodenal biopsy specimens. Patients with NAFLD had significantly increased gut permeability (compared with healthy subjects; P < 0.001) and a higher prevalence of SIBO, although both were lower than in the untreated celiac patients. In patients with NAFLD, both gut permeability and the prevalence of SIBO correlated with the severity of steatosis but not with presence of NASH.
Conclusions: Our results provide the first evidence that NAFLD in humans is associated with increased gut permeability and that this abnormality is related to the increased prevalence of SIBO in these patients. The increased permeability appears to be caused by disruption of intercellular tight junctions in the intestine, and it may play an important role in the pathogenesis of hepatic fat deposition.