Leaky gut is an inflammatory digestive issue that’s linked to digestive disorders, depression, autism, celiac disease, autoimmune disease, joint pain, skin issues, and more. You can heal leaky gut naturally and ditch the nagging symptoms it causes by changing your diet and rebalancing your gut flora.
Is Your Gut Leaking?
You are not necessarily what you eat but more accurately, you are what you absorb. If you have an inflamed gut or a leaky gut, you wont be absorbing all the nutrients from the foods you’re eating. $75 at Whole Foods, down the toilet, so to speak.
Previously unrecognized by the conventional medical community, leaky gut is a digestive condition in which bacteria and toxins are able to leak through a damaged and inflamed intestinal wall. Leaky gut AKA increased intestinal permeability is associated with many health conditions like Celiac, IBS, IBD, diabetes, food allergies, chronic fatigue, and autoimmune disease.
The mainstream medical community recognizes that there MAY be enough evidence to demonstrate that leaky gut syndrome does exist. (source) However, leaky gut is still a theory: We know that the condition of having intestinal permeability or a “leaky gut” is real, but we don’t know that it’s a disease in itself, or that it causes other diseases. It’s not currently a recognized medical diagnosis. (source) Medical diagnoses need to exist in order to prescribe drugs for the disease or condition, and there currently isn’t a recognized drug to treat leaky gut.
What is leaky gut and what causes it?
The crux of digestion occurs in the small intestine. This is where food is broken down into amino acids (from protein), fatty acids (from fats), or glucose (from carbs). Ideally these food particles are broken down and absorbed through the lining of the small intestine into the bloodstream, where they are then transported through the body for nourishment and repair. If you’re not properly digesting for various reasons (SIBO, for one) and food isn’t properly assimilated, inflammation occurs, widening the tight junctions that line the small intestine.
Proteins and toxins from undigested food particles then leak through and make it into your bloodstream due to the increased intestinal permeability. Your body sees these foreign proteins as invader and marks it as an antigen. Your immune system mounts an attack, releasing inflammatory cytokines. Now, every time you eat that food and it leaks into your bloodstream, your body recognizes the protein from that food as an invader, your immune system fires, and cytokines are released. This creates chronic inflammation that results in pain, skin issues, nagging GI symptoms, and puts you at risk for autoimmune disease.
Toxins and oxidants are the byproducts of this increased white blood cell activity that occurs as a result of inflammation (oxidants and toxins = aging more quickly). Whatever else is in your small intestine (yeast, other toxins, bacteria) can leak into the bloodstream too, adding to your toxic load and making you feel crappy. This is called increased intestinal permeability, or leaky gut.
The inflammatory response is somewhat similar to what happens when you cut your finger. It swells and turns red, right? That’s a normal inflammation response to protect your body from infection. But when inflammation occurs regularly in response to foods you’re eating and an unhappy small intestine, you begin to experience chronic, systemic inflammation throughout the body.
The majority of your immune system is in your gut, and when it’s constantly reacting to foods you’re eating, its attention is primarily spent sending forces to put out the fire in the digestive system. Therefore, you have fewer immune reserves to fight colds, viruses, bacteria, abnormal cells, cancer cells, etc.
In addition, your overactive immune system is perceived as a stress by the body, causing fluctuations in stress hormones, which contribute to even more inflammation. Now you have systemic inflammation and stress hormone imbalance, and you’ve set the stage for autoimmune disease and other illnesses that result from these imbalances. See how stress and inflammation lead to a compromised immune system? Adding insult to injury, inflammation makes your gut inhospitable to the friendly bacteria that should live there.
How do you know if you have leaky gut?
- an increase in foods you can’t tolerate (frequent gas, belching, bloating, indigestion, heartburn)
- chronic constipation, diarrhea or alternating between the two
- joint pain
- skin rashes, acne, eczema, psoriasis
- headaches, fatigue, brain fog (symptoms of toxicity)
- autoimmune disease like chronic fatigue, fibromyalgia, Hashimoto’s, rheumatoid arthritis
- yeast infections, yeast overgrowth, dysbiosis
- deficiencies in vitamin and mineral stores (especially iron, B vitamins) because you’re not breaking down food or absorbing nutrients
- you can test for leaky gut via the GI MAP stool test (7th down on my testing menu here) with the addition of the zonulin marker.
What causes leaky gut?
- Poor diet, meaning too much sugar, gluten (which, regardless of if you are sensitive to it, increases zonulin activity in the gut), processed/refined foods, chemicals and food additives, alcohol. These foods increase inflammation and intestinal permeability.
- Deficiencies in zinc and vitamin A, which are crucial for the integrity and building of your intestinal lining.
- Certain foods that are harder to digest (grains, gluten, cow’s dairy) increase the likelihood of leaky gut, because they too cause inflammation (and remember, an inflamed gut means the tight junctions in the intestinal wall widen, letting particles leak through). We know that zonulin, which is released when you eat gluten, contributes to leaky gut.
- STRESS. It weakens immune function, increases inflammation, jacks cortisol levels, and all these factors contribute to leaky gut.
- OTC meds, pharmaceutical drugs, birth control pills, antibiotics, antacids, painkillers (NSAIDs): these irritate the gut lining and increase permeability.
- Low stomach acid and low enzyme production, so you’re not breaking down food or digesting properly. Consider a digestive enzyme with HCl. Test for h. pylori infection, which causes low stomach acid, heartburn, and indigestion.
- Dysbiosis, parasites, pathogens, SIBO, yeast overgrowth: You have both beneficial and harmful bacteria in your gut, and that’s normal. When the balance between the two is disrupted, it can affect the barrier function of the intestinal wall and cause leaky gut. Candida (yeast) overgrowth in particular may occur from poor diet or antibiotics, and candida produces toxins that degrade the intestinal wall, causing leaky gut. Candida also produce a lot of toxic byproducts that overwhelm the liver.
Heal Leaky Gut Naturally
Note that leaky gut always has a cause. I frequently work with people who are convinced they have leaky gut due to their symptoms and are eager to heal without addressing the underlying cause. Skipping to the leaky gut healing phase without first addressing what caused it is only a band-aid solution. You’ll see some improvement, but you won’t fully heal the gut until you remove the irritant that caused the leaky gut in the first place. This is a combination of foods that are causing inflammation and dysbiosis (read about the different types of dysbiosis here).
- remove the following foods for at least 30 days: gluten (potentially all grains), dairy, soy, corn, eggs, sugar, alcohol, coffee. These foods have the potential to cause inflammation and irritation, and most people react to one, if not more, of any of these. Add back in one at a time after 30-60 days (except gluten, which activates inflammatory zonulin activity in the gut!) to see if you react. Remember that continuously eating foods you may have sensitivities to exacerbates leaky gut and causes continuous immune system firing. An overactive immune system increases your risk for autoimmune disease. Read here how to do a proper elimination diet. Consider food allergy testing to determine which foods you react to. I like EverlyWell– the kit comes right to your house! Click here to see their test menu (and for a discount).
- determine if you have yeast overgrowth, parasites, or dysbiosis. Get a stool test done to screen for these bugs. I use these tests frequently in my practice, then I’m able to design a protocol using herbs to kill off the unwanted invaders. Test also for SIBO. IMPORTANT: if you have dysbiosis or gut infections, you won’t be able to fully heal leaky gut until the underlying issue is resolved.
- heal the gut. I like GI Revive from Designs for Health as a leaky gut repair product. It contains therapeutic amounts of glutamine and soothing herbs to heal the gut. You may need a more targeted gut healing protocol. GI Revive contains zinc carnosine, and zinc is crucial for gut integrity. Make sure you’re getting enough in your diet. Highest sources are red meat and oysters. If you’re vegetarian, you’ll need a supplement, but pumpkin seeds are the best veg source of zinc. I also use immunoglobulins to repair the mucosal lining of the gut. That’s very important because this is where the majority of your gut bacteria live!
- take high dose probiotics for at least a month to recolonize the intestines with good bacteria. Include probiotic foods like raw kraut, kvass, or coconut water kefir. Or try my probiotic-rich dairy free coconut yogurt. Fermented foods have many healing benefits! Rotate between different strains of probiotics.
- add in gut healing foods like collagen peptides and bone broth. Glutamine (in GI Revive) is great for healing leaky gut too. Read more about my favorite gut healing foods here.
- stress relief: address high or low cortisol and adrenal health. Do some guided meditation (5 minutes is all it takes for starters); take a relaxing epsom salt bath; do some gardening; get in your zen zone! Whatever works for you. High cortisol changes the terrain in the gut, so it’s crucial to normalize stress hormone levels.
- immune support: you can add in colostrum or immunoglobulins to strengthen gut lining and improve immune health to speed healing. Bone broth helps also, and make sure you’re getting enough sleep and addressing stress.
Leaky Gut Diet
A leaky gut diet is anti-inflammatory and includes plenty of probiotic foods, organic protein, and fats. Beware that if you have leaky gut you may not be able to tolerate large amounts of fiber from starchy vegetables and legumes, but lower carb vegetables such as leafy greens (kale, spinach, chard) are good choices.
In particular focus on the following foods:
- Bone broth
- Fermented foods like raw kraut, coconut water kefir
- omega 3 fatty acid rich foods like wild salmon, sardines, chia seeds, leafy greens, walnuts
- grass fed beef and lamb are excellent sources of zinc, a crucial nutrient your body needs to heal leaky gut
- apple cider vinegar, sea vegetables, and certain herbs and spices like turmeric
- plenty of anti-oxidant rich fruits & veggies like berries, cruciferous, dark leafy greens
Put it together in a day like this:
- anti-inflammatory smoothie for breakfast with green-ish banana (excellent food for your gut bugs) blueberries, handful spinach, bone broth protein like this one, scoop of collagen. Or try my smoothie for constipation.
- wild salmon with sautéd swiss chard and sweet potato with ghee for lunch
- coconut kefir and handful walnuts for a snack
- bone broth-based soup with shredded chicken, zucchini, carrot, garlic & onion for dinner, or try my immune soup
- few squares of dark chocolate like this one for dessert
- anti-inflammatory turmeric tonic
Leaky gut AKA intestinal permeability is associated with several inflammatory and autoimmune conditions, including IBD and celiac. The only known cure for a leaky gut is to treat the underlying condition that causes it. (source) That means getting rid of SIBO, food allergies (like gluten, especially in the case of celiac disease), or other pathogens that may worsen leaky gut.
Leaky gut healing is the final step in my gut healing protocols and probably the most important and overlooked phase. Once you’ve done the hard work to change your diet and get rid of SIBO or candida, you need to put your gut back together! Use an anti-inflammatory diet with gut healing foods and supplemental support to rebuild the gut lining.
Have you successfully healed leaky gut?
- Check out my 4 step guide for healing IBS
- The 21 day gut reset is a great way to jumpstart gut healing and includes 3 weeks of leaky gut healing meal plans!
- 4-step plan to heal your gut
- Healthy Gut, Healthy You by Dr Michael Ruscio
Mary Vance is a Certified Nutrition Consultant and author specializing in digestive health. She combines a science-based approach with natural therapies to rebalance the body. In addition to her 1:1 coaching, she offers courses to help you heal your gut and improve your health. Mary lives in San Francisco and Lake Tahoe in Northern California. Read more about her coaching practice here and her background here.