Do you have a leaky gut? Do you know what the term ‘leaky gut’ means? Those questions will be answered and so much more in this article.
I. What is Leaky Gut?
To start, let’s begin with a brief definition of the gut. The gut is your gastrointestinal tract. It begins in the mouth and ends at the ‘other’ end. It is comprised of your mouth, esophagus, stomach, small intestine, large intestine and rectum. (1) (2.)
The gastrointestinal tract is designed to protect the body simply by allowing what’s intended to be absorbed into the body through the gut wall while keeping out dangerous toxins. It is lined with a protective lining called the intestinal barrier. This intestinal barrier and is comprised of three layers: the mucus layer, the epithelial layer, and the underlying lamina propria.
The intestinal barrier covers about 400 m² and uses about 40% of the body’s energy expenditure. This proves the vitally important role the intestinal barrier plays in your body’s functioning. The three layers of the intestinal barrier work together to both allow nutrients and water to be absorbed into the body by passing through the gut wall and keeping parasites, fungi, pathogenic microorganisms and harmful toxins from entering the body. This multi-layer system works together to keep the contents of the gut separate from rest of the body. Essentially, everything that’s inside of the gut is ‘outside’ of the body.
The Epithelial (middle) tissue of the intestinal lining consists of a layer of epithelial cells which provides the main physical barrier between the mucus and lamina layers. It consists of protein cells which regulate the tight junctions of the gut wall. When these proteins fail to work properly, these tight junctions open up causing Leaky Gut.
Unwanted contents from the gut then spill into the body. The bloodstream is then overwhelmed with dangerous toxins triggering an immune response. This wreaks havoc on your body. If left untreated, a leaky gut can lead to autoimmune disorders, allergies, and countless diseases.
II. How Do You Get a Leaky Gut?
How does this nightmare all begin? What causes a leaky gut? There are multiple factors that contribute to the malfunction of the tight junctions in your gut:
First and foremost, the biggest factor in determining the health of the gut intestinal barrier is diet. The Western Diet is anything but healthy. Processed foods dominate the shelves in local grocery stores and are loaded with chemicals, preservatives, and high amounts of sugar. Pasteurized dairy is devoid of any real nutrition and is loaded with hormones. CAFO (Concentrated Animal Feeding Operation) meat from conventionally raised animals on factory farms is loaded with hormones and antibiotics. Most of the fruits and veggies you will find in your supermarket are heavily sprayed with pesticides and herbicides while many are even genetically modified (GMO). Gluten and most grains are gut irritants and have been shown to irritate the intestinal barrier. Cultured and fermented foods are completely foreign to most people’s diets and not consumed regularly. There is sugar in everything so most people suffer from dangerously high amounts of sugar on a daily basis. The list goes on and on. All of the above factors each cause disastrous effects on gut health and can damage a healthy intestinal barrier. It’s safe to say that the Western diet is a recipe for disaster and not supportive of a healthy gut.
Surprisingly, there are many lifestyle factors that can weaken the intestinal gut barrier and contribute to causing a leaky gut. Some of these include high amounts of stress, lack of sleep, inappropriate physical exercise (such as too much or too little), weak immune systems as the result of insufficient immune stimulation ( aka the hygiene hypothesis: the belief that people who live in mostly sterile ‘anti-bacteria’ environments don’t get adequate exposure to bacteria to build a healthy immune system ), and psychological and emotional stress such as worry, anxiety, and anger.
Endogenous Factors from both the Body and Gut:
‘Endogenous factor’s is a fancy way of saying factors that already exist from within the body. There are many endogenous factors from both the body and inside the gut that can contribute to causing a leaky gut. These could include systemic inflammation, SIBO, Candida overgrowth, pathogenic overgrowth and infections ( such as H. pylori ), hormone imbalances, and genetics. A genetic history of autoimmune diseases (Celiac, Crohns, Hashimoto Thyroiditis etc.) can cause the family members to be more susceptible to intestinal permeability. (Source) Furthermore, individuals who have an autoimmune disease will usually have leaky gut.
One of the biggest factors that determines the health of the intestinal barrier is the state of an individuals microbiota (aka the gut flora in the large intestine). Gut flora resides on the inner most layer of the intestinal lining, the mucus layer. The body’s largest bacterial community is located in the gut with about 10¹² of bacteria per gram of tissue. In a healthy individual, their gut flora is dominated by beneficial microbes. A healthy gut flora includes beneficial fungi, protozoa, beneficial viruses, and even beneficial worms. In a healthy gut, all these beneficial microbes work together to live in harmony, keep the body balanced, and keep the tight junctions in the intestinal barrier working correctly.
Amidst the beauty of all the beneficial microbes, it is important to recognize that there are also hundreds of bad bacteria and pathogenic microbes that coexist along-side the beneficial bacterial strains. For an individual to be healthy and have strong immune system, these good bacteria must far outnumber the bad. When the gut flora is dominated by healthy microbes, the pathogenic bacteria are outnumbered and kept in check, often remaining neutral. However, these neutral microbes are very opportunistic and when given opportunity, will eagerly take over and turn pathogenic.
When the gut flora is out of balance, the immune system weakens, making that individual more vulnerable to sickness and disease (such as autoimmune diseases). The tight junctions in the lining of your gut walls weakens often resulting in leaky gut. (Source) Therefore, the condition of the gut lining is directly related to the health of the gut flora.
One of the biggest causes of gut flora imbalance is antibiotics. Upon taking a course of antibiotics, you not only wipe out the pathogenic bacteria but also the beneficial gut bacteria in your gut wall(3). This is devastating for your gut health. You don’t only ingest antibiotics when you’re taking a pill prescribed from your doctor. There are many sneaky ways they find their way into your system such as conventional CAFO meat and drinking water. (Source)
III. Do You Have a Leaky Gut?
A list of common signs and symptom of Leaky Gut are as follows:
- Constant Digestive Issues
- Constipation and/or diarrhea
- Nutrient malformation
- Autoimmune disease (Celiac, Crohn’s Disease, Multiple Sclerosis, Hashimoto’s Thyroiditis, etc)
- Food allergies (often, an ever-growing list)
- Sinus Congestion, itchy-watery eyes,
- Inflammatory skin issues (acne)
- Mood and Neurological Imbalances
IV. How to Heal a Leaky Gut
There is so much to cover on this topic of healing and sealing the gut. There are many effective protocols such as the GAPS diet and the Specific Carbohydrate Diet that are designed to target healing intestinal permeability and restoring the tight junctions of the intestinal wall. In this last section, I will give a basic overview of how to begin healing a leaky gut.
The first step an individual can take to heal a leaky gut is to go on a temporary elimination diet. It would be wise to eliminate gut irritating foods for a season while focusing on nutrient dense, gut healing foods. The reason for this is the cells in the gut wall renew every 5 days days. By eliminating the foods that can irritate the gut your gut while eating gut healing foods, the damaged gut wall can heal faster. The duration for the elimination diet is subjective depending on the severity of the intestinal permeability. However, a good place to start is 30 days following the protocol below:
30 Day Protocol:
The foods to eliminate are:
- Nuts: These can be added later and after learning how to properly prepare them through soaking.
- Gluten: I think it’s best to eliminate gluten grains all together.
- Soy, Corn, Peanuts: Unless organic, these are best avoided because they are usually GMO. They also can have aflatoxin (mold) which sin’t good for you. In general avoid them.
- Dairy: Go dairy free for a few weeks. Then try some grass-fed cultured dairy such as goat kefir. Stay away from conventional, pasteurized dairy.
- Processed foods/Fast Food/High Fructose Corn Syrup, Etc.
- Hydrogenated Oils: These oils are rancid and oxidized meaning they are toxic. Most Plant/vegetable oils fall into this category such as: canola, soy, grapeseed, rapeseed, flax oil etc.
- Excessive amounts of sugar: Going over 25g of sugar a day is too much. This may be hard but it must be done.
- No Fruit: Avoid fruit for at least 30 days as fructose can cause digestive issues for a weak, unhealthy gut.
- No Sugar and Carbohydrates: Avoid most simple carbs for 30 days. This includes white rice, processed foods, white potatoes, etc. These raise your insulin levels in your body. Limit even complex carbs and healthy sugar. Things like quinoa, fruit, sweet potatoes and other starches should be avoided in the beginning of this protocol.
The foods TO eat:
- Gut Healing Foods: Bone Broth, Collagen/Gelatin, Coconut oil, Slippery Elm Tea
- Gut Healing Supplements: Krill oil, L-Glutamine, Licorice root, Collagen/Gelatin
- Fermented Raw Grass-fed Kefir: sheep or goat is easier to digest than cow’s milk
- Organic Protein: Grass-fed beef, wild game, organic free-range chicken, organic free-range eggs, fish, seafood etc.
- Healthy fats: Coconut oil, Avocados, Gee, Animal fats such as Duck fat etc.
- Green Leafy Veggies: Lots and Lots of green veggies!
Also, adhere to this general rule to attain an alkaline body: at least fifty percent of your plate should be GREEN veggies.
Work on managing your stress levels. Make sleep a priority and try to set your sleep/wake schedule to the same times every night to balance and regulate your circadian rhythms. Avoid over-exercising. During this period of healing your gut, focus on calm, centering forms of movement and exercise such as yoga. Yoga will also help with detoxification of your lymph system.
Treating Gut Infections:
It is of upmost importance when healing a leaky gut to focus on testing and treating any pathogenic infections in the gut first before getting tested directly for intestinal permeability. Some common gut pathogens are:
- SIBO (Small Intestinal Bacterial Overgrowth)
- Candida Albicans Overgrowth
It is important to get these gut infections treated first. More times than not, the symptoms of leaky gut will subside once the pathogenic infection is treated and gut flora is restored.
Restoring Beneficial Gut Flora:
To restore the beneficial microbes into your gut, you need to introduce fermented foods into your daily diet. This is a critical step as it’s going to begin to reseed your gut with good gut flora. By varying your fermented foods coupled with a high quality probiotic supplement, you seed your gut with many new strains of good bacteria, building a stronger microbiota. are so many options from the store available today. Here is a list to go buy immediately and begin ingesting daily.
- Kefir (goat or cow’s milk), preferably organic, grass fed and raw
- Yogurt (sheep, goat or cow), preferably organic and grass fed
- Lacto-fermented Vegetables (not pickled)
- Sauerkraut (must be lacto-fermented)
- A High Quality Probiotic Supplement
Testing for Leaky Gut:
After first trying all of the above recommendations, if leaky gut symptoms stubbornly persist, it would be wise to seek testing with a medical professional. I would recommend working with a naturopath doctor if at all possible.
The two tests I would ask your doctor about for testing for leaky gut are:
- Lactulose/Mannitol Permeability Test
- Antigenic Permeability Screen
Thank you for reading! Please leave any questions or remarks you might have in the comments section below:
1. Enders, Giulia. Gut: The Inside Story Of Our Body’s Most Underrated Organ. Scribe, 2015. Print.
3. Stephan C Bischoff; Giovanni Barbara; Wim Buurman; Theo Ockhuizen; Jörg-Dieter Schulzke; Matteo Serino; Herbert Tilg; Alastair Watson; Jerry M Wells. “Intestinal Permeability – A New Target for Disease Prevention and Therapy.BMC Gastroenterol. 2014;14(189).