What do you think when you hear the term “leaky gut?” While most natural and alternative healthcare practitioners will understand it to mean increased intestinal permeability, the average person – and even many conventional physicians – may not. While there still exists some debate surrounding the recognition of leaky gut syndrome as a true medical condition, the host of gastrointestinal and non-GI symptoms that are attributed to it are certainly cause for further study.
What Is Leaky Gut?
Leaky gut syndrome is believed to be the result of damage to your intestinal lining, which makes it less capable of protecting your body’s internal environment and filtering vital nutrients and other biological substances – both good and bad. When the small intestine is not bound by tight junctions, antigens and other biological substances from undigested proteins and fats to bacteria can pass (or “leak”) through it and into your bloodstream. The lining of the small intestine is only one cell deep, so when it is compromised, the toxins, microbes, and undigested food particles in your gut have complete, unregulated access to your bloodstream and, subsequently, your immune system.
“All Disease Begins in the Gut”
Hippocrates, who is often touted as the father of modern medicine, is reported to have said that “all disease begins in the gut,” and modern research has now shown that he was correct in his premise. I see it in my practice every day: poor gut health leads to many more symptoms and underlying problems than those you might presume, and having a “leaky gut” causes more than just the expected GI symptoms. Leaky gut triggers an inflammatory autoimmune response throughout your body which lead can to many more common health concerns. We have seen dozens of these labs in my practice, and the correlation between labs that suggest severe leaky gut/increased intestinal permeability and autoimmune conditions like celiac, rheumatoid arthritis (RA), lupus, Crohn’s, and others is very strong. Other well-documented diseases and health issues that can arise from having a permeable gut include allergies, asthma, autism, eczema and psoriasis, type 1 diabetes, IBD, food sensitivities, thyroid issues, and much more.
What Causes Leaky Gut Syndrome?
So what causes leaky gut? In seeing hundreds of patients each year, I have come to the conclusion there are five main contributors to poor gut health.
1. Chronic Stress
The first contributor to poor gut health starts with ill-managed and chronic stress, which manifests in increased or severely suppressed cortisol. Increased catecholamines (a type of neurotransmitter) from stress also play a role in breaking down mucosal lining, which can be found all along your digestive tract from your esophagus (esophageal mucosa) to your intestine (intestinal mucosa).
The second contributors that will disrupt your gut health are pharmaceuticals and common medications like antibiotics, antacids, and corticosteroids. Prescription and over-the-counter drugs are not targeted meaning that when you take these medications, they don’t just work on the intended target; they will also impact the good (we experience and generally accept this in the abundance of side effects of the medications we take). Antibiotics, one of the most commonly prescribed medications today, for instance, are known to destroy the beneficial bacteria in your gut and can cause a variety of other health issues. Even common nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDS) like acetaminophen and ibuprofen don’t come without risks, which is why it’s best to always consult with your doctor for guidance on medication and look to a healthy lifestyle and natural remedies as your first line of defense.
A third common cause of leaky gut is parasitic, bacterial, and fungal infections. In my practice, we can and commonly do run the GI Maps or Bio-Health 401H panel to screen for these common gut infections, and get you back on the path to health if an infection is identified.
4. Hormonal Imbalance
The fourth contributor to leaky gut syndrome is hormonal issues. A poorly functioning thyroid, sustained elevation of cortisol levels, too much or too little of hormones like estradiol, testosterone, and progesterone can all impact and damage the lining of your intestine making it permeable for antigens.
5. Poor Diet
The fifth and probably most prominent contributor to poor gut health and syndromes like leaky gut is also the most avoidable: poor diet. Poor nutrition plays an essential role in the deterioration of your gut’s microbiome. Many of the prime examples of foods and drinks that will harm your gut are staples of the North American diet: alcohol, gluten containing products (like bread, bagels, and cereal), dairy, overly processed foods, refined sugars, and the poor quality and unhealthy oils and trans fats used in many of the foods offered in fast food restaurants.
How to Heal Your Gut Naturally
While it is important to understand what leaky gut and intestinal permeability means and to examine its root causes, even more critical is learning how to heal your gut naturally. For the purposes of this article, we will focus on food as medicine as I believe a great deal of improvement can come from your diet and nutrition alone. Just as important as knowing what not to eat is knowing what foods promote gut health. These are some easy lifestyle and diet changes that anyone can make.
Top 5 Foods for Leaky Gut Syndrome
In addition to eating a healthy diet that is low in processed foods and high in whole foods, there are some foods that I recommend to patients who are looking to heal their gut and support overall gut health.
One food product that is excellent for healing the gut is bone broth. It contains both proline and glycine (amino acids that can help heal your damaged cell walls) as well as collagen which is great at “holding the body together,” so to speak. Collagen is found in some of the most important structural elements of the body from bones to tendons to joints. While simple to make, bone broth requires the right ingredients and a lot of time. While many people regularly make bone broth at home, there are also a growing number of distributors across the United States and Canada that will ship bone broth to your front door.
Another very helpful food in promoting gut health is fermented vegetables. They contain natural probiotics and organic acids that help balance intestinal pH. Fermented vegetables are a long-standing culinary tradition in many cultures. While the Germans are known for their sauerkraut (fermented cabbage), Korea is known for kimchi (made from a variety of fermented vegetables and spices) and Russia for kvass (a fermented grain beverage). Whether you grew up with fermented vegetables as a common side dish or not, including them in your diet can do wonders for your intestinal health. While fermented vegetables pack the extra healthy punch of natural probiotics, a point worth mentioning is that good old steamed vegetables and fruits are also helpful in healing a severe leaky gut.
This gut-healthy food is a staple in my family’s home and contains both short-chain fatty acids (SCFAs) and probiotics: cultured dairy. I know, first I mention dairy as a common dietary cause behind poor gut health, and now I tell you it’s a good choice for your overall gut health. While many people are sensitive to dairy in its most common forms (think a big glass of milk or cheese on your pizza), cultured dairy products impact the body differently. Some examples of healthy cultured dairy products include kefir, high-quality strained yogurts, and even butter made from grass-fed milk. These healthy options may not always taste the best when compared to their sugary counterparts like flavored yogurts and ice cream, but they are excellent for your gut health.
Another food category that is beneficial for your gut is sprouted seeds, which are seeds that have been allowed to germinate, a natural process that reduces anti-nutritional compounds in the seed. Sprouted flaxseeds, chia seeds, and hemp seeds are among those I recommend. These sprouted seeds are great sources of fiber and other nutrients that promote the growth of beneficial bacteria.
I also recommend introducing select medium-chain fatty acids (MCFA) like unrefined coconut oil into your kitchen and diet. I enjoy it with my morning tea and as a cooking oil. Coconut oil is easier to digest than other fats (due to its structure) so this makes it easier on your digestive system.
The Bottom Line for Your Gut Health
While you don’t have to eat all of these gut-healthy foods every day to reap the benefits, try combining them to get as many as possible. For example, mixing coconut oil and kefir gets you your probiotics and your healthy fats in one tasty snack. These foods will help you optimize your gut flora and heal the damage that has been done to your intestine over the years. If you suffer from any symptoms or illnesses associated with leaky gut, I strongly urge you to start with simple diet changes so you can begin your journey back to health and vitality.
Mike, FDN, PT
About the Author:
After completing his Degree at Ryerson University and spending 15 years in Corporate, he graduated from the Functional Diagnostic Nutrition program in California and is now the CEO of Interactive Body Balance where he oversees a vibrant functional medicine health practice. Transitioning from Corporate to the entrepreneurial paradigm has involved seeing patients and clients via the conventional method but also virtually. He has authored the popular self-help book titled “The Transformation From Within” and the Functional Medicine Book ” How To Restore Your Health”, hosts the highly ranked ITunes Podcast called Interactive Body Balance, is creating multiple online health courses while also presenting to audiences around the world.
Featured photo credit: Ed Gregory via stokpic.com