Go back a few years and leaky gut syndrome had only been heard of by digestive health experts. Thankfully it is now becoming more widely known, but what is it? Why do we need to be aware of it? And, how can we heal it?
What is leaky gut syndrome?
Leaky gut, also known as increased intestinal permeability, gut permeability or gut hyper-permeability, is a digestive condition in which microscopic particles of food, bacteria, fungi, yeasts, parasites and toxins are able to ‘leak’ through the intestinal wall.
The digestive system plays an important role in protecting your body from harmful substances. The walls of the intestines act as barriers, controlling what is transported to the liver and eventually every cell in the body via the blood circulation. Small gaps in the intestinal wall called tight junctions allow water and nutrients to pass through to your blood stream, while simultaneously blocking the passage of harmful substances that are excreted with your wastes.
When the tight junctions of the intestinal walls become loose through, for example, inflammation of the gut the digestive tract becomes more permeable. This may then mean harmful substances i.e., larger molecules of bacteria and toxins are able to pass from the gut into the bloodstream. This phenomenon is commonly referred to as ‘leaky gut.’
What happens when you have a leaky gut?
When bacterial fragments and undigested food particles enter the bloodstream, your immune system tags them as ‘foreign invaders’ (even though they may not be) and remembers them for next time.
So, next time you eat something that had previously entered the bloodstream via the leaky gut, your body mounts an immune response. This includes initiating inflammatory cascades to try and eliminate the ‘foreign bodies’ from your system, which can cause food intolerances and other unpleasant gut symptoms.
The activation of the immune system and the loss of the ‘border control’ in the gut lining means that the symptoms of leaky gut are not just gastro-intestinal related. They can become much more widespread and start to affect many different areas in the body.
Leaky gut syndrome has been implicated as a factor in many medical conditions, including Coeliac Disease, Crohn’s disease, and Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS), as well as some other autoimmune diseases.
What are the symptoms of a leaky gut?
Some of the symptoms of leaky gut are listed below, though you would not necessarily experience all of them:
- Abdominal pain
- Brain fog
- Pain syndromes
- Joint pains
- Acne or skin issues
- Auto-immune diseases
- Nutrient deficiencies
What causes a leaky gut?
Many factors are involved in causing the digestive tract and gut to become inflamed, including food sensitivities, pathogenic bacteria, viruses, parasites, dysbiosis (an imbalance in your gut microbiome), long-term use of certain medications, including multiple courses of antibiotics, steroids and PPIs (powerful antacids).
Leaky gut can also result from a number behaviours, including the following diet and lifestyle choices:
Poor Diet / Inflammatory Foods
Sugar, alcohol, and some processed foods generally increase inflammation and intestinal damage, or may feed existing dysbiosis, which can lead to increased gut damage and leaky gut. Any food that you have a food sensitivity or food allergy to (often inflammatory) can continue to encourage leaky gut.
Zonulin is a protein created in the small intestine and liver that, when elevated, loosens the tight junctions of the cells of the small intestine, and is currently the only identified biochemical driver of leaky gut. The main contributors to elevated zonulin levels are gut dysbiosis and eating foods containing gluten or gliadin.
And, it’s important to not that gluten and gliadin, the proteins in wheat, barley, rye, spelt, and kamut, have been shown to increase zonulin in both coeliac and non-coeliac people alike. Because zonulin increases intestinal permeability, a temporary gluten-free diet may be helpful for reducing leaky gut.
Stress increases cortisol and other stress hormones, which can contribute to leaky gut. Chronic stress can make it difficult to resolve your leaky gut and other gut health issues.
This also includes chronic stress from over-exercising or over-training. The body and gut need rest to repair, and putting it under stress with over-exercising impedes that all so important healing process.
Too little or poor sleep can impact your gut health and lead to intestinal permeability. It’s one thing to stay up late occasionally, but if you’re frequently going to bed late, waking up early, or have chronic insomnia, your leaky gut will likely be worse than if you’re getting enough rest.
After all, sleep is the best medicine.
The use of antibiotics, especially multiple courses of antibiotics, can negatively affect your beneficial bacteria populations, which, in turn, can lead to a leaky gut and leave you vulnerable to opportunistic infections.
The negative effects increase if you have been prescribed repeated courses of antibiotics, even if they were a long time ago dating back to childhood.
Alcohol, NSAIDs, and Prescription Medications
Over time, regular alcohol consumption can degrade the mucosal lining of the gut, eventually breaking down the tight junctions. This is also true for the regular, long-term use of NSAIDs (non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs) and aspirin. Some other prescription medications have also been shown to increase intestinal permeability, so it’s worth thinking about what you have been taking if you start to present with the symptoms of a leaky gut.
How can I heal a leaky gut?
There are a number of foods and nutrients that can help to heal your leaky gut. These include:
- Collagen powder
- Bone broth. You can check out my bone broth recipe below.
- Fibre and prebiotics to feed the good bacteria in the gut
- Gelatin – a good source is jelly cubes, the non-vegan ones. (When I was growing up, my mum would give me a cube of jelly every so often for hair, skin, nails and general health, and we would have jelly and Carnation milk most Sundays after our tea).
- Fish and omega 3s support the healing of intestinal lining and connective tissue
- Fermented foods contain probiotic cultures
- Vitamin A, which is essential for gut lining cell regeneration
- Zinc. Also essential for gut lining cell regeneration
- L-glutamine – great for repairing the mucosal membranes in the gut. It can be found in chicken, fish, dark green vegetables, dairy, tofu, beans and pulses.
- Probiotics – to re-populate the gut microbiome and crowd out any pathogenic bacteria that may be causing leaky gut
It is worth working with a qualified Nutritional Therapist, Naturopath or Medical Herbalist, before taking supplements, so that they can check for any drug-nutrient interactions with any medications you may be on, and to make sure they don’t interfere with any health conditions that you may have.
If you’re not sure where to find someone who is well trained, qualified registered and regulated, contact us and we will help you: firstname.lastname@example.org
There are also some foods that you should avoid if you have a leaky gut. These include:
- FODMAP foods. It may be a good idea to remove from these from your diet short-term as they can irritate the gut. A low FODMAP diet is focused on restricting fermentable carbohydrates found in various fruits, vegetables and grains such as garlic, onion, cauliflower, and apples to name a few. The list is quite extensive, but you can find plenty of information on this online. This website by Monash University is a great place to start
- Gluten – because it increases Zonulin and it is high in FODMAPS
- Artificial or processed foods – irritating to the gut lining
- Dairy products may also aggravate the gut lining
My key recommendations for dealing with a leaky gut
- Find out the root cause of your leaky gut so that you can resolve this and stop it from coming back. Functional testing, including stool testing, is a great way to determine a root cause.
- Manage stress levels – psychological stress has been shown to increase leaky gut
- Reduce alcohol as this increases leaky gut
- Investigate alternatives for birth control pills as they can negatively affect the gut microbiome, and increase the risk for Inflammatory Bowel Disease (IBD) and other digestive problems
- Prioritise sleep
If you’d like further advice and support, why not join my free Facebook group, Tummy Talk?