What is Leaky Gut?
Leaky gut is increased permeability in the small intestine, which allows large protein molecules (such as undigested food particles), pathogens (including bacteria, parasites, viruses and fungi) and toxins to enter the bloodstream. Leaky gut also prevents us from absorbing certain nutrients that we need. Most commonly, we can become deficient in Vitamin B12, and the fat soluble vitamins A, D, E and K.
The Causes of Leaky Gut
Inflammation causes leaky gut. Gluten intolerance or another food intolerance might create inflammation. An overgrowth of Candida or parasites in the colon, or a bacterial imbalance in the small intestine itself, is another common source of inflammation, which damages the gut mucosa. Stress, whether it be physical or mental/emotional stress, also contributes to inflammation. Poor digestion and excessive use of certain drugs (particularly Non-Steroidal Anti-Inflammatory Drugs or NSAIDs) are other sources of inflammation. Other disruptive medications include corticosteroids, antacids and antibiotics.
What does Leaky Gut Feel Like?
Inflammation in the gut is often felt as bloating, abdominal pain, constipation, diarrhea, indigestion and irritable bowel symptoms. But that’s not the end of the story. When molecules that do not belong in the bloodstream end up in the bloodstream (such as toxins, pathogens and undigested food that has been mistakenly absorbed by the intestinal wall), an immune system response is activated in the body. Part of this immune response is more inflammation, which can affect any area of the body. This means that leaky gut can contribute to joint and muscle pain, mood disorders, poor memory and confusion, anxiety, depression, migraines, fatigue, skin rashes and eczema, allergies and food intolerances, autoimmune conditions and heart disease. The signs and symptoms of leaky gut are a prime example that your health really does begin in your gut!
If you think that leaky gut might be contributing to some of your symptoms or health conditions, there are many laboratory tests available to provide you with direction for healing. These tests include serum zonulin, 6-hour urine testing for lactulose and mannitol, and IgG food sensitivity testing. Hormone testing, stool testing, organic acid testing, allergic inflammation and genetic testing may also be helpful to determine contributing factors for your leaky gut. It’s best to speak with your functional MD, naturopathic doctor or nutritionist about the tests that would be most appropriate for you.
Healing Leaky Gut
There is plenty that YOU can do to heal your leaky gut!
Eliminate the Source of Inflammation
This might mean clearing a Candida overgrowth, or finding ways to manage your stress. It often means identifying any food sensitivities and avoiding those foods, at least temporarily while the gut heals. Wheat and dairy are the most common foods contributing to inflammation, so avoiding these foods is a great place to start. Many people find raw veggies difficult to digest as well, so switching to steamed, sautéed or even roasted vegetables might be necessary if the fresh versions are troublesome for you. In extreme cases of leaky gut, it might even be necessary to remove all grains, legumes and even starchy vegetables from the diet. I personally don’t recommend this step unless my client already knows that they are sensitive to these foods – after all these foods are actually very beneficial for a number of reasons, including their fiber content for healthy colon function. I do suggest, if you are having symptoms of indigestion, that all whole grains, legumes, nuts and seeds are soaked (and preferably sprouted) prior to eating. You can find out more about how to soak and sprout these whole foods HERE.
Eat Anti-Inflammatory Foods
You can help control inflammation by eating anti-inflammatory foods. Bone broth and fermented veggies are top on my list. Coconut in all forms such as coconut milk, coconut butter, and coconut oil), olive oil, egg yolks, avocado, wild fish and grass-fed meat are all healthy fats that help to heal the digestive tract.
Improve your Digestion
You will also need to ensure your digestion is optimal. To begin, ensure you are chewing your food extremely well, and not diluting your meals by drinking fluids with your meal. Yes, this includes water too, except for a few sips. If you are showing a deficiency in digestive enzymes – and your nutritionist can help you determine this – you may want to supplement with a digestive enzyme formula specific for your needs.
Heal the Gut Mucosa with Specific Nutrients
Now to actually heal the gut. Specific nutrients are ideal for this, and your laboratory tests can help identify which nutrients are best for you. My top gut-healing nutrients include: quercetin, aloe vera, slippery elm, marshmallow, boswellia, curcumin, and L-glutamine. The vitamin A and D and Omega 3s in cod liver oil are all helpful for healing the gut mucosa.
Small chain fatty acids (SCFA) made by healthy gut bacteria are great for healing the gut. So include fermented foods like sprouts, coconut kefir, kimchi and saurkraut daily. Prebiotic foods such as onion, garlic, dark leafy greens, unripe banana, blackberries, apple, carrot, artichoke and asparagus also support healthy gut bacteria, so try to ingest these as well, if you can tolerate them.
Reculture the Gut
Once you’ve healed the gut, I always suggest reculturing the gut with a probiotic formula, especially if you’re not consuming fermented foods on a daily basis. Many people can slowly reintroduce foods that were once troublesome for them, without showing any signs of intolerance. Consult your nutritionist for the best way to reintroduce foods, and keep a food journal to keep track of how you feel when eating these foods.
A healthy digestive system and anti-inflammatory diet will go a long way to keeping your gut healthy, which will affect your health and wellness in many ways!
Sharon Pendlington, BSc, R.H.N., NNCP, RYT