Do you suffer from digestive problems such as bloating and stomach cramps? Do you also suffer from other problems such as acne, migraines and fatigue? If so, you may be suffering from a Leaky Gut.
As a Naturopath who has treated clients with Leaky Gut, I can understand how baffling this disorder is. In this article, I will explain what a Leaky Gut is, what causes it, signs and symptoms of a Leaky Gut, and tests to find out if you have Leaky Gut.
Most importantly, I will also show you how you can heal your Leaky Gut, Foods to avoid and Foods to eat if you have a Leaky Gut, and provide you with a sample Meal Plan to get you started.
What is Leaky Gut?
Due to ongoing research and an increased understanding of how our digestive system functions, this term has gained a lot of attention lately. Leaky gut is the common name used for ‘intestinal permeability’.
Your digestive system is lined with a thin layer of mucosa that if spread out, would take up a surface area the size of a tennis court! So as you can see your digestive system takes up a huge area inside your body and is a very important system.
This mucosa lining contains “tight junctions” which act as a gateway and are there to allow important nutrients to pass through from your intestines into your bloodstream. These tight junctions also keep things out of the blood stream like toxins, microbes and undigested food particles.
Leaky gut is when these tight junctions break down, allowing the gut to become more porous and therefore particles are able to leak into your bloodstream. This then causes inflammation in the body and triggers an immune response to try and combat these substances.
This reaction can create many symptoms particularly bloating, cramping and gas.
Causes of Leaky Gut
Leaky Gut doesn’t happen overnight. There are many factors that can slowly contribute to this problem with your digestive system. These include:
Consuming a poor diet
Is your diet low in fiber or full of processed foods? Your diet could well be contributing to your leaky gut. Research has shown that diets low in fiber, high in total fat, saturated fat and sugar, and diets that contain emulsifiers found in processed food can cause a leaky gut. Low fiber diets, for example, increase the number of mucus-destroying bacteria, which in turn leads to the gut becoming more porous aka “permeable”.
Lectins are proteins that bind to specific sugars. They are found in many plant species, but are mostly concentrated in seeds such as grains, legumes and nuts, as well as in tubers such as potatoes.
How do lectins cause leaky gut? Wheat lectins, for instance cause the opening of tight junctions in the cells of the gut by increasing zonulin (a protein that opens and closes the tight junctions in your mucosal lining).
Experiencing chronic stress
Have you noticed a flare-up of your leaky gut symptoms during a period of chronic stress? When you are under chronic stress, your body releases a hormone called corticotropin releasing factor (CRF). CRF activates cells called mast cells, which in turn release substances that promote inflammation and damage your intestinal barrier.
Suffering injuries and burns
Did you know that burns and severe injuries can result in a leaky gut? In a study on 29 patients with severe injuries, there was an increase in intestinal permeability 72 to 96 hours post injury! When you suffer a burn, you may be surprised to know that your gut also becomes inflamed, and this leads to greater intestinal permeability.
Engaging in intense exercise
If you engage in intense exercise for long periods of time without getting enough rest in between, you could be increasing your intestinal permeability.
A study of 20 athletes found that those who run at 70% of their capacity had greater intestinal permeability than those who were at rest. Likewise, those who engaged in 90 minutes of cycling at 70% of their capacity had higher intestinal permeabilities than those who were at rest. However, it is interesting to note that if you are a well-trained athlete, intense exercise does not affect your intestinal permeability.
When you engage in intense exercise, there is less blood flow to your intestines. Scientists also believe that intense exercise results in a build-up of free radicals which then damage your intestinal tissue. These events in turn, lead to greater intestinal permeability.
Consuming too much alcohol
A study on 36 alcoholic patients found that intestinal permeability was increased 4 days to up to 14 days post alcohol consumption.
Alcohol damages the mucosal lining and increases the permeability of your gut to macromolecules. This in turn causes the movement of toxins into the liver, increasing the risk of injury to your liver.
Suffering from gut dysbiosis
Gut dysbiosis, an imbalance of bacteria in your gut can lead to a leaky gut. A study on 100 overweight pregnant women found that those with leaky guts had a lower variety of gut bacteria (a marker of gut dysbiosis).
To learn more read our article "What is Gut Dysbiosis?"...
Having an infection
Various infections can increase your intestinal permeability. These include malaria, H. pylori and Candida. They increase intestinal permeability by affecting the proteins that make up your mucosal lining’s tight junctions.
Suffering from inflammation
Inflammation causing cytokines such as tumor necrosis factor-α, interleukin-1β and interleukin-12 increase intestinal permeability. Some people genetically have an increased inflammatory response or are prone to auto-immune inflammation.
Use of various medications
Various drugs including, nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), stomach-acid suppressing drugs (PPIs), and even drugs used in dental procedures increase intestinal permeability. Notably, NSAIDS increase the intestinal permeability of your intestines within 24 hours of ingestion. Though PPIs increase intestinal permeability in most people, PPIs seem to decrease intestinal permeability in cystic fibrosis patients.
Not getting enough Zinc
Not getting enough Vitamin A
Vitamin A also helps maintain the integrity of the intestinal membrane barrier.
Not getting enough Vitamin D
Animal research has also demonstrated that Vitamin D helps maintain the intestinal membrane barrier.
Not getting enough Vitamin B3
Vitamin B3 may also be helpful in maintain the intestinal membrane barrier. Vitamin B3 deficiency in alcoholics has been shown to be associated with intestinal membrane permeability.
Do your kids suffer from leaky gut? If you are giving them iron supplements, they could be to blame as iron supplementation in children has been shown to increase intestinal permeability.
Disruption of your circadian rhythm
Your circadian rhythm plays a vital role in maintaining your intestinal membrane barrier. A study done on night workers found that they were more prone to developing alcohol-induced intestinal permeability when they drank socially.
Radiation such as radiation from radiation therapy has been shown to increase intestinal permeability. Radiation has been shown to cause damage and death of the mucosal lining, leading to increased permeability.
Chemotherapy also increases intestinal permeability. Research has shown that chemotherapy causes a decrease in the proteins which maintain the tight junctions necessary for preventing a leaky gut.
The guts of newborn babies are more permeable, particularly to intact sugars and proteins. The guts of premature babies are even more permeable.
Breastfed versus formula fed babies
Premature babies fed breast milk have a lower intestinal permeability compared to formula-fed babies.
Intestinal permeability in older adults is higher than that in younger adults. A leaky gut, in turn, may be one reason why older adults develop more age-related inflammatory conditions such as cognitive impairment.
Signs and Symptoms of Leaky Gut (LGS)
LGS can affect many systems of your body and therefore result in a variety of signs and symptoms. These include:
- stomach cramps
- food sensitivities
- hormonal imbalances
- regular headaches or migraines
- skin allergies or rashes
- iron deficiency
- weight issues
- recurrent colds and flus
- sinus infections or allergies
- And even hair problems
If you suffer from any of these symptoms, it may be a result of leaky gut. The best way to find out is by consulting a Naturopath. I have personally treated many clients with leaky gut over the years, including myself. I find that it is often the underlying trigger to most health complaints!
The father of modern medicine Hippocrates said: “All disease begins in the Gut”.
Conditions that have been linked with Leaky Gut
INFLAMMATORY BOWEL DISEASE
This includes Coeliac Disease, Ulcerative Colitis and Crohn’s Disease. With these conditions there is a genetic component but LSG can be both a result and a trigger to this inflammation. The burden on the immune system from leaky gut can also exacerbate these conditions. Studies have shown zinc supplementation to be quite effective in tightening up these intestinal ‘tight junctions’ in Crohn’s Disease patients.
FOOD INTOLERANCES & ALLERGIES
When there is intestinal permeability it allows toxins to enter your bloodstream, this triggers the immune system to work overtime producing antibodies. This then makes your body more susceptible to food allergens like dairy and gluten. Conditions such as Hay fever, Asthma, Sinus Infections, Irritable Bowel Syndrome, Candida, and Migraines can all fall into this category.
Here is a study explaining the process of the immune system when there is intestinal permeability, resulting in an allergic reaction or inflammation.
Eating gluten is often very detrimental to individuals suffering from any autoimmune disease. These disorders include: Rheumatoid Arthritis, Lupus, Psoriasis, Hashimoto’s thyroiditis and Fibromyalgia. Research done on the protein called ‘zonulin’ explains how LGS can trigger an autoimmune disease.
“Zonulin is the only physiologic modulator of intercellular tight junctions described so far that is involved in trafficking of macromolecules and, therefore, intolerance/immune response balance. When the zonulin pathway is deregulated in genetically susceptible individuals, autoimmune disorders can occur.”
Hashimoto is an autoimmune disease of the Thyroid gland. The Thyroid is responsible for regulating your body’s metabolism and affects many other hormones. This disorder can lead to hypothyroidism, impaired metabolism, fatigue, depression, weight gain, and a range of other concerns. The thyroid hormones also influence the ‘tight junctions’ in the lining of the stomach and small intestine.
INFLAMMATORY SKIN CONDITIONS
For a long time, the link between skin function and the digestive system has been known! The skin is your largest and most outer organ of the body and is a reflection of the body’s internal environment. Acne, Eczema, Psoriasis, Dermatitis and Hives are all common skin complaints that may be improved by repairing ‘leaky gut’ and balancing gut microflora. A study from 2011 explains:
“Over 70 years have passed since dermatologists John H. Stokes and Donald M. Pillsbury first proposed a gastrointestinal mechanism for the overlap between depression, anxiety and skin conditions such as acne. The ability of the gut microbiota and oral probiotics to influence systemic inflammation, oxidative stress, glycemic control, tissue lipid content and even mood itself, may have important implications in acne.”
To learn more read our article: " Gut Skin Connection (All You Need To Know)"
As we have mentioned previously intestinal permeability causes an inflammatory response, this triggers the release of pro-inflammatory cytokines and other chemicals that induce depression. A recent study in 2013 explores research that first came into light in the 1930’s. Depression, anxiety and other behavioural disorders may be linked to the health of your digestive system.
CHRONIC FATIGUE & FIBROMYALGIA
Chronic Fatigue Syndrome (CFS) is a debilitating disorder resulting in disabling fatigue and a combination of accompanying symptoms. Its cause is often unknown and misunderstood. Many patients also experience digestive complaints like Irritable Bowel Syndrome and gut inflammation.
How do I know if I have Leaky Gut?
Not sure whether you have Leaky Gut? If you answer “Yes” to the following questions, you may have Leaky Gut:
- Do you have a lot of food sensitivities?
- Do you feel like your brain is in a fog?
- Do you have an autoimmune disease?
- Do you have inflammatory symptoms such as dry eyes or allergies?
- Do you suffer from digestive symptoms?
- Do you have inflammatory bowel disease?
- Are you deficient in various nutrients (particularly vitamins A and D)?
- Do you suffer from SIBO?
Tests for Leaky Gut
These tests can help you find out if you have Leaky Gut:
- Lactulose & mannitol test: This test measures the ratio of lactulose to mannitol in your urine. You are given two types of sugars (lactulose and mannitol) and your urine is tested for them. Mannitol is a small sugar, so it easily passes through your system into your urine. Lactulose, on the other hand, is a larger sugar that should not pass through your system into your urine, unless your gut is permeable, hence leaky.
- Blood zonulin test: This test measures the amount of zonulin in your blood. Zonulin is a protein that makes your gut more permeable. It is necessary to have some zonulin in your blood in order to let nutrients pass through your gut, but if you have too much zonulin, this can result in a Leaky Gut. Therefore, the blood zonulin test gives you an idea of whether you have too much zonulin in your blood.
- Gut Microbiome Test: this uses a DNA sequencing to identify all the microbiome species in the large bowel. By analysing difference species, a trained practitioner can assess levels of inflammation in the gut and the condition of the gut mucosa lining. For example, Akkermansia bacteria is important for the mucous production in the gut lining. If this levels is low or not detected then there is leaky gut.
Learn more here...
How to Heal Leaky Gut
You can heal your gut by changing your lifestyle. These lifestyle changes include:
Adopting a lectin-free diet
Since lectins are found in grains, legumes, and nuts and tubers such as potatoes, you will want to avoid these foods. However, you may not need to avoid legumes if you boil them well. This is because cooking legumes (e.g. red beans) long enough or adding sucrose to them may decrease their ability to increase intestinal permeability.
Eating foods that support an intact gut
Animal studies have shown that omega 3 makes the gut less leaky. Hence, consuming enough omega-3 rich foods may help heal your gut. Foods that are high in omega-3 include salmon, mackerel, sardines, flaxseed, chia seeds and walnuts.
Likewise, animal studies have demonstrated that fermented dairy products and fermented vegetables also help heal the gut. Such foods include yogurt, fermented barley and soybean (natto), and kimchi.
Additionally, broccoli sprouts have been shown to be protective against Leaky Gut in human cells.
Managing your stress
Since stress disrupts your intestinal barrier, managing your stress may be a good way to help heal your gut. Engage in stress-relieving activities such as meditation, deep breathing and yoga.
Maintaining a healthy circadian rhythm
Since your circadian rhythm plays an important role in maintaining your intestinal barrier, engage in activities that promote a healthy circadian rhythm. These activities include getting enough sleep, sleeping at the same time each night and waking up at the same time each morning.
Not drinking alcohol
Drinking too much alcohol increases intestinal permeability. However, if you have inflammatory bowel disease, it is best to avoid alcohol entirely as you may have increased intestinal permeability drinking just 1 serving of alcohol a day.
Ensuring that you are getting enough vitamins and minerals
Taking certain supplements
For instance, glutamine has been shown to decrease chemotherapy-induced intestinal permeability. Likewise, quercetin has been shown to decrease intestinal permeability in cells. Also, colostrum bovinum has been shown to decrease intestinal permeability in athletes at risk of developing leaky gut.
Probiotics (beneficial bacterial that are good for gut health) have been shown to decrease intestinal permeability. Which strains should you take? Probiotic strains such as L. rhamnosus, L reuteri, L. plantarum have been shown to be helpful in humans, while a fermented milk product containing S. thermophiles, L. bulgaricus, L. acidophilus, and B. longum has been shown to be helpful as well.
Prebiotics are substances that feed the good bacteria in your gut. The prebiotic inulin has been shown to be helpful in maintaining the intestinal membrane barrier. Inulin is found in foods such as onions, leeks, garlic, bananas, chicory root, artichokes and asparagus.
Butyrate is a short chain fatty acid made by the bacteria in your gut. Butyrate helps secrete mucin, a substance which helps protect the mucosal lining, thus preventing Leaky Gut.
Taking certain medications
Lubiprostone, a medication used to treat patients with chronic constipation has been shown to improve leaky gut in healthy humans taking NSAIDS.
Systemic inflammation (inflammation that affects your whole body) is linked with increased intestinal permeability. Therefore reducing inflammation may help heal a leaky gut. Reducing your caloric intake, exercising, and treating advanced gum disease are some ways that you can reduce systemic inflammation.
Since infections can increase intestinal permeability, make sure you treat infections as soon as possible.
Foods (and drinks) to avoid with Leaky Gut
There are a number of foods you should avoid if you have Leaky Gut. These include:
Gluten contains a protein called gliadin which has been shown to release zonulin. As mentioned earlier, when you have too much zonulin, intestinal permeability increases. Gluten is found in many grains including spelt, wheat, rye and barley. Hidden sources of gluten are condiments, sauces and many packaged and boxed foods.
As mentioned earlier, lectins cause an increase in zonulin, leading to increased intestinal permeability. Lectins are found in grains, legumes and nuts, as well in tubers such as potatoes. However, if you love legumes, you may not need to eliminate them entirely from your diet because cooking legumes (e.g. red beans) long enough or adding sucrose to them may decrease their ability to increase intestinal permeability.
When going out with friends, you may want to stick to non-alcoholic beverages as drinking just 1 serving of alcohol can increase intestinal permeability.
Artificial sweeteners and refined sugar
Artificial sweetener and refined sugar intake may lead to gut dysbiosis. This, in turn, can lead to a Leaky Gut. Be wary of even “natural” artificial sweeteners such as stevia as stevia has been shown to lead to gut dysbiosis.
Vegetable oils such as sunflower, safflower, canola and soybean oil are one of the main sources of inflammation-causing omega-6 fatty acids. If you consume too many omega-6 fatty acids, you may develop systemic inflammation, which has been linked with increased intestinal permeability.
Foods to Eat For Leaky Gut
Bone broth contains glutamine, which as mentioned earlier, reduces intestinal permeability. You can use the bones of any animal to make bone broth, though most people use the bones of chickens or cows. Here is a recipe for bone broth.
Reduce the number of calories you consume; make sure half of your plate contains non-starchy vegetables. Non-starchy vegetables are low in calories and lowering the number of calories you consume can reduce systemic inflammation in your body. This in turn, reduces intestinal permeability.
Ensure that you use low-calorie preparation methods such as steaming. Also, make sure you do not add high-calorie sauces or condiments, when consuming your vegetables, in order to keep your vegetables low calorie.
An added bonus of eating more vegetables is that vegetables contain substances that may fight inflammation, thus helping heal Leaky Gut.
Virgin Coconut oil
Virgin coconut oil may be useful in healing a leaky gut because it is a powerful anti-inflammatory agent which may reduce systemic inflammation and heal a Leaky Gut.
Grass-fed meats and free-range eggs
Grass-fed meats and free-range eggs are lower in pro-inflammatory omega-6 fatty acids. Since systemic inflammation can lead to a leaky gut, you will want to avoid conventionally-raised animals which tend to be higher in inflammation-causing omega-6 fatty acids.
Yes, you do require some omega-6s in your diet, but the standard American diet is too high in omega-6s, and when this occurs you may suffer from inflammation-associated diseases such as leaky gut. For optimal health, you want your omega-6: omega-3 fat intake to be around 6:1. Anything more than this may lead to systemic inflammation.
So how do grass-fed/free range products compare to conventionally-raised products? The omega-6: omega-3 ratio of the egg yolk from a free-range egg is only 1.3, while the omega-6: omega-3 ratio of the egg yolk from a conventional egg is a staggering 19.9!
Wild fatty fish and/or fish oil
Wild fatty fish and fish oil are high in inflammation-fighting omega-3 fatty acids. In addition, fish contains vitamin D, which helps maintain the intestinal membrane barrier.
Sample Meal Plan for Leaky Gut
Curious as to what a sample meal plan for leaky gut looks like?
Here is a one-day meal plan:
One Day Leaky Gut Meal Plan
Breakfast: Banana, Pineapple & Kefir Smoothie
Dinner: Hearty Irish Lamb Stew
Snack1: Bone Broth
What you can do if you have signs of Leaky Gut…
I hope you now understand the importance of healing and sealing your gut.
If you are looking for an easy to follow plan, you may want to check out our program Gut Heal & Nourish here.
I hope you have enjoyed the article. If you have any questions, feel free to ask them in the comments 🙂