You don’t have to spend much time learning about the human body to understand how central gut health is to every aspect of your well-being. It’s been firmly established that if you heal your gut, you can improve various important elements of your health, from immune function to mental health and many more. But one gut-related topic that’s less understood — though often talked about — is the phenomenon of leaky gut. Read on to learn about what this condition actually is and what causes it, how to heal leaky gut naturally, the best gut healing diet and foods to heal leaky gut, and more.
So, What Actually Is Leaky Gut?
To understand leaky gut, you first need to have a bit of background on how the digestive tract (aka your gut) works. Your digestive tract includes over 4,000 square feet of lining, all of which is just one cell layer thick. These cells, called enterocytes, are like security guards, forming a secure barrier between your body and the outside world. The digestive tract isn’t just responsible for getting the good stuff from the food you eat — it’s also responsible for keeping the bad stuff out.
As foreign items — food, drink, medications, air particulates, etc — enter your digestive tract through your nose and mouth, they’re broken down and digested as they pass through your gut. The enterocytes maintain a tight barrier, ensuring that only fully digested nutrients that your body can properly absorb pass through the gut lining and into your bloodstream and organs. Intestinal permeability refers to how easily substances pass from your gut into your bloodstream. In a healthy gut, intestinal permeability is low. But when the gut isn’t functioning as it should, the gaps between the enterocytes loosen, resulting in increased intestinal permeability, aka leaky gut. These bigger holes allow substances that are only partially digested to get into your bloodstream, which has a cascade of negative health effects.
When your body sees these undigested proteins, toxins, and bacteria, it triggers an immune response, causing widespread inflammation. This can result in a variety of different unpleasant symptoms, including:
- Digestive issues like diarrhea, constipation, nausea, bloating, gas, and cramps
- Skin problems like acne, rashes, and eczema
- Joint pain
- Brain fog
Leaky gut is also associated with a number of chronic conditions. There’s some debate in the scientific community about whether leaky gut is the cause of these conditions or a symptom of them, and it may be that the cause-and-effect order differs depending on the condition. However, multiple studies have identified the existence of leaky gut prior to the onset of the disease, suggesting that leaky gut is a cause, or at least a precursor. Conditions associated with leaky gut include:
Leaky gut is still somewhat poorly understood for a variety of reasons. In part, the challenge is that it’s difficult to measure the strength of a person’s gut lining, so practitioners often have to triangulate their way to a diagnosis based on symptoms. It’s also the case that mainstream medicine has only relatively recently become clued into the massive role of the gut in overall health, so there’s not a ton of scientific research on the topic to date. As the importance of gut health becomes more recognized in mainstream medicine, we’re hopeful that a more concrete understanding of leaky gut will emerge.
What Causes Leaky Gut?
As with a lot of conditions, the two big factors at play when it comes to leaky gut are genetics and lifestyle. Some people are genetically predisposed to to have a weaker gut barrier, and so they’re more at risk for increased intestinal permeability. But regardless of genes, all of us have the potential to strengthen or weaken our gut lining based on the choices we make each day.
One big player in intestinal permeability is a protein called zonulin, which regulates how closely the enterocytes (the cells of the gut lining) are packed together. When levels of zonulin rise, the cells loosen, creating gaps and increasing intestinal permeability. Bad bacteria can cause an increase in zonulin, as can gluten — but the jury is still out on whether this is the case for everyone, or just those with celiac disease.
Aside from zonulin, other factors can also contribute to leaky gut:
- Excess sugar intake: Sugar alters the intestinal barrier, allowing bacteria to make its way into the bloodstream and organs, especially the liver and heart.
- Long-term or excessive use of NSAIDs like Advil
- Excessive consumption of alcohol: Alcohol can increase intestinal permeability by interacting with certain proteins in the gut.
- Nutritional deficiencies: Deficiencies in certain nutrients, including vitamin A, vitamin D, and zinc, have been associated with leaky gut.
- Chronic inflammation: While leaky gut causes inflammation, some studies suggest that inflammation may also increase intestinal permeability.
- Stress: Stress hormones like cortisol attack the tight junctions that hold the cells of your intestinal lining together, leading to increased permeability.
- Eating foods to which you’re sensitive: If you have a food sensitivity that you don’t know about, the foods you eat could trigger an immune response, leading to inflammation and potentially contributing to leaky gut.
How to Heal Leaky Gut Naturally
If you suspect you might have increased intestinal permeability, you have a lot of options for healing leaky gut. Some physicians prescribe drugs for the condition, including antibiotics, antidepressants, and immune system suppressors, but pharmaceuticals always come with side effects of their own and fail to address the root cause of the issue. If your gut lining isn’t sealed properly, no amount of drugs is going to seal it if you continue eating, drinking, or doing something that causes it to unseal or become permeable. Thankfully, there are many lifestyle-based, side-effect-free ways to heal leaky gut naturally.
Ultimately, the course of action that works for you will depend on the underlying cause of your increased intestinal permeability. But generally, taking steps to improve your overall gut health will support a strong intestinal lining and can help heal leaky gut. To support your gut health and help heal leaky gut naturally, you can:
- Take probiotics. Probiotics provide your gut with the good bacteria it needs to stay balanced and function optimally. For vetted, WellBe-approved probiotics, check out our Non-Toxic Product Database.
- Avoid NSAIDs. We recommend steering clear of these anyway because of the associated health risks, but it’s especially important if you’re trying to heal leaky gut.
- Avoid antibiotics. Antibiotics kill the good bacteria in your gut, disrupting your gut health.
- Drink in moderation (if you drink) or limit alcohol when you are healing your leaky gut.
- Reduce stress. Practices like mindfulness, meditation, and other acts of self-care can help lower your levels of stress hormones, allowing your gut to heal.
- Get tested for nutritional deficiencies, and take a supplement if necessary. WellBe has an entire library of vetted, practitioner-grade supplements in our Non-Toxic Product Database.
- Identify any food sensitivities. You can do this by adopting an elimination diet, then slowly reintroducing food groups and paying attention to your body’s reaction.
- Move your body. Research shows that getting regular exercise can aid in digestion and improve the transportation of oxygen through your body, promoting good gut bacteria that strengthen the gut lining.
- Take anti-inflammatory supplements. Supplements like l-glutamine, licorice root, and omega-3 have anti-inflammatory benefits that can help tame an inflammatory response in your body and allow your gut lining to heal. You’ll find our vetted brands of these and many more supplements in our Non-Toxic Product Database.
The Best Gut Healing Diet
As you may have guessed, since leaky gut is so closely connected with what you put in your mouth, the most important element of healing leaky gut is your diet. To support a strong intestinal lining and help repair any increased permeability, you want to eat foods that promote good bacteria and fend off harmful bacteria, and avoid anything that doesn’t agree with your unique body.
Everyone’s gut-healing diet will look slightly different, because each of us has our own distinct microbiome, but the best gut healing diet generally contains these foods and food groups:
- Fermented foods. Foods like kimchi, sauerkraut, tempeh, and miso can boost the amount of good bacteria, or probiotics, in your gut. However, SIBO is one gut-related condition in which fermented foods are not helpful or advised.
- Complex carbohydrates. The fiber in gluten-free grains like brown rice, amaranth, teff, and buckwheat contribute to good gut health by keeping you regular and clearing out toxins..
- Fruits and vegetables. Produce like bananas, broccoli, grapes, citrus, cabbage, leafy greens, and carrots are rich sources of soluble fiber, which is a prebiotic compound, meaning it feeds good bacteria. Read more about the importance of fiber in our interview with Dr. Will Bulsiewicz.
- Cultured dairy or non-dairy. Yogurt or kefir (either from animals or plants like cashews or coconuts) with active probiotic cultures encourage a good balance of bacteria in your microbiome.
- Healthy fats. The short-chain fatty acid butyric acid helps feed and heal enterocytes, encouraging a strong gut lining. Healthy fats like ghee, coconut oil, avocado oil, and olive oil are good sources of butyric acid.
- Collagen. Collagen, which you can find in powdered form as well as bone broth, contains amino acids that are beneficial to strengthening and sealing the intestinal tract and the stomach.
As well as eating the gut-healing foods above, it’s important to avoid foods that can be damaging to your gut health. That means reducing your consumption of sugar, refined carbohydrates, processed foods, gluten, alcohol, and refined oils.
The WellBe Takeaway on Healing Leaky Gut
Leaky gut can be a confusing topic, and there are a lot of misconceptions about it. Here’s what to remember about the condition and what to do if you think you might be struggling with it:
- Your gut lining acts like a security guard, protecting your bloodstream and organs from things — food, drink, medicine, bacteria — that enter your digestive system through your mouth and nose. In a healthy gut, the cells in your intestinal lining form a secure barrier and only allow fully digested nutrients that your body can handle to pass through. When your gut lining becomes compromised, the gaps between cells loosen, allowing undigested proteins to pass into your bloodstream — in other words, your gut “leaks,” hence the term leaky gut. This triggers a cascade of inflammation that can lead to various other health issues.
- Symptoms of leaky gut include digestive issues, fatigue, joint pain, skin problems, and headaches.
- Leaky gut is associated with a number of other chronic conditions. There’s some debate about whether leaky gut is a cause or symptom of these conditions, but research suggests that it’s probably the former. Those conditions include Crohn’s disease, celiac disease, type 1 diabetes, and chronic fatigue syndrome.
- Various lifestyle factors can cause leaky gut, including excess consumption of sugar or alcohol, stress, a sedentary lifestyle, long-term use of NSAIDs, nutritional deficiencies, and eating foods to which you have a sensitivity.
- The way you heal leaky gut will depend on the underlying cause, but generally, taking steps to improve your gut health can help repair your gut lining. This means doing things like reducing stress, avoiding NSAIDs and antibiotics, getting regular exercise, taking probiotics and anti-inflammatory supplements, and identifying food sensitivities and nutritional deficiencies.
- The most important thing you can do to heal leaky gut is to eat a gut healing diet. That means plenty of fruits and vegetables, gluten-free whole grains, fermented foods like kimchi and sauerkraut, kombucha, collagen, cultured dairy, and healthy fats. It also means avoiding inflammatory refined oils, processed foods, sugar, gluten, dairy, alcohol, and artificial sweeteners.
Have you ever struggled with leaky gut? What did you do to reverse it? Share your story in the comments below!
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