What is Leaky Gut?
If you’ve heard the term leaky gut thrown around before from co-workers, family members, or just somebody in passing on your way to the grocery store, you know that it is becoming increasingly common among the current population. This is in part, because it is a condition practitioners understand better, and in part, because there is a growing awareness and education present on the importance of good gut health and the role the gut plays in our overall wellness.
Often recognized more by alternative medical practitioners and therapists, leaky gut is the idea that the walls of the intestine become permeable. Permeability of the intestine allows small food particles, digestive matter, and waste to leak through the walls. Once it does so, these particles enter into the bloodstream and are believed to be the root cause of issues such as many allergies, fibromyalgia, autoimmune disorders, chronic fatigue syndrome, migraines and skin conditions, among several others.
Although there have been very few scientific studies performed to support the belief that a leaky gut can cause the conditions above, it is well known that there are several substances that can cause increased gut permeability. These include things such as alcohol and drugs especially painkillers, such as aspirin and ibuprofen, regular use of antacids and reliance on laxatives.
Other conditions and treatments are also associated with a leaky gut, such as chemotherapy, celiac disease, irritable bowel syndrome and Crohn’s disease. Although there continues to be division in the medical and holistic communities towards the validity of the leaky gut beliefs, it is well accepted that good gut health is extremely important especially when it comes to preventing leaky gut.
How do you develop leaky gut and how can you prevent it?
While leaky gut often starts with any of the conditions or habits detailed above, it may also begin with simply poor gut health and poor digestion practices. The gut biome within our digestive system is made up of a careful balance of “bad” and “good” bacteria. It is where each one has their role and is required, but too much of either (especially the bad bacteria), can cause a host of issues such as candida, small intestinal bacterial overgrowth and poor nutrient absorption leading to deficiencies.
It is important to maintain a balanced gut flora, by consuming regular gut-friendly foods, such as fermented foods and probiotic-rich foods. Limiting the consumption of products which tend to feed the bad bacteria is an important habit to do. Foods to avoid are processed foods and high sugar foods. By doing so, it will help promote healthy gut and healthy gut lining. Thereby, the risk of developing leaky gut and it’s associated syndromes is decreased.
How do I know if I have leaky gut?
Because leaky gut is a rather new phenomenon, and is not always recognized in mainstream medicine, you may have visited your doctor with several inexplicable symptoms, and walked away with no real answers. If you have been on antibiotics for an extended period of time due to another illness, you have other issues such as IBS, celiac, autoimmune disorders or Crohn’s, most likely, you have a leaky gut.
For some people, it presents with minimal symptoms, while for others, it includes things such as:
Other issues such as anxiety, depression, brain fog and difficulty concentrating.
It can be hard to differentiate these symptoms from those of other conditions you already experience. Even so, you may find that these symptoms worsen when you eat a meal, or in the 2-3 hour window about 30 minutes after eating, while your body is digesting. You may also notice that the symptoms seem to worsen with certain foods.
If you do not have any pre-diagnosed conditions, as listed above, but regularly experience the symptoms of nausea, constipation or diarrhoea, bloating and overall poor digestion, leaky gut may be to blame.
In addition, leaky gut can cause other issues that are seemingly unrelated to the gut. A new research has shown the profound role that the gut plays in both our mental health and brain function, in the emerging studies on the microbiome – gut – brain – axis. In some of these studies, researchers are looking at the causation vs. consequence debate, where they are seeking to understand whether things such as brain fog, depression, anxiety, and the incidence of autism in children, can be tied to unhealthy gut biome as being a causal factor.
That said, while the research is still being completed, persistent issues of brain fog, trouble concentrating, unexplained mood swings with bouts of depression, or irregular behavior in children, can be impacted by the health of the gut, whether leaky gut is to blame or not. And even more than that, gut health is dramatically impacted by dietary choices, as detailed below.
What to do to help reduce my leaky gut issues if I already have the condition?
Reduce processed food consumption and eliminate refined carbohydrates and sugar
If you have already been affected by leaky gut, or suspect you have leaky gut, one of the best things you can do is make dietary changes. The biggest thing that impacts our intestines and the intestinal lining is the food that we eat. Processed foods, refined carbohydrates (think white bread, white pasta, pastries, and cakes), as well as any food high in sugar (both natural and refined) are all hard on the gut because they typically contain a lot of sugar which upsets the gut biome balance. The bad bacteria in our gut feed on these sugars and when we give them access to lots of sugar, they eat lots, grow more, reproduce faster and soon enough, throw the gut biome out of balance. Opting for whole grain foods, reducing the consumption of processed foods and eliminating refined sugar are all important steps in helping to keep your leaky gut symptoms at bay.
Consume mucilaginous foods
Another component of helping to reduce issues within the gut is to consume mucilaginous foods. These are foods that support the mucous lining of the intestine and thereby encourage the movement of food through the digestive system. These include things such as slippery elm, chia seeds, flax seeds, okra, and oatmeal. Adding these to your diet can help ensure you have healthy mucus production, which discourages leaking and permeability of particles through the intestinal wall. These foods can also be soothing to the stomach, during symptomatic flare-ups, as they do not tend to cause any irritation while they are being moved through the intestine. Consuming aloe vera is another good option for soothing an irritated gut, as well as licorice or marshmallow root tea.
Eat lots of fermented foods and beverages
Finally, as mentioned above, eat lots of gut-friendly foods! These include fermented vegetables like sauerkraut and kimchi, fermented beverages like kefir and kombucha as well as probiotic-rich foods like natural coconut yogurt. Prebiotics, found in whole grains, tiger nuts, and black-eyed peas are also beneficial, as they act as food for the healthy bacteria.
How can I get rid of leaky gut?
The intestinal lining is a very delicate organ and it can take a long time to repair it back to its normal state once it has become permeable. The intestine is lined with tightly bound cells, with small gates between them, which usually are very rigidly controlled in terms of opening and closing. These gates selectively open to allow the passing of food and nutrients. In the leaky gut, these gates are not as securely closed and additional food and particles can leak through, or they can remain open when they are not supposed to. Eliminating leaky gut requires us to reduce the permeability of said gates and help re-establish their rigidity in opening and closing.
Part of this is developing a healthy gut biome as detailed above, but part is also understanding the triggers which cause increased permeability of these cells. Many of these are food related, as already explained, but there are several other factors that play a role. One of these is stress. This can be physical or emotional stress, such as excessive exercise or a difficult workplace respectively, and is especially relevant if it is ongoing or has been present for a long period of time.
Stress elicits the stress response in the body, part of which impedes digestion and causes the release of several hormones. If we are constantly stressed, and slowing down our digestion, the food sits in the gut for longer, giving it more access to the compromised intestinal lining. The end result is more opportunity for particles to leak through, and the consequences and symptoms that follow. Reducing your stress and ensuring you allow for proper digestion. Sit down to eat, chew your food, eat slowly and mindfully. These steps can all be beneficial in reducing your symptoms of leaky gut.
Overall, a healthy whole foods diet, rich in gut-friendly foods and low in sugar will go a long way in promoting good gut health and reducing issues with leaky gut as well as enocuraging improved overall health and wellbeing.