In recent years, the link between a healthy gut and overall wellness has become much more widely understood and appreciated, though there is still lots more we need to learn. As such, a proposed condition known as leaky gut syndrome (aka, increased intestinal permeability) is receiving more attention as it’s started to become associated with a number of conditions, including autoimmune disease and mood disorders. With such big implications, recognizing and treating leaky gut may lead to new ways of treating and preventing disease.
So, what exactly is leaky gut syndrome? Think of the gut lining inside your small intestine like the barrier of a fortress. When it’s working as it should, its tiny openings allow passage of important nutrients while keeping the bad stuff (bacteria, toxins, partially digested food particles, etc.) out. When a person has leaky gut syndrome, those tiny openings turn into bigger holes or cracks that allow that bad stuff into the bloodstream where it has the potential to cause digestive problems as well as spread disease-causing inflammation throughout the body.
WHAT CAUSES LEAKY GUT?
While the exact cause of leaky gut isn’t yet well understood, there are several theories about what may be behind it, including genetic predisposition and a diet low in fiber and high in sugar and processed food. NSAID and alcohol overuse, high stress, lack of sleep, and even food poisoning are also likely contributing factors. Over time, these problems can create a self-perpetuating cycle wherein chronic irritation triggers inflammation, leading to a further weakened gut lining and overreactive immune response. The bottom line? Poor gut health leads to leaky gut syndrome, and leaky gut syndrome ensures your gut health never improves.
And, just as the exact cause of leaky gut isn’t well understood, there is similar uncertainty as to whether certain conditions lead to leaky gut or vice versa. There are known links between increased intestinal permeability and digestive problems such as celiac disease, Crohn’s, and irritable bowel syndrome, but more research is needed to better understand how it effects the body as a whole. It may cause or contribute to chronic diarrhea, constipation, bloating, and cramping. Certain conditions may increase the risk of developing leaky gut and/or may possibly be caused by leaky gut, including:
· Autoimmune diseases like lupus, type 1 diabetes, multiple sclerosis, and rheumatoid arthritis. Their ability to disrupt healthy gut microbiota can contribute to increased intestinal permeability, causing the body’s immune response to kick into overdrive.
· Skin and complexion issues such as acne, eczema, and rosacea due to the added stress on your liver to process toxins. (You can read more about how gut health impacts your skin here.)
· Mood disorders and cognitive problems, including depression, anxiety, brain fog, and difficulty concentrating, are all linked to the health of the gut/brain axis.
· Chronic fatigue, fibromyalgia, and/or joint pain. Increased inflammation can affect the quality of your sleep, swell your joints, and light up your nervous system, leading to an increase in pain signaling.
· Hormone imbalances in women, such as polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS) and endometriosis, as healthy gut microbiota help regulate estrogen.
LEAKY GUT IS REVERSIBLE
While leaky gut syndrome may feel intimidating to treat, it is reversible if you’re willing to commit to dietary and lifestyle changes. Start by working with a nutritionist to create a guided elimination diet to help you determine your food sensitivities and intolerances (which contribute to gut irritation and inflammation) and rebuilding your diet with gut health-boosting foods that actively restore healthy gut microbiota and heal the gut lining (more on that below).
In addition to a gut-healthy diet, your next biggest weapons in the battle against leaky gut are quality sleep and effective stress management. Getting proper rest allows your body to make necessary repairs to itself, regulate hormones, and control a healthy immune response, among other things. Stress management tools, including regular exercise, will also calm your body’s inflammatory response as well as make it easier to sleep and eat well.
THE BEST AND WORST FOODS FOR LEAKY GUT
A diet rich in whole foods, including lots of fresh veggies and fruit, is key to achieving overall wellness and healing a leaky gut. In addition to produce, you’ll want to incorporate foods such as:
· Fermented/cultured foods like kimchi, sauerkraut, miso, tempeh, kefir, plain yogurt, and low-sugar kombucha
· Raw nuts, nut milks, and sprouted seeds like chia, flax, and sunflower seeds
· Gluten-free grains like rice, buckwheat, amaranth, and gluten-free oats (especially if you are sensitive)
· Omega-3 rich fish like salmon, tuna, mackerel, and sardines
· Lean meat, poultry, and eggs
Gut-irritating foods, drinks, and additives must also be eliminated. They include:
· Wheat-containing foods like bread, pasta, crackers, pretzels, cereal, and grains
· Alcohol, soda, and sugary fruit juice
· Dairy, like milk, cheese, and ice cream, if you are sensitive to lactose
· Processed meats like cold cuts, hot dogs, and sausage
· Junk food like candy, cookies, chips, etc.
· Refined oils like canola, sunflower, soybean, and safflower
· Artificial sweeteners like aspartame, sucralose, and saccharin
Leaky gut can be daunting to treat on your own, as it requires calming inflammation, resetting the immune response, and rebuilding a healthy gut microbiome through targeted nutrition and lifestyle changes. If you suspect that you’re suffering from leaky gut and are ready to heal, contact me. I’m here to help!