How to Heal Leaky Gut Syndrome
Would you be surprised to know that joint pain, skin problems, sugar cravings, food allergies, food sensitivities, constipation, and even autoimmune conditions all could stem from the same root cause?
It’s true. All of the above conditions have been linked to compromised gut health. More specifically, a condition called leaky gut syndrome.
Hippocrates, the ancient Greek physician and “father of medicine,” said that, “all health and disease begins in the gut.” While it’s hard to say if leaky gut was an issue back in 400 BC, today leading health experts suggest this digestive condition affects more than 80 percent of the population (although the hard facts on this are still emerging).
What is Leaky Gut Syndrome?
In short, leaky gut means that your intestinal lining has holes (you can literally think of these holes as leaks) that allow undigested food particles, bacteria, and other substances to enter your bloodstream where they don’t belong. This is a huge danger to your overall health for many reasons, which we’ll get into further down.
First, imagine that your gut is a house and your gut lining is a security guard that works day and night to prevent unwanted guests from entering. Under normal circumstances, your gut has this exact “security system” in place in the form of tight junctions that are found in your gut lining. These tight junctions prevent any unwanted substances, such as bacteria, toxins, and undigested food particles, from leaving your GI tract and entering your bloodstream (where only small amounts of nutrients are meant to pass through).
In the case of leaky gut, it’s as if the security guard fell asleep and left your front door wide open for anything and anyone to pass through. You see, when the tight junctions in your gut lining break down (which can be caused by a number of factors that we’ll get into), it forces them to break apart and cause your gut lining to become permeable — a fancy way for saying that outside substances can now pass through. This is why leaky gut syndrome is sometimes referred to as “intestinal permeability” (1).
The Hidden Danger of Leaky Gut
When random particles enter your bloodstream, your body will set off “alarm bells” to tell your immune system that foreign invaders have entered your bloodstream — much like how a security guard would call 911 if someone was trying to break into your house.
When the “sirens” go off, your immune system reacts aggressively by attacking these particles. This is called an immune response (2). And while your immune response is meant to protect you, each time it’s triggered it causes systemic inflammation (3).
Chronic inflammation is one of the primary dangers of having leaky gut syndrome. Not only does systemic inflammation prevent your body from being able to heal and repair itself naturally, but it’s also a silent and deadly contributor to the onset of most chronic illnesses and diseases, such as cardiovascular disease, diabetes, osteoarthritis, and inflammatory bowel diseases (4)(5). Leaky gut also has been linked to autism, MS, fibromyalgia, obesity, and cancer (6)(7)(8).
Now, if you’re like most people who have leaky gut, chances are you may not even know you have it.
While leaky gut is now being linked as one of the root causes for many chronic illnesses, you can still have leaky gut without experiencing any obvious health symptoms. However, this “silent but deadly” digestive condition works slowly. Without obvious symptoms of leaky gut, it may be difficult to see how compromised gut health could be affecting your body and mind right now. It’s also important to know that if left untreated, leaky gut could be setting you up for serious health complications down the road.
What are the Symptoms of Leaky Gut Syndrome?
Studies show there’s a direct link between the gut and the skin (called the gut-skin axis), the gut and the brain (called the gut-brain axis), and that almost 80 percent of your immune system cells are found in your gut (9). Based on this information, there’s a long list of symptoms that can occur when your gut health isn’t up to snuff.
Do you have these symptoms of leaky gut?
- Skin conditions such as acne, eczema, psoriasis
- New allergies, food sensitivities, and food intolerances
- Digestive symptoms, including bloating, constipation, diarrhea, or bowel irregularity (which are often diagnosed as “irritable bowelsyndrome” or IBS)
- Candida overgrowth
- Irritable Bowel Diseases, such as Celiac Disease, Crohn’s disease and ulcertaive colitis
- Autoimmune disease, including Hashimoto’s and rheumatoid arthritis
- Depression and anxiety
- Hormonal imbalances, including PMS and estrogen dominance
- Nutrient deficiencies
- Brain fog
- Chronic fatigue syndrome
- Difficult weight loss (despite eating healthy)
- Unexplained weight gain or weight loss
Since leaky gut is a “newly” accepted condition (it was previously thought to be a myth and dismissed by healthcare practitioners), research is still emerging on the impact of leaky gut on our health. That means there could still be links to other medical conditions we have yet to learn about.
If you have any of these health symptoms, you may have had an “aha!” moment as you’ve been reading up on leaky gut. So, what now? Let’s take a look at what causes leaky gut in the first place and what you can do instead to begin healing your gut right now.
Common Causes of Leaky Gut (And Possible Solutions)
1. Pro-Inflammatory Foods
In today’s fast-paced society, drive-thrus and sugary foods from packages loaded with trans-fats have almost become their own food group (terrifying, we know!). Unfortunately, these pro-inflammatory foods are the most damaging to gut health, and these are the foods the vast majority of the American population consume on a regular basis. No wonder we’re so sick!
Foods that cause inflammation actually damage the cells in the epithelial tissue, which is your gut tissue (10). This damage to your gut tissue can cause holes in the gut lining and cause the tight junctions in your small intestine to break down, which is how leaky gut happens (11).
Foods that cause inflammation in your GI tract include:
- Non organic dairy products
- Legumes and lentils
- Highly processed vegetable oils (sunflower, safflower, canola)
- Refined sugar and carbohydrates
- Additives and preservatives found in processed foods
- Non-organic animal products
*Important note: while these foods are pro-inflammatory by nature, if you have any underlying food intolerances or sensitivities (as is often the case with leaky gut), those foods are going to cause inflammation in your gut, too — even if they’re natural anti-inflammatories.
For example, the nutrients in strawberries help reduce inflammation in your body, which make them an anti-inflammatory food. But if you’re sensitive or intolerant to strawberries, this is going to cause an immune response in your body. Therefore, having them in your diet will cause inflammation in your GI tract either way.
For this reason, it’s important to consider— and even test for— any food intolerances and sensitivities you may have (which are different than full-blown allergies), so you know which foods to remove from your diet to reduce inflammation and support the gut-healing process. The good news is, once you begin to heal your gut, the food sensitivities and intolerances you have now, often go away.
The good news about certain foods being the culprit in leaky gut syndrome is that you have control over your diet. You can start reducing gut inflammation right away by replacing pro-inflammatory foods with healthier alternatives. For example, you can replace dairy milk with nut milk made from hemp, coconut, or almonds, and use organic coconut oil, tallow, or ghee to cook with instead of canola oil or margarine.
Getting tested for food intolerances and sensitivities (with an IgG or IgA test, which can be administered by a natural healthcare practitioner), and/or doing an elimination diet under the care of a qualified healthcare practitioner can also help reduce inflammation in your GI tract.
2. Chronic Stress
While your diet can play a crucial role in causing inflammation, food isn’t the only cause. High stress levels can also cause chronic inflammation by weakening your immune system (12). When your immune system is functioning at under 100 percent, it has less of a defense against foreign bacteria, viruses, and other pathogens. Therefore, these “bad guys” have more of an opportunity to inhabit your body and contribute to inflammation, which causes leaky gut.
In fact, stress and leaky gut are like double-edged swords. Feelings of stress and stressful emotions can cause leaky gut by weakening your immune system, while leaky gut can cause depression and anxiety. Isn’t it crazy how interconnected everything in the body really is?
Reducing your stress level is easier said than done — especially in the chaos of the average busy lifestyle, where stressors come at us from all different directions (rush hour traffic, angry bosses, lack of sleep due to stressing over your taxes, anyone?). But it’s important to know that excess stress is like poison to your body. Incorporating any form of stress relief into your lifestyle is an absolute must for not only healing leaky gut, but preventing future health problems.
Here are some of our favorite techniques to cope with and reduce the negative effects of stress:
- Go to bed an hour earlier each night (bonus: every hour of sleep you get before 11 p.m. is said to be worth 2 hours).
- Have a phone curfew, and turn off your phone at a specific hour every night. If you can’t do this, try to spend time away from other sources of technology, such as iPads, tablets, and the TV. The artificial blue light from screens is linked to disturbances in your natural sleep and wake cycles (13).
- Spend time outdoors (even if it’s just a 20-minute walk during your lunch break) to absorb vitamin D from the sun. Vitamin D is known as the “sunshine vitamin” because it promotes a happier mood, and it also plays an important role in reducing gut inflammation (14).
- Yoga, meditation, and exercise can help ground you on a stressful day and tell your body to release endorphins, your body’s natural anti-depressants.
- Who you surround yourself with can also make a difference in your stress levels. Choose wisely who you spend your time with, and hang out with positive and inspiring people who uplift you.
3. A Lack of Healthy Gut Bacteria
Those cartoon-looking bacteria (also known as probiotics) that you see dancing around in yogurt commercials are incredibly important when it comes to healing and preventing leaky gut. Not only are probiotics essential for keeping bad bacteria out of your digestive tract, but they’re also shown to strengthen the gut lining, which helps prevent leaky gut (15). A lack of good bacteria in your gut is called gut dysbiosis, and can also lead to candida.
There are many different factors that can deplete your body’s natural stores of good bacteria. Antibiotic use, chronic stress, consuming refined carbs and sugar, and food borne illnesses, such as salmonella and E. coli.You can even be born with a lack of healthy bacteria, depending on the state of your mother’s digestive system, or if you were born via C-section (15)(16).
You can help rebalance the good gut bacteria in your system by regularly eating fermented foods, which naturally contain probiotics. Here’s a few to try:
- Unsweetened coconut yogurt
- Apple cider vinegar (raw, unpasteurized, and with “the mother”)
- Beet Kvass
- Organic unsweetened kefir
- Organic unsweetened yogurt
You also can take a probiotic supplement that will contain several different strains of beneficial bacteria. These can be found in the refrigerated section of your local health food store.
4. An Overload of Toxins in Your System
If you live on earth, you’re going to be exposed to toxins every single day. It’s inevitable. While we can reduce our exposure to toxins by using chemical-free beauty and cleaning products and eating organic whenever possible, there’s no way to completely avoid environmental pollution or the heavy metals lingering in our water, air, and food supply. And when these toxins enter your body, they can damage your gut.
You see, your body has a natural defense against said toxins, which is the liver. Your liver works day in and day out to safely eliminate toxins that can damage your health. However, when you’re constantly exposed to toxins, your liver ends up with more work than it can handle (after all, it’s responsible for dozens other jobs, not counting detoxification!)(17).
When your liver slows down, it also slows down the rest of your digestive system. This allows toxins to linger in your gut for a longer period of time than they should. As these toxins accumulate, they can cause inflammation, damage your gut lining, and lead to leaky gut (18).
While you can’t control the toxins around you, there are steps you can take to reduce your exposure to toxins, such as:
- Drinking plenty of clean, filtered water.
- Choosing organic produce when possible, especially when it comes to the “Dirty Dozen” list of the highest sprayed crops.
- Avoid smoking and alcohol.
- Using glass or aluminum bottles and storage containers instead of plastic, which contain endocrine-disrupting chemicals, such as BPA (19).
- Switching to natural cosmetics, body care products, and household cleaning products (you can even make your own for a fraction of the cost).
- Making it a priority to sweat at least 5 days per week. Sweating through exercise helps your body eliminate toxins naturally.
Other Important Steps for Healing Leaky Gut
The best way to heal any kind of health condition is to go to the source. In other words, you have to reverse what caused the problem in the first place. Now that you understand what causes leaky gut and the changes you can make in your lifestyle to support your overall gut health, there are ways to fast track the leaky gut healing process through diet and supplements.
1. Leaky Gut Supplements
Certain supplements can help strengthen the gut lining, such as l-glutamine. L-glutamine is an amino acid that occurs naturally in your body and is synthesized in your muscles (20). While it contributes to your health in numerous ways, it’s shown to play a crucial role in healing the GI tract (21).
Other supplements, such as betaine HCL and quercetin, also can manage symptoms of leaky gut — especially if you suffer from bloating, bowel irregularity, and other painful digestive issues. Here’s a list of the top leaky gut supplements to try.
2. Leaky Gut Diet Plan
Food is medicine, especially when it comes to leaky gut. To help you get on track with a gut-healing diet, we’ve created a complete Leaky Gut Diet Plan that you can download for free as well as a quick rundown of the best foods to eat to heal leaky gut.
Can You Test for Leaky Gut?
Yes, it’s possible to test for leaky gut syndrome, but it’s tough to say how accurate the current testing methods are.
At present time, the zonulin test is said to be one of the most effective ways to test for leaky gut. Zonulin is a type of protein that regulates the opening and closing of the tight junctions in your small intestine (remember these tight junctions as your gut’s “security system”?). Under normal circumstances, we require small openings in our gut lining for nutrient transport, which is why it’s helpful when small amounts of zonulin are being produced.
However, when your body produces too much zonulin, the tight junctions open more than they need to, which, as you now understand, is exactly what causes leaky gut (22). A zonulin test can help detect if your zonulin levels are higher than normal, but you can still have leaky gut regardless of what the test results say.
Zonulin testing can be done by using an enzyme-linked immunosorbent assay test (ELISA) performed by a professional healthcare worker. More information on ELISA tests can be found here.
An increase in food sensitivities or intolerances on an IgG or IgA test also is an indicator of leaky gut, as allergies and sensitivities can develop from increased intestinal permeability.
When it comes to leaky gut, let your body be the guide. Even if you don’t have noticeable symptoms of leaky gut, you’ll only be doing yourself a favor by following a gut-supportive diet (and lifestyle).
As you can see, the state of your gut health makes all of the difference in how you feel on a daily basis. By taking even the smallest steps to heal leaky gut (even incorporating just one tip at a time can make a difference), you’ll be amazed at how quickly you can begin to experience better health. Who couldn’t use a little more energy, healthier looking skin, fewer sick days, and deeper, more restful sleep?