Gut health is foundational to our immunity, vitality and mental agility. Previously, gut health was mostly associated with having digestive concerns such as gas, bloating, constipation, or irritable bowel syndrome. Today, we know that the community of bacteria living in our gut, referred to as the microbiome, outnumbers our own cells! These bacteria can harm or help almost every system in our body. We also know that many of the health issues people struggle with, from low energy to autoimmune disease, directly correlate to the strength and security of our gut walls.
Have you heard of leaky gut syndrome? With social media, the odds are pretty high that you have. However, it’s difficult to measure the integrity of the lining of the gut walls to determine if you’re suffering from a leaky gut. In fact, most medical practices don’t even recognize it as an actual disorder, making it only treatable through functional medicine and nutritionists. However, growing research is proving that this is a real and prevalent health issue.
Let’s dive into what leaky gut syndrome is, steps to heal it, and more!
WHAT IS LEAKY GUT SYNDROME?
Your digestive tract extends from the top to the bottom of your body, and is comprised of the mouth, esophagus, stomach, gallbladder, small intestine, large intestine (colon), liver, pancreas, rectum, and anus. Each has an important role as food, water, and substances from the environment make their way through the body. Those nutrients are delivered to other organs for energy, growth, and healing. The rest is to be discarded in a bowel movement.
Specifically, for this condition, I’m going to focus on the intestines. If you were to unravel your small and large intestines, they would measure to be 15 feet long (or more) with 4,000 square feet of intestinal lining. Creating this extensive digestive pathway are millions of cells bound together forming a tight lining called the intestinal barrier. It is designed to prevent partially digested food, toxins, and bugs from escaping and getting absorbed into the bloodstream. This barrier is not impenetrable, as it allows water and essential nutrients to pass through so that your blood cells can transport them to your organs. However, when those cell junctions are too loosened, or become hyperpermeable, harmful substances can pass through and trigger an immune response that cascades into disruptive symptoms and larger health complications.
SYMPTOMS OF A LEAKY GUT
If it seems difficult to determine whether or not you have a leaky gut and what may have caused it, here is a breakdown of the more common symptoms.
- Digestive issues, gas, bloating, diarrhea, or irritable bowel syndrome (IBS)
- Food allergies or food sensitivities
- Brain fog, difficulty concentrating
- Depression, anxiety
- Skin issues such as acne, rosacea, or eczema
- Asthma or seasonal allergies
- Hormonal imbalances, irregular periods, PMS, or PCOS
- Autoimmune disease – Rheumatoid arthritis, Hashimoto’s thyroiditis, lupus, psoriasis, or celiac disease
- Chronic fatigue or fibromyalgia
WHAT CAUSES LEAKY GUT SYNDROME?
The precise cause has yet to be identified, but there are several triggers that seem to lead to this loosening of the gut lining. Inflammation appears to be a primary factor, but inflammation that weakens the gut lining can be caused by many things. For example, the wall can be weakened by poor diet, dysbiosis of the microbiome, alcohol, prescription drugs, stress, chemicals, heavy metals, toxins, or a combination of this list. This leak of chemicals into your body causes inflammation, most frequently in the joints, until the lining is repaired.
Here is a more in-depth analysis:
- Pregnancy– The hormonal changes and expansion of the body can lead to digestive issues that weaken the integrity of the gut lining. The wide-ranging weight gain differences during pregnancy are linked to different microbiota and microbiome changes. It was also found that women who get diagnosed with gestational diabetes are more likely to suffer from leaky gut syndrome.
- Menopause– The relational effects of menopause and gut health are bi-directional. Alterations or imbalances in your gut microbiome can exacerbate symptoms of menopause by affecting your hormones, and a decline in estrogen levels can alter the balance of bacteria in the gut and disrupt the gut microbiome. This can lead to inflammation and often, an increase in gut permeability.
- Animal Protein– There is some evidence to suggest that consuming large amounts of animal-based protein, especially from processed or high-fat sources, may increase the risk of developing leaky gut syndrome. A 2022 study by the American Heart Association linked heart disease to the chemicals produced by microbiota in the gut after eating red meat. However, it’s worth noting that not all animal-based proteins are the same. Some research suggests that consuming lean poultry or fish may actually improve gut health by reducing inflammation and promoting the growth of beneficial gut bacteria.
- Low HCL & Enzymes– If your stomach acid levels (HCL) are too low when breaking down proteins and other nutrients in your stomach, food may not be properly digested, which can lead to undigested particles entering the small intestine, inflammation, and intestinal permeability. Without sufficient levels of digestive enzymes, the body may have difficulty breaking down certain foods, leading to incomplete digestion and malabsorption. This can contribute to the development of leaky gut syndrome via irritation and inflammation of the gut lining. Lastly, if you are lacking the enzymes to break down proteins, for example gluten or casein, they can trigger an immune response in the gut, causing inflammation and further damage to the intestinal lining. My supplement, Digest Ease, contains carefully selected digestive enzymes to support better digestion of dairy, gluten, sugars, and meat. This product can support you in healing your gut by increasing or reinstating your reserves of digestive enzymes.
- Infections & Antibodies– Having an infection and elevated levels of antibodies can contribute to increased intestinal permeability from resulting inflammation in the gut. In some cases, antibodies can mistakenly target the body’s own tissues, leading to autoimmune disorders.
- Blood Sugar Imbalances– Insulin resistance or diabetes will likely lead to chronic low-grade inflammation throughout the body, including in the gut. High blood sugar levels are also linked to an overgrowth of harmful bacteria and yeast that thrive on glucose in the gut.
- Food Allergies– When someone suffering from food allergies or sensitivities experiences a reaction, their immune system has triggered a process called mast cell activation. You can learn more about an overactive immune system in my blog on autoimmune disease, or try my immune system rebalance program option in the Serena Loves App.
- Drugs– Non-Steroidal Anti-Inflammatory Drugs, like Ibuprofen or Aspirin, wear away the lining of your intestines, reduce the good bacteria in your gut and change gut motility. A lack of healthy bacteria in your gut from antibiotics, can create dysbiosis, or unbalanced flora leaning towards more bad bacteria.
- Toxins- The main toxins impacting gut health are the chemicals found on food, called pesticides, as well as the antibacterials in our household products. Heavy metals and BPAs can also disrupt a healthy gut flora. Antibacterials, which are designed to kill bacteria, can wipe out your good bacteria as well.
- Stress– Stress weakens the immune system through a lack of sleep, inflammation, and high levels of cortisol in the body. Stress also slows down the digestive process, which can be confusing to your body as it releases digestive juices.
HEALTH ISSUES ASSOCIATED WITH A LEAKY GUT
Studies have shown that maintaining a “healthy gut” can help facilitate proper immune function, support mental health, improve anxiety and keep chronic disease at bay. On the other hand, leaky gut has been linked to the following health issues:
- Multiple sclerosis, Fibromyalgia
- Thyroid abnormalities via the thyroid-gut axis
- Autoimmune reactions and diseases
- Inflammatory bowel disease (including IBS and ulcerative colitis)
- Learning disabilities, like Autism
- Food allergies or sensitivities
- Skin disorders, like eczema and psoriasis
- Arthritis and other body aches or pains
- A higher chance for developing diabetes
- Changes in mood, weight and appetite
4 WAYS TO HEAL A LEAKY GUT
Healing a leaky gut requires trying a few different strategies. It is difficult to measure exactly how weak the barrier of your lining is, but decreasing the severity and even the presence of symptoms is a sign of healing and strengthening. While genetics and environment play a role in gut health, the good news is that much of the work to regain balance can be done through diet and lifestyle changes. Here are some steps to try:
Choose the right nutrients
My supplement, Love My Gut, is designed with specific ingredients, such as zinc and N-Acetyl-D-Glucosamine, to help heal a leaky gut. I also believe that probiotics, microorganisms that you can get from fermented foods or from supplements, and prebiotics, a type of fiber that feeds probiotics, are crucial tools in supporting gut health. Speak with your health care provider about choosing the right one for you.
Eat a diverse diet
Try to consume a vast array of vegetables, fruits, whole grains and fiber, and reduce consumption of foods that cause inflammation, like fried foods, packaged foods and alcohol. To heal leaky gut, choose foods that are rich in polyphenols, bioflavonoids, and fiber. This will help increase the good bacteria in your gut that make short-chain fatty acids and heal the gut lining.
Increasing levels of L-glutamine can help fight leaky gut. In 2015, a study showed that it is important for mucosal integrity. This amino acid helps regenerate epithelial cells that make up your gut lining. It can be found in whole grains, broccoli, cabbage, carrots, and beets.
Be mindful about lifestyle
Sleep, exercise, hydration and stress levels also play a role in gut health. A few simple lifestyle changes can improve your gut health almost immediately. Aim to get at least 7-8 hours of sleep each night, move your body in some way every day, drink at least 68 oz of water per day and practice meditation or similar relaxation techniques regularly to manage tension and anxiety.
Fasting is a physiological mechanism developed over millions of years of evolution. It promotes autophagy, the cellular process that repairs and regenerates body tissues, by creating an environment in the gut free of triggering food particles and reducing microorganism populations. Activation of autophagy is essential in healing leaky gut, as it repairs and regenerates the degraded and dysfunctional barriers of the digestive system.
Healing the gut is an amazing example of how the systems in the human body are interconnected, reinforcing how important it is to approach your health from a holistic perspective. Learn more about the specific protocol and nutrient recommendations I have for healing a leaky gut in my program, Healing the Gut-Brain Axis in the Serena Loves App.