What is Leaky Gut?
Leaky gut is a colloquial term for increased intestinal permeability. Increased intestinal permeability simply means that the tight junctions in our intestines open up just enough to let undigested food particles (and other toxins or antigens) into the bloodstream. This is a tricky balance to maintain; we need these junctions to open up just enough to let nutrients in, but not enough to let in larger particles. You can think of a healthy gut barrier like regular tights and a leaky gut like fishnet tights. When larger particles, toxins, or pathogens are able to get through that barrier, this is where the trouble begins. Our immune system kicks in to fight off these invaders that shouldn’t be there, creating inflammation to ward off these “invaders”. This is exactly what it’s supposed to do, but when these “invaders” are getting through constantly, it causes a state of chronic inflammation.
This inflammation can manifest as many symptoms, and commonly they’re outside of the gut.
Below are some of the common complaints clients in my practice have that often lead back to leaky gut:
- Skin problems – acne, eczema, dermatitis
- Headaches + migraines
- Bloating + digestive discomfort
- Achy joints
- Brain fog
- Low energy
- Depression and anxiety
- Autoimmune and other chronic disease
What Causes Leaky Gut?
Here are 6 common root causes of leaky gut:
1. Food Sensitivities
We are all unique, and we respond to foods differently. For some of us, these food sensitivities play an important role in leaky gut. Dairy, gluten, and soy are some of the top offenders. I suggest doing an elimination diet or working with a practitioner to take a food sensitivity test (warning: they’re not all created equal!) to determine which foods you are sensitive to.
2. Processed Foods
When we eat a low fiber, high refined sugar diet, we are feeding the “bad” bacteria in our guts and starving the “good” bacteria. This upsets the perfectly balanced microbiome and increases intestinal permeability. We also aren’t getting the nutrients we need from processed foods, causing systemic dysfunction.
3. OTC and Prescription Drugs
Unfortunately, many of the pills we take to make us feel better have hidden unwanted side-effects. NSAIDS, a popular painkiller used in Advil, Aspirin, and Aleve, is known to cause gastritis and increased intestinal permeability, as are many prescription drugs. While occasional use is probably fine, if you rely on these regularly, you may want to find an alternative or work on the root cause of your pain, if possible.
So many of us lead a go-go-go! lifestyle these days, and it’s incredibly hard to avoid stress. But stress is a well-documented cause of leaky gut. It’s actually a great place to begin when we are looking to heal leaky gut, because you can take all the supplements and eat well, but with high stress, you won’t fix your gut. Journal, meditate, spend time in nature; these are all great ways to reduce stress and increase stress resilience.
5. Lack of Sleep
This has to be my favorite! Did you know that even just missing out on a few hours of sleep can increase intestinal permeability? Make sure you’re prioritizing sleep, turning off electronics at least an hour before bed and getting a good dose of sunshine (or bright outside light) each morning/mid-day to set your circadian rhythm.
6. Too Much Alcohol
Yes, alcohol is another culprit of leaky gut. While the occasional indulgence won’t do any long-term harm, consuming alcohol regularly will impact your gut health. I love swapping alcohol for something gut-health promoting (and also fun!) like kombucha, a probiotic-rich fermented tea.
How Can We “Fix” Leaky Gut?
It’s really important to establish the root cause of the leaky gut before we can work on fixing it, but here are a few key things you can do today to see improvement.
Eliminate or Reduce Triggering Foods
Start with a trial of eliminating these frequently inflammatory foods from your diet for three weeks:
There are all kinds of rigorous elimination diets, but this is a good first place to start. After three weeks, add them back one at a time. Give your body 3 days after testing the food group and note any adverse effects. Look for changes such as digestive discomfort, energy changes, aches and pains, headaches, rashes or acne. No symptoms? You’re free to add this food group back to your diet. Notice one or more of these? Keep this food out of your diet for now.
Often we need deeper gut healing when it comes to repairing a leaky gut, and tackling food sensitivities, so with more severe cases, it’s best to work with a practitioner to do gut-health testing, get to the root of these issues, and guide you through a gut-healing protocol.
Increase Nutrients and Nutrient-Dense Foods to Support Gut Health
There are certain nutrients and foods that our gut just loves. Here are a few to prioritize:
- L-Glutamine: L-Glutamine is an amino acid that is the primary amino acid used by your intestinal cells, and supplmenting can be really effective for helping repair your hyper-permeability.
- Other herbs like DGL, Aloe Vera Juice, Slippery Elm, Marshmallow Root: These are all herbal supplements that can be really helpful for soothing, coating, and “healing and sealing” your intestinal barrier.
- Fish Oil: Fish oil is your microbiome’s favorite fat, and your skin loves it too! Take a good quality supplement or even better, eat fatty fish such as salmon, mackerel, anchovies, or sardines at least 3x/week.
- Collagen: There have been numerous studies highlighting the impact collagen has on healing your gut. I especially like this collagen-rich bone broth protein to add to things like smoothies, but making your own bone broth, buying it from the store, or making gelatin gummies are other great ways to get collagen in your diet.
- Probiotics: Eating foods rich in probiotics (think yogurt, kefir, kombucha, sauerkraut, kimchi) or taking a high-quality broad-spectrum or spore-based probiotic can be helpful in increasing the number of “good” bacteria in our guts, modulating the effects of the “bad” bacteria.
- Prebiotics: It’s important that while we introduce more probiotics into the mix, we are providing them something to eat! Get plenty of prebiotic-rich foods such as onions, artichoke, asparagus, and plantains into your diet.
Ready to get started? Download my 7-day meal plan for leaky gut for FREE here.