What would happen if one morning you awoke to find several holes in the exterior walls of your home? After the initial shock you would begin to think through what this means:
- Your home would certainly not function as it once had.
- The protective barrier it provided from the outside, would now be compromised.
- Young children or pets could easily get out, exposing them to all kinds of dangers.
- Intruders, pests, and bad weather could now get into your home.
- Even simple things like your air conditioning and heat would be negatively affected.
To say that living with these holes in your home is less than ideal is quite an understatement.
Similar to this scenario, leaky gut refers to a condition where holes compromise the integrity of the small intestine. As a result, the barrier between your digestive tract and your bloodstream no longer works at full capacity. Undigested food, toxins, and bacteria can gain entry into your bloodstream, which may trigger an autoimmune response. This can wreak havoc on your overall health.
If you are dealing with 2 or more of these symptoms, there is a chance that you may have leaky gut syndrome:
- Recurring constipation, diarrhea, bloating, and gas
- A weak (or overactive) immune system
- Excessive fatigue
- Headaches and difficulty concentrating
- Nutritional deficiencies
- Skin problems
- Cravings for sugar or carbs
- Joint and muscle discomfort
- Depressed mood and/or anxiety
Just like in the case of your home, you want solutions fast. Unfortunately, the workings of your digestive system are quite a bit more complex than patching the walls of your home. However, there are measures that you can take to get your gut on the road to recovery.
Let’s look at 3 points of action:
- Foods to avoid
- Foods to include
- Supplements that help heal
1) Foods to Avoid
Damage control is the first priority and getting rid of the common aggravators is the perfect place to start. These foods are guilty of irritating some guts, especially if taken in excess. However, because every digestive system is unique, it is important to pay attention to your body’s response(s). Keep a food journal and record any changes or symptoms you have during this time.
Look at this list and begin to cut out the food(s) that you think might be the culprit in your diet. Initially, start with a one month elimination period to see what kind of response your body has. Realize that it can take six months or more for an inflamed gut to heal, depending on the damage. At some point, you may be able to add these foods back in. For now, patience is the name of the game.
Wheat and Gluten
Long before gluten became a household term, baby boomers and generation Xers swapped out their white bread for the healthier wheat bread. The food industry caught on and “wheat” became the buzzword for anyone seeking better health.
Fast forward to today and wheat and gluten are considered high allergen foods, so many people are opting to take them out of their diets. These changes in information are frustrating at best.
Wheat and gluten are not the same things. Gluten is actually a specific protein in wheat. A person with an allergy to gluten is also allergic to wheat. On the contrary, you could be allergic to wheat but not the specific protein – gluten.
Science has some catching up to do in order to definitively prove that wheat and/or gluten causes leaky gut. However, some studies indicate that daily consumption of wheat products could contribute to chronic inflammation and autoimmune diseases. In addition, gluten does negatively affect the intestinal permeability, a.k.a. holes in the wall.(1)
Avoiding wheat and gluten for a set period of time to see if your symptoms dissipate is a reasonable first step.
Let’s face it, we love sugar.
From the 2 spoonfuls that make your coffee taste better to the warm, gooey, goodness of a brownie sundae, sugar is a staple in most diets. Hidden sugars are also prevalent in the majority of processed foods, causing one to take in more than realized.
It is common knowledge that an excess of sugar is to blame for diabetes, obesity, skin issues, and hyperactivity. However, did you know that too much sugar also changes your gut bacteria?(2) It feeds the growth of yeast, candida, and bad bacteria. This bad bacteria then creates toxins that can damage healthy cells and eat holes in your intestinal wall.
If eliminating sugar completely is too overwhelming, aim to cut your “added sugar” intake by half every two weeks. Also, begin to pay attention to the choices you make that have hidden sugar. Baby steps may be the best chance at long-term success.
Lactose, which is the milk sugar in dairy, is one of the main allergies that plague people in the US. More than likely, you have heard of someone being “lactose intolerant.” However, casein, which is a protein in dairy, is the real perpetrator when it comes to your leaky gut.
Casein is one of those food particles that slips through the barrier and into the bloodstream. Our immune system does its job and attacks this foreign body.(3) The problem is that most of us consume milk, cheese, ice cream, and butter without abandon. As a result, our immune response, which goes into overdrive, creates a chronic state of inflammation. This is not good.
When avoiding dairy, be sure to check labels. Casein lurks in some brands of veggie cheeses, non-dairy yogurts, and non-dairy creamers.
2) Foods to Include
Food can have a powerful and vital role in healing.(4) Be purposeful about including as much of these as possible. Once again be aware and take note of how you feel by keeping a food journal.
Healthy Natural Fats
Fats are not the enemy. At one time considered the villain, scientific evidence now points to the fact that healthy fats are not linked to a higher risk of heart disease.(5) In fact, we need fats in our diet for our bodies to function well.
Healthy fats, such as these, are easy on our gut and can help promote healing:
- Coconut oil
- Egg yolk
- Olive oil
Cultured or Fermented Foods
Kefir is a smoothie-like drink that is chock-full of good bacteria. It helps to fight the overgrowth of bad bacteria present in a leaky gut and it aids in digestion and immune function. It is made from the kefir grain and fermented milk.
Since avoiding dairy is usually necessary with an irritated digestive system, try coconut kefir which is made with either coconut water or coconut milk.
Sauerkraut and kimchi are also rich in probiotics (good bacteria). In addition, they help to balance the pH levels in the stomach and small intestines.
Apple Cider Vinegar (ACV)
If you are a Pinterest fan, you more than likely have seen the many infographics on the numerous and surprising benefits of apple cider vinegar.
In regards to your gut, apple cider vinegar helps:
- Improve digestion because of enzymes present in raw ACV
- Absorption of vitamins and minerals due to acetic acid.
- Kill Candida overgrowth because it is probiotic rich, thanks to the fermentation process.
- Balance the pH levels in your stomach, which can help with indigestion.
Be sure to dilute it with water, because the acid content can burn your throat.
3) Supplements That Help Heal
The goal is to heal leaky gut fast. These 3 supplements support overall digestive health but also address specific concerns with leaky gut.
This essential trace element is necessary every day for numerous body functions. Because it does not store up in the body, a deficiency can happen very easily. These naturally zinc-rich foods are helpful: spinach, chicken, oysters, beef, lamb, and pumpkin seeds.
In the case of leaky gut, supplementation may be necessary for a time because there is evidence that zinc can resolve the permeability issues of the intestines.(6)
Women over 19 years of age should get about 8mg/day and men over 19 years should get about 11 mg/day.
L-glutamine is an amino acid (building block of protein) that is found naturally in the body and is the most abundant. It is produced in the muscles and distributed to the organs via the bloodstream.
Studies have shown that L-glutamine can help preserve the mucous lining of the intestines and also improves the permeability of the lining.(7) In addition, it is the number one nutrient you need to build and repair the intestinal damage caused by leaky gut.
Take 2 – 5 grams a day, twice a day for best results. If you end up taking it long term, be sure that you have adequate vitamin B12, since it controls the buildup of glutamine in your body.
Replenishing your gut with a probiotic is like sending in “backup” for the good guys. It not only helps in the digestive process but it supports a healthy immune system and the inflammatory response.
Strive to eat probiotic-rich foods daily. In addition to the previously mentioned kefir, kimchi, and sauerkraut, add some of these:
- Yogurt (goat’s milk)
- Dark chocolate (does not contain probiotics, but is an effective carrier of probiotics and keeps the good bacteria alive in the digestive tract)
- Tempeh (fermented soybean grain)
- Kombucha tea (avoid if you have high amounts of candida)
- Pickled vegetables
A high-quality probiotic supplement should have over 15 billion cultures and 10 or more strains. In particular, these strains have been helpful with digestive issues:
- Lactobacillus helveticus
- Lactobacillus acidophilus
- Saccharomyces boulardii
- Bifidobacterium longum
Just as the maintenance and efficiency of your home require intentional steps, so it is with the workings of your body. When damage occurs, all effort needs to go in the direction of repairing and optimizing the healing process. The action points included here are foundational steps to take towards healing your leaky gut.
Steve Sisskind, M.D.
Hi, I'm Dr. Steve Sisskind, Chief Medical Officer & Founder at RealDose Nutrition.
As a young physician, I struggled because my patients came to me with serious health issues, but I didn't have the right tools to help them. Medical school taught me how to put "band aids" on their symptoms with drugs and surgery, but not how to address the root causes of their problems.
Years later I discovered a better approach... based on the fundamental idea that the power of nutrition can transform your health and vitality. But there's a lot of confusion... What foods should I eat? Which supplements should I take? What does the science say?
I have dedicated my life to answering these questions... And I share this knowledge with you every day here at RealDose Nutrition.
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(2) Myles, Ian A. (2014). Fast food fever: reviewing the impacts of the Western diet on immunity. Retrieved from Pubmed https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4074336/
(3) US National Library of Medicine (2016). Immune Response. Retrieved from https://medlineplus.gov/ency/article/000821.htm
(4) Rapin, Jean Robert and Wiernsperger, Nicolas (2010). Possible Links between Intestinal Permeability and Food Processing: A Potential Therapeutic Niche for Glutamine. Retrieved from Pubmed https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2898551/
(5) Siri-Tarino, Patty W. and Sun, Qi and Hu, Frank B. and Krauss, Ronald M. (2010) Meta-analysis of prospective cohort studies evaluating the association of saturated fat with cardiovascular disease. Retrieved from The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition http://ajcn.nutrition.org/content/early/2010/01/13/ajcn.2009.27725.abstract
(6) Sturniolo, GC and Di Leo, V and Ferronato, A and D’Odorico, A and D’Inca, R (2001). Zinc supplementation tightens “leaky gut” in Crohn’s disease. Retrieved from Pubmed https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/11383597
(7) van der Hulst, R.R.W.J. and von Meyenfeldt, M.F. and Deutz, N.E.P. and Soeters, P.B. and Brummer, R.J.M. and von Kreel, B.K. and Arends, J.W. (1993). Glutamine and the preservation of gut integrity. Retrieved from http://www.thelancet.com/journals/lancet/article/PII0140-6736(93)90939-E/abstract