What is leaky gut?
The lining of your digestive tract has a very unique structure. I like to think of it as a very fine mesh, with lots of cells bound tightly together with only very tiny spaces in between. Once the food you’ve eaten has been broken down into its very simplest units, these can be absorbed through this mesh-like structure and all of the important nutrients contained in the food can be put to good use. So, we really need this ‘mesh’ to be working optimally so you can get the most from your food, and help support your overall health. But, what happens if things go wrong?
Leaky gut is literally as the name suggests – a leaky gut! In more technical terms this means the permeability of the gut is increased. This ‘mesh-like’ structure of the gut wall becomes stretched, the cells become more distant rather than remaining packed tightly together and the tiny gaps in between become bigger.
This means that bigger chunks of undigested food can potentially pass through into our system, not to mention pathogens, all of which can initiate a low-grade inflammatory response. This can create digestive upset initially, but this may also translate into more widespread issues.
What’s thought to cause leaky gut?
The exact cause of leaky gut isn’t well understood, however, a combination of a number of factors is thought to contribute:
- Diet – A diet high in inflammatory foods including red meat, refined flours, refined vegetable oils, sugar, artificial sweeteners and alcohol is likely to contribute to leaky gut
- Weak stomach acid – Interestingly, the state of your stomach can have an impact on your gut. Your stomach helps facilitate the breakdown of food before it reaches the gut so if this doesn’t happen properly and you have weak stomach acid, it can potentially exacerbate some of the symptoms. There is also evidence to suggest that PPI medications (which reduce stomach acid) may also increase the permeability of the gut1
- Lifestyle factors – A number of lifestyle habits can disrupt the structure of your gut too. From eating too quickly or on the go, to alcohol consumption or stress – all of which often go hand in hand – daily or weekly habits can take their toll. Stress is a biggie; we know it diverts attention away from you digestion system which in turn, can decrease stomach acid and put more pressure on your gut. However, there may also be effects on the structure of your gut as a more direct result of stress hormones2
- Dysbiosis in the gut – The balance of bacteria in your gut is also thought to affect the permeability of the gut wall. Your good bacteria are crucial for helping to keep bad bacteria at bay and we know that bad bacteria or yeast such as candida can affect the gut wall integrity with their wicked ways. Once the gut wall structure is compromised we can become more vulnerable to pathogens infecting our system, and it can easily become a vicious cycle. Then, there’s medication that further upset the balance of bacteria in your gut, such as antibiotics. Although they are often necessary, taking a probiotic alongside your course of antibiotics can help protect against unnecessary dysbiosis.
What are the signs that suggest you could have leaky gut?
So, you might be wondering how you know if you have leaky gut. Some of the signs to look out for are as follows:
- Food intolerance or sensitivities – As the gut wall becomes more compromised, you are more likely to react adversely to different foods. Immune cells will be alerted unnecessarily to fragments of undigested food and you can guarantee that symptoms won’t be far behind. As your immune responses are heightened, this creates a low-grade inflammatory response in the gut. This creates digestive symptoms but also potentially a number of symptoms elsewhere
- Digestive symptoms – Digestive symptoms may be the result of food intolerance, dysbiosis or the leaky gut itself. Symptoms can include bloating, pain or discomfort, or changing bowel movements
- Nutrient deficiencies – As the gut wall becomes damaged the absorption of essential nutrients can come under fire. This can be made worse if stomach acid levels are also affected and food isn’t being broken down properly in the first place, or if an imbalance of gut bacteria is also present. We know that gut bacteria produce a number of important vitamins themselves!
- Others – A combination of the direct effect of the gut wall being compromised (meaning more pathogens can potentially enter your system), plus an overactive immune system as a result, in many cases is thought to give rise to a number of other symptoms including fatigue, brain fog, headaches, achy joints and problem skin.
What can be done to help?
Although evidence in the medical community is still somewhat limited and there is still research ongoing to try and understand leaky gut more thoroughly, this is something that has been recognised by naturopaths such as Alfred Vogel for some time.
Some simple steps to help get leaky gut under control include:
1. Consider limiting your intake of certain foods
This generally includes pro-inflammatory foods or those that are harder to digest. By reducing your intake of these it can help give your gut some well needed time to heal:
- Grains, including gluten, barley, rye and rice
- Legumes, including peanuts
- Dairy products (eggs and good quality butter are ok to include)
- Refined vegetable oils, including sunflower oil
- Sugar and artificial sweeteners
- Processed meats
Please note: always discuss restricting certain food groups with a nutritionist, dietician or healthcare professional first.
2. Next, include lots of foods to help nourish the gut back to good health
Include warm and cooked foods and opt for organic varieties wherever possible. These foods are based around healthy sources of protein, good quality fats and antioxidants:
- Lean meat, fish or eggs
- Homemade soups – bone broth is particularly healing
- Nuts and seeds (limit peanuts)
- Healthy fats including olive oil and coconut oil
- Fruit and vegetables (include smaller portions of starchy vegetables, including root vegetables initially)
- Dairy free yoghurts and fermented foods
- Fresh herbs and spices
3. Support the gut further with the help of some supplements
Once your diet is back on track you can add in some supplements to help further support your gut:
- Zinc – Zinc, in particular, zinc bound to an amino acid such as with zinc carnosine or zinc methionine, can help support healing in the gut
- L-glutamine – Another amino acid, L-glutamine is thought to be particularly beneficial for gastrointestinal health and may help to repair and strengthen the gut lining. Go for a powder form which is ideal for those with compromised digestion
1. Van Vlerken LG, Huisman EJ and van Hoek B et al. Bacterial infections in cirrhosis: role of proton pump inhibitors and intestinal permeability. Eur J Clin Invest, 2012, 42(7), (760-767)
2. Pilz G and Werdan K. Cardiovascular parameters and scoring systems in the evaluation of response to therapy in sepsis and septic shock. Infection, 1990, 18(5), (253-262)