What is leaky gut?
Our gut is comprised of our small and large intestine, which can be 15 feet or longer! The large intestine is houses our gut microbiome, which include trillions of bacteria, fungi and yeasts. These microbes make vitamins our body needs, metabolizes fibers into short chain fatty acids (SCFA), which have a wide variety of health benefits. Leaky gut is a term that describes excessive permeability between the tight junctions of the intestinal wall. Essentially the wall of our intestines allows food particles and toxins to seep through and enter the bloodstream. These products are not supposed to be in our blood, so our circulatory system detects food particles and toxins as foreign bodies, then signals the immune system to attack. This reaction can set off the inflammatory cascade in the body.
Some symptoms that you may experience if you have leaky gut can include:
- Food sensitivities
- Difficulty concentrating
- Skin issues like eczema
- Hormone imbalances
Studies have linked leaky gut with Alzheimer’s disease, diabetes, autoimmune diseases among other conditions.
What can cause leaky gut?
There is not one specific cause of leaky gut. It is caused by a myriad of factors, including but not limited to:
- Stress – chronic or prolonged stress has been linked to the development of intestinal permeability over time.
- Low fiber & high sugar diet – the Western diet has an abundance of sugary processed foods. In fact Western diet has replaced high fiber foods, like plants in their most natural state, for packaged shelf stable options. A study published in New Developments in Nutrition found that a diet high in processed foods was linked to a higher level of gut permeability biomarkers, such as lipopolysaccharides and antibodies.
- Toxins – Pesticides in our food, homes, workplace, and schools. Producing clean water requires chemicals, which can leave tap water laced with chemicals that we drink every day. We encounter toxins daily from furniture, paint, children’s toys, plastic meal containers, and medications. It is not possible to completely avoid toxins in our life, but we can care for our body to help combat the negative effects of the toxins.
- An imbalance in the gut microbiome (aka dysbiosis) – maintaining a diverse microbiome is important in maintaining our health. If we have an overgrowth of opportunistic harmful microbes in the gut, it can lead to digestive issues and subsequent conditions. By diversifying our diet with a plethora of different plant based foods, we are able to diversify our gut microbiome and keep the bad microbes at bay.
How do you treat leaky gut?
- Fiber rich foods – whole grains, fruits, vegetables, legumes, seeds. This harvest fall salad has a ton of fiber and is perfect for this fall season!
- Prebiotics – are indigestible fibers that feed the good bacteria in the gut, which then produce short chain fatty acids. Some prebiotic foods include chia seeds, asparagus, onion, chicory root, dandelion greens, bananas, barley, and oats. To get more prebiotic-rich foods into your diet, try this coconut, spirulina & raspberry chia pudding recipe!
- Probiotics – are beneficial bacteria. Probiotic containing foods include kefir, yogurt, kimchi, sauerkraut, and pickles. There are particular strains that have been shown to be effective for certain conditions, so getting a custom recommendation from a dietitian is advisable.
- Stress management – stress can be a healthy response at times, however too much stress can be harmful for the body. We can’t completely avoid stress, but we can work on stress management to help increase our stress resiliency. Yoga, mediation, breath work (like box breathing), massages, acupuncture, and Epsom salt bath are all great options to help calm our parasympathetic nervous system.
- Decrease toxin overload – there are a variety of options to decrease toxic exposure, the key is to find cost effective ways that work for your lifestyle. Some options to decrease toxic burden is to purchase organic produce (especially the dirty dozen), installing a shower filter, house water filter or Berkey water filter, and using an air purifier.
Need more help?
If you’re struggling with your gut health or think you may have leaky gut, contact Sarah Jackson, Registered Dietitian Nutritionist and gut health expert for an individualized nutrition plan. Schedule a free discovery call today!
Written by: Rachel Sampson, dietetic intern
Reviewed, edited and revised by: Sarah Jackson, MS, RDN, CLT
Bischoff SC, Barbara G, Buurman W, et al. Intestinal permeability–a new target for disease prevention and therapy. BMC Gastroenterol. 2014;14:189. Published 2014 Nov 18. doi:10.1186/s12876-014-0189-7.
Campos, Marcelo, MD. (2021). Leaky gut: What is it, and what does it mean for you? Harvard Health Blog. Health.Harvard
Schmidt, C., & Schnorr, S. L. (2015). Thinking from the Gut. Scientific American, 312(3), S13-71. jstor.org