Gut health tends to be at the root of most diseases (just like inflammation that we discussed in a previous post!). Our gut health is critical to our overall health (mental and physical), and more and more research continues to come out about the effects of gut health on our bodies. In the next 5-10 years, I know there is going to be a plethora of information related to gut health that comes out to the public, but until then, I'd like to share a bit more about a common issue when it comes to gut health: leaky gut.
Leaky gut is a complicated issue as we will soon discover. It's "real" scientific name is usually known as increased intestinal permeability, but doesn't leaky gut roll off the tongue so much easier?!
But before we dive into more about leaky gut syndrome, let's back up and cover the basics.
What is Our Gut?
Gut is an all-encompassing terms for the gastrointestinal system that is composed of the esophagus, the stomach and both the small and large intestines. The gut is also a major part of the digestive system, which also includes several other organs including the liver, pancreas, gallbladder, tongue and salivary glands. This system is responsible for digesting and assimilating nutrients from the foods we eat, a process that is critical to our overall health. Without the proper assimilation and absorption of nutrients, our body becomes nutrient-depleted, leading to an increased risk of disease (especially autoimmune diseases) and inflammation.
Surrounding our gut is a thin gut barrier wall that is only one cell thick. Yes, one cell thick! That is one of the reasons why gut issues are becoming more prevalent - this barrier is far to easy to break through, especially with the most common sources of gut irritants (see below for more). This gut barrier is our protection against pathogens in the body - it keeps the good stuff in and the bad stuff out! It does so by using a variety of protective mechanisms, including the use of our immune system, as well as stomach acid and digestive enzymes.
When all is going according to plan, we eat food, digest it properly with adequate levels of stomach acid and digestive enzymes, and eliminate the waste without any issues. However, I'd argue that most of us have at least some form of gut issues, hence some form of a leaky gut.
What is a Leaky Gut?
Simply put, a leaky gut is when the gut barrier or gut lining is permeated or compromised. Basically, little "holes" occur along the gut barrier leading to an interaction between what is in our gut and the rest of our body. What is inside of our gut is technically "outside" of our body. Those two things shouldn't mix! But with a leaky gut, that is exactly what happens.
What is inside of our gut that shouldn't mix with the rest of our body includes a combination of pathogens, undigested proteins, bacteria (good and bad), and an array of toxic substances or waste products that would normally be excreted. These items when mixed with the bloodstream or lymphatic system cause an immune system reaction that leads to inflammation and all of it's undesirable effects (weight gain, blood sugar imbalances, autoimmune conditions, type II diabetes, nutrient deficiencies, etc).
What Causes a Leaky Gut?
A leaky gut can develop over the course of months or years, depending on the cause and the frequency of that cause occurring in our lives. Common causes of a leaky gut include:
Stress (mental, physical, emotional, etc)
Poor diet choices (excessive grains, soy, vegetable oils, sugar, artificial sweeteners, processed and refined foods/carbohydrates, trans fats, etc)
Lack of a real, whole food intake (especially vegetables and healthy fats)
Infections, pathogens, parasites, bad bacteria, etc
Environmental toxins in the air, cleaning products, food, and/or beauty products
Hormonal imbalances (especially too much cortisol)
Chronic inflammation (chicken and egg situation here - inflammation can cause a leaky gut and a leaky gut can cause inflammation. It's often hard to determine which came first!)
Imbalance of good to bad bacteria in the gut
Frequent antibiotic usage (current or past)
Usage of certain medications or NSAIDs
Autoimmune conditions (chicken and egg situation again...)
The list goes on and on, but the top offenders are stress, sleep deprivation, and poor diet choices (aka a Standard American Diet).
What are Symptoms of a Leaky Gut?
Like the causes of a leaky gut, the symptoms are vast and widespread. They vary from person to person, and just because you may not experience all of the symptoms listed below doesn't mean you don't have a leaky gut! Common symptoms include:
Digestive distress (bloating, gas, constipation, diarrhea, abdominal pain, nausea, vomiting, irregular bowel movements, burping, heartburn, acid reflux, etc)
Skin conditions (acne, psoriasis, dry patches, eczema, itchy skin, etc)
Fatigue or energy fluctuations throughout the day
Depression and/or anxiety
Joint pain and inflammation
Trouble maintaining weight
There are also numerous conditions associated with a leaky gut including:
(List taken from The Paleo Mom website - source here)
multiple organ failure
chronic fatigue syndrome
irritable bowel syndrome
inflammatory joint disease
chronic heart failure
type 1 diabetes
type 2 diabetes
non-alcoholic fatty liver disease
How Can I Heal My Gut?
I hope that it is quite clear that if your gut health is not in order, your entire body (from your head to your toes!) is going to suffer dearly. However, healing the gut could be the answer you've been searching for to help heal some of the health conditions you might be facing.
When it comes to healing the gut, there are several strategies to keep in mind.
1. You must clean up your diet. Avoid excessive grains, soy, vegetable oils, sugar, artificial sweeteners, processed and refined foods/carbohydrates, trans fats, and other "fake" foods. Eat plenty of real, whole foods including animal proteins, seafood, eggs, vegetables, fruits, nuts and seeds in moderation, and loads of healthy fats (avocados, olives, coconut oil, butter, etc). Making the switch from the Standard American Diet (SAD - a suitable acronym!) to a real food template is one of the best ways to heal your gut.
2. Add in gut-healing super foods, including kombucha, raw sauerkraut, fermented vegetables, bone broth, collagen, gelatin, wild caught seafood, and organ meats. Daily consumption of bone broth and collagen are a MUST!
3. Reduce stress. It's not easy, but it must be done. Step away from the busy, go-go-go lifestyle and MAKE time for self care. Try massage, walks outside, acupuncture, meditation, yoga, or anything that helps you relax and unwind.
4. Take a high-quality probiotic. My top picks are Prescript Assist, Primal Probiotics, Garden of Life Raw Probiotics, Garden of Life Dr. Formulated, and Klaire Labs.
5. Sleep! Make it a priority in your life, and you will not regret it. Sleep is the time when our body works on healing and repairing any damage done to our bodies from our day. It is critical to our overall health and healing, especially our gut health!
6. Take a digestive enzyme (1 before meals) to help with the digestive process if you are experiencing trouble digesting foods. I recommend Enzymedica brand (I currently use the Digest Gold version and have had great success!). These enzymes help your digestive system break down and assimilate nutrients from protein, fat, and carbs.
7. Relax and let time do its healing work! Healing a leaky gut cannot be rushed. I've been working on healing mine for over a year! Thanks to a concentrated effort on reducing sleep, along with daily bone broth and collagen and a variety of other changes, I am quite confident that my gut is healing! But patience is key, even though it's not fun or easy.
For more information on gut health and probiotics, see my previous posts on the subject:
Probiotics and Gut Health Part 1
Probiotics and Gut Health Part 2
Probiotics and Gut Health Part 3
Digestion 101: What Proper Digestion Should Look Like
Digestion 101: What Can Go Wrong and How to Fix It
Digestion 101: The 4R Protocol