“Leaky gut”—a buzzword term that is popular in the health and wellness community.
But what is it?
I hate it when people or articles try to explain it to you in scientific terms that end up sounding more like jibberish—a foreign language.
So stick with me.
In layman’s terms: Leaky gut is an unhealthy gut.
90-percent of your digestion happens in your small intestines.
Your gut (your stomach, small and large intestine) is an organ composed of tight junctions that are naturally permeable—meaning, when it is healthy, it is able to pick and choose what it let’s in and out.
In most cases, this means absorbing the nutrients from your food and keeping the contents of your digestive system separate from the rest of the body (moving food only from your mouth to your rear).
However, when your gut (and gut lining) is irritated (by toxins we ingest and toxins in our environment, maldigestion—eating certain foods it can’t absorb, or eating foods we are intolerant to)…Over time, the tight junctions in our guts become compromised (leaky), allowing large particles to move across the gut membrane and into our bloodstream.
(i.e. it’s not pretty).
Our bodies then send an immune response to attack those particles—things like chemicals or food proteins (“May day! May day! Foreign invaders!)—consequently leading to all sorts of health problems, as our bodies also attack themselves.
Common health issues associated with leaky gut include:
- allergies (food and environmental)
- mood disorders (depression, bi-polar)
- mental and behavioral health maladies (ADD/ADHD, autism, schizophrenia, eating disorders, migraines)
- autoimmune conditions
- inflammation (and stress)
- hormonal imbalances
- blood sugar handling disturbances (Type I & Type II Diabetes)
- adrenal insufficiency, and;
- impaired digestion (bloating, gas, constipation, weight gain, Candida—bacteria—overgrowth, IBS, parasites)
Sounds like an infomercial for some crazy drug with lots of side effects doesn’t it?
But this is YOUR body we’re talkin’ about.
So now, knowing what you know…how common is this leaky gut thing anyways?
Sounds pretty extreme…like a far cry from you, right?
Statistics show that an estimated 75-90% of the population experience food intolerances and sensitivities(1).
Even if you’ve never been diagnosed with an allergy, or had a food intolerance test, it does not mean you are in the clear.
Heck, many people go through their lives, living off foods like boxed mac & cheese, takeout Chinese and pizza, drive-thru burgers and fries, peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, muffins, fruited yogurt, granola bars, snack crackers, ice cream, artificial sweeteners, cheese sticks, breakfast cereals, and more, not thinking twice about how food makes them feel or not feel on a daily basis (in other words: it’s the only foods they’ve ever known).
- Indigestion is normal
- Medications help with GERD
- Bloating goes away…eventually
- Abdominal pain is just a byproduct of eating
- Poop is infrequent…or loose…or hard to pass
- Gas is a regular post-meal occurrence
- And the beat goes on
If any of these sound familiar, there in and of itself is your first indicator that you may not be absorbing your food really well.
Do YOU have a leaky gut?
This is by no means meant to be some WebMD article found on a Google search to try to diagnose yourself, but, rather, a reflection of where you really sit on the spectrum of GI health.
Here are some common signs and symptoms people experience throughout their lifetimes that may indicate something going on in the gut:
Weighty Matters. Been trying to lose or gain some healthy weight now, but, no matter what you do, the scale doesn’t seem to budge? It may not be your efforts that are holding you back. When our guts are leaky, they stress our bodies out, and when our bodies are stressed, the last thing they are going to want to do is focus on your weight management—it’s got more important things to think about: like trying to fight its way through your digestive disturbances, keeping your hormones and blood sugar as balanced as possible,
It’s All in Your Head. Leaky gut impacts the brain—big time. Concentration, focus, mood, even personality. Ever eaten something and felt a little off afterwards? Or even been constipated (not pooped that morning) and a little on edge? Less mental clarity after eating a big bowl of pasta or potato? A headache? Jittery from too much sugar? The brain is closely tied to the gut—so much so, that the gut is actually often referred to as the ‘second brain.’ While many of these feelings come and go, some foods actually mess with your brain to the point they destroy brain cells. The main offenders include food additives (excitotoxins ), like MSG and aspartame in diet sodas and other fake-sweetened foods. Excitotoxins have been known to over stimulate and eventually kill specific brain cells. Excitotoxins play a major role in a growing number of neurological diseases including Alzheimer’s disease, Parkinson’s, multiple sclerosis, ALS, seizures, behavioral and psychiatric disorders, compulsive eating, gross obesity, brain tumors, and sudden death syndrome.
What is Your Poop Saying? It’s a touchy subject. But it’s a normal part of life. How often are you going? If not at least once per day, something is off. Ideally, if we were running like well-oiled machines, 2-3 times per day would be great! And not just any poop will do—but a healthy turd should look like a torpedo and be easy to pass. Unfortunately, most people’s poop does not consistently come out that way—hinting at maldigestion and/or leaky gut. Check it out:
- Little Lumps: Often due to a lack of dietary fiber, your poop is staying in the intestines too long, so water is reabsorbed, producing hard, pellet-like lumps.
- Liquidy: It’s moving through the intestines too quickly so water is not being absorbed at all (due to a high intake of fiber, a cleanse, an infection or gut irritants—like artificial sweeteners).
- Pencil Thin: A mass in the colon may be constricting your stool.
- Floaty and Stinky: Your body is not properly absorbing fats, hinting at a malabsorption issue.
- Hard and Dry: Your poop is staying in your intestines too long so water is being reabsorbed; often due to dehydration, constipation and/or medication.
- Non-Existent: You’re constipated! (Drink more water and increase your fiber content!)
My Achin’ Joints. Stiff wrists? Achy back? Creaky knees? Joint pain is often attributed to the woes of aging. Arthritis is a way of life, right? Not necessarily. Don’t believe it? Check out this article on several recent studies pointing to the links between gut microbes, rheumatoid arthritis, and other diseases in which the body’s immune system goes awry and attacks its own tissue. In other words: The leaky gut we’ve been discussing leads the body to attack itself—presenting in some cases as arthritis. And because the leaky gut results in increased inflammation, if you have a predisposition to inflammation in your joints, this general increase in inflammation in your body will result in joint pain.
Ahhhh-Choooo! Allergies, like arthritis above, are just something you have to deal with, right? Think again. 80% of your immune system is housed in your gut. With this being the case, if your gut is inflamed, leaky, not healthy, your body is more susceptible to an immune breakdown. This goes for both food allergies and seasonal/environmental allergies. Cedar Fever get you down every single spring? Have to pull out your glasses in lieu of contacts many days because your allergies are on high alert? Highly sensitive to dust, dirt, grass and trees? Environmentally and seasonally speaking, you are more sensitive to these outside forces, because internally, your gut (and immune system) is not as strong to whether the storm. As for food allergies, there are 8 major allergenic foods that account for about 90% of all food allergies, including: milk, eggs, fish, shellfish, tree nuts, peanuts, wheat and soy. It’s no surprise then that many these foods are directly correlated with causing leaky gut in the first place—due to the body’s struggle to properly digest and assimilate them. The best way to determine whether or not you are allergic or intolerant? Remove the suspected food(s) for a time (at least 4 weeks), then try re-introducing them…noting how you feel. Surprisingly, food and environmental allergies present themselves in a number of systems and ways, including: GI disturbances (gas, constipation, ulcers, indigestion), canker stores, ADD/ADHD, depression, joint pain, asthma, congestion and runny nose, eczema, itchy skin, irregular heart beat, edema, spontaneous bruising, frequent urination, anxiety, etc. Notice if any of these symptoms improve with the removal of suspected stressors…
Eeyore Syndrome. Womp. Womp. Feelin’ blue? Going back to the brain-gut connection, 90% of your serotonin levels (the ‘feel good’ chemicals in your body) are produced in the gut. When your gut is not happy…you are not happy. A 2008 study in Neurological Endocrinology found a “significant correlation” between symptoms autonomic and GI symptoms (leaky gut) and mood, stating, an increase of bacteria (leaky gut) plays a role in the inflammatory pathophysiology of depression. Dr. Emily Deans explained the study a bit more here for you science-minded folk.
Break-out! Skin breakouts are a part of puberty…and adulthood? Regardless of your age (13 or 43), skin breakouts are more than just a sign of wonky hormones (which can also be impacted by your gut). Did you know there’s also a “gut-skin” axis? Ask anyone with skin issues if they have gut issues…and chances are, there is some history there. For example, amongst teens, one study involving over 13,000 adolescents showed that those with acne were more likely to experience gastrointestinal symptoms such as constipation, halitosis, and gastric reflux (2). In another study, involving 40 acne patients, 65% of all the acne patients had a reaction to E. coli endotoxins administered in the blood, as opposed to NONE of the healthy controls reacting to the administration, hinting at a leaky gut situation (3). And the reactions are not just limited to acne: psoriasis, eczema, rosacea, dermatitis all stem back to disruption in the gut.
And that is just getting started.
While this is not an exhaustive list of common signs and symptoms of leaky gut, it is a base.
Interestingly, leaky gut presents in a number of ways, in a number of people, greatly due to genetics and one person’s predisposition, compared to another.
Think about it: two people have a leaky gut.
One person develops seasonal allergies, the other person develops an autoimmune condition. They both have a leaky gut, but they present with completely different manifestations of the underlying pathology.
Every BODY is different—and the important message to walk away with here is…Is your body (and gut) healthy? ,
Fixing Leaky Gut
Ok, ok…so I may have a “leaky gut”…now what?!
Leaky guts don’t have to be permanent.
There are several proactive steps you can take towards restoring your gut function and rewiring your digestion to fnction how it was wired to function (before sugar, grains, dairy, nuts, FODMAPs—or whatever else is specifically irritating you, got in the way).
Here is a general approach I take with my clients:
- Food Logging & Investigation.
If you suspect a food intolerance, try keeping a detailed food and symptom journal for two weeks that includes times, foods, portion sizes, and any symptoms experienced—note how you feel (psychologically, physically, etc.) before and after meals. This log will begin to give you a good clue as to what foods may be the culprits for some of your symptoms.
- Food Elimination Experiment.
With a clearer picture of what foods may not be your best friends, it’s time to rid of things that negatively affect the environment of the GI tract. No one likes to change dietary habits but it is essential for treating a leaky gut. For most everyone, that means eliminating packaged and processed foods and excessive amounts of added sugar, for some, that means: gluten, grains, dairy, soy, FODMAPs (garlic, onion, honey, fructose, avocado, apples, bananas, legumes, etc.) and/or nightshades (potatoes, eggplants, tomatoes, peppers, paprika, etc.). Many people freak out right here (you’re taking my ____ away?!). It may not be forever—but you need some time away from these potential sneaky gut attackers in order to really determine if it is beneficial for you or not. Elimination allows you to reduce inflammatory reactions, improve gut permeability and improve digestion/absorption.Summary: Common foods to avoid:
- ALL sugars and sweeteners, even honey or agave
- High-glycemic fruits: watermelon, mango, pineapple, raisins, grapes, canned fruits, dried fruits, etc.
- Tomatoes, potatoes, and mushrooms
- Grains: wheat, oats, rice, barley, buckwheat, corn, quinoa, etc.
- Dairy: milk, cream, cheese, butter, whey, etc.
- Eggs or foods that contain eggs (such as mayonnaise)
- Soy: soy milk, soy sauce, tofu, tempeh, soy protein, etc.
- Lectins—a major promoter of leaky gut—found in nuts, beans, soy, potatoes, tomato, eggplant, peppers, peanut oil, peanut butter and soy oil, among others
- Instant coffee: Many brands of instant coffee appear to be contaminated with gluten. It’s important to eliminate it to be sure it’s not an immune trigger.
- Processed foods
- Basic Food Hygiene.
This point cannot be stressed enough. It’s one of the simplest things you can do for your gut health—and one of the most often overlooked: Chew your food thoroughly. Eat slowly. Drink plenty of water throughout the day, and just sip throughout meals. Sit and enjoy your meals—in a relaxed. Digestion begins first and foremost in your mouth and occurs ideally in a parasympathetic state (i.e. no stress)— you have the power to change your digestion from the get go
- Eat These Foods. You aren’t just taking some foods out of your diet for a time period, but you’re putting some in. Try these:
- Homemade broth, or stock, made from chicken, beef or other meat bones;
- Pasture-raised meats (i.e. no added hormones, healthy animals);
- Natural fats such as those from organically raised and pastured animals (butter, ghee, tallow and lard), extra-virgin olive oil, avocados and coconut oil;
- Fermented foods, such as, vegetables: sauerkraut, kimchi, etc.; fruits: chutneys and preserved fruits; beverages: water kefir, kombucha, beet kvass, etc.; organic, raw dairy products: dairy kefir, yogurt; and condiments: homemade ketchup, fish sauce, coconut aminos, fermented salsa, etc.
- Herbal tea
- Most vegetables (except potentially not tomato, potatoes, and mushrooms): asparagus, spinach, lettuce, broccoli, beets, cauliflower, carrots, celery, artichokes, garlic, onions, zucchini, squash, rhubarb, cucumbers, turnips, and watercress, among others.
- Universal Gut Health Support.
Probiotics and digestive enzymes are two basic necessities for healing the gut, and promoting a healthy gut flora throughout your lifetime. What are they?
- Probiotics=good bacteria that kill bad bacteria in your gut (fermented vegetables, supplemental probiotics such as Prescript Assist or Transformation Enzymes).
- Enzymes=Responsible for degrading proteins into peptide fragments (i.e. breaking down your food). When you are low in enzyme function, a delay in food break occurs, easily leading to maldigestion. A few quality enzymes I’ve tried include Digest and Carbo-G by Transformation Enzymes; and Intezyme Forte by Biotics.
- Individualized Secret Weapons.
With these basics in place: Some gut-healing foods, a probiotic and enzymes, food elimination and proper food hygiene, it is now time to take this gut healing thing to the next level. By working closely with a nutrition therapist or holistic healthcare practitioner, or perhaps even a GI Doctor, you can determine a more individualized approach to healing and restoring your gut and symptoms. Supplementally, I find that many benefit from L-glutamine, an amino acid that helps to rejuvenate the lining of the gut wall. Others have done well with HCL—which increases stomach acid to aid in digestion when they are particularly low on it. And still others, specific types of enzymes (such as pancreatic enzymes) or organ supports (liver, gallbladder, etc.) are the magic keys to unlocking digestive distress and supporting a healthier process.
- Experiment & Observe.
Been 3-4 weeks since you eliminated those ‘culprit’ foods from your diet? If you are so obliged, here is where re-introduction is invited. Didn’t think you could do without bread…or pasta…or cheese? Well, by all means, try to add it back in—repeating your food log and journaling activity, noting any signs or symptoms that seem to flare up around food. Simply observe, and see what happens. Adjust your diet accordingly.
(2) Zhang H, Liao W, Chao W, Chen Q, Zeng H, Wu C. et al. Risk factors for sebaceous gland diseases and their relationship to gastrointestinal dysfunction in Han adolescents. J Dermatol. 2008;35:555–61. doi: 10.1111/j.1346-8138.2008.00523.x.
(3.) Juhlin L, Michaëlsson G. Fibrin microclot formation in patients with acne. Acta Derm Venereol. 1983;63:538–40