The term “leaky gut” is an admittedly unpleasant one, but it is worth discussing because it could be contributing to several health issues. There are many misconceptions out there regarding the function of it and whether it is a disease unto itself or an outcome connected to something else.
In the following article, we will be discussing the symptoms, treatments worth considering, and how the medical community views it as a threat to your overall health. But first, let’s get into what it is and what it is not.
Leaky Gut vs. Leaky Gut Syndrome
Leaky gut is a different concept than leaky gut syndrome, and it is imperative that you understand the difference. The reason for this: if you are treating the syndrome, you may be ignoring a more serious problem and pursuing an action plan for something medical science isn’t even sure exists. (Yet.)
Allow us to explain.
Everyone agrees in the existence of leaky gut. That’s undisputed. It’s generally referred to in the medical community as intestinal hyper-permeability.
When food goes into your body, it ends up in the small intestine. Your gut has a lining with super tight junctions that control what passes through the small intestine.
If those junctions become too loose, the body runs a risk of allowing harmful antigens and toxins out of the small intestine and into the bloodstream. This triggers a response from your immune system that can keep you sick permanently and lead to more serious health complications.
But as some doctors have observed, very little is known about what causes leaky gut, and it’s usually indicative of another as-yet-undiagnosed issue rather than a condition unto itself.
As Dr. Donald Kirby, MD, director of the Center for Human Nutrition at the Cleveland Clinic, tells WebMD, “leaky gut really means you’ve got a diagnosis that still needs to be made,” adding that a patient hopes his or her doctor is “a good-enough Sherlock Holmes, but sometimes it is very hard to make a diagnosis.”
The longer you go without a diagnosis, the harder it becomes to reverse the damaging effects (when possible) or get you the treatments that you need in order to manage the condition effectively.
So What Should Your First Step Be If You Suspect a Leaky Gut Issue?
Before answering this question, we should first lay out the common “signs” that you may have an issue related to leaky gut. That starts with the symptoms. Here are some of the most common:
- Bloating: this is a condition of feeling “overstuffed” immediately after a meal and in the moments following. For most of us, it’s just a matter of eating too much and it takes care of itself. When the feeling persists, however, you could have a problem.
- Gas: can occur at multiple points in the digestive system from the stomach to the upper GI. It also can result in some embarrassing problems that may make for humorous scenes in funny movies, but when translated to real life, are no laughing matter.
- Cramps: these often accompany bloating and/or gas. They can feel like sharp, stabbing pains throughout the digestive track, particularly in your large intestine.
- Food Sensitivities: if you’re one of the lucky ones, you may just need to stay away from the occasional food to avoid adverse effects — buffalo sauce, anyone? — but for people suffering the symptoms of a leaky gut, it can be enough to effectively ruin a day.
- Aches and pains: gut health often runs parallel to overall health. If something is wrong with how you process food and absorb nutrients, then it will naturally take a toll on the rest of your body, and make you less eager to do the types of things that lead to a healthy lifestyle. After all, no one every feels like working out or staying active when they’re sick to their stomach.
If you are experiencing one or more of these symptoms with any degree of regularity — every day or every time you try a specific food — then you may want to seek professional help.
But where can you go for help with a condition that medical doctors have called “an unsolved mystery”? That’s what we’re going to cover in the next section.
Who Deals with Leaky Gut?
To start, you should have a chat with your primary care physician (PCP) and be your own best advocate. PCPs deal in general medicine, and not all are created equal.
Most are concerned with your overall health, and they watch for things like high cholesterol or blood pressure issues. You have to speak up if you want any guarantee of getting to the heart of the issue.
Tell your PCP about recurring gut problems and specifically ask them about whether there could be an underlying condition. Whether you say the term “leaky gut syndrome” is up to you.
Word of warning if you do: it’s not taught in medical school as an actual syndrome. As a result, some PCPs might strike a dismissive tone or (worse!) roll their eyes at you.
To avoid this reaction, deescalate potential conflict, and actually be taken seriously, you may want to tell them instead that you are experiencing some of the recurring symptoms and worry about potential underlying conditions.
That likely will get you referred to a gastroenterologist.
What is a Gastroenterologist?
Gastroenterology deals with the digestive system and related disorders. Gastroenterologists are the doctors who specialize in this field of medicine.
A gastroenterologist likely will be more welcoming of the leaky gut discussion because they realize it exists. They just aren’t settled on the aforementioned “chicken-egg” argument.
But it doesn’t matter.
Your gastroenterologist will want to get to the heart of any undiagnosed conditions, and he or she has the specialized training to catch things that a PCP might otherwise miss.
Some of the common procedures that a gastroenterologist will offer related to the small intestine include the following:
- Abdominal ultrasound: allows the doctor to view abdominal organs and structures from the outside.
- Abdominal X-ray: can be done to check for a block or hole in the intestine.
- CT Enterography: often used to examine the patient’s reaction to a treatment for underlying conditions such as Crohn’s disease (one of those often linked to leaky gut).
- MR Enterography: also provides detailed information on the small intestine, including any issues or abnormalities.
- Upper Gastrointestinal Series: you swallow a special beverage, then submit to X-ray testing of esophagus, stomach, and duodenum (first part of the small intestine).
Obviously your healthcare provider will need to make the determination which of these (if any) is right for you, but that’s just to give you an idea of what to expect. You can read more on each of these procedures at the Johns Hopkins Medicine website.
Regardless of what the issue is or how the doctor determines it, one of the common suggestions you’ll hear about dealing with unknown abdominal issues is to monitor your lifestyle.
In the next section, we’ll talk about some basic things you can do to support your digestive system better and (hopefully) cut off leaky gut before it grows into a more serious problem.
The best lifestyle changes that you can make to help combat the symptoms of leaky gut are, you guessed it, diet and exercise. Don’t think of these as mutually exclusive either. You want both.
One other thing that you will need to get under control: stress. If stress is not a contributing cause to leaky gut, it’s definitely an agitator. While you probably can’t get rid of every stressful element in your life, you can find ways to scale back.
Here are some suggestions:
Get at least eight hours of sleep every night. Sleep is how your body heals itself, and stress is one of the things that it can heal you from.
Make a little time for yourself each day. You can find little moments to take some deep breaths, crush out a 25-minute power nap, or indulge in a hobby like drawing, writing, or reading.
Limit your interactions with stressors like difficult people or projects. Learn to artfully dodge talking to them by taking care of whatever you need to that will keep them at bay.
Now let’s move to the exercise component.
The Best Exercise Advice for Leaky Gut Sufferers
Don’t try to hit it too hard. Your condition probably makes you feel pretty limited in what you’re able to do, not because you are limited but because it can cause inflammation and digestive problems that make going to the gym or out for a lengthy run problematic.
Start by doing what you’re comfortable doing and nothing more. Consider a 3 to 3.5-mile per hour walk. Do it for a straight 60 minutes uninterrupted or break it up throughout the day.
Make exercise less intimidating, and you’ll be more likely to do it with regularity and add to it in rigor as you go along.
Also, keep in mind that what you eat will affect your energy level. Eating better means exercising better.
Here are some of the best foods that you can make a part of your diet as well as some foods you’ll want to forget exist.
Leaky Gut Foods: The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly
Foods differ wildly in the level of nutrition they provide (if any), and with the amount of processing that goes on today, it can be tricky keeping straight what is healthy and what isn’t.
Turkey, for example, is a great food if you’re eating it fresh and farm-raised. But if you’re consuming it from a package that promises to be “good” for a few weeks, it’s a different story.
In this section, we’ll attempt to dispel the myths behind what’s good for you and what isn’t. Let’s start with the good.
The process of steaming your vegetables softens them up so that your digestive tract can better handle them. Veggies in their raw form are pretty tough and sturdy — not bad in itself, but it can definitely be problematic if you’re already having digestive struggles.
Vegetables in all their forms give you the nutritional tools you need to break down fats, carbs, and proteins. This especially is important if you plan on upping your exercise game.
Most people have some degree of lactose intolerance, and that can make dairy consumption difficult. If you also have symptoms of a leaky gut on top of it, you’re asking for trouble.
Thankfully, you can get many of the same benefits through fermented non-dairy foods like sauerkraut and Kombucha as well as the following:
- Water or coconut kefir
- Moroccan preserved lemons
- Sour pickles
- Homemade ginger beer
For more on each of these, we encourage you to check out this post by Jenny McGruther.
When nutritionists talk about grass-fed meats, they’re usually referring to chicken, turkey, beef, and bison.
While all of these are acceptable in small amounts, we do feel the need to put a disclaimer with beef.
A 2012 report from the National Institute of Health (NIH) noted that a Harvard School of Public Health study with more than 120,000 participants (37,000 men from 1986 and 83,000 women from 1980) showed increased risks of mortality eating both processed and unprocessed red meat.
Or, in the report’s own words:
Almost 24,000 participants died during the study, including about 5,900 from cardiovascular disease and about 9,500 from cancer. Those who consumed the highest levels of both unprocessed and processed red meat had the highest risk of all-cause of mortality, cancer mortality and cardiovascular disease mortality. After adjusting for other risk factors, the researchers calculated that 1 additional serving per day of unprocessed red meat over the course of the study raised the risk of total mortality by 13%. An extra serving of processed red meat (such as bacon, hot dogs, sausage and salami) raised the risk by 20%.
As for the rest, stay away from long expiration dates. Try to eat foods that you know to be sourced from local farms. Foods not treated by antibiotics or fed with food sources that are affected by chemicals.
Shop more at farmers’ markets for meat and less at the local grocery store, unless said grocery store has an organic selection.
The same rules apply with processing when it comes to fish. That said, this particular meat is packed more with omega-3 fatty acids than its counterparts. These can help you address a variety of health issues that include but are not limited to the following:
- Depression and anxiety
- Visionary problems
- Impaired brain health and cognition
- Heart disease
- ADHD (in children)
- Bodily inflammation
- Autoimmune diseases
For a more extended analysis of the omega-3 fatty acid benefits, check out our entry on fish oil.
Coconut oil is one that we hesitate with, but ultimately the benefits outweigh the drawbacks. While it is considerably high in saturated fat — a contributor to bad cholesterol in most foods — it is healthier than most due to the rich supply of lauric acid.
This can help eradicate harmful pathogens, which have a tendency to congregate in your intestines and could be a contributing factor to leaky gut.
Use with caution, though, because most nutritionists recommend no more than 20 grams of saturated fat per day in your diet, and you can get there in a hurry with just a relatively small amount of coconut oil.
Bone broth not only is a great protein source; it’s also packed with collagen, gelatin, and glutamine, all of which have been associated with fixing repairs in your gut lining. (Remember that weaknesses in the gut lining are what lead to worsening symptoms associated with leaky gut.)
As a result, bone broth “goes down easier,” making it relatively simple to digest even for weakened systems.
The Bad (and Ugly)
Before leaving behind this section to discuss some non-food aids in the fight against the condition, let’s pause to discuss the worst foods you can eat. They include the following:
- Gluten: a bad idea because it increases zonulin production, and zonulin is a protein that helps loosen those junctions that keep the antigens and toxins from escaping into the rest of the body. It just so happens that gluten also is the number one cause of leaky gut.
- Grains: because most grains contain gluten, and even the ones that don’t contain the difficult-to-digest phytic acid.
- Refined Vegetable Oils: these can cause inflammation of the intestinal lining. Examples include sunflower, soybean, and canola oils.
- Refined Sugars: sugar promotes yeast, and yeast can choke out your gut’s “good bacteria” like a UFC champion could a drunken bum from the audience.
- Artificial Sweeteners: these also waste away healthy gut bacteria. Aspartame is one of the biggest offenders, and it’s found in most artificially-sweetened beverages.
Non-Food Aids in the Fight Against Leaky Gut
Now that we’ve covered the dietary and exercise portions, let’s talk about some of the supplements you could be taking to help in the fight against leaky gut.
Antibiotics kill all bacteria. That’s why after you take one you are more susceptible to digestive problems. Probiotics give you the cultures that you need to replenish good bacteria and get your system back to being a hospitable environment for what you eat.
Some good ones to check the label for the next time you’re at the health food store or the corresponding section of your supermarket:
- Bifidobacterium longum
- Bifidobacterium infantis
- Bifidobacterium breve
- Lactobacillus casei
- Lactobacillus acidophilus
- Bifidobacterium bifidum
- Lactobacillus bulgaricus
- Lactobacillus brevis
- Lactobacillus rhamnosus
- Bacillus subtilis
- Bacillus coagulans
- Saccharomyces boulardii
You also can get probiotics through healthy foods like yogurt. Recommended doses vary depending on the strain and the quantity of cultures. You can’t really overdose on a probiotic though, so listen to what your gut is telling you when consuming.
Fiber Intake Pills
Most Americans do not get enough fiber in their diet, and that’s a problem. However, you can reduce the ill effects by supplementing through fiber pills or powder-based mixes such as Metamucil.
A “healthy” diet should be anywhere from 30-40 grams of fiber per day, so keep that in mind. Too much fiber can cause bloating and other symptoms commonly associated with leaky gut.
L-glutamine has anti-inflammatory properties, and it aids with the repair of gut and intestinal lining. Around 15 grams, dispersed throughout the day, is ideal.
Other Supplements That Can Produce Similar Results
While we haven’t used as many of these to know and compare firsthand, we also hear good things about the following:
- Licorice root: aids in the absorption of and helps to metabolize cortisol
- Collagen powder: also found in bone broth
- Quercetin: helps retain tight junctions
- Anti-fungals: for balancing good and bad bacteria in the gut, similar to probiotics
- Hydrochloric acid with pepsin: breaks down proteins before allowing entrance into the small intestine.
- N-acetyl glucosamine: a stomach and intestinal lining protector
- Protease: known for breaking down proteins and gluten
- Amylase: known for breaking down starches
- Lipase: known for breaking down fats
- Lactase: a good one for breaking down the lactose when consuming dairy products
Leaky gut, whether an actual syndrome or the underlying cause of an even more concerning ailment, is a problem that needs to be dealt with when it starts laying roots in your life.
While your doctor should be one of your first and best resources for dealing with the problem, you are your best healthcare advocate.
Make sure that you keep asking questions until you get to the correct diagnosis. Also, for the symptoms of leaky gut, eliminate problematic foods, consume gut-healthy foods and supplements, and make exercise a part of your daily life.