Chronic health problems may be attributed to many things, but a leaky gut may top the list. Our favorite gut-health guru and founder of Body Ecology, Donna Gates (check her many insights here!) is here to dispel common myths surrounding inflammation, what good gut health really means—and how to achieve it.
The term “leaky gut” is often used to describe a condition that occurs when the lining of the intestines becomes inflamed (or “wounded”) and porous—some even say, permeable. If you were to rub a leaf of poison ivy on your arm, your external skin would soon become inflamed and irritated. The internal skin of your intestines can indeed become quite inflamed and irritated as well.
While adults who have an inflamed or wounded gut may experience discomfort and health issues, a “leaky,” permeable gut is a good thing early in life. All babies are born with a permeable gut lining so that they can fully benefit from the nourishment of their mother’s colostrum.
What Is Leaky Gut?
The inner ecosystem of your digestive tract is a rich community. It is bustling with bacteria and yeast. These bacteria and yeast do more than help digest food and manufacture nutrients. The bugs in your gut also interact with your immune system, the chemicals in your brain, and your hormones. When functioning properly, the gut mucosal layer protects the interior of the body from large food particles, other large molecules, and opportunistic microorganisms like bacteria, parasites and viruses.
This activates the immune system. Messenger chemicals, called cytokines, tell the rest of the body to respond. In the same way that motorists respond to an ambulance rushing down a street, sirens sounding and lights flashing, the immune system sends out biochemical “sirens,” and this alerts the rest of the body. Usually, the response involves inflammation, which dilates vessels and creates blood flow while also recruiting white blood cells to fight off the foreign invaders.
So when your gut lining is permeable and inflamed, bacteria, toxins and food can leak through your gut wall into the blood causing a systemic issue. Your body must then deal with these foreign invaders, and react to them by creating antibodies against the food, leading to food allergies, fatigue, aching and other symptoms of ill health.
Signs + Symptoms Of Leaky Gut
It’s important to note that if you have a few of these symptoms, or even have many of them, it doesn’t necessarily mean you have leaky gut. I am a big proponent of being informed, not scaring those into running to their nearest functional medicine doctor to get tested.
There are plenty of people that aren’t affected by symptoms as much (goes back to the Principle of Uniqueness and/or our genetic makeup) so wouldn’t even think they had it. Yet, you should be particularly aware of these signs in the event you have an autoimmune disease, candida, unexplained symptoms or chronic illness. Here are a few:
+ poor memory
+ feeling “spacey” or “unreal”
+ inability to concentrate or make decisions
+ numbness, burning or tingling
+ insomnia/trouble sleeping
+ muscle aches, weakness or paralysis
+ pain and/or swelling in joints
+ abdominal pain, constipation, diarrhea
+ bloating, belching or gas
+ anxiety/panic attacks
+ irritability or jitteriness
+ frequent mood swings
+ dizziness/loss of balance
+ food sensitivity or intolerance
+ carrying extra weight
+ weakened immune system
What Factors Contribute To A Permeable Gut?
A permeable gut is not caused by one single factor. There are many reasons why you might be suffering from an inflamed and leaking gut. Perhaps you were not “inoculated” with a vibrant inner ecosystem at birth to protect you throughout your life. Or maybe you weren’t breastfed as a child and the beneficial microflora weren’t fed the sugars found in breast milk that allowed them to grow and form a civilization of beneficial microflora inside you to protect your gut lining. Even if you did develop a healthy inner ecosystem at birth, years of stress and the Standard American Diet could have depleted your microflora.
Stress alone kills microflora and is a major cause of inflammation in your gut. Alcohol, wine and coffee contribute to gut inflammation.
Contributing factors can also include:
+ mental, emotional, or physical stress
+ stress hormones, hormone imbalance
+ continued use of NSAIDs, antibiotics or steroids
+ exposure to chemical toxins
+ candida overgrowth
+ gut infection
+ foods that irritate the lining of the digestive tract (ex. gluten)
+ environmental triggers
+ genetics (the FUT2 gene)
How Do You Heal Your Gut?
Because gut bacteria have such a close relationship with your immune system and intestinal cells, the inner ecosystem is your target when healing a leaky gut. Your gut wall is more than a barrier. It’s the pathway that your gut bacteria and immune system use to hold conversation.
Often, several variables need to be considered while going through the process of healing a leaky gut in the event you have several issues going on at once. Regardless of where you are, here are my most highly suggested ways to try to strengthen your gut wall and soothe your immune system by supporting healthy communities of good gut bacteria:
Eat Probiotic Foods | Probiotic foods are foods that have been inoculated with good bacteria and then allowed to ferment. During the fermentation process, good bacteria consume sugars in food and form robust communities. When you eat probiotic foods like cultured vegetables and kefir, you escort these robust communities of probiotics into your colon where they do the most good.
If you have SIBO | I would hold off on introducing cultured vegetables and try young coconut kefir instead—it provides a wonderful source of easily assimilated nutrients and is full of beneficial bacteria that aids digestion and build immunity.
Bifidobacteria is best | This is a probiotic bacteria to use to target leaky gut (and candida), which has been shown to help balance the immune system and control the expression of pro-inflammatory messages (repairing leaky gut and protecting against Candida overgrowth).
Eat Prebiotic Foods | Prebiotic foods nourish healthy communities of gut bacteria. These are high-fiber foods that aren’t readily broken down by enzymes—but they are broken down in the colon by your gut bacteria and can survive the harsh environment of your intestine.
Consume fiber-rich foods | They produce short-chain fatty acids. Short-chain fatty acids promote a healthy intestinal lining and give the right amount of stimulation to the immune system. Overall, their impact is anti-inflammatory.
Examples of prebiotic foods include:
+ dandelion greens, asparagus
+ onions, garlic
+ green tea (my favorite is Pique tea)
+ grain-like seeds, such as quinoa, buckwheat, amaranth, and millet
Prebiotic dietary fiber | This comes in powder form with chicory root and also acts as food for the good bacteria, and is great for when you’re on the go and want to throw into an anti-inflammatory smoothie or drink.
Digestive Enzymes | Many times, leaky gut and candida go hand in hand. One usually isn’t there without the other. And depending on how long the candida overgrowth has been around for, it may need a powerful force to get rid of it since it’s so resistant. Full spectrum enzymes that contain cellulase and hemicellulase are key enzymes that may break down the cell wall of Candida and destroy its protective biofilm, thus preventing digestive overload and candida overgrowth in the gut.
avoid gluten, dairy + sugar | This includes carb-like flours. Always remember, when healing leaky gut, avoid processed and refined foods. Think about calming the inflammation. Also, steer clear of conventionally raised animal products that contain traces of antibiotics.
ratios matter | You can optimize your digestion (and avoid bacterial overgrowth in the small intestine) by following certain principles of food combining. As babies, most of us have an inner ecosystem teeming with bifidobacteria—especially if we are breastfed. But as we age, the numbers of bifidobacteria decline. Studies show that bifidobacteria produce special fats that feed intestinal cells. These fats, called short-chain fatty acids, also team up with the immune system and get rid of inflammation.
Genetics | And here’s where genetics can come in to play too. The FUT2 gene controls how much bifidobacteria you carry in your digestive tract. It decides whether or not the body will show blood type tags in bodily secretions (like saliva, gastric juice, and breast milk) and in the lining of the gut. Everyone has a blood type, but not all of us communicate our blood type in saliva and in the mucus lining the gut.
These secretions (and whether or not they contain tags for our blood type) influence the kind of bacteria that grow in the gut. Roughly 20% of people carry a variation of the FUT2 gene that does not allow the body to reveal its blood type in secretions and in the lining of the gut. This 20%, called non-secretors, is also unable to house a robust community of bifidobacteria. This may leave those vulnerable to autoimmune disorders, inflammatory bowel disease, Candidiasis or even B12 deficiency.
Want to go even deeper into all things leaky guy?
Dive into our Donna Gates gut health archives to learn more!