Let me start by saying, I don't like the term leaky gut.
Leaky gut is something that is being talked about all the time. And as a GI dietitian, I love the fact that people are digging deeper into their own health and discovering the root causes of why they’ve been feeling crappy for so long.
But the term leaky gut is a bit misleading and doesn't sound very evidence based. So let's clarify what it is (and isn't) shall we?
What is Leaky Gut?
The truth is, all of our guts are technically a bit “leaky" (or semi-permeable). This is normal digestion and absorption. In order for our bodies to be able to utilize the nutrients from our food, food needs to be broken down and get from our digestive tract to our cells via the bloodstream.
I like to think of the gut like a kingdom that has guards standing by, shoulder to shoulder and protecting the gate to entry. These "guards" are the tight gap junctions that in a healthy gut will naturally have good control over what is allowed inside the kingdom (the bloodstream) and what is kept out (for example, bad bacteria, toxins or incompletely broken down food).
To understand further, when we consume food, through the process of digestion, food is broken down into components until they’re small – really small – small enough to be absorbed and pass through the lining of the digestive tract and then into the bloodstream. These food components are micronutrients (vitamins, minerals, amino acids, monosaccharides, etc). As an example, a complex carbohydrate molecule is broken down into individual simple sugar molecule such as glucose. Glucose is then small enough to be absorbed (pass through the lining of the gut), enter the blood stream and be carried to our cells where it can be utilized.
It is also possible for our digestive tract have increased intestinal permeability (or hyperpermeability aka "leaky gut") and now those tight gap junctions aren't so tight (back to the kingdom analogy - think of it as having less guards at the gate, so instead of guards standing shoulder to shoulder, there is a guard every 15 feet). When this happens, things that normally would be kept out like undigested food particles, toxins, bacteria can get through, they then become marked as foreign by your immune system and your immune system attacks.
Causes of Increased Intestinal Permeability
Increased intestinal permeability (aka leaky gut) – can be caused by a number of things. If you’re feeling symptomatic, it can require some detective work to get to the bottom of things.
It wasn’t that long ago that leaky gut was brushed off as pseudoscience. But, research has uncovered mechanisms to explain why some people are experiencing symptoms.
For example, the work of Dr. Fasano discovered that gluten can trigger leaky gut for some people. He discovered a protein called zonulin which is the main "gatekeeper" (that we know of at this time) of those tight gap junctions mentioned earlier (1, 2, 3). Discovering zonulin was an important advancement in science because it was something that we can actually detect and measure.
In our chaotic modern lifestyle, your dietary choices are one important factor in how permeable your intestinal lining is, but diet is far from the only factor. Other factors can cause increased permeability.
● Having an infection, such as traveler’s diarrhea, SIBO or candida overgrowth
● Certain medications
● Chronic stress
● Certain food additives
Foods That Can Contribute to Leaky Gut
While there is no need to have a “perfect” diet but our habitual choices over time influence our health for the long run. To cultivate a healthy intestinal tract and prevent an increase in intestinal permeability, you might choose to avoid:
● Excessive added sugar
● Alcohol (2)
● Highly processed foods
● Unnecessary additives, such as emulsifiers and preservatives (for example, polysorbate 80) (3)
● Foods that you are sensitive too that may be causing inflammation. Common offenders are soy, gluten and corn although a person can be sensitive to any food (even ones typically considered "healthy").
Foods That Can Heal Leaky Gut
There are a few mechanisms in which foods can promote having a sound intestinal barrier. Different foods offer different benefits. Overall, a healthy eating plan is one with lots of fruits and vegetables, diversity, lots of water and not too many unnecessary additives.
Easier said than done, right?
Here are a few foods that may help to heal leaky gut.
Including probiotics and fermented foods keeps the population of “good guys” in your gut microbiome happy. Probiotics can come from fermented foods (if they’re not pasteurized) as well as supplements.
● Yogurt (if you tolerate dairy)
● Fermented pickles
● Raw apple cider vinegar
Tip: supplements are not regulated in the USA. Please work with a knowledgeable practitioner to source high-quality supplements.
High Fiber Foods
Fruits, vegetables, nuts and seeds are all rich sources of naturally occurring fiber. We can’t actually digest fiber, but the cool thing is, the bacteria in our digestive system can. Fiber is their food.
By having a fiber-rich diet, you are enjoying the health benefits for your own body as well as setting out the welcome mat (and a snack) for the bacteria in our gut that we want to thrive.
● Fruits, especially berries and pears
● Vegetables, especially leafy greens, beans, and pears
● Nuts and seeds - almonds, chia seeds, flaxseeds
● Whole grains - as tolerated
And before you reach for a fiber supplement, consider the fact that the above foods have fiber plus many other vitamins, minerals and phytochemicals – all with health-boosting properties. A fiber supplement is only that: fiber.
Note of caution: supplementing fiber can cause constipation in some individuals.
Herbs and Spices
You may be surprised to learn that your spice cabinet can offer relief more than your medicine cabinet. Cooking with herbs and spices not only boosts the flavor and satisfaction of your meals, they also offer anti-inflammatory benefits, too!
● Turmeric (pair with black pepper for best absorption)
● Garlic - if tolerated (garlic is a high FODMAP food)
Bone Broth (aka collagen)
Collagen can help to promote the integrity of your intestinal lining (4). While it sounds tricky to make bone broth, you can boil your chicken bones after having a roasted chicken for a few hours - et voila!
You can also buy bone broth or collagen supplements. Collagen can be added to hot coffee, smoothies or used in your golden milk turmeric latte.
Note: “chicken stock” may or may not be rich in collagen, the beneficial protein that helps our gut.
Foods Rich in Zinc
Food rich in zinc, or even zinc supplements, can strengthen the gut linings (5). Meat, shellfish, nuts, seeds and (wonderfully), chocolate, are all good sources of zinc.
Note: Be cautious of supplementing with too much zinc or for too long as a delicate balance between zinc and copper needs to be maintained.
Anti -Inflammatory Diet
While the above suggestions focused on individual foods for their specific impact on the gut lining, what you eat overall matters and having a diet that is anti-inflammatory for your body supports the health of your gut lining, minimizing leaky gut. My work with my clients is personalized, helping them to have a truly personalized nutrition plan that promotes their best health.
Bottom line: Foods for Leaky Gut
You don’t have to assume that just because the term leaky gut is trending that you are experiencing it.
But if you are not feeling well and your doctors have been unable to get to the bottom of your symptoms, it might be time to see a specialist. As a GI Specialist Dietitian, I help women get to the bottom of their GI issues for good.