It seems like everyone is talking about gut health. These days, you can’t open a magazine or web page without reading the word “gut” or seeing the term “leaky gut.”
But does this newly minted buzzword really deserve all this attention?
Yes, it absolutely does.
There have been incredible amounts of research on this topic to give us the answers we all seek. As a Certified ISSA Fitness Nutrition Specialist and a NASM Certified Personal Trainer, I have 2+ years of experience coaching clients in stabilizing their gut health.
Much of these findings can be life-changing.
In this piece, you will find an in-depth review of what leaky gut is, what the causes are, and how to treat it naturally.
Without further ado, let’s get into it!
First things first, the term “gut” is the colloquial term for the digestive system. It encompasses every organ between your mouth and your anus.
The major organs include:
and the small and large intestines (1)
Throughout this gastrointestinal tube is a diverse microscopic community of bacteria. You have a symbiotic relationship with most of these single-celled organisms.
The beneficial bacteria support your immune system, detoxify from chemicals, and boost nutrient absorption. (7)
Think of this healthy bacteria as your gut’s best friend.
A diverse and strong population of these helpful creatures is necessary for a strong digestive system.
Everything that you breathe, drink, and eat enters your gastrointestinal tube. In the digestive system, ingested molecules succumb to a fate that includes some or all of the following…
All consumed molecules are broken down into individual particles.
The harmful toxins and pathogens are asked to politely exit the body by the beneficial bacteria, thus reinforcing their good intentions (see not all bacteria are bad).
Low stomach acid helps further break down the particles, and the macronutrients, micronutrients, and toxins are filtered by the liver.
Most importantly, necessary nutrients are absorbed for use throughout the body.
Lastly, the unabsorbed digestive waste is eliminated. (2)
Let’s harp on the most important mechanism in this process, absorption.
There are three ways in which substances are absorbed and enter the bloodstream.
First, chloride, potassium, magnesium, sodium, and free fatty acids diffuse through intestinal walls. (8)
Second, the small intestine absorbs glucose (carbohydrates), fatty acids (fats), and amino acids (proteins) from food particles as well as vitamins and minerals through a mechanism called active transport. (8)
Stick with me, the following points clarify what leaky gut is.
These food particles are grabbed by microscopic fingers called villi. There are hundreds of thousands of villi lining your digestive system. Each villus (one individual protrusion) is covered with a network of capillaries and lymphatic vessels. These special structures allow nutrients to pass from your digestive tract into your bloodstream. (3)
Now here is the important part.
In a healthy gut, the cell lining is one cell thick, and the cells are tightly packed.
In a leaky gut, there is actually a leak. There are spaces between the cells.
This creates increased intestinal permeability and a third route for substances to pass into the bloodstream. (8)
This is bad news.
These abnormally large gaps between the cells make it possible for undigested food particles, harmful bacteria, and toxins to enter into the bloodstream. (5)
This allows particles that were never intended to survive the grueling journey through the gastrointestinal tube and that would have never been transported by the discerning eye of the ultra-intelligent villi to enter your sacred bloodstream.
These unwanted substances are foreign and trigger an antibody reaction in the body. (8)
These gaps in your intestinal lining cause inflammation and negative changes in your gut bacteria. (4)
The unwelcome intruders that take advantage of these porous portals have been blamed for everything from:
and autoimmune diseases (6)
The list above is not an exaggeration, gut health really is tied to every single one of these.
Poor nutrition damages your intestinal lining in two ways:
First, it allows the introduction of chemicals into your body. Chemicals enter when you consume conventional produce and animal products.
Second, there is emerging research that the SAD (Standard American Diet) which is low in fiber, high in sugar, and high in saturated fat initiates leaky gut. (4)
Processed grains, processed meats, processed sugars, gluten, dairy, and refined oils all contribute to the deterioration of gut cells. The consumption of alcohol is also a contributing factor.
There is a relationship between exposure to toxins and leaky gut. Toxins can enter your system in a myriad of ways.
They can be inhaled or consumed.
Recent research indicates that most houses have over 33 different chemicals in household dust. (13)
That’s a lot of potentially harmful chemicals.
Most of these pollutants come from cleaning and personal care products. (6)
The consumption of chemical-filled water is also of grave concern. More than 700 chemicals have been discovered in our drinking water, and 129 of them have been noted as a health concern by the EPA. You can read more about the dangers of harmful drinking water here.
Medications are consistently a huge problem. That includes prescription and over the counter medications.
First, they can be a high contributor of toxic chemicals.
Second, they can have side effects including the interference of food assimilation. (13)
Third, medications kill healthy bacteria in the gut lining and allow for the growth of pathogenic bacteria. (13)
Cigarette smoke and its highly noxious ingredients are also a factor for several bowel conditions and increased inflammation in the digestive tract. (5)
It is essential that you have a healthy population of beneficial bacteria throughout your digestive system.
They help keep you healthy, neutralize pathogens, break down molecules, and absorb food particles.
There is a large body of evidence that an unhealthy balance, meaning a high number of bad bacteria in relation to good bacteria directly affects the epithelial lining of the digestive system. (6)
The worst offenders are the neurotransmitter epinephrine (also known as adrenaline) and the hormone cortisol. (14) Epinephrine and cortisol are associated with the “fight or flight” response. The fight or flight response system diverts energy within your body from nonessential functions including digestion to your muscles to give you the strength to flee from danger. (14)
This is the worse part…
The chronic activation of this response mechanism is extremely taxing on your system. You can feel the effects of physical stress on your body, but emotional stress is also exceedingly taxing and dangerous.
Anxiety negatively affects every system in the body including impaired digestion and reduced nutrient assimilation.
Stress also includes inadequate sleep. Studies show that poor sleep can damage healthy gut bacteria. (5) Just one night of impaired sleep can affect eating patterns, reduce the intestinal bacterial population, and reduce neurological function.
Bottom line, your mental health plays a huge role in determining your gut health.
Diagnosing leaky gut can be tricky, but there are some telltale indicators. The first notable signs of leaky gut are digestive distress, and including the following:
and/or diarrhea are almost always present (8)
Bladder and yeast infections are also commonly seen. Some seemingly unrelated symptoms are muscle and/or joint pain, mood swings, anxiety, and brain fog. (8)
If you suspect that you have leaky gut, you probably do!
Although a little controversial and often unnecessary, there is a medical test that can confirm leaky gut.
It is called the mannitol and lactose test.
Both mannitol and lactose are water-soluble. To complete the test, you drink a solution of both chemicals and have your urine collected six hours later. The amount of each present in your urine quantifies your intestinal permeability.
High levels of both in your urine indicate leaky gut. (8)
In order to treat leaky gut, you need to remove the following contributing factors and repair the intestinal lining of your digestive tube:
Genetically modified foods, pesticide containing foods, and antibiotic/hormone-containing foods need to be eliminated. You also need to avoid processed grains, processed meats, processed sugars, and gluten as well as refined oils and dairy. (5)
It is essential that you terminate the use of all conventional cleaning and body care products. They contain chemicals, dyes, and perfumes that are poisonous to the body.
But don’t forget this.
Stop drinking unfiltered tap water. It is also imperative that you limit the use of medications and stop smoking.
Now that you’ve eliminated potentially harmful chemicals from your diet, adding the following to your diet/lifestyle will help you further heal your gut:
It is important to eat organic foods as much as possible. This ensures that the food is non-gmo and free of pesticides, antibiotics, and additional hormones.
A diet that improves digestive health needs to include fibrous and fermented vegetables, fruits, healthy fats, and lean, unprocessed meats. (5)
N-butyrate is a short-chain fatty acid that helps feed the cells that line the gut and facilitate the healing process. Your gut bacteria can produce more n-butyrate if you feed them soluble fibers that are found in fruits and vegetables.
N-butyrate is also present in healthy fats including ghee and coconut oil so include those in your diet. (12)
Drink clean filtered water. There are many filter options. They include purifying pitchers, countertop filters, under sink filters, and whole house filters. In addition to convenience, cost, and price, arguably the most important factor is the removal of contaminants.
Select a filter that removes or reduces lead, radium, arsenic, radioactive substances including radium, uranium, thorium, and radon, copper, chlorine, perfluorooctanoic acid, the main ingredient in non-stick pans, perchlorate, a component of rocket fuel and fireworks, nitrate, and mercury.
A great option is the Big Berkey Countertop Water Filter System.
Digestive enzymes are proteins in the digestive system that help with the breakdown and absorption of nutrients.
Your body makes them out of the amino acids that you eat; however, with a modern lifestyle and age, your body makes less of these enzymes.
Each macronutrient has its own enzyme.
Protease breaks down protein into amino acids. Lipase breaks down fat into fatty acids, and amylase breaks down carbohydrates into glucose.
Increasing digestive enzymes can help break down large proteins and bacterial products that can damage the lining of the gut. (12)
Foods with digestive enzymes include pineapple, papaya, mango, banana, honey, avocado, kimchi, sauerkraut, miso, kiwi, and ginger. In addition to food sources, you can also supplement with digestive enzymes.
In a healthy body, you need to have a large and diverse population of friendly bacteria throughout your digestive tract.
You can eat foods containing probiotics.
These include fermented vegetables, kombucha, pickles, tempeh, and miso.
You can also take a probiotic supplement.
If you have issues with leaky gut, I recommend a probiotic like 1MD Platinum Probiotic (found in this review here) or you can try a more complete supplement that includes both probiotics, prebiotics (probiotic food), and additional leaky gut improving ingredients like the amino acid l-glutamine which feeds your gut cells.
Another common issue people have with leaky gut issues are candida overgrowth. If you are looking for a probiotic to help with this, check out our review on the best probiotics for candida overgrowth here. https://www.myphenomfitness.com/best-candida-cleanse-to-get-rid-of-symptoms-science-backed-guide/
It doesn’t need to stop there.
You can take a high-quality collagen supplement. There are several options when it comes to collagen supplementation including collagen peptides, marine collagen, bovine collagen, and bone broth powder.
All have proven positive effects on the reduction of the spaces between the cells in the digestive lining. (9)
To learn more about collagen, check out this collagen guide.
Recent research indicates that marine collagen which is derived from fish is one of the most bioavailable and efficient collagen supplements. Click here to learn more.
Stress management is also essential. Stress hormones wreak havoc on health and impair digestive function.
Activities like meditation and yoga can help heal these junctions by reducing stress neurotransmitters and hormones and increasing the happy hormones dopamine and oxytocin. (12)
Take it a step further.
Mindful eating is imperative. Eating in a calm, pleasant place and having gratitude for your food improves digestion.
Don’t forget adequate sleep. You need at least 7 hours of sleep per night to rest, restore, and repair your body. (12)
Finally, move your body! It has been proven that cardiovascular exercise helps with the transportation of oxygen throughout your body and digestive system.
This supports the bacteria in your digestive system especially the n-butyrate generating beneficial bacteria. 150 minutes of heart rate increasing exercise is recommended. (12)
There you have it! In this article, we went over what leaky gut is, how to know if you have it, and steps to take in order to heal your leaky gut.
Ideally, any individual who is able to follow the advice outlined above should be able to heal their leaky gut in 2 weeks.
There is obviously a plethora of information in this article, but building knowledge on the subject doesn’t have to stop here. If you’re looking to learn more, check out my piece on Leaky Gut Diet Plan.
I’ve helped countless clients heal their leaky gut, thus transforming their lives. I’ve seen that this experience of empowerment propels my clients to delve deeper into the topic and take on lifelong learning. Your gut health will be something that you take with you for the rest of your life. The fact that it is so intrinsically rooted in everything we do in life means that the rewards for taking care of it are bountiful.
Wishing you the best of luck on your gut health journey!