Leaky gut, otherwise known as intestinal permeability, is a major underlying cause of many health issues including IBS, headaches, weight gain, Hashimoto’s thyroiditis, anxiety, depression, autoimmune conditions, and allergies. These tips will help demystify leaky gut and empower you with steps to wellness.
What is Leaky Gut?
Leaky gut happens in the small intestine, the section of your digestive system that lies between your stomach (the first stop in our food’s transit through our bodies; this is where the food we eat is digested into a form our bodies can use), and large intestine (the final leg of our food’s journey before the unusable parts are eliminated as feces). When it arrives at the small intestine, food should be thoroughly broken down so that only the nutrients are able to make their way through the walls of your small intestine and into your blood where they are circulated throughout your body.
The cells that make up the walls of the intestines replace themselves every 72 hours and are quite vulnerable to stress. So if you are under psychological stress or if your digestive tract is under stress—from exposure to medications, antibiotics, alcohol, or caffeine, for example—then the cells making up the intestinal walls are not as healthy as they should be. It is these unhealthy cells that can allow food that is not fully digested to “leak” through the intestinal wall and into the space underneath where your immune system is on guard for anything that shouldn’t be there, like viruses and bacteria. If your immune system notices partially undigested proteins and food, it mounts an immune response—an attack—to get rid of these foreign bodies that are threatening your health. This attack leads to an inflammatory response, which creates still more stress on your system resulting in further damage to the intestinal wall.
Do I Have Leaky Gut?
In many cases, the inflammation caused by leaky gut causes digestive symptoms such as heartburn, gas, bloating, diarrhea, constipation, cramping, and hemorrhoids. However, you might also start to suspect leaky gut if you have any of the following ongoing symptoms:
- Achiness and pain, such as head or joint pain
- Menstrual pain
- Unexplained headaches
- Allergies and/or allergic reactions on your skin
- Weight issues such as weight gain or difficulty gaining weight
- An autoimmune condition such as lupus, rheumatoid arthritis, or multiple sclerosis
Dr. Doni’s Five-Step Program for Healing Leaky Gut
One of the difficulties with diagnosing and treating leaky gut is that one size definitely does not fit all. The combination of causes and treatments are unique to every person who has it. This means it is important to investigate the causes for each individual patient—there is no “off-the-shelf” solution.
>> Step 1: Eliminate the Cause(s)
Eliminating the causes can involve avoiding certain foods in your diet, especially those with a direct influence on gut permeation, (such as gluten) and optimizing the balance of healthy bacteria in the small and large intestines. I recommend a simple IgG and IgA food sensitivity test that will supply valuable information about the best course of treatment for you, including which foods to eliminate from your diet.
>> Step 2: Digest at Your Best
The first step of digestion, from the moment you even think of taking a bite, is to break down your food so your body can access the nutrients. If your body cannot easily digest the food you eat (which can also be determined by genetics and stress exposure), leaky gut and much discomfort may follow. Alongside this, ensuring you take time to chew your food thoroughly and not eat too much (especially carbohydrates) in one sitting will give your body a better chance of digesting well.
>> Step 3: Assess Your Stress
Studies show that stress of any kind (emotional or physical) increases your likelihood of developing leaky gut, so, in addition to eliminating certain foods and taking supplements, healing it has to address the stress factors. Meditation and mindfulness have been shown to reduce stress, as has regular exercise. By simply integrating these activities into your daily schedule, you’ll be helping your body to recover from stress and healing your leaky gut.
>> Step 4: Ingest the Solution
Research is currently being done to clarify what helps the recovery of our intestinal cells. While we wait for the results, we focus on the amino acid that is an important fuel to the small intestinal cells: L-glutamine. We combine this with anti-inflammatory herbs that support a natural healing process such as licorice (DGL), quercetin, aloe, slippery elm, and curcumin. We also add MSM (methylsulfonylmethane), which provides sulfur that helps the tight junctions to heal, and zinc, which is essential for healthy new cells in the intestinal lining. Colostrum, which stabilizes the immune system and promotes healing of the intestines, is also beneficial. By taking these supplements orally, we can get all of them to the location of your leaky gut—the small intestine.
>> Step 5: Optimize Healthy Bacteria
There are several possible scenarios in which the bacteria that should be healthfully living in your large intestine can be thrown off track. You could have taken a lot of antibiotics that killed the healthy bacteria and allowed yeast (most frequently Candida) to grow in its place. Or perhaps you’ve overdone the fermented foods such as sauerkraut, kombucha, and yogurt, and they’ve become happily situated in a place that requires a careful balance of the right bacteria.
Once we know more about any imbalance of bacteria in your gut, we can start to change the environment so the healthiest bacteria are able to flourish and protect your body. Keep in mind, however, that healthy bacteria require a healthy intestinal lining, so treating leaky gut and stabilizing your digestion is an ongoing process alongside maintaining the right balance of gut bacteria.
By Doni Wilson, ND