What Is Intestinal Permeability and Leaky Gut and How Can We Heal It?
Let’s start here: intestinal permeability is not a bad thing. In fact, it’s a normal function of your intestines to allow nutrients to pass through the lining of the gut wall and into your bloodstream. Everyone needs some degree of intestinal permeability, or we wouldn’t absorb any nutrients from our food.
The problem with intestinal permeability occurs when the gaps between the delicate cells in the gut lining get a little too lax, and bigger openings allow bigger molecules of undigested food, toxins, even pathogens like parasites and the natural microbes in our intestines to escape into the bloodstream, forcing our detox and immune systems to work harder.
Unchecked, this slow leakiness will eventually result in disease: IBD, gluten sensitivity, food allergies, autoimmune reactivity, and many more illnesses, even beyond the gut.
Fortunately, there are a number of ways to protect and strengthen a leaky gut, seal the tight junctions between the cells of the gut lining, and restore health, even in the most problematic of cases.
How Your Gut Lining Works
The specialized cells lining your gut are designed to absorb the nutrients from your food into the bloodstream, allowing those nutrients to travel to wherever they are needed in the body. These cells are called enterocytes, and they’re covered with enzymes that promote digestion as well as mucus that helps food and waste slide through the intestines. Enterocytes absorb water, glucose, peptides and amino acids, lipids, vitamins, and bile from the liver. Between these cells are spaces called tight junctions.
Think of your gut lining as a completed tower of Jenga blocks. The blocks are perfectly lined up so that there are little to no gaps between them, and the tower stands strong and stable. Then, as you play the game, you begin to remove blocks. Gaps appear in the structure and it becomes more and more unstable until eventually, it crashes down.
This is what happens when your gut becomes leaky. The very small gaps between the cells (blocks) only allow microscopic nutrients to pass through and block any larger harmful molecules from escaping into the bloodstream. The structure remains intact.
But as pathogens, toxins, and stress widen those gaps over time (removing the blocks), more and more of those harmful antagonists slip through the barrier. They perhaps even steal the actual nutrients you need with them, creating more and more gaps in the lining.
Eventually, there are so many gaps that they disrupt correct function in the gut lining, even as your body is constantly trying to rebuild itself (replacing the blocks on top of the tower). And finally, the structure collapses––disease manifests.
What Causes Leaky Gut?
As mentioned above, the causes of leaky gut typically come down to three main causes: pathogens, toxins, and stress on the body. But these can manifest in a host of different ways.
Pathogens or microscopic organisms can look like:
- Native or invading yeast or fungi, like the many kinds of candida
- Parasites, such as helminths (ex: roundworms or hookworms) or protozoa (ex: giardia or cryptosporidium)
- An overgrowth of beneficial bacteria such as lactobacillus acidophilus or bifidobacteria.
Toxins can look like:
- Heavy metals such as mercury and lead
- Chemicals found in personal care products
- Pesticides, such as glyphosate
- Medications (not that they can’t also be useful; don’t go off your medications without consulting a doctor!).
Stress can look like all of the above, as well as:
- Undereating/ lack of nutrient absorption
- Emotional stress
- Hard exercise (forcing the muscles to break down and rebuild)
- Lack of social connection
- Looping negative thoughts/ anxiety
- Hormone imbalances
- Poor sleep.
Think about how many of these issues you may be dealing with right now. If you are juggling even a few of them, that puts a lot of pressure on your gut lining and your digestion, not to mention your immune system.
However, it’s important not to get overwhelmed by these factors; you’ll just be adding more stress to the mix! Make a list of the components you need to work on, and start with the easiest ones, usually nutrition and mindset. When you get those foundations in place, moving on to testing and addressing pathogens, heavy metals, and other more complex issues becomes much easier.
What’s a Good Intestinal Permeability Test?
There are many ways to test for a leaky gut, but since leaky gut is so common, many functional or integrative practitioners will simply diagnose based on a patient’s symptoms.
Since the optimal function of the gut and the gut lining is so integral to our health and wellbeing, any sign of nutrient deficiencies, fatigue, joint/structural pain, or immune issues point toward a leaky gut. Digestive symptoms such as bloating, gas, diarrhea, constipation, and abdominal pain also indicate leaky gut. Certainly, preexisting autoimmune conditions or metabolic disease point toward leaky gut as well.
A comprehensive stool analysis can also find markers of leaky gut such as increased IgG antibodies (high immune response), and the presence of zonulin, a protein that regulates the tight junctions in the gut lining.
Food sensitivities are a classic indicator of leaky gut as well, but testing may not be very reliable or provide useful information. Tracking your food intake for a few weeks and journaling your symptoms may be the best way to identify whether certain foods cause digestive symptoms or even affect your mental health.
How to Heal Leaky Gut
It seems that just about everyone has an opinion on the best ways to heal a leaky gut, but it’s important to know that each person will have their own unique path to healing.
Probiotics are often touted as a great cure for leaky gut, but since everyone’s microbiome is a little different depending on their diet, genetics, and environment, the results from probiotics vary widely. Where one person may see amazing benefits from a specific probiotic, another may see no benefits at all, or may even experience worse symptoms. There is no one-size-fits-all approach, but there are some general practices that do most people some good.
Prioritize a nutrient dense and easy-to-digest diet. First things first: your body needs nutrients to heal itself and perform the bazillion functions it needs to perform every day.
Lower stress, increase rest. While you’re dialing in your nutrition, you also need to look at what is causing you undue stress in your life and take steps to begin reducing it. At the same time, you can start incorporating more restful activities and sleep to show your body that it’s safe to heal.
Supplement smart. Using supplements can be extremely helpful when used correctly, in addition to an optimal diet.
What Foods Help Leaky Gut?
Foods to Avoid for Leaky Gut
You’re probably already familiar with most of these suggestions: they’re essentially the foods that every doctor has told you to avoid, but there are maybe some surprising exceptions listed here that you wouldn’t have thought of.
Start healing a leaky gut by removing these foods from your everyday diet:
Refined, processed foods, including oils. This means low-quality sunflower, safflower, palm, corn, peanut, and soy oil you can find in almost any processed snack, even the “healthy” ones. Unless it’s high-quality and cold-pressed like Bodybio Balance Oil, these oils are among the worst offenders to your gut. Even worse than refined sugars, in our opinion!
Low-quality dairy, especially from cows
Grains, especially glutinous varieties
Food additives, like gums and citric acid. Again, these are present in just about every processed/packaged food out there. Read your labels!
Pesticides. One of the easiest ways to lower the burden on your gut is to simply start soaking and washing your produce. Even organic food can pick up any number of toxins and bacteria on its way from the farm to your grocery store. Use a combination of filtered water, vinegar, and baking soda for a produce soak that will help drastically reduce the number of irritants that can make their way to your gut lining.
Raw vegetables that are difficult to digest. Raw veggies are often praised as great sources of nutrients and amazing healers for our bodies, but they can often be difficult for the body to break down. This will be different for everyone, but if you notice that you crash an hour or two after eating a huge salad filled with fresh greens and raw veggies for lunch, there’s a high chance that your system is having trouble breaking that food down and making you tired in the process. Try cutting back a little on the veg, and make sure that what you do consume is cooked (steamed, roasted, etc.) to help break down those tough fibers.
High amounts of nuts and seeds. Again, many influencers and even nutritionists promote nuts and seeds as a staple in the ideal diet, but they can also be harsh on the gut. If you’re grabbing handfuls of almonds or digging into the peanut butter jar every day, cut back to once or twice a week and see how you feel. Also try to go for soaked, sprouted, and organic varieties for your nuts and seeds.
Foods to Heal a Leaky Gut
Incorporating more of these foods is a good place to start for healing leaky gut.
- Bone broth
- Coconut products
- Pastured Eggs
- Ghee or grass-fed butter
- Grass-fed beef
- Wild caught fish
- Fermented vegetables
Obviously, you should avoid any food you have a sensitivity to, and work on reintroducing it later when your gut has had more of a chance to heal. With foods like yogurt, kombucha, and fermented vegetables, it’s best to go slow at first and increase over time.
| Related Post: What Foods Can Help Increase Your Butyrate Levels?
Lower Stress to Heal a Leaky Gut
Stress is an underappreciated cause of leaky gut and all other chronic diseases, for that matter. Even when we don’t necessarily feel overly stressed, modern life tends to force us to constantly operate from a state of fight or flight, so that we often don’t even recognize when our bodies are under constant stress.
For this reason, implementing practices that help you slow down, breathe deeper, and initiate that rest and digest response are critical to healing leaky gut––and lowering stress is often the missing piece when everything else has been addressed and healing still isn’t taking root.
We have to make lowering stress a habitual part of our daily lives. Moderate mindful activities like yoga, walking, or dancing can be a great place to start if meditation or stillness seems too challenging (a sure sign that your mind and body need to slow down). Even just a daily practice of doing 10 deep belly breaths can have amazing calming effects on the nervous system and digestion.
You can also try:
- Guided meditation
- Emotional Freedom Technique (EFT or tapping)
- Writing a gratitude list.
These are all practices designed to lower stress and promote rest, relaxation, and even contentment. When we approach our healing from this state, the body can much more easily restore itself.
Supplements to Support Leaky Gut
Supplements can be very helpful in healing the gut, but every individual is unique. We recommend speaking to a functional/integrative medicine practitioner before starting supplementation.
As a component in more than three hundred enzymes and a benefactor in additional physiological processes, zinc (particularly in a liquefied form, such our Liquid Mineral Zinc) deserves a little more attention. Zinc is a metal that is needed for a variety of cell functions, including the care of the tight junctions.
Zinc maintains intestinal barrier function as well as modulates intercellular integrity and signaling activity, aka cell communication. In a randomized controlled study of patients who were suffering from long term effects of regular aspirin use (ulcers, bleeds in the digestive tract, etc) patients who were given zinc carnosine showed remarkable improvement in the integrity of their small intestine in only 4 weeks.
Butyrate helps to improve mucosal barrier dysfunction. Butyrate is a short chain fatty acid (SCFA) made from fermenting resistant starch, such as potatoes, rice, and under ripe bananas. However, most of us do not eat enough resistant starch, and we have deficiencies of this integral SCFA.
Butyrate works systemically, but the colon is where it acts as the main energy source for the colonocytes. It creates a happy environment for gut bacteria to reside, while encouraging a functional immune system.* In doing so, it helps seal tight junctions to prevent the passage of foreign agents that would cause harm.*
Butyrate is a definitive and powerful promoter of intestinal barrier integrity and stability. It plays an important regulatory role on fluid transport through the gut lining, improves mucosal inflammation and oxidation, reinforces the epithelial defense barrier, and modulates visceral sensitivity and intestinal motility.* But in case you think that’s not enough, it also has influence beyond the gut.
To learn more about Bodybio Butyrate with in our Butyrate/Gut+ Guide, or check out this blog post all about the SCFAs.
The gut mucus layer stops enemy microbes from gaining entrance to the circulatory system by protecting the tight junctions from coming into contact with bacteria. Gut mucus has long been deemed a passive barrier, but a recent study has found that it has a strong influence on the microbiome. A compromised mucus barrier correlates with symptoms of food allergies, as well as more serious conditions, such as ulcerative colitis, Crohn’s and cystic fibrosis.
The most effective way to ensure healthy mucus production is with adequate phospholipids, which account for a very high percentage of its structure. Of those phospholipids, phosphatidylcholine (PC) makes up the greatest mass and volume.
Since mucus is the first line of defense against bacterial degradation of the gut barrier and resulting inflammation, supporting phospholipids in the colon seems like an easy solution. Although the gut can make its own PC by one of several pathways (including the methylation of phosphatidylethanolamine with SAMe), supplemental intake is much more effective.
In the absence of sufficient PC and mucus, the intestinal barrier is predisposed to bacterial invasion. BodyBio PC is a phospholipid complex that supports cellular architecture and signaling, as well as mucosal stability.*
N-acetyl glucosamine (NAG)
NAG is a lesser known supplement that supports the production of the protective mucus layer that keeps stomach acid in its rightful place instead of eating its way through the lining of the stomach and intestines. It gives you extra protection against stomach and intestinal ulcers by facilitating healthy mucus growth in the gut.
It has also been shown to support the growth of bifidobacteria, which is commonly found in probiotics that are designed to protect the gut, which could explain why it is so effective at treating and preventing stomach ulcers. In addition, it is commonly found in supplements that are prescribed to people suffering from joint inflammation, and has also been found to reduce inflammation caused by inflammatory bowel conditions such as ulcerative colitis and Crohn’s disease.*
A flavonoid commonly found in fruits and vegetables, quercetin initially gained fame for its ability to act as a sort of lion tamer with the histamine allergic response. That itchy feeling on your skin (or in your sinuses) that occurs when it’s allergy season? That’s a histamine response, and quercetin plays a key role in getting it to calm down. What is less known is that histamines can aggravate the digestive tract in the exact same way it irritates your skin.
Luckily, quercetin has the ability to stabilize mast cells (immune responder cells), preventing a histamine response that has the capacity to damage your gut. Quercetin is also believed to support the tight junctions that uphold the integrity of the digestive tract, and limits the body’s absorption of endotoxins, which contributes to a reduced rate of inflammation and infection.
Conclusion: What is the fastest way to heal leaky gut?
Ah, therein lies the paradox. If you’ve read the full post up until now, you’re probably getting the idea that there is no fast way to heal a leaky gut. Healing leaky gut is an inherently slow and deliberate process. Especially if you are going through a major change in diet and lifestyle, you can’t expect to see immediate results, as you would with a magic pill. Supplements are helpful supporters, but they will not solve the problem entirely. Manage your expectations by tracking your healing over months, not weeks.
The trick is to see this slow deliberate healing process as an opportunity: to learn, to evolve your habits, and to set a foundation for healthy living for the rest of your life. Healing leaky gut, and any disease resulting from it, is possible. Give yourself grace and time to go at your own pace and make mistakes along the way. Hang in there and trust the process. Your gut will thank you!| Related Post: What is Phosphatidylcholine and How Can It Benefit Your Health?
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