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How to Heal Leaky Gut: Identifying Symptoms and Treating the Root Cause

Look just about anywhere online these days and you're likely to find blogs, social media, and functional medicine practitioners talking about it. It's even been declared the culprit for everything from autism to chronic fatigue syndrome. And while mainstream health practitioners once sniffed at the whole concept of leaky gut syndrome—and there still remains little evidence to support some of the claims—more and more studies are beginning to back up the assertions that increased intestinal permeability plays a part in a number of health problems. Although it's encouraging that conventional medicine is finally catching up with what many have suspected for years, anyone currently suffering with the condition probably just wants to know how to heal leaky gut. 

If that describes you, then you've come to the right place. Because, in this article, we're going to take a closer look at leaky gut symptoms and the steps you can take to address the root cause and finally put leaky gut syndrome behind you for good.

What Is Leaky Gut Syndrome?

The body's digestive system is made up of the esophagus, stomach, small intestine, and colon. After the food we eat begins the digestive process in the stomach, it then travels down the digestive tract to the small intestine and colon, where more than 4,000 square feet of intestinal lining determines what's absorbed into the bloodstream.

When we have a healthy gut, the epithelial tight junctions—barriers formed by cell membranes joined together via protein strands—of the gut lining form a tight barrier that keeps toxins, microbes, and undigested food particles from permeating the intestinal wall and entering the bloodstream.

However, if the gut lining becomes damaged in some way, the tight junctions can weaken and allow these substances to enter the rest of the body. And this can trigger an immune response that leads to a disruption in the gut's microbiome. 

What's more, a potentially vicious cycle of chronic inflammation may develop as an unfortunate side effect of the immune system's constant attacks on foreign particles.

Although the science is still in its infancy, a number of health issues have already been linked to poor gut health. These include:

What Causes Leaky Gut Syndrome?

While the exact cause of leaky gut syndrome hasn't been identified, like a lot of health conditions, it's likely that a number of issues play a role in its development.

Many scientists believe that some people are simply genetically predisposed to developing weak spots in their tight junctions. However, an increasing body of evidence suggests that modern life also plays a part.

For example, studies have identified a possible link between leaky gut and diets low in fiber and high in sugar and saturated fat. Chronic stress is also thought to play a role, as is heavy alcohol and NSAID use.

What Are the Symptoms of a Leaky Gut?

This is where things get complicated.

After all, digestive tract function has an effect on literally every part of the body. So when your digestive system gets out of whack, symptoms can be felt almost anywhere. 

In addition, the symptoms of leaky gut syndrome may be so subtle at first that they're easily dismissed.

When you combine all this, it's easy to understand why leaky gut syndrome is still so poorly understood by the medical community. 

That being said, leaky gut symptoms may include any of the following:

Diarrhea or constipation Bloating
Indigestion Brain fog
Gas Chronic fatigue
Runny nose or congestion Allergies
Memory loss Eczema
Mood swings Frequent headaches
Joint pain Recurrent infections


How to Heal Leaky Gut

If the seemingly endless symptoms that may be felt throughout the body can make diagnosing leaky gut syndrome an almost herculean task, the good news is that treatment is relatively straightforward and can be implemented without fear of causing yet more harm.

Plus, you'll know in a relatively short period of time whether treatment is working. If it is, that's a pretty good indication leaky gut was the problem all along.

So what do you do if you suspect you're suffering from leaky gut syndrome?

Decrease or Eliminate Alcohol and NSAID Use

As stated earlier, heavy alcohol and NSAID use has been linked in studies to weakening of the gut lining. So if you drink too much, try to cut back or stop altogether—get help if you need to. 

And if you're currently taking over-the-counter NSAIDs, stop or speak with a qualified health care provider about healthier alternatives.

Begin an Elimination Diet

One of the best ways to find the root cause of a leaky gut is by beginning an elimination diet. To do this, simply eliminate a food or food group for a couple of weeks and then reintroduce it, recording your response. While this approach may take a while, it can help you easily determine what food or group of foods is upsetting your gut health. Common culprits like saturated fat, sugar, soy, gluten, and conventional dairy products are good ones to start with.

Avoid Toxins

Did you know that there are almost 80,000 different chemicals currently being sold in the United States? Many of these chemicals aren't even regulated, and many more have undergone only minimal studies.

Yet multiple studies have still found that a large number of the toxins we're exposed to in our environment have the ability to alter gut bacteria. 

And even though it's impossible for any us to completely eliminate all the toxins in our lives, we can help protect ourselves and our gut health by cutting down on the chemicals we allow in our homes. You can do this by:

  • Switching to natural cleaning products
  • Using natural personal care products
  • Choosing natural paints
  • Not cooking or storing food in plastic containers
  • Using natural fragrances
  • Eating organic whole foods
  • Filtering tap water

Destress

It's no secret that chronic stress can wreak havoc on the body. And leaky gut is no exception. In fact, stress has been found in studies to affect the balance of bad and good bacteria in the gut, which can in turn throw the immune system off balance and lead to symptoms of leaky gut.

So if you're experiencing excessive stress, try taking a load off your mind—and your gut—by following a few simple guidelines:

  • Exercise more
  • Laugh more
  • Practice mindfulness techniques
  • Eat a healthy diet
  • Try some yoga
  • Learn to meditate
  • Practice deep breathing
  • Get plenty of sleep

Rebuild Your Gut

The foundation of a healthy gut is a healthy diet. By eliminating the foods that harm your body and replacing them with foods that heal, you can begin to put an end to symptoms and heal your gut lining.

As mentioned, eliminating common irritants like sugar, gluten, and dairy can go a long way toward improving leaky gut symptoms. But once you've eliminated the offending food (or foods), you then have to repair the damage.

So what do you do?

Your Leaky Gut Diet Shopping List

Okay, so you've tossed out the processed foods and cut down or eliminated your sugar and saturated fat intake—all of which can cause an overgrowth of bad bacteria—and any other common triggers.

Now it's time to build up that gut.

Focus on Whole Foods

Our bodies evolved to eat whole, unprocessed foods like organic fruits, veggies, whole grains, lean meats, and healthy fats. Unlike the typical Western diet, with its reliance on processed foods, saturated fats, salt, and sugar—not to mention a fistful of artificially created chemicals with names as long as your arm—whole foods contain the phytochemicals, vitamins, and minerals the digestive tract needs to keep its microbiome balanced and its gut lining strong.

So when planning your leaky gut diet, think plenty of:

    • Vegetables: Leafy greens like kale, spinach, and collard greens and non-starchy vegetables like broccoli, cauliflower, zucchini, and cabbage are full of nutrition and a great addition to a leaky gut diet. But you might want to limit your exposure to members of the nightshade family—such as potatoes, tomatoes, and eggplant—as they contain chemicals that may affect digestion in people with food sensitivities.
    • Fruits: When choosing fruits for your leaky gut diet, look for those that are heavy on fiber and light on sugar. For example, citrus fruits and berries are loaded with beneficial antioxidants and fiber and contain far less sugar than, say, ripe bananas.
    • Whole grains: While gluten can be a problem for someone dealing with leaky gut symptoms, there are a number of gluten-free alternatives. Grains and pseudograins like quinoa, amaranth, buckwheat, and teff are not only high in protein but also rich in fiber.
    • Lean meat and poultry: Like other processed foods, conventionally raised meat and poultry are high in saturated fat and low in nutrition. Not only are the animals raised on chemically treated and GMO feed they wouldn't normally eat, but they're also pumped full of antibiotics to stave off infections caused by cramped conditions and poor diet. Instead, look for organic, pasture-raised meat and poultry, which are naturally leaner and free of toxic ingredients.
    • Healthy fats: One of the most important parts of a healthy diet is fat. While some types of fats, like saturated fat, contribute to inflammation, monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats are anti-inflammatory. These healthy fats also contain beneficial omega-3 fatty acids, which actually boost the immune system. When choosing fats for your gut healing diet, look for foodstuffs like olive oil, avocados, flaxseeds, chia seeds, hemp seeds, walnuts, and wild-caught fatty fish, like salmon and mackerel.

5 Steps to Healing Leaky Gut

Incorporate Digestive Enzymes

While our bodies are designed to break down the foods we eat without any outside help, if you're suffering from leaky gut syndrome, your ability to properly absorb nutrients from the food you eat has been compromised.

However, the addition of digestive enzymes to your diet will give you the extra help you need to ensure you're actually assimilating the vitamins, minerals, and phytonutrients required to rebuild your gut lining and your digestion.

You can find enzyme supplements both online and at any health food store. When choosing a brand, look for one that contains a wide array of plant-based enzymes and avoid those that obtain their ingredients from animal sources, as these may actually make your symptoms worse.

Take Amino Acids

To create the proteins our bodies require for almost every single biological process, we must have a sufficient supply of amino acids. 

However, four specific amino acids—arginine, glycine, proline, and hydroxyproline—play a significant role in maintaining gut health and are known to protect the intestinal lining by preventing the breakdown of the tight junctions.

To get more of these amino acids into your diet, try supplementing with hydrolyzed collagen protein, which is rich in all four of these important building blocks.

Supplement with Probiotics

Speaking of building blocks, we have one more to add to your leaky gut diet plan, and that's probiotics.

Once your gut's microbiome has been disrupted, it needs help finding its balance again. To rebuild your healthy gut flora, add a regular supply of fermented foods to your diet. Foods such as kimchi, yogurt, kefir, sauerkraut, and kombucha are not only natural sources of probiotics, but many are also good sources of prebiotics—types of soluble fiber that pass undigested through the small intestine and provide food for healthy gut bacteria. 

If you're at the beginning of your path back to gut health, you may want to start incorporating these foods into your diet slowly while you supplement with a high-potency probiotic.

While healing leaky gut syndrome is something you can do on your own using the right foods and supplements—as well as a little time and patience—it's important to remember that there are also several tests available that a qualified health care provider can perform to narrow down the root cause of your issues. 

So if treating your leaky gut the old-fashioned way is proving to be a mountain you just can't seem to climb, be sure to speak with your health care provider about further testing.

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