Leaky gut? It’s talked about a lot recently, but what really is leaky gut? How would you even know if you had it? If you did, how do you treat it, and what are leaky gut foods to avoid? Being a newer concern, we still don’t have a lot of information, but we do have enough for people to consider it as an option. Overall the diet for leaky gut is healthy, so even if you suspect you may have it, it gives you a good reason to eat healthier and see what happens.
I also want to note before we go into it, some people argue it’s just a theory. There is some or a lot of evidence depending on who you ask and what evidence we are looking at. The arguments make sense to me and the diet is healthy, so overall if it seems to fit your situation, I say go for it. It doesn’t hurt and if anything it will make you healthier.
Why Do People Get Leaky Gut?
Remember how for thousands of years our ancestors survived with hunting and gathering? They didn’t have food processing or refining. They didn’t have pollution. And they moved. A lot! Stress was about running from a bear, not so much about what’s on a screen. Life was… well, a lot simpler.
Fast forward to today. Most of what people eat is processed. If we exercise, our exercise is scheduled. We have pollution and particles in the air to the point some areas have warnings when the air is unsafe to breathe. Yes, unsafe to breathe! Air!! Also, we stress, a lot. Mostly over things that have little to do with running from a potentially life-threatening situation.
It is a crazy thought to imagine that there would be no physiological consequences to these changes. Those changes have happened so quickly, there has been no chance for our bodies to evolve to tolerate it. It’s only been about 200 years, which is about 2 lifespans. We don’t evolve nearly as fast!
Remember that part of evolution is weeding out people with weaker genetic tolerance. Nowadays that just seems unethical and we have medical care that can bypass that. You can argue the benefits and drawbacks of evolution. Clinically and theoretically speaking, I see the benefit of it. After all, it’s how we got here today. That said, if it was my child, or your parents? Or if we saw the people who would be weeded out instead of just numbers and facts? Put that way, I feel differently about it.
So one change coming out of all these environmental changes seems to be leaky gut. To make matters worse, it increases intolerances over time which just exacerbates the cycle.
What is Leaky Gut?
Your intestines were meant to only absorb good stuff (nutrients) from your food and keep the bad stuff (everything else) out. The bad stuff can be anything from bacteria (any microorganism), waste products, toxins, to everything else in between. In leaky gut syndrome, the intestinal wall is compromised and ends up allowing both the good nutrients and a variety of bad compounds through as well.
The intestines are an impressive organ. Amazingly, there is only 1 layer of cells responsible for filtering the good stuff through. That’s a very thin barrier, but that single layer has done a wonderful job all these hundreds of thousands of years! Those cells are held together by proteins. When everything is running well, those cells are packed tight and nothing but the good stuff gets through.
Your body also has a biochemical defense system to slow down anything that actually does manage to get through. This system is less effective when lots of bad things are getting through. It was meant to hold the line when only occasional bad guys would slip through the gates of the intestinal wall.
The other, and last, line of defense is the immune system. It works great for when bacteria or other microorganisms make it through, but for proteins, inadequately digested foods, and other waste products? It can help get them out of the body, but in the process also can potentially contribute to developing food allergies and intolerances.
So when you eat foods that irritate the intestines, the proteins that hold this wall of tightly packed cells, begin to deteriorate and loosen, creating gaps in the intestinal barrier. The gaps between the cells widen. Suddenly the tight seals aren’t very tight anymore. Through these gaps you can have anything from bacteria, food waste, and toxins absorbed into your bloodstream.
Why is Leaky Gut a Concern?
Once these bacteria, food waste, and toxins (bad guys from here on out) get absorbed, your body’s defense system kicks in. Your immune cells attack the foreign substances and work to get them out of your body (about 70-80% of your immune cells reside in your intestines). Along with your immune response, inflammation occurs. Inflammation is caused by the body’s response to injury or infection. It marks the injured area as a point for repair so the white blood cells find it. We have two irritants that cause inflammation: the bad guys absorbed into your blood and the immune response!
If this double whammy of inflammation occurs for too long, it can become problematic and begin to affect other organs. Organs like your heart, brain, and blood vessels. It can also increase your risk for Type II diabetes. Since it has such a strong association with brain disorders, doctors also think it can affect the brain by acting on the nervous system of the gut. This response can affect depression, Alzheimer’s, and mood issues among many others.
Overall the rates of thyroid disease, weight gain, depression, and poor absorption of nutrients go up when someone has leaky gut. Not so good right? Basically, it can leave you feeling much less than amazing. You’ll have less energy and feel worse physically, and/or emotionally foggy. For those that have more severe allergies or intestinal disease, it can cause people to get very, very sick.
There are still a lot of unanswered questions being researched, but there is also a lot that we know about how it all works. There are foods, medications, and lifestyle habits that negatively affect your body, your intestines, and your health. The good news, if you think this is something you may have it’s an easy-ish fix.
How Would You Know: The Leaky Gut Test
The standard test for leaky gut has been the Lactulose Mannitol Small Intestine Permeability Test. In this test, you drink a lactose mannitol drink and they test your urine over a few hours. Since lactulose it an intact sugar, it shouldn’t be absorbed much. Meanwhile, lower mannitol content may indicate compromised intestinal absorption. So, the ratio of mannitol to lactulose in your urine lets them know if your gut is truly leaky.
Since leaky gut has become a subject of interest over recent years, more tests have been studied and proposed. They run the spectrum of blood tests to stool tests to microscopic evaluation of the intestines. Some of the blood tests have become more mainstream, with each having their own benefits and drawbacks. These tend to also be more expensive and specialized, but we will likely see them (or a group of them) become more mainstream over the coming years as research creates a greater understanding of leaky gut.
The downside to the tests are they cost money and time. Since the treatment is simply just changing your diet to a healthier one, and leaky gut in the mainstream population is still a controversial condition, most doctors would say, “Just change your diet and see if you feel better in a couple months.” If it motivates you to do something good for your body, why not, right?
If you have leaky gut, you will feel better about 2 months after changing your diet. That’s how long it takes to heal the intestinal wall — just 6-8 weeks. Not bad? Getting the test ordered, approved and scheduled, may take just as long. So, it’s worth a shot.
If following the diet helps you feel somewhat better, but there are still some down days or you aren’t feeling fully better yet, there are other common foods people don’t tolerate well. Your doctor could help you narrow the options down a bit. This is a good place to start though. And like I keep repeating, it is healthier, so there’s no real reason not to change your diet.
Leaky Gut Foods to Avoid & Other Causes
Leaky Gut Foods to Avoid
There are a few offenders that need to be removed from the diet:
- Processed Foods and Fast Food
- Gluten (if you are gluten sensitive – if you are unsure, it doesn’t hurt)
- Processed foods (some add extra gluten)
- Dairy (because of the protein casein)
- Artificial and natural (artificial sweeteners are worse)
- You can see my thought on artificial sweeteners here
- If it’s not the raw leaves, it’s often processed
- Check the labels for additives
Leaky Gut – Other Changes
Here are some things you can try to fix or do different:
- Work on finding ways to destress; life is too short anyway
- Vitamin D deficiency
- You can increase it in your diet
- A supplement meeting the recommended amounts daily won’t hurt
- As always, ask your doctor
- Amount to avoid deficiency for adults: 600-800 IU’s daily
- Sunshine helps your body make Vitamin D
- Being indoors so much is another reason deficiency is common
- Low Glutathione Levels
- Veggies, veggies, veggies
- Primarily cruciferous: broccoli, cabbage, brussel sprout family, spinach
Other Risks for Leaky Gut
Some things likely out of your control to change, but do influence the health of your gut:
- Hormone imbalances
- Medications (steroids, antacids, antibiotics)
- Autoimmune diseases
Overall Leaky Gut Diet and Leaky Gut Foods to Avoid
Interestingly, leaky gut is associated with having a Western diet. Our diets here are high in processed foods, saturated fats, salt, and they’re low in vitamins, fruits/vegetables, and fiber.
On the fun side there are also foods you can add in! These foods may help: pro/prebiotics, fermented vegetables, foods high in vitamin D, lots of fruits and veggies, bone broth, coconut, sprouted seeds.
The Leaky Gut Foods to Avoid and Foods to Enjoy
|Food Group||Leaky Gut Foods to |
|Good Options for a |
|Grains||Gluten: Wheat: wheat bread, pasta, crackers, cakes, pancakes, |
biscuits or cookies
made from wheat
flour, foods with
| Brown rice, potatoes, sweet potatoes, |
quinoa, oats, tapioca, arrowroot, buckwheat (there are a lot of
grains you may not be familiar with, check
the labels and try new things!)
|Proteins||High saturated fat |
meats (bacon, lunch meats, smoked meats), soy
|Fish, lean meats, chicken, beans/legumes, |
nuts and seeds
|Dairy||Cow’s milk-based |
dairy, soy milk
|Coconut milk, almond milk, cheese, milk made from other sources than cow’s milk or s0y. Vitamin D fortified|
|Others||Soy and Teriyaki sauce (unless gluten free), |
labels for gluten,
emulsifiers, or malt
and regular sweeteners
|Alcohol (bummer so it bears repeating) |
Honey in small amounts likely your best
If you do have them, make them gluten, artificial sweetener, and soy free
Other than that, lower your stress, check your meds, if you have any food allergies or intolerances – avoid those foods, and if you have an autoimmune disease – do your best to keep it in check.
Looking Forward – Leaky Gut or Not
What do you think, worth a try? I think it is, and after reading about it I’m considering trying to convert my family for about two months and see what happens. It should be interesting… (as my kids wail when their favorite snack foods and cereals get tossed)… but mama knows best right? Funny thing, I can have all the letters behind my name and a degree in nutrition, but when I get home I am just another person with an opinion. That said, I am the cook and grocery list preparer, so watch out kiddos!
References & Fun Reading (ish)
Techniques of Functional and Motility Test: How to Perform and Interpret Intestinal Permeability. https://doi.org/10.5056/jnm.2012.18.4.443
Zonulin, regulation of tight junctions, and autoimmune diseases. 10.1111/j.1749-6632.2012.06538.x