Is leaky gut (aka intestinal permeability) a real thing? And if so, does a leaky gut protocol exist to help heal the gut? Harvard Health calls leaky gut a “medical mystery” and “mysterious ailment.” It’s been linked to everything from gut troubles, autoimmune diseases, and even mental health concerns. Many doctors and the established medical community may not recognize it, but there is growing research to suggest it is associated with many health conditions. In this blog post we break down what leaky gut is, the common symptoms, and diet strategies to follow as part of a dietitian-approved leaky gut protocol. 

A woman in a orange top and shorts holding a lavender sprig.

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The Gastrointestinal Tract

Your gut is not just a 30-foot-long muscular tube that starts in your mouth and ends with you going to the bathroom. It is, in fact, a vast and complex system with many functions. It breaks down food into smaller digestible bits, keeps it moving through the gastrointestinal tract, and skillfully absorbs water and nutrients while keeping out harmful substances. More and more research show that these essential gut functions are interconnected throughout your body—to everything from your heart to your brain.

Your gastrointestinal tract is lined with millions of cells, all side-by-side in a single layer. In fact, this layer, if spread out flat, is as large as a studio apartment! Those intestinal cells help the body to absorb what we need from foods and drinks, while keeping out what needs to stay out. It acts as a gatekeeper allowing what your body uses to enter and keeping out the rest which ends up as waste. This ability to selectively allow some things in our gut to be absorbed while keeping others out is only possible if the cells are working properly and physically joined together very tightly. The bonds that keep the cells tightly together are called “tight junctions.”

What is Leaky Gut?

Leaky gut happens when the tight junctions aren’t so tight anymore. The cellular barrier is irritated and weakened, allowing tiny holes to appear. These perforations allow things that normally would stay out of the bloodstream get into the bloodstream. Things like undigested food particles, waste products, and bacteria. When these get into the bloodstream your immune system is triggered to start fighting them. Similarly, to how your immune system starts fighting the cold virus and causes inflammation. This immune reaction is normal and helps keep you healthy.

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Common Symptoms of Leaky Gut

The symptoms of leaky gut are similar to those of other digestive conditions like inflammatory bowel disease, celiac disease, and Crohn’s disease. Symptoms can include:

  • Diarrhea
  • Constipation
  • Abdominal cramps
  • Bloating
  • Development of food sensitivities
  • Nutrient deficiencies

Non-Gut Symptoms

While gut symptoms are common with leaky gut, it can also be associated with non-gut symptoms. In fact, leaky gut has been linked to metabolic disorders, autoimmune conditions, diabetes, and even mental health disturbances It is also important to note that because undigested food particles, toxins, and bacteria have been absorbed into the bloodstream which travels throughout your body, symptoms of leaky gut can appear anywhere. Studies show that leaky gut may cause symptoms of fatigue, headaches, confusion, difficulty concentrating, joint pain, or skin problems (e.g., acne, rashes, eczema). Leaky gut is also linked with diabetes, polycystic ovarian syndrome, liver disease, chronic fatigue syndrome, and autoimmune diseases such as lupus and multiple sclerosis. There may even be links to anxiety and depression.

How to Diagnose Leaky Gut

Many of these gut and non-gut symptoms and conditions are linked to chronic inflammation, but more research is needed to understand how they are connected. Even if you have some of these symptoms, it is very difficult to diagnose a leaky gut, or how leaky it is. This means that, while there are some biomarker tests, there isn’t a reliable diagnostic test available just yet. However, scientists are still exploring and performing on-going research, so more information emerges all the time. However, until there is a valid diagnostic test it is difficult to confirm whether your symptoms are from leaky gut, or whether leaky gut is a symptom of another issue.

A person holding their hands against their abdomen to suggest gut symptoms.

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What causes leaky gut?

It’s not 100 percent clear what causes those bonds to loosen and result in tiny perforations in the gut barrier. In fact, we are just starting to understand how the gut barrier functions and there is a lot of ongoing research.

Part of leaky gut may be due to the genes you inherit from your parents. It can also be from medications or gut infections. Leaky gut is also linked to eating a diet that is low in gut-friendly fiber (adults should aim for 25-30 grams of fiber per day) and high in processed foods. It can also be from consuming too much added sugar and saturated fat. Leaky gut may even result from ongoing stress or an imbalance in the diversity and numbers of your friendly gut microbes.

Also, as you age your cells can get damaged more easily and heal slowly, including the cells that line your gut. This can leave you more susceptible to loosening and thinning of the protective gut barrier.

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Leaky Gut Protocol: How to Treat Leaky Gut

If you have symptoms that suggest you may have leaky gut, you will want to address inflammation and eat a more gut-friendly diet. This means following a leaky gut protocol to help treat symptoms, which includes:

  • Reducing excessive alcohol intake
  • Limiting processed foods, added sugars and artificial sweeteners
  • Avoid foods that you are allergic or sensitive to
  • Prioritize foods with gut-friendly probiotics, prebiotics, and fiber
  • Aim for a diet that is 75% plant-based

Additional lifestyle strategies that promote gut health include:

  • Regular exercise
  • Quality sleep
  • Practicing stress management

If you plan on making changes to your diet and lifestyle, consider keeping a journal to help see if the changes are helping your symptoms.

Close up image of kimchi as an example of a probiotic food that can help heal leaky gut.Some examples of prebiotic foods include:

  • Fermented foods (e.g., kimchi, sauerkraut, and miso)
  • Variety of fruits and vegetables, including starchy vegetables (e.g., berries, oranges, broccoli, carrots, garlic, onion, leeks and zucchini)
  • Variety of nuts and seeds (e.g., walnuts, hemp seeds, pecans, and chia seeds)
  • Variety of whole grains (e.g., oats, millet, amaranth and quinoa)

(Pro Tip: If you’re going to proactively increase your fiber intake, do it over several days or weeks because sudden increases in fiber can cause gas, bloating, and other gut discomfort).

Final Thoughts

If you are struggling with gut issues, are unsure how to start fixing your gut or what the first step is to take in your gut healing journey, download the FREE guide – “Fix your Gut”. This explains everything you need to know about your gut health and will help jumpstart your gut healing journey.

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Otherwise, If you prefer a more individualized approach and are looking for one-on-one support for your digestive issues, let’s connect for a 15 min complimentary phone call to learn more about how my services can help you fix your gut. Click the link below to schedule a complimentary call with me.

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