The lining of your digestive tract is just one cell layer thick. These highly specialized cells, called enterocytes, form a barrier between you, your bloodstream, your immune system , and the outside world that comes in through your mouth in the form of food, drink, medication, bacteria, and toxins.
What causes leaky gut is when these cells are cemented together with proteins, called tight junctions, which form a protective barrier that ensures everything you eat is properly processed by the enterocyte cells in a way that your body can handle without getting sick. Things like chronic stress , poor nutrition, bacterial infections, and autoimmune disorders can all cause gaps in this protective barrier. So, what is leaky gut? When those proteins, or tight junctions, break down, you get “Leaky Gut ,” and you may experience various leaky gut symptoms.
There are many ill effects of leaky gut . As a result of your immune system being exposed to foods, bacteria, and chemicals it was never meant to see, it can flip into a permanent state of “on,” sending a constant barrage of inflammatory chemicals through your body.
These immune chemicals and the inflammation they cause can lead to symptoms as diverse as acne, eczema, food sensitivities, hormonal imbalances, body pain, brain fog, insomnia, and even autoimmune diseases like Crohn’s, Hashimoto’s thyroiditis and rheumatoid arthritis. But don't worry, there are actions you can take to work toward healing leaky gut (more on that in a bit).
Leaky gut, also known as intestinal permeability, is common. It’s hard to know exactly how many people have it because few doctors test for it. Parsley Health doctors usually diagnose leaky gut through a combination of specific specialty testing, such as comprehensive stool cultures and detailed assessment of your symptoms and medical history. If you are diagnosed with intestinal permeability, the good news is, there are ways to figure out how to heal leaky gut.
Gluten, dairy, sugar, processed foods, pesticide-treated foods (aka GMO crops), and alcohol, are some of the most common foods that mount an assault on the sensitive cells lining your gut. If you want to heal leaky gut syndrome, we recommend cutting out these foods for at least three months and avoiding them in excess thereafter.
If you’re experiencing leaky gut, a diet that’s fiber -filled and plant-based can decrease inflammation and irritation from gluten and other sugars. Meat and fish are fine to consume, but focus on gluten-free grains, vegetables and fruits, nuts, seeds, and healthy fats (bring on the avocado). Plus, the prebiotics found in high-fiber whole foods like asparagus and whole-grain oats are crucial to feeding the probiotic bacteria in the gut microbiome and keeping it healthy.
N-butyrate, a short-chain fatty acid, helps feed the cells that line the gut and help them heal. Your gut bacteria can produce more n-butyrate if you feed them soluble fibers in fruits and vegetables. You also can get n-butyrate in the form of Ghee, which is clarified butter. Another source of healthy fat is coconut oil, which contains medium-chain fatty acids that are good for the gut!
Stress hormones attack and break down the tight junctions that hold the cells that line your digestive tract together. When you reduce stress hormones like cortisol and epinephrine through rest and relaxation, eating mindfully, and meditation , these tight junctions can heal.
Enzymes taken regularly with meals help break down large proteins and bacterial products that can damage the lining of the gut. We recommend taking a broad-spectrum enzyme prior to eating protein and fat-rich foods to support digestion and prevent irritation of the intestinal lining.
Collagen contains the amino acids glycine, proline, and hydroxyproline that are needed to repair and rebuild your gut lining. Regular consumption of collagen containing foods like bone broth, gelatin, and collagen powders can be therapeutic additions to the diet that may help mend and prevent leaky gut. Studies show that supplemental collagen peptides can help to strengthen the gut barrier, making it less permeable and more likely to retain nutrients from food. Eating foods that boost your body’s collagen production like eggs, citrus fruits, broccoli, sunflower seeds, and mushrooms can also help increase your body’s natural collagen production.
To repair your gut barrier, there are plenty of vitamins and supplements you can choose from, says Dr. Palma . L-glutamine is commonly used in treating leaky gut. Licorice root and Omega 3- heavy cod liver oil, which is high in Vitamins A and D too, have anti-inflammatory benefits to tame the inflammation in the gut barrier.
High-quality medical-grade herbs such as slippery elm and cat’s claw can also help leaky gut (and other inflammatory bowel diseases) by soothing the gut lining .
Studies show that cardiovascular exercise improves the transport of oxygen within the body and through the digestive tract helping to promote the presence, activity, and diversity of gut microbes—especially the ones that produce the gut-healing fatty acid n-butyrate. To support improvements in both digestive and cardiovascular health , we recommend opting for a goal of at least 150 minutes per week of heart rate raising physical activity.
Make sure you’re getting at least 7 hours of uninterrupted sleep each night to ensure you’re giving your body and brain the time it needs to rest and recover. It’s while you’re asleep that your mind is able to fully process the day and create new memories. Sleep or lack thereof not only impacts our brain’s ability to process, but other mechanisms in our body related to immune function, disease resistance, and heart health. Even just one night of poor sleep can make you more irritable, increase carb cravings, and bring on brain fog. Sleeping less than 7 hours a night on a regular basis has even been associated with more adverse health effects , such as weight gain, diabetes, hypertension, heart disease, and stroke.
Mara is a freelance journalist whose print and digital work has appeared in Shape, Brit+Co, Marie Claire, Prevention, and other wellness outlets.
Most recently, she was a member of the founding team of Bumble Mag, a branded content project for Bumble at Hearst Corporation. She enjoys covering everything from women's health topics and politics to travel. She has a degree in Communications as well as Italian Studies from Fordham University.