Even though I’m versed in the accurate physiology of leaky gut, the phrase brings to my mind a comical image of pizza pieces escaping from holes in an intestine into the bloodstream. Years ago, before I immersed myself in holistic health, a practitioner described leaky gut as food particles going into the bloodstream. And so this bizarre illustration was fossilized into my mind.
If the term leaky gut brings a similar illustration to your mind, I want to paint for you a more accurate picture. I hope this explanation of leaky gut to give you a physiological comprehension of both the causes and the solutions.
Understanding leaky gut changed my life. Hyperbole? Nope! By addressing this root cause of my autoimmune disease, I was able to avoid impending surgery and stop taking pharmacy-worth of medications.
What is leaky gut?
Leaky gut is another term for intestinal permeability. Leaky gut is a physiological fact – not some mythical alternative health concept. Look up “intestinal permeability” in PubMed – you’ll find almost 2,000 studies with human subjects.
Here is leaky gut described in a nutshell:
The small intestine, where nutrients are absorbed, is supposed to have tight cell junctions to separate the chyme (food turns into chyme in the stomach) from the bloodstream. But a chain of factors causes these tight junctions to degrade. Once the connections between intestinal cells are weakened, undigested proteins and bacterial toxins escape into the bloodstream. This leads to a heightened state of inflammation.
How does leaky gut develop?
Chronic stress and gut flora imbalance lay the foundation for leaky gut. Environmental toxins (such as fluoride and certain medications), genetic susceptibility, and/or infections (such as H. pylori) can also trigger leaky gut.
First, stress turns off digestion. In a disastrous cascade, it first diminishes our production of stomach acid. In turn, a state of hypochlohydria (low stomach acid) leads to inadequate enzyme production, bile release, and compromised movement of food through the digestive tract.
All of these factors wreak havoc on the balance of beneficial bacteria in the gut. Due to low stomach acid/bile/enzymes, proteins/carbs/fats are not properly digested. This deteriorates the good gut bacteria. Further, the stagnation of food due to slowed peristalsis fosters pathogenic bacteria to overgrow.
With the degradation of protective gut flora, the vulnerable intestinal lining is under assault.
Dr. Natasha, author of the landmark book The Gut and Psychology Syndrome, offers a helpful analogy. She compares the bacterial layer that protects the lining of the gastrointestinal tract to turf covering the soil below. Once the bacterial turf gets eroded, the intestinal “soil” will start to be eroded (the phenomena of leaky gut). But if the turf is healthy and nourished, it protects the soil from erosion.
How does leaky gut lead to autoimmune disease?
Sarah Ballantyne, PhD, in her book The Paleo Approach states:
Autoimmune disease is caused when the immune system loses the ability to distinguish self from foreign invaders. On top of this, the immune system must also be stimulated to attack. How this actually happens is complex and involves the interaction of three major factors:
- genetic susceptibility
- environmental triggers, infection or bad luck
- diet and lifestyle
You may have heard that leaky gut and autoimmunity are linked. Here is the connection:
Chronic stress and flora imbalance, along with genetic and environmental factors, create a viscous cycle of poor digestion.
The loss of protective gut flora, along with the improperly digested food, leave the intestinal lining vulnerable to destructive pathogenic bacteria. Improperly digested carbohydrates also wear down the intestinal lining. These factors deteriorate the tight junctions of the small intestine lining, creating leaky gut.
Only amino acids, not proteins from our food, are supposed to be in the bloodstream. However, the compromised gut lining allows undigested proteins (as well as harmful bacteria) to escape into the bloodstream.
The body revs up the immune system to create antibodies against these proteins, which are seen as foreign invaders.
Antibodies against food proteins trigger out-of-control autoantibody production. Autoantibodies attack our own body tissue. Although the body has a backup system in place to prevent over-production of autoantibodies, this system fails in the case of autoimmunity.
6 Steps to Heal Leaky Gut
1. Follow a leaky gut dietary protocol
Certain foods universally exacerbate leaky gut. Leaky gut protocols – including the GAPS Diet and the Autoimmune Paleo Protocol – remove specific types of carbohydrates that can prevent gut regeneration and feed the pathogenic bacteria. They also provide nutrients from meats, vegetables, and bone broth that are crucial for that gut repair.
Note that these are temporary healing diets. In all these systems, more foods are supposed to be re-introduced after a regeneration period. It’s about discovering the optimal diet that is unique to you.
I recommend the following resources for a Leaky Gut Dietary Protocol
- The Gut and Psychology Syndrome by Dr. Natasha Campbell-McBride
- The Paleo Approach by Sarah Ballantyne
- Cookbooks: The Paleo Approach Cookbook, The Autoimmune Paleo Cookbook and Nourish: The Paleo Healing Cookbook
2. Remove food stressors
Dietary choices contribute to the formation of leaky gut and it also perpetuates it. When we have an antibody response to consuming a food, it is a stress response. When we create a stress response, we turn down (or off) our body’s healing processes.
Unfortunately, even a nutrient-dense, real food diet can perpetuate the cycle of stress. With intestinal permeability, your body can potentially create antibodies against any food you consume, especially foods you eat on an extremely frequent basis. This is how food allergies and food sensitivities develop.
Case in point: a few months ago, I became sensitive to coconut. I was eating some form of coconut – oil, butter, or flour – everyday. So I needed to take out coconut products for three months to de-sensitize my body.
A rotation diet plays a key role in healing leaky gut. With a compromised intestinal lining, eating certain foods everyday often leads to a food sensitivity. I work with an experienced kiniesiologist (muscle testing) to determine which foods stress my body. You can also use this at-home food sensitivity test to determine food stressors.
3. Support balanced blood sugar
To heal leaky gut, you must foster the regeneration of the intestinal tissues. And without balanced blood sugar, the gut cannot regenerate.
When we have chronically elevated blood sugar levels (hyperglycemia), the excess glucose binds to proteins in the bloodstream in a process called glycation. Glycated proteins are unable be utilized for tissue regeneration.
To illustrate this, examine at the connection between diabetics and skin regeneration. A diabetic has chronically elevated blood sugar, which glycates proteins in the blood, and leads to extremely slow wound healing.
Following a leaky gut diet, as I discussed above, can greatly improve blood sugar balance… but not if you are consuming large quantities of fruit and snacking on grain-free baked goods all day.
Focus on healthy fats, proteins and veggies, and eat three square meals rather than grazing during the day. Also check out my post 10 Ways to Balance Blood Sugar Naturally.
4. Foster beneficial gut flora
Remember the analogy of gut flora being the turf that protects the intestinal lining? The body requires an influx of healthy bacteria to re-grow that turf.
Both high-quality probiotic supplements and fermented foods are usually necessary. I primarily recommend two brands of probiotics, which encourage long-term repopulation of the gut with friendly bugs:
5. Provide regular maintenance
If you read my Confessions of a Health Perfectionist post, you know that, although my life changed drastically through nutrition, I do not identify myself as a poster child for perfect health.
Healing leaky gut means allowing the gut to regenerate so the intestinal lining is no longer permeable. This goal can be reached through the steps discussed above. However, maintaining a healthy gut in our modern lifestyle requires exactly that – maintenance.
I know that I’m prone to leaky gut. Even though I carefully tailor my diet to my body’s needs, I’ve had some unavoidable stressful situations in the past few years that have compromised my gut. When that happens, I’ll take 2-4 weeks to extensively rotate my diet and temporarily remove foods which I re-introduced (such as eggs, these sprouted nut butters, and nightshades).
Another step for me in the repair-maintain cycle is constantly supporting my digestion by improving my vagal tone.
6. Support strong vagal tone
Stress turns off digestion. Remember how low stomach acid and insufficient enzyme production leads to damage in the small intestine? That cycle starts when we are eating food in a stressed, sympathetic state of the nervous system.
While stress turns off digestion, the vagal nerve turns on digestion. When we smell food and sit down to our meal, our brain is supposed to send a signal to the digestive organs via the vagal nerve.
This nerve connects to the brain stem and attaches to each digestive organ. It turns on all the digestive processes:
- Stomach acid secretion in the stomach,
- Peristalsis – muscle contractions – in the intestines
- Enzyme secretion in the pancreas
- Bile release in the gallbladder
The vagal nerve is like a muscle – if your vagal nerve is weak, it can’t do the heavy lifting of turning on digestion. Yes, I’m calling a nerve a muscle, but stay with me through this analogy. It is the most accessible way to understand this concept. If you think of the vagal nerve as a muscle, it can have strong vagal tone (like a toned muscle) or weak vagal tone.
The essential oil blend Vagal Tone™ has been profoundly supportive in addressing my leaky gut. After using it daily for 6 months, I no longer need any other digestive supplements, I consider it one of the most transformative health tools I’ve used.
My experience of this formula was the reason why I partnered with formulator John Tjenos to bring Meo Energetics to the world. Before we created Meo, his Vagal Tone™ oil was only available to his clientele. Vagal Tone™ is available here, from Meo Energetics.
I hope this post sharing my experience supports your healing!