Leaky gut syndrome is a condition involving damage to the delicate intestinal lining, also known as the mucosa. In a healthy, non-inflamed state, the intestinal mucosa performs two primary functions. First, it facilitates the absorption of nutrients from the intestines into the bloodstream. Second, it acts as a barrier to stop the absorption potentially harmful microbes and compounds.
However, the mucosa may become injured if exposed to proinflammatory compounds created in response to conditions such as celiac disease, inflammatory bowel disease or even just a poor diet. The absorption and barrier functions of the mucosa may become compromised, potentially leading to a number of health concerns. These can range from everyday discomfort including bloating, constipation and diarrhea, to more serious immune-mediated diseases such as multiple sclerosis.
In a previous post, we discussed general causes, symptoms and helpful strategies to treat and repair a leaky gut. Here we’ll explore specific ways your diet and food choices may be causing symptoms associated with a leaky gut. At the end, we’ll take a look at a number of foods that may actively help to prevent and heal a leaky gut.
What Not to Eat When You Have Leaky Gut
Foods are generally processed with the intention of either extending their shelf-life or altering their taste, texture or appearance. Processing typically involves the use of chemical additives such as preservatives, colorings, artificial sweeteners and bulking agents. While many of these compounds are harmless, there’s research suggesting that some may wreak havoc on the intestinal mucosa and microbiota.
Chemicals added to keep fats from clumping together, known as emulsifiers, have been shown to disrupt the healthy mucus secretions found in our intestines that lubricate and protect the gut. As a result, the intestinal lining may become inflamed, increasing permeability (i.e. leakiness). T hermal processing of foods, like when meat is cooked and browned, creates advanced glycation end products (AGEs) that can negatively affect the inflammatory response in tissues.
The addition of a type of saturated fat called trans fat is an especially nasty aspect of food processing. Western countries have significantly cut down on their use in the last 10 years, however trans fats are still often found in margarine and some packaged foods like cookies and crackers. They are also highly prevalent in deep-fried foods.
While some countries have banned them, oils containing trans fats are still used in some commercial fryers in America. Trans fats have been observed to incite an inflammatory response in the intestinal mucosa, which can increase intestinal permeability. Interestingly, saturated fats like trans fats not only affect intestinal tissue, but can also have major impacts on our gut microbiota, also affecting the inflammatory response.
Scientists have observed that mice fed diets high in saturated fats experience a complete shift in the type of bacteria present in their intestines. In a study investigating the microbiome of mice fed a diet high in lard, researchers found that the numbers of proinflammatory sulfidogenic bacteria were significantly higher than in mice fed a low-fat diet. These bacteria are thoughts to increase intestinal inflammation and permeability, but directly altering components of the intestinal barrier. Researchers believe that these results are likely applicable to humans, as well.
Steer clear of dietary trans fats by checking food labels for the terms “partially hydrogenated oils.” When eating out, try opting for grilled or broiled foods, rather than deep-fried foods, in order to reduce your risk of developing leaky gut syndrome.
The overconsumption of alcohol is unhealthy. We know this. Surprisingly though, alcohol is one of the main culprits when it comes to intestinal inflammation and leaky gut syndrome. The reason for this is two-fold: alcohol consumption alters and disrupts the intestinal microbiota and increases gut permeability. In general, it appears that alcohol consumption encourages the growth of Gram negative bacteria. This type of bacteria plays a role in increasing the levels of two compounds (endotoxin and acetaldehyde). These chemicals cause direct harm to the intestinal barrier.
Cutting back on beer, wine and spirits could have major benefits for your intestinal health. This may be especially true if you have food sensitivities like the ones we explore below.
Lactose and casein — a carbohydrate and a protein found in cow’s milk — are generally at the root of dairy intolerances. In dairy-intolerant individuals, the consumption of cow’s milk leads to gastrointestinal symptoms like bloating, flatulence and diarrhea. Mucosal irritation and inflammation result, posing a risk for the development of leaky gut syndrome. If dairy products like milk, cheese or yogurt don’t sit well with you, give them a miss. Try replacing them with dairy alternatives to lower your risk of developing leaky gut syndrome.
Only a small percentage of the world’s population (about 1%) suffers from celiac disease (CD). Celiac disease is an autoimmune disorder that leaves the intestinal lining easily damaged by the wheat protein, gluten. However, there is growing evidence to suggest that many more people worldwide suffer from non-celiac gluten sensitivity (NCGS). This is a more mild disorder involving poor gluten digestion.
In gluten-intolerant individuals suffering from either CD or NCGS, as well as people with conditions such as irritable bowel syndrome, eating gluten-containing foods can cause serious pain and discomfort. Partially digested gluten can harm the intestinal barrier as well as the gut microbiota, resulting in severe mucosal inflammation and leaky gut syndrome. As a result, avoiding wheat products such as bread and pasta may alleviate symptoms associated with leaky gut syndrome in some individuals.
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Take Away Message
You can heal an inflamed, leaky gut by making simple changes to your diet. Manage leaky gut symptoms such as constipation, chronic diarrhea and bloating by tweaking your diet and modifying your meals with the help of this guide.
It’s important to note that reducing intestinal inflammation also has benefits that reach far beyond the digestive system. Making small, manageable changes to your diet and improving gut health can have a lasting impact on your immune system, your heart health and even your emotional well-being.