You Should Know

January 2018 Issue

What You Need to Know About Leaky Gut and Diet

Leaky gut is a layman’s term to describe hyper-intestinal permeability, a condition in which the gut (intestines) allows contents that should remain there to interface with the bloodstream and other organs of the body. These “leaking” offenders include food particles that cause immune reactions, as well as microbes and the potentially toxic chemicals they produce. A healthy human gut will experience small levels of interface (permeability), but a leaky gut involves inflammation and/or impaired gut function.

How Does the Gut Get “Leaky?”

Normally, the gut has a healthy barrier, which includes a mucus layer and a layer of cells that are connected by tight junctions, acting like doorways that allow nutrients from food to be transported out of the gut and into the blood stream. Antibiotics, stress, infections, and poor diet can lead to a breakdown of this barrier. Alterations in the intestinal bacteria and zonulin (a protein in the body that regulates permeability) may be main factors behind this disorder. Diseases that may result from a leaky gut include inflammatory bowel disease, irritable bowel syndrome, celiac disease, multiple sclerosis, and type 1 diabetes.

Lifestyle and Leaky Gut

The Western diet (a high-fat, high-sugar, and low-fiber diet) and excessive alcohol intake are linked with leaky gut. A high-fat diet may impair mucus production and decrease expression of the tight junction proteins, contributing to greater intestinal permeability. Poor nutrient intake, in particular low levels of iron and vitamins A and D, may increase the risk of leaky gut. And intense exercise, especially when dehydrated, may impair the gut barrier. However, scientists need more research about this condition to fully understand it.

Shore Up Your Gut with Diet

Nutrition and lifestyle habits may enhance gut health.
- Eat a variety of fiber-rich foods, such as chia seeds, whole grains, fruits, and vegetables, to protect the mucus layer.
- Drink alcohol responsibly: no more than one daily drink for women and two for men.
- Consume vitamin D-rich foods, which may protect against gut permeability. Try sardines, tuna, fortified milk, beef liver, and egg yolks.
- Eat vitamin-A rich foods, like carrots, kale, and spinach to avoid vitamin A deficiency, which is associated with loss of gut integrity.
- Include iron-rich foods, such as beef, chicken, pork, lentils, chickpeas, tofu, and hemp.
- Consider probiotics, which may help reverse leaky gut by promoting tight junction proteins, though additional studies are still needed.
- Reduce stress. Try meditation, deep breathing, yoga, and adequate sleep to improve gut microbial balance.
- Exercise moderately. Intense, endurance exercise, such as running in the heat, is associated with greater gut permeability. Try gardening, nature walks, or pilates instead.