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Leaky gut syndrome: what is it, and can it be solved by diet?

Leaky gut syndrome is exactly the kind of condition that traditional medicine can often struggle with: it can be caused by one, many, or intersecting factors; symptoms are diverse and can be easily mistaken as having other origins; and treatments can range the gamut from pharmacological approaches to changes in diet.


This is exactly the kind of situation where taking an integrative medicine approach can benefit.


In general, leaky gut syndrome is a relatively new subject of medical research. But as more focus is put on gut health and its fundamental role in overall health and longevity, researchers have become more interested in which interventions can make the biggest impact. This article will focus on the latest research on this question: can leaky gut syndrome be fixed through changes to your diet?


But first, let’s cover the basics:


What is Leaky Gut Syndrome?

Leaky Gut Syndrome, also called increased intestinal permeability, is an imbalance in the digestive system that occurs when the lining of the small intestine becomes too permeable. When this happens, it causes inflammation and allows bacteria, toxins, and other substances to pass through and enter the bloodstream. This can lead to a variety of unpleasant symptoms such as abdominal pain, bloating, fatigue, headaches, joint pain, skin rashes and more. It can also lead to larger molecules of food nutrients passing through a normally impermeable barrier causing your immune system to “activate” and respond resulting in food sensitivities.


What Are the Causes of Leaky Gut Syndrome?

Generally, leaky gut syndrome can be caused by a combination of factors such as poor diet, chronic stress, environmental toxins, and potentially the use of medications like corticosteroids, nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), antibiotics, and antacids.


Different individuals are affected differently; some may suffer from one factor while others can be affected as a result of multiple causes. Additionally, certain genetic predisposed conditions can also contribute to the development of leaky gut syndrome.


How Is Leaky Gut Diagnosed?

Generally, Leaky Gut Syndrome is diagnosed based on an individual’s symptoms. Some laboratory tests can also be done to determine if the patient has this disorder. These tests measure the levels of certain substances in the blood that are associated with a leaky gut. One such test is a protein called zonulin which acts as a connector between intestinal cells. An imbalance in your normal microbiome can lead to leaky gut. Additionally, imaging tests such as X-rays and CT scans can also be done to further diagnose the condition. In some cases, a biopsy may need to be conducted in order to confirm the diagnosis and properly treat the condition.


Current science on Leaky Gut Syndrome

A review of current literature, published in Current Opinion in Clinical Nutrition and Metabolic Care in 2021, concluded that the intestinal barrier can be strengthened with a diet that includes:

  • vitamins A and D, zinc

  • short-chain fatty acids, found in high-fiber foods like fruits, vegetables, and legumes

  • methionine, an amino acid found in high amounts in tuna, salmon, and plant-based sources including brazil nuts, soybeans, tofu, beans, and lentils

  • glutamine, an amino acid found in eggs, yogurt, and proteins such as chicken, beef, and fish

  • Probiotics, including yogurt, kefir, tempeh, kimchi, and other fermented foods


Many of these, including methionine, glutamine, and probiotics, can also be added to the diet through supplements.


Meanwhile, a diet too rich in fats and refined carbohydrates may be contributing to high incidents of leaky gut syndrome in Western countries. According to a 2020 article in the International Journal of Molecular Sciences: “Diseases which are linked to intestinal hyperpermeability tend to localize to Westernized countries, where a diet rich in fats and refined carbohydrates predominates.”


Several studies have concluded that fructose is one of those key refined carbohydrates—in other words, refined sugar.


So far, so good. You can help your body repair the permeability of the intestine by changes to your diet. However, this comes with a caveat. A review of academic literature by Michael Camilleri, a professor of gastroenterology at the Mayo Clinic, suggests that changes to diet may be required, but not sufficient by themselves, if the cause of the leaky gut syndrome is an underlying immune dysfunction, or there is some other underlying problem that needs to be addressed.


This is where an integrative approach is essential, since, as stated above, the causes of leaky gut can be wide-ranging and multifaceted. The Institute for Functional Medicine has developed the 5R Protocol to treat intestinal issues such as leaky gut. It stands for:

  • Remove any foods that may be causing sensitivity or inflammation

  • Replace any digestive enzymes which may be lacking

  • Repair the gut lining using, for example, bone broth, collagen, and L-glutamine

  • Reinoculate by rebuilding your normal gut bacteria through the use of probiotics, fermented foods, and fiber

  • Rebalance by incorporating important lifestyle changes to reduce stress and moderate cortisol release like meditation, breath work, or gratitude practices

Managing Symptoms and Natural Treatments

To summarize: making changes to your diet is an essential tool for managing leaky gut syndrome. Definitely limit your intake of refined sugars and processed foods. Additionally, focus on incorporating more nutrient-dense whole foods into your diet such as vegetables and healthy fats, including the specific foods mentioned above. Additionally, probiotics can be useful to increase the good bacteria in the digestive system while reducing inflammation.


Ultimately, it will be helpful to consult with an integrative medicine physician to help diagnose, manage, and treat the symptoms of leaky gut syndrome. If you need help, feel free to reach out to us for a free, 15 minute consultation.


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