Hippocrates, a famous ancient Greek physician, coined two well-known phrases you’ve likely heard at some point. The first is “All disease begins in the gut” and the second is “Let food be thy medicine and medicine be thy food”. And these phrases ring particularly true when it comes to a complex condition known as leaky gut syndrome.
Today we’re going to explore exactly what leaky gut syndrome is, how this malfunction of your digestive tract can have a major impact on your overall health, how you can use a specific dietary approach (known as the specific carbohydrate diet) to help heal leaky gut, and go over some additional steps you can take to facilitate healing if you’re concerned that you may be battling this perplexing condition. Let’s dive in.
What Exactly Is Leaky Gut Syndrome?
Leaky gut syndrome – also more formally known as increased intestinal permeability – is exactly what it sounds like. You see, the cells that line your digestive tract are designed to serve as a selective barrier – allowing things like nutrients, water, and electrolytes to selectively make their way into your bloodstream while keeping toxins, harmful bacteria, and waste sealed up tight to be excreted.1
But in leaky gut syndrome, the lining of your gut becomes compromised – with tiny gaps or holes forming in this crucial barrier. As these openings form within your gut, your system becomes flooded with mishmash from your intestinal tract – including partially digested nutrients, bacteria and other pathogens, waste materials, and whatever else can squeeze its way through. This onslaught of foreign substances “leaking” their way into your bloodstream and throughout your body can create a slew of symptoms that can affect you from head to toe.
What Are the Symptoms of a Leaky Gut?
Since the origin of leaky gut syndrome is in your gut, it’s no surprise that many symptoms can show up in the form of digestive upset and digestive imbalances such as:2
- Celiac disease
- Food allergies, intolerances, or sensitivities
- Frequent digestive disturbances like bloating, gas, diarrhea, constipation, and abdominal discomfort
- Gastric ulcers
- Inflammatory bowel conditions like Crohn’s disease or ulcerative colitis
But because leaky gut syndrome can have a ripple effect that disrupts much more than just your gut, this complex condition can also show up in some sneaky, less obvious ways. Some other conditions that regularly co-occur with leaky gut syndrome include:2,3,4,5,6,7,8,9,10,11
- Autoimmune disorders (Type 1 diabetes, Hashimoto’s, psoriasis)
- Chronic fatigue syndrome
- Chronic heart failure
- Inflammatory skin conditions
- Metabolic conditions, such as diabetes or heart disease
- Mood issues (depression, anxiety, mood swings, fatigue, irritability)
- Obesity, weight gain, or difficulty losing weight
- Thyroid problems
With such potentially serious implications for your health, you’re probably curious about what causes leaky gut syndrome in the first place.
Causes of Leaky Gut Syndrome
It’s often impossible to trace leaky gut syndrome back to one single factor. Rather, leaky gut syndrome typically stems from a combination of factors that work in conjunction to slowly erode the integrity of your gut barrier. Some common factors include:12,13,14
- Genetic predisposition: Variations in certain genes can sometimes trigger your immune system to have an overzealous response to certain compounds or bacteria within your gut. When your immune system launches an attack in an attempt to protect you, it accidentally causes massive collateral damage to the healthy, normal cells that line your gut.
- Chronic stress: Chronic stress can simultaneously put a damper on your digestion while ramping up inflammation – both of which can disturb the health of your gut lining.
- Toxin overload: Exposure to environmental toxins can overwhelm and confuse your immune system, shift the balance of your microbiome, and disrupt digestion – all of which can contribute to the formation of a leaky gut.
- Imbalance in gut bacteria: Your microbiome – or the ecosystem of microbes that reside in your gut – play a critical role in keeping your gut barrier strong and functional. If this delicate balance gets thrown out of whack and harmful microbes begin crowding out good ones, it can spell trouble for your gut lining.
- Chronic infections: A chronic underlying infection can cause your immune system to essentially get stuck in the “on” position. And over time this chronic immune activation and low-level inflammation chip away at the integrity of your gut.
- Poor diet: A nutrient-poor diet high in inflammation-stoking foods can significantly contribute to sustained inflammation, poor digestion, an imbalanced microbiome, and an overall unhealthy gut. This combination of factors makes your diet a particularly powerful piece of the puzzle when it comes to underlying factors contributing to a leaky gut.
All of these factors can undoubtedly contribute to leaky gut syndrome. But your diet can have an especially dramatic impact on just about every facet of your gut health and be a primary driver of the underlying inflammation and impaired gut lining integrity seen in leaky gut syndrome. So it makes sense that adjusting your diet can subsequently impact the severity of leaky gut syndrome and help facilitate healing and restoration of your gut lining.
So let’s explore how we can use diet as a tool to help halt and even reverse leaky gut syndrome.
What Is the Best Diet to Heal Leaky Gut Syndrome? The Specific Carbohydrate Diet
The key to leveraging your diet to help heal leaky gut syndrome and begin restoring the integrity of your gut lining is to take a two-pronged approach. The first step is to eliminate foods that spike inflammation and promote dysbiosis (an imbalance in your gut microbiome). The second step is to incorporate nutrient-dense foods that support healing and fuel the beneficial bacteria in your gut.
These same principles apply to not only leaky gut syndrome, but also extend to any bowel condition that stems from elevated inflammation – like Crohn’s disease or ulcerative colitis. To learn more about these closely related gut-based conditions, head over and check out the following articles:
- How Transforming Your Diet and Microbiome Can Help Heal Inflammatory Bowel Disease
- How Mycobacterium Might Contribute To Your Inflammatory Bowel Disease
- How Fungal Gut Dysbiosis Might Be the Underlying Culprit in Crohn’s Disease
- Crohn’s vs. Ulcerative Colitis vs. Celiac: A Fascinating Look at Their Differences
While there’s not one singular diet that is right for everyone – we’re all unique and will respond differently to different diets – one diet, in particular, has been found to significantly improve the symptoms of leaky gut syndrome and other inflammatory bowel disorders while helping your gut heal the root cause of the dysfunction. This gut-healing diet is known as the specific carbohydrate diet or the SCD.
How the Specific Carbohydrate Diet Works
The theory behind the specific carbohydrate diet is that when you consume certain types of carbohydrates, they can remain in your bowels where they are metabolized by certain strains of microorganisms. This fuel supercharges these bacteria and fungi, allowing them to overpopulate your gut.
As populations of these microbes expand, they inevitably cause damage to your gut lining while simultaneously creating damaging metabolic waste products that drive inflammation and further the cycle of leaky gut syndrome. The specific carbohydrate diet aims to limit these carbs to minimize the growth of these microbes and the subsequent damage they cause. Hence the name the “specific” carbohydrate diet.
What Foods Can I Eat on the Specific Carbohydrate Diet (SCD)?
Foods allowed and encouraged on the SCD include:
- Certain legumes like navy beans, lentils, split peas, lima beans, raw cashews, and all natural peanut butter
- Dairy limited to hard cheeses, like cheddar, Colby, Swiss, and dry curd cottage cheese, along with homemade yogurt that’s been fermented at least 24 hours
- Fresh, unprocessed animal, products, like meat, poultry, fish, shellfish, and eggs
- Fruit (as long as there’s no added sugar)
- Most oils, teas, coffee, mustard, cider or white vinegar, and juices with no additives
- Nuts and nut flour
- Vegetables and string beans (fresh, frozen, raw, or cooked)
Foods to avoid on the SCD include:
- All grains, including corn, wheat, wheat germ, barley, oats, and rice, along with all baked goods that may include these grain-based flours
- Any milk products high in lactose, like commercial yogurt, cream, sour cream, and ice cream
- Canned and processed meats
- Canned vegetables with added ingredients
- Canola oil and commercial mayonnaise
- Legumes not mentioned above
- Processed sugar, high fructose corn syrup, molasses, and maple syrup
- Seaweed and seaweed by-products
- Starchy tubers like potatoes, sweet potatoes, and turnips
- Sweets, desserts, and products that contain specific carbohydrates known as fructooligosaccharides
Shifting your diet can have a monumental impact on just about every facet of your health and is one of the pivotal pieces of the puzzle when it comes to addressing leaky gut syndrome. While your diet is foundational to healing and reversing leaky gut syndrome, it works particularly well when paired with some other healing strategies.
What Other Steps Can I Take to Fix My Leaky Gut?
Focusing on your diet is hands down one of the first things you must address if you’re trying to heal leaky gut syndrome. Incorporating these additional strategies simply won’t be as powerful if you don’t first address your diet. But once you’ve begun incorporating a diet that supports healing and optimal gut health, some additional strategies you can incorporate to foster and support healing include:
- Reduce stress and find healthy ways to cope with the unavoidable stressors
- Prioritize getting plenty of restful, high-quality sleep
- Incorporate antioxidant boosting vitamins like vitamin A and vitamin D
- Take gut-healing supplements that can bolster the integrity of your gut lining like collagen, immunoglobulins (like those found in Gut Immune), and glutamine (which you can find a hefty dose of in my Gut Shield supplement)
- Support a healthy microbiome with spore-based probiotics
- Find ways to support and prioritize your mental well-being and happiness – there’s a direct correlation between your gut and your brain, so positive emotions can majorly boost healing
- Minimize your toxic burden and switch to less toxic products
Because healing leaky gut syndrome is best approached using a big-picture approach that touches on numerous aspects of your life, it can be immensely helpful to partner with an Integrative and Functional Medicine Doctor to help you come up with a customized plan that will fit your unique needs.
If You’re Struggling With Leaky Gut Syndrome, There Is Hope for Healing
Leaky gut syndrome can have a ripple effect – putting a serious damper on your health, your happiness, and your ability to live a productive, fulfilling life. I know firsthand just how damaging, frustrating, and defeating it can feel to struggle with a leaky gut. It’s especially challenging when conventional medicine tells you there’s essentially no cure, or worse, dismisses your condition as a myth or farce.
If you’re in trenches dealing with leaky gut syndrome, an ongoing digestive issue, or are grappling with unexplained, persistent symptoms, you are not alone and there is hope for healing. After battling what seemed like diagnosis after diagnosis – which included cancer, autoimmunity, Crohn’s disease, and severe allergies to name a few – I not only felt crummy physically, but I also felt defeated and alone. But I was determined to find a way to reclaim the health, happiness, and life that I just knew was meant for me.
The mind-body-soul approach to healing found in Functional Medicine not only saved my life, but has allowed me to create a life full of health, resilience, and purpose beyond my wildest dreams. By combining science-based lifestyle tweaks (like changing my diet and minimizing exposure to toxins) with soul-level healing (like meditating and learning how to finally express and share my true feelings) I was able to completely transform my life from the inside out.
And I know with every fiber of my being that if I can transform my life in such a powerful way, you can absolutely do the same. This is why I poured my heart and soul into my upcoming book Unexpected: Finding Resilience Through Functional Medicine, Science, and Faith. I wrote this book in hopes of offering not only a practical guide for healthy living, but also to remind you that you’re never alone in this journey, and to provide a spark of inspiration to empower you to create an extraordinary life full of love and resilience.
- Regulation of Tight Junction Permeability by Intestinal Bacteria and Dietary Components | The Journal of Nutrition | Oxford Academic (oup.com)
- Table – PMC (nih.gov)
- Gut permeability and food allergies – PubMed (nih.gov)
- High prevalence of abnormal gastrointestinal permeability in moderate-severe asthma – PubMed (nih.gov)
- The emerging role of the gut in chronic heart failure – PubMed (nih.gov)
- MICROBIOTA AND GUT-LIVER AXIS: A MINI-REVIEW ON THEIR INFLUENCES ON OBESITY AND OBESITY RELATED LIVER DISEASE (nih.gov)
- The gut-brain barrier in major depression: intestinal mucosal dysfunction with an increased translocation of LPS from gram negative enterobacteria (leaky gut) plays a role in the inflammatory pathophysiology of depression – PubMed (nih.gov)
- Normalization of leaky gut in chronic fatigue syndrome (CFS) is accompanied by a clinical improvement: effects of age, duration of illness and the translocation of LPS from gram-negative bacteria – PubMed (nih.gov)
- Intestinal permeability – a new target for disease prevention and therapy | BMC Gastroenterology | Full Text (biomedcentral.com)
- The “Perfect Storm” for Type 1 Diabetes (nih.gov)
- Gluten causes gastrointestinal symptoms in subjects without celiac disease: a double-blind randomized placebo-controlled trial – PubMed (nih.gov)
- Leaky Gut As a Danger Signal for Autoimmune Diseases (nih.gov)
- Stress, depression, diet, and the gut microbiota: human–bacteria interactions at the core of psychoneuroimmunology and nutrition (nih.gov)
- Gut Microbiome Toxicity: Connecting the Environment and Gut Microbiome-Associated Diseases (nih.gov)
* These statements have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. The product mentioned in this article are not intended to diagnose, treat, cure, or prevent any disease. The information in this article is not intended to replace any recommendations or relationship with your physician. Please review references sited at end of article for scientific support of any claims made.