What you will learn in this article:
- Symptoms of IBS, “leaky gut” or digestive issues
- How “leaky gut” harms your health and hormones
- What is “leaky gut?”
- How your gut brings your hormones down
- What causes “leaky gut”
- How to heal your “leaky gut” with food
- How to heal your “leaky gut” with supplements
Symptoms of IBS, “Leaky Gut” and Digestive Issues
Recognizing your symptoms is already half the battle won. Millions of people live with the below symptoms and don’t realize that in the long run, they can be the underlying cause of many chronic conditions (including autoimmunity and Alzheimer’s) that can also lead to severe hormonal problems.
Here are the symptoms to look for:
- Bloating most days or every day (or bloating after every meal)
- Loose stool
- Alternating between constipation and loose stool
- Stomach pain
- Acid reflux
- Burping – particularly after food
- Flatulence (or, simply gas)
- Food particles in the stool
- A reactive belly that feels worse every time you eat
- Persisting gut issues that don’t improve when you cut out common problem foods like gluten and dairy
In working with women to help them achieve relief from signs of hormone imbalance, I have found that gut issues and hormonal imbalances often go hand in hand. Suffering chronic discomfort, women seek medical help only to reach a dead end when doctors tell them they have Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS), that not much can be done and they are likely to have these symptoms for life. Worse still, women are often blamed for their gut problems and told that if they just stop being such stress cadets, their symptoms will magically disappear.
Yes, stress can be a contributing factor but there are other things that most likely caused your digestive issues. If you have chronic digestive problems, there’s a very good chance that leaky gut is to blame.
How “Leaky Gut” Harms Your Health and Hormones
Many of your important hormones, such as serotonin and melatonin, are made in your gut, so if this is not working properly it has a knock-on effect on all your hormones. As well as triggering chronic digestive symptoms, leaky gut can also be the root cause of:
- Autoimmune disease, including thyroid problems (such as Graves’ and Hashimoto’s), lupus, psoriasis, Celiac disease, rheumatoid arthritis, colitis and Crohn’s disease
- Asthma, hay fever, eczema or other allergies
- Chronic fatigue
- Symptoms of hormone imbalance
- Headaches and migraines
- Depression and anxiety
- Food allergies or intolerances
- Cancer – research at Thomas Jefferson University has found that a leaky gut may be the trigger for some cancers.
What is “Leaky Gut?”
The lining of your digestive system is a little like a wall with tiny peepholes located in the little spaces (junctions) between your gut cells. After you have digested food, those peep holes open up just enough to allow nutrients pass through to your bloodstream so your body can put them to work. Then if you have a healthy, well functioning belly, they close up again.
But sometimes damage to that gut wall can lead the tiny junctions to open up and stay open. This increases your gut permeability – which means that the lining of your gut no longer fulfills its proper barrier function. As a result, bacteria, toxins and partially undigested food particles “leak” into your bloodstream, causing havoc with your hormones, weight and immunity and triggering issues like inflammation, autoimmune disease and allergy.
Though integrative practitioners accept that leaky gut is one of the main causes of autoimmune issues and hormonal imbalance in women, some Western doctors still deny it is real, even though research is emerging to show it exists and can cause enormous fallout for health.
How Your Gut Brings Your Hormones Down
Your gut is like the Grand Central station in your body because it’s where processes such as the absorption of nutrients, immune responses and energy production occur. As hormone production also takes place there, an unhealthy leaky gut can compromise or shake up your levels of:
- Estrogen: A leaky gut does not effectively escort the aggressive estrogen metabolites out of your body. Instead, they stay in circulation, causing Estrogen Dominance. The estrogen levels are then high and your progesterone level might become too low to oppose estrogen. Estrogen and progesterone are two dancing partners; they need to be in balance to each other. When that happens, they support normal menstrual function, promote calm, encourage fat burning and reduce fluid retention. When out of balance, the opposite is true.
- Estrobolome: This is a subset of bacteria in the gut that helps to metabolize estrogens and disarm the “dirty” estrogens (which are the harmful estrogen metabolites) that cause cancers in the thyroid, breast, ovaries and uterus. Most people with leaky gut have a host of estrogen problems.
- Thyroid hormones: Part of your conversion of T4 thyroid hormone into the stronger, more active T3 form, occurs in your gut – but may be compromised if your gut is unhealthy. Women who take Synthroid, the synthetic version of the T4 hormone, and who have digestive issues often don’t convert well to T3 which is the bioactive form of the thyroid hormone. That explains why in spite of taking the drug, they are still struggling with low thyroid symptoms.
- Chronic inflammation of hormone receptors: Chronic digestive distress leads to chronic inflammation. Under normal circumstances, inflammation is temporary and helps the body rebound from injury, such as a wound or twisted ankle, or fight off infections, such as a sore throat. Chronic inflammation is long-lasting and has been linked to an increased risk of various conditions, including diabetes, heart disease, and hormonal imbalances. One way this happens is by desensitizing hormone receptors. For example, you may be producing sufficient levels of progesterone, but chronic inflammation can desensitize (or shut down) the hormone receptor, preventing progesterone from entering the cells and causing many related symptoms, such as insomnia, infertility, or anxiety.
- Sleep and mood hormones: Around 80-90% of serotonin (your happiness hormone) and melatonin (which induces sleep and is produced from serotonin, in total darkness) are made in your gut but that production can go haywire due to a leaky gut.
- Insulin levels: The healthier your gut function, the more stable your blood glucose, the less you crave sugar and the less insulin you release. On the flip-side, an unhealthy gut can predispose you to insulin resistance, where your energy cycle doesn’t work properly, which also reduces your ability to burn fat.
- Appetite hormones: An inflamed unhealthy gut promotes unhealthy bacteria that can change your levels of ghrelin (which makes you hungry) and leptin (which signals when you’re full). It can also impact on the food you crave and your taste receptors.
- Cortisol:A leaky, inflamed gut may also make your stress response more easily triggered. Studies have shown that taking probiotics can actually help settle this response and lower cortisol levels.
What Causes Leaky Gut – Nutritional Contributors
Foods That Can Damage Gut Health
- Gluten: Modern wheat has much higher levels of gluten than the wheat eaten by our ancestors. And in some sensitive people, gluten, (found in goods like wheat, spelt, rye and barley), can be a major trigger for leaky gut. Gliadin, one of the components of gluten, stimulates the release of a substance called zonulin when it makes contact with the cells of the small intestine. At the University of Maryland School of Medicine, groundbreaking research by Dr. Alessio Fasano is exploring how zonulin affects gut permeability and can also lead to autoimmune diseases like Celiac and thyroid problems.
He has found that like a gatekeeper, zonulin opens up the junctions between gut cells to allow nutrients to pass through. But if your immune system is run down, you are very inflamed or sensitive to zonulin or if you’re eating gluten two or three times a day, you are also more likely to be reactive to zonulin or have too much zonulin, which can trigger leaky gut or stop your body from repairing the “leaks”. As a result your junctions get stuck in the open position and don’t close up again. Removing gluten from the diet can reverse this problem, allowing the leaky openings to close up again and your gut lining to repair.
If you find giving up gluten a struggle because you toast at breakfast or sandwiches at lunch, try my Gluten-Free Buckwheat Bread.
- Other Grains:Some people who react to gluten also cross-react to seeds like quinoa and buckwheat. Try cutting out and reintroducing grains to see if your health symptoms improve. Meanwhile, my Warming Grain-Free Cereal With Pears is a great filling option for breakfast or try this Green Plantain (Grain-Free) Sunday Brunch Pancake.
- Lectins: These naturally occuring insecticides are present in plants to help them survive in the wild. But in your belly those very properties that make lectins toxic to insects and fungi, can also hurt your gut. Lectins are found in foods like:
- Grains, such as wheat, rice and spelt
- Legumes like kidney beans, lentils and soy
- Vegetables such as tomatoes, sweet potato, eggplants, potatoes, zucchini and carrot
- Fruits such as berries, banana, apples, grapes and cherries
Once eaten, they bind to the carbohydrates that are on the surfaces of your cells. And they have a particular fondness for the carb-rich epithelial cells that line the walls of your digestive system.
Research from the University Medical College of Georgia has found that lectins work a little like stun-guns on the cells of the gut that normally repair little tears in the lining of digestive tract in as little as a few seconds. Lectins can halt that repair plus they stop your cells from producing mucus which keeps the lining of your gut wall protected.
If you have issues like irritable bowel or autoimmune disease, reducing lectins is a good idea (or at least cut out foods particularly high in lectins, such as grains and legumes). Though ensuring foods like beans are soaked overnight and well cooked, can substantially reduce lectin content, some level of lectins still remains. Some people report that adding kombu (the seaweed also known as kelp) when cooking legumes improves their digestibility.
- Unsprouted grains, seeds, nuts and beans: These contain chemicals such as phytates and also lectins (see above), which can inflame your digestive tract and also block your nutrient absorption, by binding to minerals such as calcium and magnesium. In turn this can change the mix of bacteria, contributing to SIBO. So make sure you soak grains, seeds and legumes overnight in lemon, apple cider vinegar or salt to start the sprouting process and reduce these plant chemicals.
- Dairy Products: After childhood, at least 60% of people or more stop producing lactase, the enzyme needed to digest milk, shows research from Cornell University.
- Processed meats: They contain chemicals such as nitrates and nitrites, which have been linked to cancer and inflammation.
- Alcohol: Not only can a daily glass of red or G&T irritate your gut lining – just one episode of binge drinking can lead to leaky gut. The problem? Alcohol can increase the levels of gram-negative bacteria in your belly, which are notorious for causing immune system reactions. This family of bacteria causes an increase in endotoxins, which can be absorbed via the intestine into your bloodstream, then taxied via the portal vein to your liver. Once there, endotoxins can overload the Kupffer cells that help your liver do its filtering work. This can lead the Kupffer cells to activate inflammation in the liver too. So now your belly and liver are suffering. For classic signs of a sluggish liver, take a look at my post here about this.
- Coffee: Not only can this cause an excess of acid production (even if it’s decaffeinated), your cup of java could also be constantly irritating the lining of your stomach, getting in the way of leaky gut repair. Coffee can also contribute to female hormone imbalance – more about that here.
The good news? Once you cut coffee out the mucosal lining of your gut can start to repair and regenerate in as little as 48 hours.
- Antibiotics in Food: Just like antibiotic medications, this can upset your balance of gut bacteria, so where possible eat organic meat and wild caught fish.
- Reactive Foods: These are different for every person, which is why you need to listen to your body to make sure you know your best diet for hormone balance. The most common foods that cause gut issues include sugar, gluten, dairy, soy, eggs and corn. Some people are also reactive to nightshades (such as eggplants and potatoes. Some are reactive to FODMAPs – carbohydrates that cause unhealthy fermentation and bad bacteria build up.
Trigger foods are not always obvious. For years I had issues with eggs and I had absolutely no idea they were adversely impacting my health. That’s why you need to work out the foods that are right for your body.
Learn how to add more hormone-balancing ingredients to your meals with our FREE 15 Breakfasts to Rebalance Your Hormones guide here.
What Causes Leaky Gut – Other Triggers
There are more factors apart from food that can contribute to leaky gut.
- Chronic Constipation: Research shows this can lead to changes in your gut flora that pave the way for leaky gut and immune system reactions, shows research.For a quick test, try eating corn on the cob or taking charcoal tablets and seeing how long it takes for them to appear in your stool. If it is more than 24 hours, your gut transit time is slow, which is not healthy. I talked about natural ways of overcoming constipation on my Friday Live Q&As, watch it here.
- Diarrhea: Bowel motions that are too loose or send you racing to the toilet several times a day, go hand in hand with increased gut permeability, shows this research.
- PPIs: Proton pump inhibitor medications for acid reflux reduce the normal acid balance in your stomach. Far from improving issues, over time lowered stomach acid can predispose you to inflammation, food sensitivities and other immune responses. For natural ways to address heartburn – which also help to naturally balance hormones – check out my post on the Acid Reflux and Thyroid Nutrition connection.
- Medications: Particularly for:
- Pain: Non Steroidal Anti-Inflammatories such as Ibuprofen have well-documented negative impacts on the gut lining. Chronic use can lead to stomach ulcers and bleeding, but even if you only use them once or twice a week, they can cause extreme inflammation.
- Antibiotics: Can cause irreversible damage to the gut, especially when taken often and close to each other. Work with a functional practitioner to find herbal options to knock out an infection.
- Low bile acids. Bile deficiency can contribute to chronic diarrhea, constipation, yellow stools and hormonal imbalances in women. Foods like daikon radish, lemon, lime watercress and artichokes can stimulate better bile flow. For tips on also improving your gall bladder health, take a look at this post.
- Infections – address issues such as Candida, SIBO, h.pylori, parasite infections can cause further damage to the gut.
How to Heal Your Leaky Gut With Food
- Avoid the potential food culprits – as highlighted above, avoid the foods that I mentioned. Eliminating them will provide immediate relief of your symptoms. Starting the Elimination Diet is really the best way to offload the toxic load on your gut. You can learn how to do the Elimination Diet with our Estrogen Reset program.
- Rotate your diet and do not eat the same thing over and over again. Many people develop a sensitivity to foods they eat all the time; almonds and coconut are good examples.
- Let 70% of your plate by plant based. Most people do letter with cooked vegetables and not raw but listen to your body to figure out what makes you feel best.
- Put away all processed foods like cereals, protein shakes and powders, puffy rice and flours.
- Reduce alcohol to no more than one glass of wine or avoid it altogether.
- Improve your stomach acid: If you suffer from acid reflux, you have low stomach acid, not low. I wrote this article that will help you understand if you have low stomach acid, its role in your health (it’s huge!) and how to improve your stomach acid using the slow-dosing method.
- Take digestive enzymes: Some people improve their digestion by taking digestive enzymes about half an hour before a meal. Most complexes contain beneficial enzymes like bromelain, lactase, lipase, cellulase and papain – that will help you break down and absorb a wide range of ingredients. I take these Digestive Enzymes.
- Gut bacteria: Your gut microbiome is a barometer of your overall well-being. It is home to some 100 trillion types of different bacteria, according to the findings of the Human Microbiome Project by America’s National Institutes of Health. This means you have 10 times more bacteria in your body than your own cells. A great deal of that bacteria sets up house in your digestive system and when the bad bacteria outweigh the good, it can cause inflammation that damages the integrity and function of your gut lining, triggering leaky gut. Listen to the connection between gut bacteria, the role of sporebiotics (or spore-based probiotics) and your hormones in this revealing interview.
- Eat fermented foods: Good bacteria can help to trigger proteins that protect the lining of your gut
Mix them up so that you enjoy a range of bacteria. Good choices include sauerkraut, lacto-fermeted cucumbers, miso (if you tolerate soy), kefir (a probiotic milk drink) and kimchi (a fermented Korean vegetable side dish). Try my recipe for this fermented Probiotic Beetroot Tonic called Kvass.
If you have a tendency to have candida problems, avoid Kombucha tea as this can be high in yeasts. Some people with digestive dysbiosis, Candida, or histamine intolerance do not do well with fermented foods, so please tune in to your body and let it tell you if fermented food nourish or harm you.
- Bring in resistant starch: Foods like oats, lentils, bananas, cashews and potato (that has been cooked and cooled) are good news for your bacteria balance because they contain a special kind of fiber, called Resistant Starch. This passes through your small intestine without being digested and is only absorbed once it travels to the large intestine (colon). Resistant Starch helps you naturally balance hormones – to learn why, check out my post on what it does and how it can boost your thyroid function.
As its name suggests, this fiber resists digestion so when it reaches the colon it is fermented by the bacteria there to produce by-products called short chain fatty acids. In particular, it increases the production of a short chain fatty acid called butyrate, which is very important to keeping the lining of your gut healthy. Butyrate also has a range of positive health impacts, such as reducing inflammation and lowering the risk of colon cancer.
The Resistant Starch product I use is Fiber RS – I add it to my smoothies.
- Bring in the prebiotics, to feed the good bacteria: Think foods like asparagus, dandelion greens, Jerusalem artichoke, chicory, onions, leek and garlic. These contain natural, plant-based fibers, such as inulin and oligofructose and they act as fuel to feed the good bacteria in your gut, and stimulate the growth and activity of these bacteria. Prebiotic fibers appear to improve intestinal function and mineral absorption and may reduce gastrointestinal infections and have beneficial effects on your immune system. The prebiotic support for your good bacteria also helps lower your anxiety levels – so it’s a win-win for gut health.
- Take probiotics: This good, live bacteria may prevent harmful bacteria from attaching to your gut lining and growing there. It can also destroy toxins released by certain bad bacteria that can make you sick. Meanwhile, probiotics send signals to your cells to nourish the mucus in your intestine, helping it act as a barrier against infections. I personally take a sporebiotic from Megasporebiotics.
- Avoid antibiotics whenever possible: Obviously there are some situations where antibiotics are needed to prevent a health issue from becoming dangerous or severe. But taking them for issues like colds, viruses, or acne should be avoided as antibiotics may cause unhealthy domino effects that could last for years by knocking out your good bacteria as well as the bad.
- Filter your water: This helps remove chemicals like chlorine and fluoride, which can kill off good bacteria in your digestive system.
Supplements To Heal Your Leaky Gut
- L-Glutamine: This amino acid does more than help promote the growth of muscle, L-Glutamine is very good for the repair and sealing of the junctions between cells that increase intestinal permeability, restoring gut barrier function. It also helps your body produce glutathione, which is known as the “mother of antioxidants”. A word of warning though – some people find that when L-Glutamine converts to a substance called glutamate (which is an excitory neurotransmitter) it over-stimulates their brain and triggers anxiety, which can sometimes be quite severe. This can happen even if you are not prone to anxiety. Some people also find that L-Glutamine can increase thirst or cause them to retain more fluid. So start with a small dose and see how well you tolerate it. If it causes racing heart of makes you wired, try foods sources such as bone broth, grass-fed beef, turkey, wild-caught fish, cabbage, spinach and cottage cheese (if your body is okay with dairy).
- Gelatin: This is made from the skin, bones and connective tissues of animals such as beef, chicken and pigs and contains collagen. This important protein acts a little like a natural glue, which helps to rebuild and strengthen the tissue in the lining of your gut wall. Research from the University of Catania shows that gelatin also reduces inflammation in the intestine.
Brands I use and recommend are: Great Lakes and Vital Proteins, both can be purchased on Thrive Market, which offers significant savings.
- Slippery elm bark: Long used to heal digestive and skin remedies by the Native American Indians, this bark becomes a gel when mixed with water. Once swallowed that gel creates a mucosal protection for the gut wall that reduces inflammation and allows it to heal.
- Bovine colostrum: This can be found in some probiotic formulas. In one study, when it was given to endurance athletes whose workouts were shown to actually increase leaky gut, it helped to reduce their gut permeability.
- Curcumin: This powerful spice can help to cool down inflammation in the gut and the rest of the body. In animal studies curcumin has been shown to improve gut barrier function after poor diet has caused inflammation.
- Aloe vera juice: Some people swear by this as a gut-healing daily drink. But there is research that suggests that the juice from this cactus plant causes gut irritation and cancer risk in studies of rats. And there are studies it may also cause greater gut permeability. Some integrative practitioners believe that aloe juice can cause health problems when it includes the whole-leaf, which is higher in chemicals such as anthraquinones, which can have laxative effects and trigger irritation. Bottom line? Try to source a purified aloe juice without the whole-leaf. And if you take aloe juice regularly, stop for a few weeks then reintroduce it to track whether you think it contributes to flare-ups.
Lastly, Let’s Not Forget About… Your Stress and Sleep
Powerful neural connections between your brain and belly mean that stress can have an enormous impact on your gut health.
Feeling chronic anxious, wound up and pressured can:
- Cause painful spasms that interfere with the peristaltic movement of food along your digestive system.
- Change the mucosal lining of your gut.
- Reduce blood flow to your belly so that it is less well nourished.
- Trigger over-production of stomach acid that can cause inflammation, bloating and discomfort.
- Encourage gut bacteria to grow.
Make sleep a priority
When you’re always rushing and stressing, it’s easy to slide onto the couch after dinner and stay there engrossed in a TV series because you feel too worn out to get up and get ready for bed. But as you know, sleep is the foundation to good health. Lack of sleep not only causes hormones imbalance symptoms, it can also contribute to inflammation and gut issues, shows research from the University of Oklahoma.
That’s good reason to get to bed earlier. Take a look at my 10 Surprising Sleep Hacks and boost your gut health by getting better quality sleep.