leaky gut syndrome
leaky gut syndrome

What You Need To Know About Fixing Your "Leaky" Gut

Posted on June 7, 2024 by M. Elizabeth Swenor, D.O.

Your gastrointestinal (GI) tract, also known as your gut, plays an important role in your overall health. Your gut is lined with a special barrier that releases helpful nutrients into your bloodstream while keeping harmful things, like toxins, from escaping.

Sometimes, however, the gut lining becomes “leaky,” letting unwanted or harmful substances into your bloodstream. A leaky gut may play a role in many conditions, from irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) to autoimmune diseases like rheumatoid arthritis.

What Is A Leaky Gut?

Think of your gut as a hallway with millions of doors and windows. A community of bacteria and fungi, commonly called your microbiome, is the security team for these windows and doors. Your microbiome decides what’s allowed to pass through and what gets locked in.

In a healthy gut, your microbiome opens a door or window to release helpful nutrients into your body. When your microbiome spots harmful substances like toxins and germs, it keeps the doors and windows closed.

When you have a leaky gut, however, this process doesn’t go as planned. This might happen if there are cracks in the lining or your microbiome doesn’t recognize a particular substance. Unwanted or unidentified substances can then escape the gut and migrate into your bloodstream.

Your immune system spots these substances and knows they don’t belong there, so it launches an attack. This immune response creates inflammation, which is a key factor in many diseases, from Crohn’s disease to diabetes.

What Causes Leaky Gut?

Your gut is a highly complex system, and researchers continue to study how it works. We can’t pinpoint the exact causes of a leaky gut. However, we know certain things can increase your risk of damaging the delicate gut wall and overall gut health, including:

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  • Low-fiber diet: Your microbiome needs to eat, and its preferred food source is fiber. Eating too many low-fiber foods can starve your microbiome—leading to lower bacterial counts and fewer kinds of bacteria. A less diverse microbiome struggles to do its job and allows other potentially harmful organisms to grow.
  • Medications: Some medications can have a negative effect on your gut health. Antibiotics kill good and bad gut bacteria, which can lead to constipation, diarrhea, gas and bloating. Pain relievers, antidepressants and antacids are also possible gut disruptors.
  • Processed foods: Your microbiome quickly digests crackers, chips, baked goods, soda pop, candy and fast food. Your blood sugar spikes and your body dumps inflammation-causing substances into your bloodstream through your gut wall, triggering whole-body inflammation.
  • Sleep deprivation: Sleep is necessary for every system in your body, including your gut. Consistently skimping on sleep can harm your bacteria diversity and gut health.
  • Stress: High levels of stress over long periods of time can change your microbiome, leading to fewer “good” organisms and more “bad” ones. The bad organisms don’t keep your gut’s windows and doors shut like they should and can eventually lead to chronic disease.
  • Substance use: When drugs or alcohol enter your gut, they can change how your microbiome works. In general, these substances lead to the growth of bad bacteria that cause inflammation.

How Can I Fix A Leaky Gut?

There’s no easy solution for a leaky gut. But making a few lifestyle changes can help you feel better, sometimes in a matter of days. You can boost your gut health if you:

1. Eat more fiber.

Fiber is fuel for your gut’s microbiome, but most American adults are running on empty. While our ancestors likely ate 100 to 150 grams of fiber every day, our standard U.S. diet averages less than 15 grams.

When you eat fiber, your microbiome produces substances that nourish your gut lining and improve your immune health. Every time you eat, remember you’re eating for two: you and your gut.

Gradually increase your fiber intake over the course of three to four weeks. Bacteria eat fiber through a gas-producing process called fermentation. More fiber means more fermentation, which can lead to bloating and gas. If you’re consistent with your high-fiber diet, your digestive system will adjust, and the bloating will go away.

2. Focus on sleep.

Getting adequate sleep—seven to nine hours for most adults—nourishes your microbiome and improves your gut health. There’s also evidence that good gut health helps you sleep better, so the relationship goes both ways.

3. Limit or avoid processed foods.

Exchange packaged and fried foods for whole plant foods like fruits, vegetables, nuts, legumes and whole grains. You’ll feed your gut with plenty of fiber and avoid the inflammatory effects of processed foods.

4. Manage stress.

Your gut and your mental health are closely linked. Finding healthy ways to manage stress can help your gut stay strong. Regular exercise, meditation, deep breathing, relaxing music and counseling are a few ways to lower stress levels.

Should I Take Probiotics?

Probiotics are supplements that contain living or dead fragments of friendly bacteria. They get a lot of attention as a gut health supplement, but they’re not all created equal.

Some probiotics don’t survive the stomach, so they can’t help in your intestinal tract. Others contain the wrong balance of bacteria for you, potentially doing more harm than good. Before taking probiotics or any supplement, talk with your provider.

A Functional Medicine Provider Can Help

You have the power to change your gut health for the better. Talk with a medical provider who specializes in functional medicine. Together, you can determine the best ways to optimize your gut health and live your healthiest life.

Dr. M. Elizabeth Swenor leads the functional and lifestyle medicine team at Henry Ford Health. She sees patients at Henry Ford Medical Center in Bloomfield Township. Learn more about Dr. Swenor and read her articles here.

Categories : FeelWell

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