“Leaky gut!” The term sounds familiar, right? Well, it has gained not a little attention over the years.
Another name for leaky gut is intestinal permeability. It is a condition that is characterized by loosening of the gaps in the walls of your intestines. When these gaps loosen, large substances pass with ease across the walls of your intestines into your bloodstream. These substances include toxins, bacteria, and undigested food particles.
Results from medical researches have established an association between intestinal permeability and many autoimmune and chronic diseases, such as celiac disease and type 1 diabetes.
This article explains the leaky gut in detail. It also takes a close look at the leaky gut diet plan, including foods that boost your digestive health.
Overview of the leaky gut syndrome
The leaky gut syndrome is a condition that results when your intestinal walls become too permeable.
Your digestive system consists of many organs that work together to break down food substances, absorb nutrient and food, and excrete waste products. The lining of your intestines acts as a barrier between your bloodstream and your digestive system preventing entry of potentially harmful substances into your body (1, 2).
Absorption of water and nutrient occurs in your intestines. There are small gaps or tight junctions in the walls of your intestines. Water or nutrients pass through these gaps into your bloodstream.
The ease by which substances cross the walls of your intestines is referred to as intestinal permeability.
Some health conditions can cause a loosening of these tight junctions, thus allowing harmful substances to get into your bloodstream.
Alternative health specialists believe that leaky gut causes chronic inflammation and also triggers an immune reaction, which leads to health problems. These health problems are collectively referred to as leaky gut syndrome (3).
There is not much evidence to prove the existence of leaky gut syndrome. As such, the mainstream health industry does not recognize it as a medical diagnosis.
There is indeed such a condition as intestinal permeability. It is also true that intestinal permeability occurs alongside several health conditions. However, it is not clear if the condition is a symptom of chronic disease or an underlying cause of it (4).
The causes of leaky gut
The primary cause of this condition remains a mystery.
However, we have a full understanding of intestinal permeability. We know that it occurs together with several chronic ailments like type 1 diabetes and celiac disease (5).
The tight junctions of your intestines are regulated by a protein known as zonulin. Studies have shown that high levels of zonulin may cause the tight junctions to loosen and thus, increase the permeability of your intestines (6, 7).
Gluten and bacteria stimulate high levels of zonulin (8).
On the other hand, studies involving healthy adults and people with non-celiac gluten sensitivity has yielded mixed results. Test-tube studies suggest that gluten can make the intestine more permeable. However, this effect has not been replicated in human-based studies (10, 11, 12).
Zonulin is not the only factor that increases intestinal permeability. Other factors do.
Medical research has shown that high levels of interleukin 13 and tumor necrosis factor (both are inflammatory mediators), or the consistent use of non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs, including ibuprofen and aspirin, may make the walls of your intestines more permeable (13, 14, 15, 16).
Also, low levels of healthy gut flora have a similar effect known as gut dysbiosis (17).
What foods should you eat as part of a leaky gut diet plan?
We have established that leaky gut syndrome is not officially recognized as a medical diagnosis. As such, there is no recommended treatment.
However, there are lots of things you can do to boost your digestive health.
One of the things that you can do is to eat a healthy diet – a diet rich in foods that enhance the growth of good gut flora. Unhealthy gut bacteria contribute to poor health outcomes, such as cancers, chronic inflammation, type 2 diabetes, and heart disease (18).
Foods that you should add to your leaky gut diet plan include:
- Veggies: Brussels sprouts, broccoli, cabbage, kale, carrots, arugula, Swiss chard, beetroot, eggplant, spinach, mushrooms, ginger, and zucchini.
- Roots & tubers: Sweet potatoes, potatoes, yams, squash, carrots, and turnips.
- Fermented vegetables: Sauerkraut, kimchi, miso, and tempeh.
- Sprouted seeds: Flax seeds, chia seeds, sunflower seeds, etc.
- Fruit: Grapes, coconut, bananas, oranges, blueberries, raspberries, limes, mandarin, lemon, passionfruit, pineapple, kiwi, and papaya.
- Gluten-free grains: Amaranth, buckwheat, white and brown rice, gluten-free oats, teff, and sorghum.
- Healthy fats: Avocado and avocado oil, extra virgin olive oil, coconut oil.
- Fish: Tuna, salmon, herring, and other fish that are rich in omega-3.
- All herbs and spices
- Nuts: Almonds, peanuts, and products made from nuts (nut milk is a good example).
- Cultured dairy products: Yogurt, kefir, Greek yogurt, and traditional buttermilk.
- Meats & eggs: Beef, turkey, lamb, chicken, and eggs.
- Beverages: Teas, bone broth, nut milk, coconut milk, kombucha, and water.
Foods to avoid on a leaky gut diet plan
To improve your gut health, there are certain foods that you must avoid.
Some foods trigger inflammation in your body, which may boost the growth of bad gut bacteria which in turn causes many chronic diseases (19).
The list below contains foods that may hinder the growth of healthy gut bacteria and also trigger some symptoms, like constipation, bloating, and diarrhea. These foods are not fit to be included on the leaky gut diet plan:
- Wheat products: Pasta, bread, cereals, couscous, wheat flour, etc.
- Processed meats: Deli meats, cold cuts, hot dogs, bacon, etc.
- Grains that contain gluten: Rye, barley, seitan, oats, triticale, and bulgur.
- Baked products: Muffins, cakes, cookies, pastries, pies, and pizza.
- Snacks: Muesli bars, crackers, popcorn, pretzels, etc.
- Junk food: Potato chips, fast foods, candy bars, sugary cereals, etc.
- Dairy products: Ice cream, cheeses, and milk.
- Refined oils: Sunflower, safflower, canola, and soybean oils.
- Beverages: Carbonated beverages, alcohol, and other sugary drinks.
- Sauces: Salad dressings, hoisin sauce, teriyaki, and soy sauce.
Sample one-week leaky gut diet plan
We have below a week’s sample menu to boost your digestive health.
The menu emphasizes eating foods that boost the growth of healthy gut flora while excluding foods that cause uncomfortable symptoms in your digestive system.
You’ll see that sauerkraut is present in some menu items. It is cabbage that has been fermented, and can easily be prepared.
Breakfast: banana, blueberry, and Greek yogurt smoothie
Lunch: hard-boiled eggs with a mixed green salad
Dinner: Broccoli stir-fry and beef alongside zucchini noodles and sauerkraut
Breakfast: Omelet with your favorite veggies
Lunch: Leftover of last night’s dinner
Dinner: Seared salmon garnished with a fresh green salad.
Breakfast: Greek yogurt, blueberry, and unsweetened almond milk smoothie
Lunch: Egg, veggie frittata, and salmon
Dinner: Grilled lemon salad chicken with sauerkraut
Breakfast: Gluten-free oatmeal with some raspberries
Lunch: Leftover of yesterday’s dinner
Dinner: Broiled steak with sweet potatoes and brussels sprouts
Breakfast: Pineapple, kale, and unsweetened almond milk smoothie
Lunch: Carrot, beet, spinach, kale, and brown rice salad
Dinner: baked chicken with beans, broccoli, and roasted carrots.
Breakfast: Coconut papaya chia pudding
Lunch: Chicken salad served with olive oil
Dinner: roasted tempeh with brown rice and brussels sprouts
Breakfast: Spinach, mushroom, and zucchini frittata
Lunch: Sweet potatoes stuffed with fresh cranberries, turkey, and spinach
Dinner: Chicken wings (grilled) with fresh sauerkraut and spinach.
You can improve your gut health in other ways
The key to perfect gut health is diet. However, there are other steps you can take.
The following are some of the ways through which you can improve your gut health:
- Take probiotic supplements: Probiotics are laced with good bacteria that occur naturally in fermented foods. Probiotic supplements are available online. When you take them, your gut health is improved especially if your diet is deficient in probiotics (20).
- Stress reduction: Studies have shown that chronic stress is harmful to beneficial gut flora. Yoga and meditation can help (21).
- Discard your cigarettes: Cigarette smoke is a major risk factor for various abdominal conditions. It can also increase inflammation in your digestive system. When you quit smoking, your healthy gut flora will repopulatewhile the harmful bacteria will die off (22).
- Sleep more: A poor sleep habit can hinder the efficient distribution of healthy gut bacteria, leading to increased permeability of your intestines (23).
- Limit the amount of alcohol that you take: Studies have shown that excessive consumption of alcohol increases intestinal permeability. This it does by interacting with some proteins (24, 25, 26).
If you suspect that you are affected by a leaky gut syndrome, try doing a celiac disease test. Both disorders usually have overlapping symptoms.