Your gut and brain share a healthy relationship. They are there for one another, openly communicating when something is wrong. But just like any deep connection that blends into codependency, they inherit each others’ stress and malady. Your digestive tract takes on stress and mental drain while your mind is hyper aware of any digestive burden. Leaky gut syndrome is one such burden which sets a cycle of dangerous symptoms and disease to your body and mind.
The digestive system does just that — digest and absorb the food we eat. It impacts our immunity, mental state, and healthy flora. It acts as a gatekeeper, keeping the good stuff in and the the bad stuff out. But when that protective gate gets damaged, bacteria and partially digested food particles dangerously make their way into our bloodstream.
Intestinal permeability (leaky gut)
Think of your digestive lining like a carpet. It’s full of finger-like projections that are close together. The problem occurs when these “carpet strings” get damaged and have space between them. In leaky gut syndrome, the junctions between the intestinal wall cells are weakened.
Our digestive lining is meant to be permeable to allow for small, appropriate sized nutrients to pass. With a leaky gut though, the lining allows those larger molecules and bad bacteria to pass along to our blood stream before being fully broken down. This leads to our body identifying specific foods as threats — tagging them so the next time we eat them, we have an allergic response. If those bad bacteria get through, it can lead to a life threatening condition called sepsis.
Controversy still exists on whether leaky gut causes the development of diseases outside the gastrointestinal tract in humans. However, it is agreed upon that it is always a good idea to eat a nutritious, unprocessed diet that includes foods that help quell inflammation (and avoids foods known to trigger inflammation), lifestyle practices that improve gut health, and create a balance of the gut flora.
Signs and symptoms
It’s not clear whether or not symptoms outside of the digestive tract are related to leaky gut, and it can be very difficult to pinpoint which symptoms are related, however, those that often appear with an unhealthy gut include:
- Gastrointestinal: bloating, gas, diarrhea, constipation, pain
- Autoimmune disease/response: arthritis, psoriasis, celiac disease, hashimoto’s, asthma
- Hormone imbalance: PMS, menopausal hormone swings, PCOS
- Neurological: brain fog, anxiety, ADD/ADHD, depression
Strengthen your lining
It’s always a good idea to incorporate the lifestyle and habit changes that keep your body healthy from the inside out. Experiment and find the most sustainable gut health boosters for you.
Take a breath and slow down
Next time you sit down to a plate of your favorite food, try this: take 3 deep breaths in and out. Mindfully observe your meal (examine the look, color, texture, and taste as if it were the first time you’re trying it). Taking this moment before diving in, helps activates the parasympathetic nervous system.
The healthy bacteria in your gut can help provide you with nutrients. Those good guys produce short-chain-fatty acids which help protect and heal the gut lining. Fiber is their favorite food, with a preference for prebiotics: chicory root, dandelion greens, jerusalem artichoke, garlic, asparagus, banana.
Specific nutrients can help keep your gut lining healthy and strong. Getting them from the food source is always the safest. If you do want to try a supplement, ask your physician or dietitian for recommendations.
- Glutamine (eggs, milk, beef, soy): key amino acid used by the intestine
- Licorice root (NOT the candy): soothing herb
- Essential fatty acids (walnuts, flax seeds, fatty fish): omega 3 for inflammation reduction
Prevent dangerous substances from wreaking havoc on your digestive tract in the first place. Shield yourself from harmful bacteria getting inside you in the first place by practicing food safety. Avoid consuming irritating substances that break down your protective intestinal lining.
We’ve all been there — accidentally eating something spoiled and winding up with an agonizing stomach flu. Prevent bad bacteria as best you can by practicing proper food safety. Keep food refrigerated, heat to an appropriate internal temperature, avoid cross contaminating (using the same cooking utensils for raw meat and cooked foods), and steer clear of those conspicuous food trucks when you travel.
You know yourself best; if a certain food causes you distress, avoid it. You may want to try an elimination or FODMAP diet. Work with your physician or dietitian to learn your allergies or intolerances and what foods are best to substitute.
Limit or avoid these known intestinal lining irritants:
- Anti-inflammatory medications (NSAIDs)
- Cigarette smoking
Live for your second brain
The gut is your “second brain”. Supplement your lifestyle with these daily habits to keep your body and brain sane. Small steps towards a greater gut.
Let’s face it, there’s a whole lot to manage these days (finances, commute, internet information, relationships, etc). But living in fight-or-flight mode puts an exorbitant amount of pressure on our gut. When we’re chronically stressed, it leads to issues like leaky gut syndrome, as well as difficulty digesting and absorbing food. We chew less and produce less digestive enzymes. Not to mention those intense sweet and junk food cravings. Give yourself dedicated time to relax, avoid distractions, and sit and enjoy your meal. Five minutes is better than none.
Mindful eating is a process of paying attention to the experience of eating. Observe the look, smell, texture, flavor, temperature of the food we’re so lucky to eat. Listening to tune into our bodies (how does it make you feel?) and paying attention to the eating experience improves digestion. Start with taking a moment to appreciate your meal and increase awareness of chewing and tasting your food.
If you’ve practiced mindful eating but still experience digestive symptoms, you may be lacking some digestive enzymes. For instance, if you’ve been avoiding meat for a while, hydrochloric acid may have naturally decreased because it wasn’t needed as much. These enzymes can take some time to rebuild. Speak to your physician or dietitian about their recommendations for supplements, or give these natural sources a try:
- Lipase (breaks down fat): avocado
- Protease (breaks down protein): pineapple, papaya
- Amylase (breaks down carbohydrate): mango, banana
Keep things moving
One of the most important things we can do for our gut, is to keep things moving. Improve transit time by making sure to get plenty of fiber and water.
- Whole grains
Please keep in mind that fiber should be avoided if you’re having a Crohn’s or colitis flare-up. As always, check with your physician before starting any new diet or exercise routine.
This article has been written by Lisa Booth, registered dietician and nutritionist, and co-founder of Nori Health. Content is based on her professional knowledge, and our collection of 100+ scientific research study papers.