Many autoimmune disorders are correlated with gastrointestinal issues that can lead to leaky gut syndrome. Food choices may directly influence how “leaky” the gut is, so being mindful of what you eat, and following a leaky gut diet plan, can have positive effects on your gut health. (Source)
In this article, we’ll address specific dietary components that may affect symptoms, triggers, and risk factors of leaky gut. We’ll break down what it means to have a leaky gut, as well as the foods to avoid and foods to add if you have leaky gut. Our sample list of foods and meals that focus on lessening the burden of leaky gut will help you make healthy choices to promote gut health and reduce autoimmune symptoms.
What Is Leaky Gut Syndrome?
Your intestines have the unique job of absorbing nutrients for your entire body, as well as acting as a barrier to protect you from unwanted and harmful substances. The intestinal barrier is the largest physical barrier between you and the outside environment (the inside of your gut is actually “outside” of your body!). Absorption is regulated by the cells of the intestinal lining and the gaps (also called tight junctions) between those cells. (Source, Source)
Leaky gut is the common term for increased intestinal permeability. This is a condition in which the gaps between cells in the lining of the gut are larger, so the lining of the gut is less “tight” than that of a healthy individual. These gaps, and the resulting loose intestinal barrier, allow for large particles, such as bacteria, toxins, and partially undigested food, to pass through the gut lining and travel into the bloodstream for circulation in the body. (Source, Source)
A leaky gut can lead to an inflammatory response, causing increased inflammation throughout the intestines and further affecting various systemic conditions. Increased intestinal permeability has even been implicated in the development of disorders that are not directly associated with or caused by gut inflammation, such as depression, lupus, and type 1 diabetes. (Source, Source, Source)
What Are Symptoms of Leaky Gut?
Beyond the issues that arise on a cellular level due to enlarged gaps in the gut barrier, there can be a host of noticeable and life-altering problems related to leaky gut. Leaky gut can be characterized by the following:
- chronic constipation or diarrhea
- abdominal bloating
- pain after eating or indigestion
- nutritional deficiencies
- systemic inflammation
- headaches, fatigue, or difficulty concentrating
- skin issues
- seasonal allergies
- increased susceptibility to catching colds
- runny nose
- post-nasal drip
- increased susceptibility to asthma
Related Diseases and Disorders
Leaky gut is associated with a host of autoimmune disorders, including type 1 diabetes, celiac disease, multiple sclerosis, systemic lupus erythematosus, rheumatoid arthritis, Crohn’s disease, and ulcerative colitis. Additionally, leaky gut has also been correlated with irritable bowel syndrome and depression, and is currently being researched as a potential indicator of long-term health outcomes. (Source, Source, Source, Source)
One aspect of leaky gut under study is the relationship between intestinal permeability and the development of related diseases. The directionality of the relationship is currently unknown — does leaky gut cause diseases like inflammatory bowel disease and celiac, or is leaky gut a consequence of these diseases? (Source, Source)
Although this unknown is a significant barrier in figuring out how best to treat leaky gut, there are various studies that suggest specific actions you can take to lessen the impact of leaky gut on your health.
What Can I Do If I Have a Leaky Gut?
The ultimate goal for most people with leaky gut is to have a minimally restrictive diet that is beneficial for overall health. Some foods have been frequently linked to increased inflammation in the intestines and throughout the body, and are better avoided.
Not all dietary changes need to be permanent. For example, elimination of specific foods for short periods of time can cultivate better gut health, and it may be possible to reintroduce them without problems.
Foods To Avoid If You Have a Leaky Gut
The foods listed below can promote the growth of unhealthy bacteria in the gut and have negative effects on the immune system, which may be correlated with leaky gut and various autoimmune disorders. Eliminating foods that trigger inflammation can lead to improved leaky gut symptoms. (Source)
Foods to avoid include:
- “diet” products with artificial sweeteners
- baked goods, such as cookies, cake, pastries
- processed meats, such as hot dogs, deli meat
- snack and “junk” foods, such as fast food, sugary cereal, chips, candy
- refined oils, such as soybean oil, canola oil, safflower oil
- alcoholic and/or high-sugar beverages
- wheat products and gluten-containing foods
Non-caloric artificial sweeteners (synthetic sweeteners that have no nutritional value) are found in a plethora of processed foods, including salad dressing, diet soda, dairy products, candy, and various “low-calorie” or “low-sugar” products. Although seemingly harmless, research has indicated that artificial sweeteners can disrupt the gut microbiome and loosen gaps in the gut barrier, possibly leading to glucose intolerance and other metabolic changes. Artificial sweeteners are an area of concern for diseases related to the immune system. (Source, Source)
Refined Sugar and High Fat Foods
The Western diet, with its reliance on refined sugar and high fat foods, is a known risk factor for the development of many autoimmune diseases, particularly Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis.
Consuming a high fat and high sugar diet has been linked to increased intestinal permeability and overall inflammation. Excess fats stimulate the expression of pro-inflammatory cytokines (signaling molecules) and increase oxidative stress in the gut. These factors all lead to disruption in the gut by loosening gaps in the barrier and changing the composition of mucus along the barrier. Additionally, high fat foods and refined sugars can negatively alter the gut microbiome. (Source, Source, Source)
Not all fats are unhealthy, though. While omega-6 fats commonly found in hydrogenated vegetable oils are pro-inflammatory, omega-3 fats found in fish, olive oil, and avocados are anti-inflammatory.
Drinking alcohol can lead to many changes in the gut, both in chronic alcohol users and in healthy individuals after excessive consumption. Alcohol has been shown to interact with proteins that are crucial to maintaining normal intestinal permeability. Throughout the spectrum of drinking habits, a high intake of alcohol can lead to significant changes in the gut, as gaps in the barrier will increase and exacerbate leaky gut. Due to this, leaky gut is a common syndrome in those who abuse alcohol chronically, and can accelerate the progression of alcohol-induced diseases. (Source, Source, Source)
A major component of gluten called gliadin causes inflammation and leads to leaky gut. This increased gut barrier permeability allows for partially digested gluten proteins to enter the bloodstream, which can lead to whole body effects. While gluten is the known trigger for celiac disease and non-celiac gluten sensitivity, recent studies have shown that exposure to gluten (measured as gliadin) can increase leaky gut even in people who do not have celiac disease. (Source, Source)
Foods and Supplements to Help Leaky Gut
Eliminating certain types of food and additives can remove triggers of leaky gut, while adding others may help repair the gut, improve intestinal permeability, and combat inflammation naturally. (Source)
- beverages such as bone broth, tea, coconut milk, water
- fermented foods, such as kimchi, sauerkraut, kombucha
- cultured (fermented) dairy products, such as yogurt, kefir
- fruits and vegetables
- fish, lean meats, and eggs
- healthy fats, such as avocado oil, olive oil
- gluten free grains, such as brown rice, gluten free oats, buckwheat
- nuts and seeds, such as almonds, chia seed, flaxseed
Bone Broth and L-Glutamine
Two of the main components in bone broth, gelatin and collagen, encourage gut healing. Preliminary research has shown that gelatin aids in digestion and improves the mucosal layer of the gut barrier. Additionally, it is a good source of amino acids needed to produce proteins, like collagen, in the body. Collagen is also a major constituent of gut mucus and has been shown to aid in gut lining repair. (Source, Source)
While all amino acids are needed for cellular health, L-glutamine is an essential amino acid that has been shown to be anti-inflammatory. It is a fuel source for the intestines and is a crucial element in the repair, maintenance, and growth of the gut barrier. In addition to bone broth, L-glutamine can be found in protein sources such as chicken, fish, meat, and beans, but can also be purchased and consumed in powder form. (Source, Source)
Microorganisms along the length of the gastrointestinal tract aid in digestion, ferment indigestible food particles, fight harmful pathogens, and regulate our immunity. The National Institutes of Health describes probiotics as live microorganisms usually found in foods or taken as supplements that, when consumed or used, may impart health benefits. (Source)
Disturbances in the gut microbiome are a common occurrence in people with autoimmune diseases. This may lead to issues such as constipation, diarrhea, bloating, abdominal pain, or ulcers. (Source, Source)
Increasing gut microbiome diversity by eating a diet rich in fermented foods, such as yogurt, kimchi, and sauerkraut, can contribute to re-inoculating, or introducing back in, beneficial bacteria in the gut. Over time, this can help improve symptoms related to leaky gut and various autoimmune issues. (Source)
In addition to fermented foods, consuming encapsulated probiotics can be beneficial to microbiome diversity and homeostasis. When choosing a probiotic supplement, it is important to look for a dose that provides a minimum of 50–100 billion daily units and several different strains of bacteria. Targeted supplement support is something our Nutritional Therapy Practitioners can help you with once they have a full picture of your health. Learn how WellTheory can provide you with unique, holistic care. (Source, Source)
Prebiotics and Butyrate
A simple step toward better gut health is adding prebiotics to your diet. Prebiotics are components of foods that are fermented by the bacteria in our gut. Fiber acts as the food for many strains of beneficial gut bacteria, and consuming prebiotics encourages a healthy gut microbiome. Diets higher in fiber are shown to lead to decreased intestinal permeability as they encourage the production of proteins that keep gaps in the intestinal barrier tight. (Source, Source)
Butyrate is one of the byproducts made after intestinal bacteria ferment prebiotics. As one of several short-chain fatty acids produced by gut microbes, butyrate has the unique role of being the preferred energy source for the cells that make up the intestinal barrier. Butyrate also boasts anti-inflammatory properties and can help regulate immune responses. These effects combined make butyrate, and thus fiber, an important factor in combating leaky gut. (Source)
On top of being vital for bone health, vitamin D helps regulate immune responses and inflammation in favor of a healthy gut. Low vitamin D levels are associated with higher inflammation. Within the intestines, vitamin D can positively shift the composition of the microbiome and protect against inflammatory bowel disease, especially in tandem with probiotics. (Source, Source)
Lifestyle Factors to Consider for Leaky Gut
While most aspects of an individual’s life influence their overall health, especially gut health, there are several important lifestyle factors to consider when dealing specifically with a leaky gut. The following list outlines several areas to focus on when treating a leaky gut, with the overall goal of decreasing inflammation and mitigating symptoms.
- Reduce stress. A constant state of stress can disrupt the gut microbiome, leading to more inflammation in the intestines and throughout the body. Practicing meditation, walking, doing yoga, and having healthy relationships can all aid in stress reduction. (Source, Source)
- Enjoy mindful exercise. Research suggests that over-exercising can lead to negative changes in the gut barrier function, as well as symptoms such as bloating, cramps, and diarrhea. Regular moderate physical activity, on the other hand, can be beneficial to gut health. (Source, Source)
- Avoid or quit smoking. Inflammation in the gut can also be caused by smoking cigarettes. Cessation of smoking can lead to higher levels of healthy bacteria and lower levels of harmful bacteria in the gut microbiome. (Source)
- Prioritize sleep. Lack of sleep or poor sleep quality can lead to gut dysbiosis and inflammation, which are contributing factors to increased intestinal permeability. Having a set sleep routine and good sleep hygiene can improve gut health. (Source)
Leaky Gut Diet Plan Approved Foods
Below are suggested leaky gut diet plan approved foods and meals you can follow or adjust to fit your specific dietary needs. All items can be substituted for AIP compliance if you are on the AIP diet.
- gluten free oatmeal (chia seed pudding for AIP)
- yogurt or kefir (coconut-based for AIP)
- scrambled eggs or vegetable omelet (substitute eggs for high protein and high fat alternative for AIP)
- smoothie with spinach, banana, blueberry, and protein powder
- blueberries, strawberries, blackberries
- chicken lettuce wraps
- mixed greens with tuna salad
- kimchi, lean protein, and veggie brown rice bowl (skip the brown rice for AIP)
- pasture-raised turkey roll-ups with cucumbers and baby carrots
- crispy chickpea and veggie bowl with tahini dressing (substitute chickpeas for starchy veggies for AIP)
- turkey and veggie chili (skip the spices for AIP)
- salmon with grilled zucchini and sauerkraut
- chicken breast with roasted brussel sprouts and carrots
- beef and broccoli with pickled veggies
- baked halibut with asparagus and brown rice (substitute brown rice for starchy veggies for AIP)
The Bottom Line on the Leaky Gut Diet Plan
A diet capable of nourishing a healthy gut should be full of fruits and vegetables and include various fermented foods, healthy fats, and lean protein. Research shows that following a diet designed to target leaky gut can lead to increased gut microbiome diversity, decreased gut and systemic inflammation, and improved insulin sensitivity. (Source)
Decreasing intake of artificial sweeteners, foods high in omega-6 fats and refined sugar, alcohol, and gluten can lessen leaky gut symptoms. Increasing consumption of bone broth, prebiotics and probiotics, vitamin D, and L-glutamine can also help heal a leaky gut.
Wondering how to personalize these leaky gut diet guidelines? Check out WellTheory's membership for advanced testing to determine if you have a leaky gut, and get expert guidance on incorporating a personalized leaky gut diet into your life.