Today I want to talk leaky gut. Not familiar with this term? It’s sort of become the common slang in the health and holistic nutrition/medical community for “increased intestinal permeability,” which means that the lining of your gut has holes or cracks in it, which allows partially digested food, toxins, bugs, etc. to penetrate the tissues beneath it.
In layman terms, that’s bad! Food is supposed to stay in your stomach. When it leaks out into other parts of your body, your immune system starts attacking those particles, and it creates a wide array of digestive issues, like inflammation, bloating, belching, constipation, irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), small intestine bacterial overgrowth (SIBO), and so on.
It can also significantly change your gut flora, which can mess with your hormones, and lead to candida, which is an overgrowth of yeast, as well as other digestive issues and mental disorders. My chronic anxiety and mood disorder are largely a byproduct of my wonky gut microbiome, although I had no idea about the strong link between the mind and gut until a few years ago, and didn’t piece together the fact that my anxiety and depression didn’t simply come out of nowhere — they started in my gut. Of course, gut issues are only one contributing factor to mental disorders. Genetic predisposition and environmental factors matter as well, and I am not undermining those, just sharing new information I learned.
Research is still fairly new, and developing in this area, but if you are a leaky gut naysayer, I am living, breathing proof, that it is real. And it sucks.
Now, I can’t say for certain what was the initial root cause of my digestive problems, but it all started around the time I had a spinal fusion on my lower back ( L4-L5 and L5-S1) in 2012.
I was on heavy doses of antibiotics, pain pills and steroids to prevent infection post-surgery and my current integrative doctor and I both think those antibiotics killed my gut flora and ruined the lining of my stomach, resulting in leaky gut.
This article from Dr. Amy Myers explains how antibiotics wreak havoc on the gut. The way antibiotics work is that they block vital processes in bacteria that either kill the bacteria or stop them from multiplying. But, antibiotics can’t tell the difference between the “bad” bacteria that cause infections and the “good” bacteria in your gut, and so instead they take a kill all, leave no prisoners approach.
And by killing the bacteria in your gut, it disrupts your entire ecosystem and creates a bacterial imbalance known as dysbiosis. You also become at risk of developing an autoimmune disease, which is where your body eventually starts to attack itself.
Look, I know I needed antibiotics. I get that we need to protect ourselves against infections that could potentially lead to death, and I am not discrediting or ignoring that fact. There’s no way I could have had spine surgery without taking antibiotics. I just wish I was warned about their damaging effects to the gut. But conventional healthcare doesn’t work like that. My surgeon wasn’t going to sit me down and say “Now Nicole, these here antibiotics could seriously mess with your gut flora, so make sure you take pre-and probiotics.”
At that time, I thought the constipation and bloating was normal from taking Percocet, and as a carefree college kid, I wasn’t at that point in my life where I was taking a lot of interest in my body or listening to its cues. I knew something wasn’t right, but decided to turn to food and self-healing to overcome the issues.
I thought eating paleo, vegan or raw would make me feel better, would eliminate the bloating/constipation, brain fog and constant fatigue, and was disappointed and left frustrated and hopeless time and time again when all of it failed me. I write this article to help those in need because I wish I had this information available back then.
Do I still believe in eating real, whole and nutritious foods? Unquestionably, yes! But I was trying to treat my symptoms and not the underlying cause. Problem was, I didn’t know my gut was a war zone, and all of the conventional doctors I saw told me I was fine, and they actually discouraged me from eating paleo and vegan (these were at different times, of course. I was paleo first, then vegan, and am now back to paleo). I didn’t have a lot of money, and so was limited to only seeing the on-campus doctors at the time.
The closest I got to a real diagnosis was about four years ago when I was in Baltimore, and I had more funds to seek out a gastro specialist. Even then, with all of the testing and visits, I was still misdiagnosed, and was put on an osmotic laxative, Miralax, to help me go to the bathroom, but no regiment to heal my gut, because still no real diagnosis. I was told my diet was already healthy, and to eat more fiber (which actually had negative effects and led to moure bloating/constipation because I had IBS).
Also, if you want to know why Miralax is bad for you and can actually contribute to digestive issues by messing with your gut flora, check out my last IBS/SIBO update post.
I FINALLY found some answers when I discovered Dr. Josh Axe, and also when I started following integrative and holistic influencers and doctors on Instagram and the internet.
So here I am, and maybe you’re in a similar spot, looking for answers, or someone to commiserate with. Good news, you’re not alone, and you can heal. Now, I am not a doctor, however I am working with my integrative doctor on a customized healing regime. And I’ve spent hours scouring every ebook, website and health blog digging into research and healing regimens so that you don’t have to.
Instead of sharing my exact regime with you, I thought I’d talk about some of the pieces of the overall gut healing puzzle that are well-proven and known to help heal and seal the lining of your gut, promote healthy skin, hair, nails, and reduce inflammation, constipation, and other digestive issues.
These are supplements, minerals, vitamins and foods/herbs you can buy online or at any local health/wellness story (even Whole Foods), and are things I encourage regular use of, even if you don’t have leaky gut.
I am currently in a love affair with collagen. It’s been the single most life changing supplement I’ve ever taken to heal my gut, and improve the health of my skin, hair, and joints. Collagen is a protein found in skin and other connective tissues in our bodies. Following that logic, it also is found in the bones, ligaments and connective tissues of animals. We need collagen — it literally holds us together like glue. Without it, things will start to go wrong in our bodies (aka leaky gut, brittle hair, bad complexion, joint problems, etc.). That’s why if you go without animal proteins for an extended period of time, and become protein-deficient, your body is not getting this vital protein and then the “glue” starts to disappear, leading to what is known as “leaky gut.”
One way to get collagen besides taking a powder supplement is to drink bone broth. Check out my recipe for healthy veggie beef bone broth soup, which also has more details on the benefits of collagen, some of my favorite collagen supplement brands and more! This has been a vital component of my overall healing regimen, but you don’t need to be “healing” from something to take collagen regularly. It can only have positive effects. You can buy collagen supplements online, or at a health store like Whole Foods.
I talked about l-glutamine previously, but I’ll touch on the benefits of this amino acid here, too. I found out from my gut microbiome test that I was deficient in glutamine so over the past three months, I have been taking it regularly, and noticing some improvements, but it’s a slow process. It can take 12-18 months to totally heal your gut, which is frustrating, but in the grand scheme of things, not that long.
One thing I didn’t know is that your body uses an abundance of l-glutamine when under physical stress, so if you work out a lot (like I do), then you might be deficient or need to take supplements to replenish those stores and improve your gut permeability. You can take capsules or get l-glutamine naturally from grass-fed beef, bone broth and grass-fed dairy, or red cabbage if you’re vegan. Bonus: If you eat sauerkraut you get a one-two punch of l-glutamine and probiotics because of the fermentation.
When I cut dairy out of my life completely six years ago, I half-hazardly took probiotic supplements, and occasionally drank Kombucha, but I was not taking even close to what my body actually needed to repair my gut flora. Pre and probiotics are essential bacteria that you need in your gut to help fight infection and absorb nutrients. You can absolutely get these from foods like yogurt, kefir, fermented foods like pickles, sauerkraut and Kimchi, but if you are trying to heal and replenish your body’s good bacteria, chances are you’re like me and need to take additional supplementation.
So now, I take a broad spectrum prebiotic powder and a probiotic tablet every day. I also encourage you to look at a soil-based probiotic.
Digestive enzymes helps break down food in the stomach for those whose bodies can’t properly do it alone. If you suffer from leaky gut, IBS, autoimmune disease, SIBO or other digestive problems, then you may have trouble breaking down your food, and the longer it stays in the stomach, the worse your symptoms will be, and the more toxins will build up in your system. They can also help with nutrient deficiencies, although I will say the effectiveness of digestive enzymes are widely debated in the health community.
My doctor did prescribe some to me, and while I take them 10-15 minutes before each meal, I am not quite sure they have been that helpful.
Dr. Josh Axe has an amazing, in-depth article on what digestive enzymes are, the various types, and how they can be used to help break down food when you don’t product enough of your own digestive juices.
One other byproduct of leaky gut is that it’s left me with low stomach acid. Stomach acid is essential for breaking down foods (aka digestion), and when you don’t have enough of it, your body can’t properly move food through the stomach to the colon, and you oftentimes experience acid reflux/burping and heartburn after meals.
You can do a test at home to see if you have low stomach acid — it’s super easy. After a meal, if you start to feel any indigestion, take a teaspoon of apple cider vinegar (with the mother – Bragg’s is the most widely available and best quality brand I know) and see if that helps calm things down.
If so, then you likely have low stomach acid. I would recommend always diluting ACV in water because if you drink it straight, it can burn your esophagus. You can continue to take ACV each day (I mix it into water with lemon slices with my meals), or you can take tablets if you can’t stomach the ACV straight up. For example, Biotics Hydrozyme is a physician-grade supplement that has betaine hydrochloride, pepsin, pancreatin, vitamin B6 and glutamic acid. You can ask your doctor about which supplement might be right for you. There are some over-the-counter options as well, but be sure to check labels, as always!
Magnesium is a vital mineral our body needs to function properly, however, most Americans are magnesium deficient and don’t even know it. A magnesium deficiency could be negatively affecting their sleeping, bowel movements and stress. Sort of a catch 22 with that last one because stress is one of the biggest ways to deplete your magnesium stores, as well as drinking too much alcohol, eating processed foods (the Standard American Diet), and taking certain antibiotics and drugs for blood pressure and diuretics.
Don’t get magnesium confused with magnesium citrate, which is magnesium plus citric acid, and is commonly used as a natural laxative alternative to over the counter medicine. I am currently taking mag citrate as a replacement for Miralax, but also recently invested in some liquid magnesium to add to drinks because that’s one of the best ways for our bodies to absorb minerals and nutrients.
You can also get magnesium from food sources like swiss chard and other leafy greens, sea plants like kelp, nuts/seeds, avocado, bananas, dark chocolate, and more.
This ain’t your favorite childhood candy. Licorice root, or glycyrrhiza, comes from “glukos” (sweet) and “riza” (root), and is a Mediterranean herb used for centuries by the Greeks, Chinese and across India for its medicinal properties and soothing qualities. Something I didn’t know, but learned through my research is that most all Chinese herbal formulas contain licorice because it assists in gastrointestinal absorption and enhances the effects of other herbs. I take DGL licorice tablets after each meal to help sooth my digestive tract, reduce acid reflux, aid in digestion and also help control inflammation.
Some of the other common uses of licorice root include helping to heal stomach ulcers, soothe sore throats and coughs, fight infections, aid in adrenal management by regulating the stress hormone cortisol and help with PMS. What can’t this super herb do?
Maybe you’ve used aloe vera to help soothe and heal a sun burn, skin rash or for some other topical use case. Well, unsurprisingly, this plant is also good for helping with IBS, digestion and constipation.
It coats the lining of the stomach/colon to help ease transit, and reduce inflammation in the gut. Plus, it’s full of tons of vitamins and minerals, including vitamins A,C,E, B-12, folic acid, and minerals calcium, copper, selenium, chromium and manganese. It’s also got eight enzyme, laxative compounds and even fatty acids. Is Aloe the new super plant? Maybe!
These days I am all about that herb! I never really drank a lot of tea until I started reading and learning about the great healing benefits of natural herbs. What are some of the best herbs for healing leaky gut?
Ginger and turmeric root are great for digestion and for reducing inflammation, dandelion root is also good for digestion, and I love the Traditional Medicinals tea brand (Whole foods has it). Chamomile can calm the lining of the digestive tract, anise also aids in digestion (and tastes like licorice), peppermint has a cooling effect and fennel can release digestive juices to help break down food.
This is not a comprehensive list, and like I mentioned above, I am not a doctor, so I am only sharing the information I know/have learned from my healing journey, as well as from my doctor Vinh Ngo of Smart Medicine SF, and from other credible sources in the medical, and health and wellness communities.
One supplement I didn’t spend a lot of time on was CBD hemp oil, however, it’s worth mentioning as it helps reduce inflammation and anxiety. You can check out my previous article on how I use CDB to manage those things for more information, but I am totally an advocate, early adopter and believer in the healing benefits of CBD oil. Go hemp! (No, this is not psychoactive like THC and will NOT get you high, sorry!)