The gut is the engine of the body. It extracts nutrients from the food we eat, delivering energy to every cell of the body.
When our guts are healthy our immune systems are strong, we have vibrant energy, sharp minds, and even our skin glows, reflecting our vitality.
But when our guts are imbalanced and inflamed, the opposite is true, and every aspect of our health can suffer.
Bacterial imbalance, pathogenic infections, and chronic inflammation all wreak havoc on the digestive system, causing a myriad of uncomfortable and often debilitating symptoms, depleting our energy and putting us at risk of chronic conditions and serious disease.
So, what the heck is ‘leaky gut?’
You have probably heard or read about a condition known as leaky gut, or intestinal permeability. Basically, it is just as it sounds. It happens when the intestinal lining loses its integrity and becomes an entry point for inflammatory pathogens.
Believe it or not, the lining of the intestines is only one cell thick and it’s these cells that form the barrier to the gut, separating us from the outside world.
A healthy gut regulates the barrier between the intestines and bloodstream by tight junctions between each of the cells that allow strict access of small vital nutrients to flow to our organs, and block large intruders such as pathogens to cross through the barrier into the bloodstream.
An introduction to your gut microbiome
When our healthy beneficial bacteria , known as the gut microbiome or microbiota is imbalanced, we experience inflammation that can cause leaky gut. This means that toxins leach into the bloodstream, damaging cells and impairing the function of the brain and other vital organs. On top of that, every time a foreign body enters the bloodstream, an immune response is triggered. If the gut continues to be leaky, the immune system will be on constant attack, which can lead to more serious conditions such as autoimmune disease if left unchecked.
The role of the microbiome
According to the Human Microbiome Project, around 100 trillion bacteria live in our bodies. Our microbiomes literally make up who you are – in fact, we are more bacteria than human. Moreover, 80% of our immune system is located in the microbiome and these trillions of bacteria work hard to protect the gut barrier, ensuring the cell wall junctions stay tight and healthy.
Once we understand this, it stands to good reason that supporting our beneficial gut bacteria community is vitally important, not only for our immune health, but also for the single cell layer of our intestines.
What factors cause bacterial imbalance?
Everyday we are exposed to toxic contaminants outside (exogenous) or inside (endogenous) of our bodies that affect our microbiome and create inflammation. To strengthen and repair the gut we need to eliminate the worst offenders so the body can heal.
What are the symptoms of leaky gut?
Leaky gut can cause a myriad of digestive symptoms such as constipation, diarrhoea, gas, bloating, irritable bowel syndrome, and food sensitivities. Systemic symptoms can include joint pain, arthritis, chronic fatigue, nutritional deficiencies, weakened immune system, weight gain, and thyroid disorders. Cognitive symptoms can include brain fog, depression, anxiety, mood swings, headaches, and migraines. Autoimmune symptoms of leaky gut include rheumatoid arthritis, multiple sclerosis, lupus, Hashimoto’s disease, fibromyalgia and Alzheimer’s disease.
How to heal leaky gut – 3 steps
Step one: Remove
In order to heal leaky gut, it’s important to identify and remove the causes. The first place to start is by cleaning up our nutrition and lifestyle.
Some foods help grow and maintain healthy levels of beneficial bacteria, whilst other foods cause inflammation of the gut but also initiate and perpetuate the overgrowth of pathogenic bacteria.
The main offenders to remove are refined sugars, heavily processed foods, cow dairy, gluten, and overuse of alcohol, which all change the profile of the microbiome. Gluten in particular releases two types of protein molecules, which cause the tight junctions of the gut wall to open.
Stress is a big factor to overall gut health. Our brain and intestinal tract are connected – even our mood can be influenced by our digestive system. Although we all experience degrees of stress (and a bit is actually beneficial to us), too much is definitely unhelpful. Consider ways that you could better manage excessive stress in your life.
Be mindful of taking antibiotics. Of course, in serious cases they are necessary, but if you have the choice, I would err on the side of caution and avoid taking them unnecessarily wherever possible. Antibiotics can have a dramatic effect on the gut microbiome, and restoration of this vital ecosystem takes time.
Step two: Replace
Start with the basics. Your digestion needs time to work optimally. Chewing your food can change your gut health dramatically all by itself.
Increase healthy fats such as olive oil, coconut oil, flax seed oil, and other nut and seed oils, which feed the cells and are also very gut friendly.
Prebiotic plant fibres contain compounds that ‘seed’ the gut and promote the growth of beneficial bacteria. You can be sure you’re keeping your microbiome happy by eating healthy sources of prebiotics such as chicory root, Jerusalem artichoke, dandelion greens, garlic, leeks, onions, and asparagus.
Probiotic foods ‘feed’ and promote the growth of beneficial microorganism communities. Good options to include are fermented foods such as kimchi, sauerkraut, coconut yoghurt, water or coconut kefir, kombucha, or raw unpasteurised sheep or goats milk cheeses.
Step three: Repair
Including plenty of anti-inflammatory foods in your diet can directly repair and protect the gut. Turmeric is a very powerful anti-inflammatory food, as is ginger. Take a look at my Miracle Broth recipe, which is extremely gut healing as it reduces inflammation, alkalises the body, and is full of plant based fibres to encourage beneficial bacteria.
Increase plant polyphenols, found in a range of plants, fruits, and vegetables such as dark leafy greens, red and purple berries, green tea, nuts and seeds, especially flax seeds (grind them first for better digestion), and cacao, which have numerous beneficial effects for the gut and your body as a whole.
For further reading Gut by Guilia Enders is an easy to understand resource on gut health.
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