Does diet help heal leaky gut? Learn what foods to eat (and not eat) on a leaky gut diet for autoimmune disease and other health conditions.
Note: The information provided in this post is not meant to diagnose or treat any disease. Please consult with your physician or qualified health care provider before undertaking any therapeutic diets.
Up until recently, the established medical community hadn’t recognized leaky gut syndrome as a medical condition, but there’s growing research to suggest leaky gut, aka, increased intestinal permeability, may be associated with gut troubles, autoimmune disease and other health conditions.
What exactly is “leaky gut?” Do you have it? How does it happen? Is there a diet for leaky gut?
Bad news, good news…
Let’s cut to the chase. While there’s no definitive diet for leaky gut syndrome, eating an anti-inflammatory, gut-friendly diet can’t hurt. And, may possibly help. I’ll come back to this in a minute, but first, let’s define leaky gut, list the symptoms, and talk about potential causes.
What is “leaky gut?”
Your gastrointestinal tract is lined with millions of cells, all side-by-side in a single layer. In fact, this layer, if spread out flat, covers 400m2 of surface area! These intestinal cells help the body absorb what we need from foods and drinks, while keeping out what needs to stay out. It acts as a gatekeeper allowing in what your body uses, and keeping out harmful substances which ends up as waste.
This ability to selectively allow some things in to be absorbed while keeping others out, is only possible when our gut cells are working properly, and they’re joined together very tightly. The bonds that keep the cells tightly together are called “tight junctions.”
Leaky gut happens when the tight junctions aren’t so tight anymore. The cellular barrier is irritated and weakened, allowing tiny holes to appear. These perforations allow things that normally would stay out of the bloodstream get into the bloodstream. Things like food particles, waste products, and bacteria.
When these get into the bloodstream, your immune system is triggered to start fighting them. Similarly to how your immune system starts fighting a cold virus and causes inflammation. This immune reaction is normal and helps keep you healthy.
Are my symptoms related to leaky gut?
The symptoms of leaky gut are similar to those of other digestive conditions like inflammatory bowel disease, irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), and celiac disease. Symptoms can include diarrhea, constipation, cramps, bloating, food sensitivities, or nutrient deficiencies.
But, because the food particles, toxins, and bacteria have been absorbed into the bloodstream which travels throughout your body, symptoms can appear anywhere. Studies show that leaky gut may feel like fatigue, headaches, confusion, difficulty concentrating, joint pain, or skin problems (e.g., acne, rashes, eczema).
Leaky gut is also linked with diabetes, polycystic ovarian syndrome, liver disease, chronic fatigue syndrome, and autoimmune diseases such as lupus and multiple sclerosis. There may even be links to anxiety and depression.
Many of these gut and non-gut symptoms and conditions are linked to chronic inflammation, but more research is needed to understand how they are connected.
Even if you have some of these symptoms, it’s very difficult to diagnose a leaky gut. This means that, while there are some biomarker tests, there isn’t a reliable diagnostic test available just yet. So, it’s difficult to say whether your symptoms are from leaky gut, or whether leaky gut is a symptom of another issue.
What causes a leaky gut?
It’s not 100 percent clear what causes those bonds to loosen and result in tiny perforations in the gut barrier. In fact, we’re just starting to understand how the gut barrier functions and there is a lot of ongoing research.
Part of leaky gut may be due to the genes you inherit from your parents. It can also be from medications, like NSAIDS (i.e. Ibuprofen), strenuous endurance exercise, or gut infections. Leaky gut is also linked to eating a diet that is low in gut-friendly fiber (adults should aim for 25-30 g of fiber per day).
It can also be from consuming too much added sugar, saturated fat, and alcohol. Leaky gut may even result from stress or an imbalance in the diversity and numbers of your friendly gut microbes.
Also, as we age, cells can get damaged more easily and heal slower, including the cells that line your gut. This can leave you more susceptible to loosening of the gut barrier.
Leaky Gut Diet: What foods should you avoid if you have a leaky gut?
One way to approach a suspected leaky gut is to address inflammation and eat a more gut-friendly diet. This means reducing excessive alcohol, highly processed food, certain food additives, saturated fats, & foods high in sugar.
(Related Post: 15 Refreshingly Healthy Mocktail Recipes)
It’s also a good idea to avoid foods you’re allergic or sensitive to. For example, if you have diagnosed celiac disease, you want to be sure to stay away from gluten, as exposing your gut to it can cause a large inflammatory response.
Leaky Gut Diet: Eat these foods
- Fruits and vegetables (e.g., blueberries, oranges, broccoli, carrots, and zucchini)
- Fatty fish (e.g. wild salmon and sardines)
- Probiotic rich dairy (e.g. yogurt or kefir)
- Fermented foods (e.g., kimchi, sauerkraut, and miso)
- Nuts and seeds (e.g., walnuts, cashews, and chia seeds)
- Beans and legumes (e.g. lentils, chickpeas, black beans)
- Whole grains, gluten-free if necessary (e.g., buckwheat, quinoa, and oats)
- Healthy fats (e.g. extra virgin olive oil, avocado oil, nut & seed oils)
Pro Tip: If you’re going to proactively increase your fiber intake, do it over several days or weeks because sudden increases in fiber can cause gas, bloating, and other gut discomfort. If you have IBS, talk to your doctor, or me, to see if certain fibers worsen your condition, and which are recommended.
Favorite recipes to try on a leaky gut diet.
Do probiotics & other supplements help heal leaky gut?
While the focus of this article is on what foods to eat (or not eat) for a leaky gut diet, clinicians may also include supplements to help heal leaky gut, including glutamine, zinc, saccharomyces boulardi (a non-pathogenic yeast), and probiotics.
In particular, glutamine is one of the most studied compounds for reducing intestinal permeability. A randomized placebo-controlled study was done on IBS-D patients with intestinal hyperpermeability following infection. In addition to normalizing intestinal hyperpremeability, the patients receiving glutamine had reduced IBS-SS (Irritable Bowel Syndrome Severity Scoring System) scores, including a reduction in diarrhea, as compared to controls.
Regarding probiotics, while direct studies assessing their link to intestinal permeability are limited, certain strains of probiotics, including Bifidobacterium lactis BB-12, Lactobacillus plantarum, Lactobacillus rhamnosus GG, and others may support intestinal barrier function. If you are considering taking probiotics or other supplements to help support leaky gut, work with your dietitian or physician to help you choose the appropriate ones.
(Learn more about the potential benefits of glutamine, probiotics, and additional supplements in leaky gut: Eating to Heal a Leaky Gut at Today’s Dietitian.)
What else can you do to heal a leaky gut?
In addition to following a leaky gut diet, lifestyle changes may help too. Regular exercise can help your digestive system. This means taking even a 15- or 20-minute walk after you eat to help you digest your food. And don’t forget the importance of regular self care, stress management, quality sleep, and not smoking.
If you plan on making changes to your diet and lifestyle, consider keeping a journal to help see if the changes are helping your symptoms.
Summary + Putting It Into Practice…
No. 1 | A leaky gut is associated with gut and non-gut symptoms. It’s an inflammatory condition that has been linked to metabolic disorders, autoimmune conditions, and even mental health. There is no good diagnostic test at this time to know for sure if you have it or not. And remember, this is still a rather new area of research, so stay tuned for more information & research.
No. 2 | In the meantime, While there’s no definitive diet for leaky gut, a few simple shifts toward a high fiber, probiotic rich gut-friendly diet may help heal your gut.
No. 3 | In addition, try cutting down on alcohol, processed foods, and any that you may be allergic or sensitive to. Replace these foods and drinks with a nutrient dense anti-inflammatory diet.
No. 4 | And remember that regular exercise, stress management, and quality sleep are great lifestyle strategies for your gut and the rest of your body.
I’d love to work with you on a gut healing diet plan! Schedule a nutrition consultation, sign up for my gluten free, anti-inflammatory diet meal plan, or get in touch with me to learn more about the ways we can work together!
- Harvard Health. (2018). Putting a stop to leaky gut.
- Harvard Health. (2018). Putting a stop to leaky gut: What can you do about this mysterious ailment?
- Leech, B., Schloss, J. & Steel, J. (2019). Association between increased intestinal permeability and disease: A systematic review. Advances in Integrative Medicine. 6(1), 23-34.
- Mayo Clinic. (2016). Food sensitivities may affect gut barrier function.
- Today’s Dietitian. (2016) Leaky Gut Syndrome— Learn About the Causes, Associated Conditions, and Treatments Under Research.
- Medical News Today. (2019). What to know about leaky gut syndrome.
- Medical News Today. (2019). What is the best diet for leaky gut syndrome?
- Medscape. (2019). Is ‘Leaky Gut’ the Root of All Ills?
- Mu, Q., Kirby, J., Reilly, C. M., & Luo, X. M. (2017). Leaky Gut As a Danger Signal for Autoimmune Diseases. Frontiers in immunology.
- National Institutes of Health News in Health. (2017). Keeping Your Gut in Check.
- Obrenovich M. (2018). Leaky Gut, Leaky Brain? Microorganisms, 6(4), 107.
Let’s chat! Do you have any questions about the best diet or treatment for leaky gut?
Hi There! I’m EA, a registered dietitian nutritionist (RDN) in sunny San Diego. I create easy, DELICIOUS gluten free recipes & low FODMAP recipes for a wide variety of diets. Learn more about my nutrition philosophy and my nutrition coaching for digestive health, autoimmune disease, wellness nutrition, & vibrant aging. Sign up for my newsletter, or get in touch~I’d love to connect with you!