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When we struggle with symptoms like bloat or constipation, it’s easy to blame our gut. It’s not a mystery. But a growing body of research shows how seemingly unrelated health complaints like joint pain, brain fog, weight gain and autoimmune issues can also be traced back to the gut, specifically a condition called leaky gut syndrome. “Hippocrates [the father of modern medicine] was 100% correct more than 2,400 years ago when he said, ‘All disease begins in the gut,’” says Steven Gundry, MD, author of Gut Check. Luckily, gut healing is possible and often easy. Michael Ruscio, DNM, author of Healthy Gut, Healthy You, says, “It’s amazing how when given the right support for healing, women start seeing improvements in literally days.” Keep reading to learn about sneaky leaky gut symptoms, plus a success story of a woman who healed her gut and shed 126 unwanted pounds.
What is leaky gut?
To understand leaky gut, you need to understand the gut’s delicate inner lining. This special barrier is strong, but ultra-thin. In fact, it is only one cell layer thick. “Good” digestive bacteria that live in the gut help to protect and maintain this lining.
But when the gut is under attack — by chronic stress, poor diet or constant antibiotic use — the intestinal lining gets eroded. The tight junctions or connections behind that single line up of cells loosen and break. In that state, harmful things like undigested food particles, environmental toxins, pathogens and “bad” bugs can pass through the gut lining, literally “leaking” into the blood stream and circulating through the entire body. This causes the leaky gut symptom of inflammation, known to cause a cascade of other serious health problems.
Common leaky gut symptoms
People with a weakened or leaky gut often complain of chronic bloating, gas, diarrhea and food sensitivities. They may not realize that other sneaky symptoms like fatigue, trouble concentrating, joint pain and skin rashes can also be the result of subpar gut health.
Leaky gut can sometimes be hard to test for. Some health experts will give patients a solution to drink and then obtain a urine sample to test and see which sized molecules were able to pass through the intestines. But if you have any of the symptoms mentioned above, you likely have some level of gut leakiness and can benefit from the tips below.
The leaky gut debate: Is leaky gut real?
It’s important to note that leaky gut syndrome is not currently an official clinical diagnosis. Many traditionally trained doctors may not use the terminology. They might toss out words like "gut dysbiosis" or "gut permeability" instead as a catch-all for gastrointestinal dysfunction.
Whatever the name, leaky gut symptoms are very real for sufferers. And an ever-increasing number of researchers and functional medicine practitioners recognize this. “It’s just another name for the same issue,” explains Dr. Gundry.
How common is leaky gut?
“Leaky gut is now an epidemic, affecting more people than we’ve ever before imagined,” says Dr. Gundry. And Marcelo Campos, MD, a clinical professor at Tufts University School of Medicine, says, “We all have some degree of leaky gut.” The condition is believed to be more common in women over 40, in part due to fluctuating hormones. Gynecologist and women’s health expert Anna Cabeca, DO, author of MenuPause, says, “As we age, our gut becomes challenged, and the healthy ratio of good bacteria to bad bacteria is imperiled.”
Vincent Pedre, MD, author of Happy Gut, sees these cases every day in his practice. “Roughly 80% of patients who come in complaining of fatigue, brain fog and digestive issues have some level of what we call leaky gut syndrome.”
How to improve leaky gut symptoms
Good news: When you address leaky gut concerns, you can erase symptoms, improve overall health and even shed weight in the process. The best way to do so is with diet changes. Since food comes in direct contact with the gut lining, it can be the first line of defense in repairing and healing leaky gut. “If your gut is damaged and leaky, your body will struggle to absorb nutrients,” explains celebrity nutrition expert JJ Virgin, who has spent 25 years helping women repair their digestive systems. “When you eat to heal your gut, you have freedom from food cravings in just 3 to 4 days. It’s like magic.”
Dr. Pedre adds another health perk for people who have struggled with yo-yoing weight for years. “Once the gut is healed, weight loss becomes effortless.” Just ask heath caregiver Leslie Mayorga, who overcame chronic digestive issues, including acid reflux and heartburn and lost 125 pounds. Get started with these 3 nutrition-based tips…
1. Eat more plants
When we eat fiber-rich fruits (like blueberries) and veggies (like asparagus), our gut health improves. That’s because fiber contains prebiotics, which act as the fuel for our gut’s healthiest bugs to thrive. It sounds ambitious, but aim to eat 30 different plant foods weekly (like fruits, veggies, herbs, spice and legumes) since a wide diversity of fiber is best for gut health.
“Prebiotic fiber is the true gut-health game changer,” assures Will Bulsiewicz, MD, author of Fiber Fueled. Good sources include almonds, bananas, flax, asparagus and oats. He recommends building up your fiber levels over time, while drinking plenty of water. Eating a wholesome fiber-rich diet can work quickly. Dr. Cabeca says, “You can boost the health of your microbiome within 3 days — without taking any medications — and alleviate your symptoms fast.”
2. Try probiotic-rich yogurt
Probiotics, also known as the healthy microbes found naturally in yogurt, fermented sauerkraut and kombucha — stimulate mucus production along our delicate gut barrier, making it thick and strong so bacteria have trouble penetrating it. In fact, William Davis, MD, author of Super Gut, observes, “Probiotics are the cornerstone of ‘reseeding’ your garden with good gut flora and healthy bacterial species.” (Click to try his Gut-friendly yogurt recipe.)
3. Cut out gluten and sugar
The two most common ingredients people remove from their routine during a gut-healing elimination diet is gluten-laden wheat and refined sugar. These items are known to feed “bad” gut bugs, causing an imbalance. They can also trigger gut sensitivity and painful inflammation. (Click through to learn about the best at-home food sensitivity tests.)
4. Avoid taking unnecessary medications
We know antibiotics overuse can pose a problem for gut health and immunity. But even taking over-the-counter pain relievers called NSAIDs (like ibuprofen) are known to be rough on the gut lining. A 2005 study in Clinical Gastroenterology and Hepatology found that 71% of folks who took these meds daily for 3 months had noticeable signs of damage inside their gut. How? NSAIDs can irritate the gut lining and alter the function of the gut microbiome.
Instead, try natural supplements and spices known to ease pain and reduce inflammation, such as the yellow spice turmeric. (Click to learn how turmeric helps with weight loss.)
5. Practice intermittent fasting
Going longer between meals, without sacrificing calories, helps many people who struggle with gut symptoms. Why? When our gut lining is damaged, it can be painful to digest food. But taking breaks to let the gut fully rest and digest is soothing. Dr. Ruscio says, “People will say all the time in the clinic, ‘When I don’t eat, I feel better.’ Something like fasting can be really helpful because it’s no longer poking the beehive, so to speak.” He explains, “It starves bad bacteria and allows the immune system inflammation to calm down.” Try a 12-hour fast, for example, from 7 pm one night until 9 am the next day.
6. Dial down stress
High levels of the stress hormone cortisol can weaken the gut lining, making it leaky. You probably already know that habits like deep breathing or nature walking are proven to relieve stress. But here’s another idea. Although consuming coffee can cause irritation in some women’s guts, smelling the aroma has its own benefits. The next time you feel tense, try inhaling the scent of coffee beans for three breaths. Research in Scientific Reports finds compounds in the beans almost instantly calm the sympathetic nervous system, dropping cortisol by 25% and lowering another stress marker by 40%.
Related: Ever Feel So Stressed It Seems Like The World Is Spinning? Why It Happens
Leaky gut success story: Kristi Ross, 40
Kristi Ross took a single step and felt a searing pain in her knee that made her collapse to the ground. A nurse practitioner, she knew she’d torn her meniscus. Filled with fear, she thought about her family members who suffered mobility issues and she knew: The best thing I can do is get my weight under control!
After knee surgery, Kristi started a keto diet on the advice of a doctor friend. She hoped the naturally low-sugar, low-inflammation diet could help her lose weight, as well as reduce her pain and chronic digestive symptoms. Sure enough, she shed 10 pounds the first week! “It felt like somebody turned a light switch inside my brain and I had energy for the first time in my life.”
To speed results, Kristi started supplementing with exogenous ketones, mixing Pruvit brand flavored salts into water each morning. “Keto was working, but it got that much better,” she says. “After six weeks I thought, I’m not going to eat any other way for the rest of my life!”
Jump ahead to the six-month-mark and Kristi was able to get off all seven of her medications. She also reversed her health complaints including leaky gut syndrome, polycystic ovarian syndrome, fatty liver, prediabetes, insulin resistance, insomnia, reflux, anxiety and depression.
In all, Kristi lost 100 pounds in 9 months. She also lowered her body fat from 50% to 22%, which has been a blessing for her once-sore joints. She says, “I have never felt this good in my entire life!”
This content is not a substitute for professional medical advice or diagnosis. Always consult your physician before pursuing any treatment plan.
For more ways to heal your gut, keep reading!