If you have an autoimmune disease that’s controlling your life you’ll do just about anything to get your life back.
With functional medicine it’s possible to slow down the autoimmune process in your body and reverse your symptoms by addressing the root causes of your autoimmune disease.
When you look for why your body developed autoimmune disease in the first place — and you address those “why’s” — you’ll give your body the best chance to turn things around.
If you have an autoimmune disease you most likely have a leaky gut.
But here’s the kicker — you can have a leaky gut even if your autoimmune condition isn’t gut related and even if you don’t have digestive symptoms. May people assume they don’t have a leaky gut because they don’t have gut symptoms — but that’s a common misconception.
A leaky gut is almost always involved in the development of an autoimmune condition. (In other words, it’s part of the root cause).
In his landmark 2009 study, Alessio Fasano, MD, suggested that three things must be present for an autoimmune condition to develop: a genetic predisposition (or a family history of autoimmune disorders), a trigger (like stress, an infection or a toxin), and a leaky gut. (1)
Therefore, if you want to treat the root causes of your autoimmune condition (and heal your body) you must heal your gut.
When your gut heals you’ll feel better. You’ll have fewer symptoms and you’ll start to feel like yourself again. Sounds good, right!?
Here’s what you need to know about your leaky gut (and how to heal it).
What is a Leaky Gut?
In a healthy digestive tract, the cells lining the walls of the intestines are “selectively permeable”. That means they let the good stuff (like minerals, vitamins, and nutrients) get through the lining and into the bloodstream for circulation to the body.
And, they keep the bad stuff (like toxins, fungi, yeast, parasites, large undigested food particles and waste products) out of your bloodstream, leaving them in the intestines for elimination.
When you have a leaky gut the wall of the digestive tract becomes damaged and loses its ability to function properly. “Holes” or “leaks” are created in the lining of the intestines. Therefore, particles that aren’t supposed to enter your bloodstream do — they “sneak through” the new holes in the intestine.
When this happens, the immune system targets these molecules generating an inflammatory response. Ov er time, this process continues to activate your immune system creating long-term inflammation — which may trigger an autoimmune disease to develop. (2)
What Causes a Leaky Gut?
Anything that creates ongoing irritation or inflammation to the digestive tract can trigger a leaky gut to develop. (3)
This includes things like: infections (parasites, molds, yeast or bacteria), toxins, pesticides, medications (such as pain medications and antibiotics), inflammatory foods (such as gluten), and high intakes of alcohol, caffeine and sugar.
Physical and emotional stress can also make you more susceptible to a leaky gut. Research suggests that even short-term stressors can cause a leaky gut to develop or worsen.<(4)
A functional medicine healthcare provider can help you determine what’s causing your leaky gut. Sometimes, it’s necessary to order specialized testing (like stool testing, food sensitivity testing or heavy metal testing) to find out what’s irritating your digestive tract.
How Do You Heal a Leaky Gut?
Functional medicine providers use a “5R Approach” to treat gut disorders, including a leaky gut. The five R’s are: Remove, Restore, Re-inoculate, Repair and Rebalance.
Step One: Remove the Irritants.
It’s important to identify and remove anything that causes irritation to your digestive tract. This includes intestinal infections (like parasites or yeast), environmental toxins (like heavy metals, mold/mycotoxins or pesticides) or irritating foods.
Common food irritants include: gluten, dairy, soy, corn, eggs, legumes, grains, sugar, caffeine and alcohol. While you’re healing your gut it may be necessary for you to adhere to an elimination diet which temporarily removes these foods.
A functional medicine provider can help you identify what may irritating your gut. They may recommend specialized testing to further pinpoint your treatment approach.
Step Two: Restore Digestive Function.
A leaky gut can deplete the body’s ability to properly digest and absorb food — leaving you with nutritional imbalances. You may need to temporarily help your body digest better.
If you’re not sure you’re digesting well, your functional medicine provider can order stool testing which can give you clues about your digestion and absorption. Or, routine blood work can sometimes provide insights. Often people find it helpful to supplement with digestive enzymes while their body is healing.
One of the easiest things you can do to improve your digestion is to chew your food. The act of chewing itself triggers your body to release its own digestive enzymes and results in better digestion.
Step Three: Re-Inoculate with Probiotics.
Another way to help your gut heal is to increase the number of good bacteria in your digestive tract. A healthy balance of beneficial bacteria are very import ant in the health of your body and immune system. (5)
A high-dose probiotic will help ensure that you continually re-inoculate your gut with good bacteria. Additionally, fermented foods (like sauerkraut or fermented vegetables) and prebiotic foods (such as garlic and onions) can help restore a healthy balance of gut bacteria.
A word of caution: you may not tolerate probiotics or fermented foods if you have other conditions like SIBO (small intestine bacterial overgrowth), yeast overgrowth or histamine intolerance.
Food has the most powerful influence on your gut bacteria. (6)
Supplementing with probiotics isn’t enough. You must also feed the good bacteria with a balanced whole-foods diet. The best way to do this? Think colors. The more colorful and diverse your food (especially vegetables) the more healthy your gut bacteria will be.
Step Four: Repair the Digestive Lining.
When you have a leaky gut your digestive lining has become damaged. Using foods and supplements will help you reduce the inflammation, soothe the intestinal wall and heal the lining of the intestines.
Food is the BEST medicine when it comes to repairing your gut. Bone broth and collagen powders are potent gut healers. Spices such as turmeric and ginger are highly anti-inflammatory. Wild fish, steamed vegetables, and healthy fats found in avocados, coconut, and olive oil are also healing for the gut.
Common gut healing supplements include: omega-3 fish oils, glutamine, zinc, quercetin and curcumen. Check with your functional medicine provider to see what’s best for you. You may not need to supplement with these or there may be better options for you specifically.
Step Five: Rebalance Your Life.
You can help optimize your digestive health, and heal your leaky gut, with some simple life changes.
Practicing gratitude — especially before meals — can help put your body into a more relaxed state (giving your body a leg up on digestion). Research continues to show how gratitude improves our health by lowering inflammation, improving mood, reducing stress, and enhancing restful sleep. (7)
Eating in a relaxed environment (and not on the go) will help put your body into “digest mode”. Have you had the experience of eating in a rush and then you don’t feel so good afterwards? That’s because your body needs to be relaxed for digestion to work.
If you have an autoimmune disease, you most likely have a leaky gut which makes it harder for your body to heal.
When you prioritize healing your gut you’ll not only feel better but you’ll be addressing one of the root causes of your autoimmune disease.
You can implement many of these strategies on your own. If you get stuck, aren’t making the progress you hoped for, or don’t know what triggered your leaky gut in the first place…find a functional medicine provider who can guide you.
Have you been diagnosed with a leaky gut? Has treating it helped you feel better?
I’d love to hear about your experiences or answer your questions below.