It seems like gut health is getting a lot of attention these days. And rightfully so! Some even say that it is our second brain and that gut issues are linked with depression and other mood disorders. But how do you know if you have poor gut health or if you just overdid it on the burritos?
For so many reasons, I feel like it is so important to dive into this topic. I’ll start by explaining what the gut is, why keeping it healthy is critical to mental and physical health, symptoms of leaky gut, and when to know that it’s time to give your gut a little extra TLC.
What is the Gut and Why Is Gut Health Important?
Most of the time, when we experience cramping, bloating, abdominal pain, or digestive upset, we tend to downplay it as a tummy ache. But outside of nausea, ulcers, and acid reflux, the stomach isn’t really what causes our belly pain. Usually, when we experience cramping and stomach pain, it’s our gut trying to tell us something.
The gut is defined as the small intestine, large intestine, and colon, which is in simpler terms, the long tube that connects the stomach to the anus. A lot is happening in there. The gut is full of good bacteria, and other enzymes that are responsible for digesting food, absorbing nutrients, and flushing toxins. Insoluble fiber and other waste products are also making their way through the tube and out of our bodies, which can take anywhere from 24-72 hours!
Here’s a wild fact: if you stretched out the gut, it could be up to 25 feet long. That means there’s a lot of room for error if things are out of whack. Hippocrates, who’s considered the grandfather of western medicine, famously stated that “all disease begins in the gut” (1). That is a bold claim, and at first may seem crazy, but if you think about how much the gut is doing for our health, it can make sense.
Remember that gut health contributes to a healthy body by separating toxins and waste from nutrients and absorbing water, vitamins, minerals, and micronutrients. It also moves waste, excess hormones, and other toxins out of the body so that it doesn’t circulate back into the bloodstream. That’s already quite a big job. But here’s a lesser-known fact about what the gut does- warning this might blow your mind:
The gut is home to the enteric nervous system, which is a fancy word for the 100 million nerve cells inside the intestinal tract (1). There are more neurotransmitters going from our gut to brain than our brain to gut. This means that what we eat directly affects how we think and feel. The cliche, “you are what you eat” has never sounded more true.
This branch of the nervous system is mainly in charge of digestion, but it’s also called the second brain because it produces serotonin and dopamine. These neurotransmitters are crucial for good mental health, and doctors are finding that people who suffer from leaky gut symptoms are more likely to have depression and anxiety.
So this leads to the next piece, how do you know that your anxiety or other symptoms are linked to signs of poor gut health?
Signs of An Unhealthy Gut
Often, poor gut health is defined as having intestinal permeability. This means that the epithelial tissues lining the gut have been damaged and are inflamed, resulting in little tiny holes in our gut lining.
In a healthy gut, the digestive system is closed off from the rest of the body, keeping the bloodstream and other organs safe from bad bacteria or other toxins. You know if you have good gut health because chances are your moods are steady, your weight is stable, you are generally strong and healthy, your bowel movements are regular, and you can digest most foods. But the truth is, environmental toxins, chemicals from our food, and daily life takes a toll on everyone’s gut- it’s almost inevitable.
But if you don’t generally feel healthy and maybe you’ve got some intestinal permeability going on, then chances are you’ll be exhibiting some leaky gut symptoms. Some indicators of poor gut health are constipation, diarrhea, sudden weight loss or weight gain, nausea, gas, and even things like depression, anxiety, headaches, and poor immunity.
While these can be painful and frustrating, many of us continue to deny that it may be a serious problem or lead to something worse. If nothing is done to fix the leaky gut symptoms, they can become more chronic issues down the road. Some issues that the gut can develop over time are autoimmune conditions, food sensitivities, skin issues, and mood disorders.
Autoimmune diseases can occur because the intestine is continuously leaking toxins out of the gut. When this happens, the immune system becomes overstimulated, reacting to every little thing, and eventually causing autoimmune disorders to occur.
The same goes for food sensitivities. The body is really smart; if you have some leaky holes that are releasing certain food proteins into the bloodstream, the immune system will recognize and create antibodies against them. Then you have an inflammatory response every time you eat these particular foods. Make sense?
Skin issues can also come about because there is chronic inflammation happening in the gut. If toxins aren’t flushing out in waste, they can circulate back around through the bloodstream and lymph, coming out through the skin. Or causing the skin to become chronically inflamed.
We already talked about the gut as the second brain, and this is how mood disorders will come about through leaky gut symptoms. If the gut is inflamed and the lining has become permeable, messages are being sent to the central nervous system that something is “off”. Another way that leaky gut symptoms affect mental health is that inflammation can change the balance of good and bad bacteria in the gut.
If we have too much bad bacteria, which comes from eating certain kinds of foods that feed those nasty little guys, then they will overtake the gut and crowd out the good bacteria. We need those good ones to digest our food and absorb nutrients. We also need them to help create serotonin or our happy chemical.
Many things could be happening to you from having poor gut health, but why does it happen in the first place?
Causes of Poor Gut Health
Most of the time leaky gut symptoms are caused by lifestyle choices. Gut problems aren’t usually inherited, but having a family history of Crohn’s disease can make you more likely to have it too. So what kinds of lifestyles can most contribute to a decline in gut health?
Eating Processed Foods and Sugars
These are probably the worst foods for gut health: highly processed foods, GMO, or those made simple carbohydrates. All of these feed bad bacteria in your gut and irritate the lining.
Sugar, especially high fructose corn syrup (which is in almost all processed foods) is inflammatory, which as we know can contribute to leaky gut symptoms. It’s not surprising that we have more inflammatory and leaky gut issues than ever, and we also happen to be a generation raised on fast food.
I’m not saying gluten is bad, all the time. Okay, I am saying that. Studies are finding again and again that modern-day gluten is bred for addiction and contains a protein that is difficult for many people to digest.
This is different than celiac disease, as people who suffer from this have an extreme allergy and often can’t even eat foods processed in the same facility as gluten.
Gluten intolerance might arise from having imbalanced gut bacteria and an inflamed gut lining (or leaky gut symptoms). It would then get progressively worse and worse. Often the gut lining can’t repair itself until gluten is removed from the diet. Sorry to be the bearer of bad news, but some people find that once they heal their gut health, gluten is less of an issue. Or they find that they have never felt better when not eating gluten.
Lack of Sleep
Whether your lack of sleep is from drinking alcohol, eating too many late-night snacks, or just being up all night with the kids, it can have a substantial impact on your gut health. This is because it can disrupt those good gut bacteria that help you break down food and absorb nutrients and aggravate the bad bacteria that cause inflammation.
Another interesting fact is that having the necessary levels of melatonin (your sleep hormone) is also connected to the motility of the gut (3). You need good motility to use the bathroom regularly, and if motility is disrupted because of a lack of melatonin and sound sleep, you could get constipated, leading to all kinds of leaky gut symptoms.
When we are stressed, we are in our sympathetic nervous system, or the “fight or flight mode”. That means hormones are released that will help us run away or fight back, but these do not create an environment for having dinner.
Our other nervous system response is the parasympathetic mode, or literally, “rest and digest”. When we can properly sit down for a meal and feel relaxed, we can also fully digest it. This means eating too fast while watching a movie, or in the car on the way to ballet recitals or soccer practice is only going to exaggerate leaky gut symptoms. Unfortunately, this kind of on the go lifestyle might be normal, but it’s not good at all for our digestive systems.
Again this has to do with those little bacteria living inside our guts. I know this is weird to think about, but we need to feed them properly and we need to give them water too. Here’s the other thing about drinking enough water: there is a layer of mucus covering the intestinal lining and protecting it. But it needs to be hydrated so it doesn’t dry up and contribute to leaky gut symptoms.
These can all be causes of poor gut health, but they aren’t impossible to repair. While I will share a more comprehensive guide on how to restore gut health, here are some basics to consider.
How to Improve Gut Health
First and foremost, you’ll want to cut out inflammatory foods like gluten and dairy, as well as sugary foods and other processed junk. These are the top leaky gut foods to avoid. This will help right away by starving bad bacteria and pathogens.
Eating a high fiber diet from vegetables and fruits will then start feeding the good bacteria, as well as getting toxins and other bad stuff to start moving out of your body. A high fiber diet is one of my top tips for how to get rid of bad bacteria in the gut.
Eat Fermented Foods
Now I bet you’re wondering “what foods will help you improve your gut health?” An easy place to start if you’ve never tried this before is to add fermented foods to your diet. That would be things like kimchi, sauerkraut, and kombucha. If your microbiome is a little off, these foods are full of good bacteria to get you back on track.
Drink Bone Broth
This is another one of those amazing foods that can help with leaky gut symptoms and start the process of healing your intestinal tract and replacing some of the nutrition you may be missing out on. In fact, I think it’s probably the first step in treating leaky gut.
If you’ve never had bone broth, it’s time. It may have been something you grandma used to make with chicken feet and leftover giblets. Maybe that sounded pretty gross, but bone broth is an incredibly healing superfood. It’s packed full of collagen that can repair the gut lining, improve digestion, and provide a ton of amino acids and other nutrients that you need. Bone broth is also a great breakfast food, you can even stir in an egg while it’s on the stove, making kind of an egg drop soup that’s packed with good healthy fats and proteins.
If you don’t like the taste of bone broth, consider adding a collagen supplement to your daily routine. Our Beauty Collagen Complex is amazing for gut health and tastes like yummy vanilla honey. Perfect for teas, smoothies, coffee, and anything in between.
We already know why good bacteria is important for gut health, especially with leaky gut symptoms, but if you’re a person who has sustained yourself with junk food, then you’ll definitely need some extra help. This is where probiotics come in and will help you start to replenish all that good bacteria as you crowd out the bad stuff.
Another reason to take probiotics is if you’ve taken antibiotics. Yes it’s good that we have them, but antibiotics are so overprescribed these days and can end up ruining a person’s gut bacteria. Chances are, you’ve taken them, and if so you’ll definitely want a good probiotic to make up for it.
Make sure to do some research and that the probiotic you choose has a variety of strains and is highly potent. There are some out there specifically for leaky gut symptoms, so shop around. The best way to take them is about twenty minutes before eating on an empty stomach.
I hope I’ve given you enough information about leaky gut symptoms, how to know if it’s time to focus on fixing your gut and why this is such an important part of healing. The good news is that it is totally possible to repair your leaky gut with diet and lifestyle changes, which should be a big motivator to make some changes!
I’d love to hear more from you. Have you suffered from any leaky gut symptoms in the past? What are some signs for you that your leaky gut is healing? I’d love to hear about your healing journey, so drop a comment below and let’s chat!
- Lord, Douglas (2015). “Your Body’s Second Brain- The Importance of Gut Health.” Retrieved from: http://www.navacenter.com/community/article-library/browse/2015/06/01/your-body’s-second-brain—the-importance-of-gut-health
- Dix, Megan (2018). “Do You Have https://www.healthline.com/health/gut-health#foods
- Bissel, Jordan (2019). “9 Ways Your Sleep Habits Can Affect Your Gut Health.” Retrieved from: https://www.bustle.com/p/9-ways-your-sleep-habits-can-affect-your-gut-health-17991074