What to Eat When You Have Leaky Gut Syndrome

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The term "leaky gut" can be confusing and even controversial. The name is sometimes used to describe a specific medical condition related to intestinal permeability. However, the term is also used to discuss so-called "leaky gut syndrome." While it's popular in alternative medicine, the medical professional does not recognize leaky gut syndrome as a condition nor a valid diagnosis. 

If your doctor uses the term "leaky gut" to help you understand a medical condition, they are likely referring to intestinal hyperpermeability. However, this context is not the same as the theoretical "leaky gut syndrome."

If your doctor suspects you have intestinal hyperpermeability from chronic digestive disease, dietary changes might be part of your treatment plan. Many people with inflammatory bowel disease find that what they eat can have a significant impact on their symptoms.  

There is no specific "leaky gut" diet recommended by medical professionals. Some general dietary guidelines can help you manage the underlying condition that's caused it.  

Benefits

"Leaky gut syndrome" is not a recognized medical condition. Still, those who have proposed it contributes to ill-health often suggest dietary measures as a means to "treat" it, but these treatments are not evidence-based.

However, leaky gut caused by an inflammatory gastrointestinal disease may benefit from specific dietary changes. For example, research has shown that when people with celiac disease stop eating gluten, it can help restore the mucosal barrier of their intestinal wall.

People with Crohn's may be able to reduce flares of the disease by following a diet that doesn't increase intestinal inflammation and promotes digestive healing. Whether these changes specifically act on intestinal permeability or not, they have been shown to help improve symptoms of gastrointestinal disorders.

One of the primary jobs your intestines have is to absorb water and nutrients from what you eat. At the same time, your intestines provide a protective barrier to keep bacteria and byproducts from getting into your bloodstream. The process is regulated by the size of the gaps (junctions) in the wall of your intestines.

If the gaps get too big, your intestines can't absorb as well, and that protective barrier is compromised. If waste substances from your intestines enter your bloodstream, it can cause problems throughout your body.

Researchers are investigating the role of a specific protein called zonulin, which is known to help regulate the size of the gaps. The research is still relatively new, as the protein was only discovered in 2000. Several studies have linked elevated zonulin levels to conditions such as celiac disease and type 1 diabetes, implying it could have a role in autoimmune responses.

People with certain gastrointestinal conditions are more likely to experience increased intestinal permeability. Inflammatory bowel disease, such as Crohn's and ulcerative colitis, damages the lining of the intestines, which can loosen the junctions.

It's important to note that increased intestinal permeability is thought to be a result of these conditions, not a cause.  

There is not enough evidence to support claims that "leaky gut" is a syndrome in and of itself. Research has not backed up claims that leaky gut causes other medical conditions (including mental health and neurological conditions, such as autism).

Proponents of "leaky gut syndrome" claim it causes "brain fog," vague inflammation, and a host of other symptoms. However, most medical professionals refute the idea that a leaky gut can cause symptoms.

Researchers also aren't sure that increased intestinal permeability represents a medical problem. If it does, it's not clear how it should be treated or if it needs to be treated at all. 

2013 study indicated increased permeability could be beneficial at times. For example, if it allows the intestines to absorb more water and nutrients to meet the body's needs.

How It Works 

An eating plan to reduce gastrointestinal symptoms and improve digestive health can take cues from diets used to treat IBD, irritable bowel syndrome, and food allergies.  

Dietary considerations for people with type 1 diabetes might also be useful, as research has suggested that altered gut permeability may be linked to the condition. 

Everyone can benefit from a balanced and nutritious diet, but what you choose to eat is of even greater importance if your digestion isn't functioning optimally. When you're developing a leaky gut diet, focus on foods that provide energy and nourishment without straining your digestive system.  

Duration 

If you're using a leaky gut diet to help treat a digestive condition, adopting permanent changes might help you manage your symptoms better. Following a particular diet that avoids "trigger" foods can help prevent flares of symptoms.

On the other hand, you might decide you only need to follow a specific eating plan when you're having symptoms. This provides short term relief and allows your body time to heal.

What to Eat 

You can start with general guidelines and tailor your specific eating plan to suit your tastes, needs, and preferences. You may find it helpful to work with your doctor, a registered dietitian, or nutritionist.  

If you have a digestive disorder, your doctor might make specific recommendations or give you rules about what you can eat as part of your treatment. You must follow their instructions carefully and talk to them before making any changes to your diet. 

Compliant Foods

  • Fruits and veggies (cooked if not tolerated raw)

  • Chicken or turkey breast without the skin, lean cuts of pork

  • Fatty fish (salmon, tuna, herring)

  • Soups, bone broth

  • Cultured dairy products and dairy alternatives (as tolerated) 

  • Low fat cheese 

  • Tofu, tempeh, meat alternatives 

  • Pasta (avoid gluten-free versions made with beans/legumes/corn if causes symptoms)

  • Nuts and smooth nut butter

  • Sourdough bread, gluten-free grains, whole grains as tolerated

  • Hot cereals, grits, oatmeal packets without added sugar

  • Low-fat yogurt without added sugar

  • Flax, chia, other seeds (as tolerated)

  • Probiotic rich fermented foods (yogurt, kombucha, kefir) 

  • Water, coconut water, fruit juice without sugar, hot or iced tea 

Non-Compliant Foods

  • Beans, legumes, corn, cruciferous vegetables

  • Raw fruits and veggies with skin and seeds (if having symptoms)

  • Bran, cereal or granola with nuts/fruit, dried fruit

  • Greasy, fatty, spicy, or fried foods

  • Lunchmeat, processed meat (hotdogs, sausage)

  • Full fat dairy products

  • Pastries, cakes, cookies, candy, chocolate

  • Sugar substitutes such as xylitol and sorbitol

  • Whole-grain bread, pasta, crackers (if having symptoms)

  • Tough, fatty, cuts of meat

  • Brown, multigrain, or wild rice, rice pilaf (if having symptoms)

  • Processed snack foods and desserts, refined carbs and sugar

  • Soda, energy drinks 

  • Caffeinated coffee and tea (as tolerated)

  • Alcohol

Fruits and Vegetables: Raw fruits and veggies are packed with fiber, which might be a problem for you if you have a digestive disease. If you have symptoms when eating them raw, try peeling, chopping, and cooking fruits and veggies to improve their digestibility.

Veggies like potatoes soften up easily and are versatile in terms of consistency and taste. Fruits that are already low in fiber can be popped in a juicer or puréed for smoothies.  

You might want to restrict or avoid high-fiber fruits and veggies such as corn, broccoli, and prunes, which are known to cause gas.  

Grains: Choosing whole grains over refined grains is usually the healthier option, but if you have a hard time digesting fiber, this may not always be the most comfortable option.

If you're having digestive symptoms choosing bland carbohydrates that are easy to digest can be soothing and gives your digestion a chance to recover. White rice instead of brown rice is one option, as is plain sourdough bread for toast rather than multigrain or wheat.

Hot cereal, grits, and oatmeal packets without added sugar are breakfast staples that are easy to digest and prepare. Just keep an eye out for extras like nuts and dried fruit, which might be food triggers if you have specific digestive conditions.  

Dairy: Some people with digestive disorders find dairy products tend to make their symptoms worse even if they aren't strictly lactose intolerant. You can experiment with dairy alternatives for milk, cheese, and yogurt. Yogurt is especially useful if you are trying to improve your digestive health, as it is a rich source of probiotics. Some theories suggest that balanced gut flora might help improve intestinal permeability.  

Protein: Lean protein such as chicken and turkey breast without the skin is easy to prepare and digest option. Fatty fish like salmon is another choice that can be cooked in ways that work well for a leaky gut diet. Just be sure not to overcook the meat, as this can make the fibers tough to chew (and digest).

Eggs are another protein source that can be cooked in a variety of ways and pair well with other nutritious foods. On their own, eggs also pack a lot of protein for a small serving.

If you don't eat animal products, tofu and tempeh are versatile alternatives.  Beans and legumes are a significant protein source for plant-based diets, but they are more likely than other sources to cause gas.

Similarly, some people with digestive disorders find that the high-fat content of nuts and nut butter makes these protein sources harder to digest. You can experiment with small portions of specific nuts and smooth butter to see which ones work for you.

Whether you're preparing meat or meat substitutes, avoid or limit any high-fat or potentially irritating oils, butter, and spices.  

Desserts: Most basic dessert ingredients are high in fat and sugar, which means cookies, cakes, pastries, as well as dairy-based desserts could be irritating.

If you're trying to cut back on your sugar intake, keep in mind that popular sugar substitutes like sorbitol and xylitol cause digestive distress in some people. You're most likely to find these ingredients in chewing gum and hard candy labeled "sugar-free." 

Some proponents of "leaky gut syndrome" recommend avoiding yeast, which they believe leads to yeast overgrowth. However, the type of yeast used in baking or brewing is not the same as the yeast Candida albicans, which is linked to yeast infections and small bowel bacterial overgrowth (SIBO).

Beverages: Proper hydration is essential for digestive health overall, but especially so if your intestinal permeability is not working as it should be. Some people find caffeine from coffee and tea to be irritating and choose to avoid or limit these beverages. Carbonated drinks like seltzer might be OK if they don't cause uncomfortable gas.  

Research has indicated that alcohol may increase intestinal permeability. You may want to limit or completely avoid any alcoholic beverages.

For the most part, stick to water. You can dress it up with sliced fruit and sprigs of digestion-soothing mint or ginger. Warm beverages like bone broth are another nutritious and comforting option.

Your doctor might suggest electrolyte-replacement drinks if you have diarrhea. If you're also having a hard time getting proper nutrition, they may recommend liquid nutritional or caloric supplements.

Recommended Timing 

Some people with digestive health ailments find that eating on a regular schedule helps control their symptoms. You may feel better eating smaller meals more frequently throughout the day rather than having three larger meals. 

If your intestines have issues with permeability, they may be absorbing too much fluid—or not enough. You may need to adjust your daily intake of fluids accordingly. 

If you tend to feel overly full, try keeping your eating and drinking at separate times.  

Cooking Tips 

There are several ways you can change the foods you eat by cooking them. It's possible to adjust their texture and consistency without making them less nutritious.

People with gastrointestinal diseases sometimes find it easier to digest high-fiber foods, like fresh veggies, when they have been softened through steaming or boiling. You can also try blanching vegetables (dipping them in boiling water for a minute or two). It's a little more involved, but it can be useful for prepping ingredients ahead of time if you're planning meals to freeze.

For other fiber-rich foods, you can also bake or even microwave them. For example, a crisp apple with the skin might be hard to digest, but if you peel it and soften the flesh with some heat, you'll have tasty applesauce.

You'll want to avoid cooking styles that make foods more difficult to digest, like frying with oil and butter. You may also want to limit or avoid spices and sweetener, which may worsen digestive upset for some people.  

Fermenting is another popular way to prepare food and boost its probiotic content. Studies suggest fermented food and drink can balance "good" gut bacteria, which in turn may help regulate intestinal permeability.

However, some people find kombucha, kimchi, sauerkraut, and other fermented foods cause digestive discomfort. If these options don't work for you, try yogurt or a probiotic supplement.

Modifications 

You can adjust the leaky gut diet to accommodate special dietary needs, food allergies, and other medical conditions. 

Some alterations may only be temporary, such as addressing increased nutritional needs during pregnancy or to allowing your body to heal after illness or surgery. 

If you need to make significant or longterm changes, work with your doctor or nutritionist to ensure you are still getting the nutrition you need.

Considerations 

You might not realize it until you need to make changes to it, but your diet can be about more than what, when, and how much you eat. Your role at home, school, or work can influence how easy or difficult it is to follow a diet. Likewise, your social activities and lifestyle also influence your choices. 

As you're developing a leaky gut diet, consider these factors along with the changes you want to make. Understanding how each facet of your life will impact and be impacted by your diet will empower you to find a routine that works and stick with it. 

General Nutrition 

As long as it's not too restrictive, a leaky gut diet can be nutritious and satisfying. If you severely limit what you eat or cut out entire food groups, you may find yourself deficient in nutrients and motivation.

If you become deficient in key vitamins and minerals, your doctor might suggest you try adding liquid nutrition supplements to your leaky gut diet. They may also want you to rework your diet to ensure you can get adequate nutrition from what you eat. 

Safety 

If it is nutritionally sound and provides enough calories, a leaky gut diet (or diet for any condition related to the gut) can be safe and satisfying.

Some recommendations for a leaky gut diet might not be safe for you. You'll need to talk to your doctor before completely cutting something out of your diet.

A heavily restrictive diet is not likely to provide adequate nutrition and energy. These diets should only be used on a short-term basis and/or under the care of your doctor. 

You may see special foods, diet plans, and supplements touted for "leaky gut syndrome." These products and plans have not been vetted by medical professionals or regulating bodies. There is not enough research to know whether they are safe and effective.  

Flexibility 

You'll be able to customize a leaky gut diet according to your nutritional needs and personal tastes. As is often the case for people with digestive disorders, you might need to give up "trigger foods"—some of which may be favorites.

If you are frustrated with its limitations, or feel your diet prevents you from being able to eat socially, talk to your doctor, dietitian, or nutritionist. They can help you figure out how to adjust your diet or learn to cope with these situations.

Side Effects 

You might notice changes in your digestion any time you change how or what you eat. It's not unusual to have some temporary upset while your body adjusts. For example, if you alter the amount of fiber in your diet, you'll likely see a direct effect on your bowel habits.  

Usually, these changes will "level out" as your body gets used to your diet. However, if they do not or they get worse, you may need to reconsider the change. If you become constipated, drinking more water or adding a fiber supplement might be enough to correct it.

If you develop diarrhea that doesn't get better after a few days, check with your doctor. The symptom might be a sign of another health issue, and prolonged diarrhea can cause you to become dehydrated.

Dietary Restrictions

You might already be eating in a certain way to deal with a health concern, such as avoiding gluten if you have celiac disease. You may also have personal preferences about your diet, such as choosing not to eat meat.  

Your personal needs and preferences may fit in well with a leaky gut diet, but you might run into a few issues. For example, if you're looking for wheat-free products, you'll notice that many gluten-free kinds of pasta are made with beans, legumes, and corn. If you have a digestive disorder, these ingredients might cause increased symptoms.  

Vegetarians and vegans may want to pay close attention to how they prepare and cook fruits and veggies, which are a staple of plant-based diets. For example, raw fruits and vegetables can be peeled, diced, and cooked to make them easier to digest.

A Word From Verywell 

"Leaky gut" can be a confusing and contentious topic. Most doctors don't recognize "leaky gut syndrome" as a valid medical diagnosis. However, increased intestinal permeability (which may be called "leaky gut") is a known consequence of some digestive conditions. If your intestines have been damaged, the walls may no longer provide a robust and absorbent barrier. People with a chronic gastrointestinal illness often find that making changes to their diet helps manage their symptoms. Following certain dietary guidelines can also help give the digestive system time to rest and heal. If you have a condition like celiac disease, avoiding foods that cause inflammation in your intestines is essential for preventing further damage. Whether they have a digestive condition or not, many people feel better when they avoid sugary, fatty, processed food, and focus on eating a nutritious, balanced diet.

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Article Sources

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