Fiona Lawson | 29 Nov 2018 | Leaky gut

What Are The Best Foods For Leaky Gut?

Did you know that your skin has a surface area of 2m2, and your gut lining has a surface area of 400m2? This means your gut lining is the biggest interface between you and the outside world.

When you think about it, this makes sense: your gut comes into intimate contact with every morsel of food you eat. And the average person eats 35 tons of food during their lifetime!

Food (and other ingestible substances) can be nutritious but they can also be harmful, which means your gut deals with more immune challenges on a daily basis than the rest of the body will see in a lifetime.

As part of this, your gut also has the complex job of working out what to let into the body and what to keep out. Some substances (nutrients) are given a free pass, while others (toxins) come up against closed doors. It’s this selective permeability that enables all that food to nourish us rather than kill us.

What is leaky gut?

Leaky gut occurs when your gut barrier breaks down—and its selective permeability is compromised.

To understand this, let’s talk a bit of anatomy. The barrier between your body and all incoming food is just one cell thick [1]. It’s also supported by a coating of mucous, a pool of immune cells and a nice little community of gut bacteria, but still, the integrity of that one-cell layer is paramount.

In this layer, the cells are joined together by special proteins. These are kind of like shoelaces: when you tighten them, the gaps close up, but when they’re loosened, there’s more space to get through.

Every time we eat, the shoelaces loosen a little to let nutrients and other health-boosting compounds enter the bloodstream. This is a normal and healthy bodily function.

But problems arise when these shoelaces remain too loose for too long. This state, known as leaky gut, allows other nasty substances to get through that one-cell-thick layer. These nasties then reach the pool of immune cells, which immediately launch an attack in an effort to protect you.

The resulting inflammation is believed to be an underlying factor in several disease processes [2].

What are the symptoms of leaky gut?

Because the immune cells in your gut communicate with the immune cells all over your body, the symptoms of leaky gut can show up in several places. Some signs of leaky gut include:

  • Bloating
  • Food sensitivities
  • Fatigue
  • Skin problems
  • Aching joints
  • Mood disorders
  • Brain fog
  • Migraines

Leaky gut may also be an underlying factor in a number of conditions, including [3]:

  • IBS
  • Coeliac disease
  • Type-1 diabetes
  • Crohn’s disease
  • Food allergies

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What to eat for leaky gut

The food you eat can have a dramatic impact on the health of your gut. This is because it influences the gut microbiome, the mucous layer and those all-important proteins (shoe laces) between the cells.

Foods that can help to address leaky gut include:

Dark, green, leafy vegetables. These are full of fibre, which your colonic cells ferment to produce the gut-healing substance butyrate.

Apples. These contain quercetin, a phytonutrient that enhances the integrity of your gut barrier. They also the special fibre pectin, which helps to modulate gut bacteria and reduce inflammation [4].

Eggs. These nutritional powerhouses are a source of vitamin D, which is essential for a healthy gut.

Bone broth. Homemade broth (or stock) contains collagen and glutamine—proteins that are essential for healing the gut lining.

Fatty fish. These contain the fats EPA and DHA, which studies have found to support gut integrity and reduce inflammation. Good choices include salmon, sardines and mackerel.

Pumpkin seeds. These are high in the essential mineral zinc. Studies show that zinc deficiency is a key risk factor for leaky gut [5]. Other zinc-rich foods include red meat and oysters.


best foods for leaky gut infographics


Green tea. This contains a special compound epigallocatechin-3-gallate (EGCG), which can help to reduce the inflammation that exacerbates leaky gut.

Liver. This organ meat is a fantastic source of retinol (vitamin A), which helps to protect gut cells from damage. Please note, pregnant ladies should avoid liver.

Turmeric. The active compound in this vibrant spice, curcumin, has been found to reduce both inflammation and leaky gut.

Fermented vegetables. These provide a natural supply of good bacteria, helping to stop any nasties taking hold in the gut. Good options include kimchi and sauerkraut.

Some people may also turn to supplements for gut health, though these should only ever complement a good diet. Beneficial choices include:

  • Probiotics
  • Digestive enzymes
  • L-glutamine
  • Fish oil
  • N-acetylcysteine (NAC)

What to avoid for leaky gut

Just as there are foods which can help a leaky gut, there are some that induce or worsen the condition. These include:

Gluten. This is a protein found in many flour-based foods, including bread and pasta. It’s problematic because it weakens the proteins between cells—in other words, it unties the shoelaces [6]. It’s now accepted that there’s a wide spectrum of gluten sensitivity, and people who suspect leaky gut are best off avoiding gluten for a while. The time period will vary from person to person.

Alcohol. Both ethanol and acetaldehyde (the breakdown product of ethanol) interfere with the proteins between cells, inducing leaky gut. Those with severe symptoms should avoid all form of alcohol to give their gut a chance to heal.

Sugar. This worsens both leaky gut and inflammation through several pathways, including encouraging the growth of bad bacteria. Remember, sources of sugar are both obvious (sweets and cakes) and hidden (cereals, condiments etc.).

Processed foods. These contain a number of additives, such as polysorbate-80 and carboxymethylcellulose, which have been shown to worsen leaky gut [7]. If you wouldn’t stock an ingredient in your kitchen cupboard, it’s best not to eat it.

Refined oils. Some oils, such as sunflower and soybean, contribute to inflammation, worsening leaky gut. What’s more, a high intake of the wrong types of fats can affect gut bacteria. Stick to extra virgin olive oil for salads, or use coconut oil for cooking.

Artificial sweeteners. Like sugar, these can induce unfavourable changes in the gut microbiota. Sweeteners are lurking everywhere, from diet drinks to low-fat yoghurts. Get into the habit of reading food labels.

Do you suspect leaky gut?

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What else affects leaky gut?

Although food has a huge impact on our gut health, it’s not the only thing we should be considering. Several other lifestyle factors can contribute to leaky gut too:

  • Lack of sleep
  • Taking too many painkillers
  • Chronic stress
  • Taking certain medications
  • Environmental toxins, such as pollution
  • Certain infections

How to heal a leaky gut

As you can see, lots of factors come together to cause leaky gut. Most of the time, it doesn’t develop overnight—which means it will also take time and attention to reverse it.

There’s no set time period for healing leaky gut, as it varies from individual to individual. Someone who has consumed copious gluten and alcohol for decades may find it longer to restore gut health than, say, someone who developed a few problems after a bout of food poisoning.

That’s not to say it can’t be done, though. Although it may take months to fully restore gut integrity, a few targeted changes can have people noticing a difference in a matter of days or weeks.

With the Functional Medicine approach, you can address leaky gut in five steps:

1. Remove the foods that are problematic for you

2. Replace with nourishing foods, and certain digestive aids where appropriate

3. Re-inoculate your gut with good bacteria using probiotic food and supplements

4. Repair the gut lining with therapeutic foods and nutrients

5. Rebalance your lifestyle to reduce gut-damaging habits

Investigate your own gut health with our Ultimate Gut Health Test.

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