10 Signs You Have a Leaky Gut—and How to Heal It

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by Samantha Parent Walravens

My body never completely bounced back after I had my first child—15 years ago. I've told myself that my symptoms were part of being a busy mom: fatigue, digestive problems, joint pain, insomnia, low libido, even mild-grade depression. Many moms I know suffer the same ailments, or worse. They'll subside at some point, I told myself.
 
My health care provider tested me over the years for various medical conditions—from anemia and thyroid disorders to mononucleosis and Lyme disease. The tests always came out negative. "You just need to sleep more and manage your stress better," he told me.

I found an answer four months ago when I went to see Willie Victor, a nutritionist in Mill Valley, California, whose practice is based on the healing properties of food. She asked me to keep a food diary and take a blood test for food allergies and sensitivities.

The results were shocking. It turns out I was "highly sensitive" (not quite allergic, but almost) to a number of foods that had been a regular part of my daily diet—dairy, soy, sugar, caffeine and gluten.

She told me that I had "leaky gut syndrome," a condition that is not typically diagnosed but could be affecting the health of many people. Dr. Robynne Chutkan, assistant professor of medicine at Georgetown University Hospital, says leaky gut "is likely to emerge as one of the most significant medical concepts of our time."

What is leaky gut?

Leaky gut, or "intestinal permeability," as Victor explained, is a condition in which the lining of the small intestine becomes damaged, causing undigested food particles, toxic waste products and bacteria to "leak" through the intestines and flood the blood stream. The foreign substances entering the blood can cause an autoimmune response in the body including inflammatory and allergic reactions such as migraines, irritable bowel, eczema, chronic fatigue, food allergies, rheumatoid arthritis and more.

With leaky gut, damaged cells in your intestines don't produce the enzymes needed for proper digestion. As a result, your body cannot absorb essential nutrients, which can lead to hormone imbalances and a weakened immune system. 

What causes leaky gut?

In many cases, leaky gut is caused by your diet. For me, certain foods that I was consuming every day, including gluten, soy and dairy, were being treated by my body as foreign invaders that had to be fought off. When I ate these foods, my body went to war, producing antibodies, which triggered an immune response that included diarrhea, headaches, fatigue and joint pain.

Leaky gut can also be caused by medications including antibiotics, steroids or over-the-counter pain relievers like aspirin and acetaminophen, which can irritate the intestinal lining and damage protective mucus layers. This irritation can start or continue the inflammation cycle that leads to intestinal permeability.

10 signs you have a leaky gut:

According to Dr. Leo Galland, director of the Foundation for Integrated Medicine, the following symptoms might be signs of leaky gut:

  1. Chronic diarrhea, constipation, gas or bloating
  2. Nutritional deficiencies
  3. Poor immune system
  4. Headaches, brain fog, memory loss
  5. Excessive fatigue
  6. Skin rashes and problems such as acne, eczema or rosacea
  7. Cravings for sugar or carbs
  8. Arthritis or joint pain
  9. Depression, anxiety, ADD, ADHD
  10. Autoimmune diseases such as rheumatoid arthritis, lupus, celiac disease or Crohn's

How to heal a leaky gut

The key to healing a leaky gut is changing your diet and eliminating the foods that your body treats as toxic. On the advice of my nutritionist, I eliminated gluten, dairy, soy, refined sugar, caffeine and alcohol. Within six weeks, I was feeling like a new person. My energy levels were way up, the diarrhea and bloating had subsided, and I was sleeping like a baby at night.

In addition to eliminating certain foods, I added a few things to help repair my leaky gut. These included healthy fats such as fish, coconut and olive oils; avocados and flax; probiotics to restore the healthy bacteria in my gastrointestinal tract; and L-glutamine, an amino acid that rejuvenates the lining of the intestinal wall.

Within three months, I had controlled my leaky gut. I have to adhere to my new dietary changes or I suffer the consequences—diarrhea, bloating and fatigue. But it's a small price to pay for feeling so alive and healthy again!

If you have any of the symptoms I mentioned, get checked by your health care provider. I had sensitivities to certain foods, but your symptoms could be caused by other issues. It's important to design a treatment plan that fits your issues.

Samantha Parent Walravens is a journalist, mother of four, and author of the New York Times–acclaimed book, TORN: True Stories of Kids, Career & the Conflict of Modern Motherhood. You can follow Samantha Parent Walravens on Twitter: @nosuperwoman.