“Leaky gut” has been a term stealing the stage for quite a while now and although it’s slowly being crowded out with more advanced terminology, the nature, prevalence, and consequences of leaky gut are no less significant than in previous years. In fact, as research continues to warn us of the importance of maintaining a strong gut barrier for the prevention and management of various chronic health conditions, it becomes a foundational element in nearly every health and wellness plan.
Despite all the cutting-edge research that has shown us how we can repair a leaky gut, the fact remains – an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. It is far easier to maintain and protect a healthy gut with diet and lifestyle choices than fix a broken one. It requires a multi-faceted approach to maintain a healthy gut. Protecting the gut from toxins, allergens, infections, and other elements that trigger an inflammatory reaction and damage the epithelial barrier is vital, and, naturally, food selection plays a critical role in this process. Every day we are faced with the choice to eat foods that heal and protect the gut versus those that damage the gut.
As the building blocks of enzymes, hormones, cells, neurotransmitters, antibodies and other tissue components, protein is vital for maintaining a healthy gut barrier. Glutamine is a well-studied amino acid known best for its ability to reduce intestinal permeability. Glutamine depletion has been linked with villus atrophy, decreased expression of tight junction proteins and increased intestinal permeability. Animal proteins, including bone broth, grass-fed whey protein, grass-fed beef and bison, are the highest dietary sources of glutamine. Free-range poultry, wild-caught fish and seafood also contain copious amounts of glutamine.
When gut health is the focus, commercial animal protein may complicate the goal. The common practice of including antibiotics and steroidal hormones in animal feed leaves the protein sources laden with drug residues that threaten the delicate microbiome balance in the gut. On the other hand, sustainably-sourced protein from grass-fed, free-range, wild-caught sources actually supports a healthy microbiome which is imperative to maintaining tight junctions of the epithelial barrier.
Dietary fats are a key player in helping to protect the epithelial barrier of the gut by modulating the gut microbiota and also through their influence on the inflammatory pathways. High-fat diets have often been associated with increased intestinal permeability due to increased bile acid secretion, but rather than the quantity of dietary fat, it seems that the quality of dietary fat may play a larger role in protecting gut permeability. A diet that includes a moderate amount of anti-inflammatory omega-3 fatty acids regulates both the gut microbiota and inflammation. Even saturated fats can have a positive effect on the gut if they are sourced from plants or grass-fed animals. Conjugated linoleic acid (CLA) is the unique fatty acid supplied by a grass-based diet. In an animal study seeking to discover the protective effects of CLA on intestinal epithelium, the researchers stated, “CLA reduced intestinal permeability, bacterial translocation, and biomarkers of inflammatory response besides minor damage to ZO-1 and occludin with maintenance of the integrity of the intestinal epithelium and a favorable balance between the inflammatory and regulatory cytokines.”
Carbohydrates are among the most influential dietary components with the power to destroy even the healthiest gut. Sugar, sugar substitutes, refined grains (including gluten-free substitutes), and gluten all provide the substrates necessary for the growth of pathogenic bacteria, leading to dysbiosis and leaky gut. Even in individuals without genetic polymorphisms commonly seen in celiac disease, gluten has still been observed to trigger a transient release of zonulin, which increases intestinal permeability, leading to leaky gut. Whole foods such as vegetables and fruits should comprise the majority of the carbohydrates in a gut-healthy diet. The various colors associated with vegetables and fruits offer a range of phytonutrients and antioxidants that help battle the oxidative stress which threatens the health of intestinal villi. Additionally, many vegetables such as okra have mucilaginous properties which help protect the mucosal gut barrier, and various fruits such as berries possess soluble fibers that encourage the growth of a healthy microbiome.
Dietary choices that foster a balanced microbiome, modulate the inflammatory response, and provide necessary substrates for villi growth will ensure a healthy intestinal barrier with tight junctions and prevent leaky gut. Sustainably sourced proteins that provide rich amounts of glutamine should be included in every gut-healthy diet, as well as a good amount of anti-inflammatory omega-3 fatty acids and conjugated linoleic acid. Carbohydrates should primarily be supplied through whole foods such vegetables and fruits, while sugars, refined grains, and gluten should be limited or avoided.