In his Happy Living post about chronic illness, Dr. Tom Sult (a functional medicine MD) mentions that many of his patients with chronic illness have some sort of digestive issue, and that a common cause of gastrointestinal problems is a leaky gut.
Let that sink in a minute.
If you (or someone you love) is dealing with chronic migraines, chronic fatigue, high blood pressure, autoimmune disease, “seasonal” allergies or any other long-term condition, there’s a good chance you, or they, also have a leaky gut.
Ugh! That information alone is enough to make a person depressed. Did I mention depression has also been linked to an unhealthy digestive system?!
The good news is that, as Dr. Sult said, there are plenty of steps we can take to heal our intestines and resolve a leaky gut… and in a pretty short period of time! You see, the cells of the intestine wall live only about seven days from the time they are “born” until the time they die and are sloughed off. So, making changes today will have an impact on the health of your digestive system within one week.
Of course, these suggestions are specifically about how to heal the organs of your digestive system, to close up those tight junctions, and ensure the surface of your intestines can digest food and absorb nutrients effectively. All of this creates a healthy environment in which your microbiota can live. And we are constantly hearing how important a healthy microbiome is for our overall health and well-being.
With the goal of making your gut less “hole-y” and giving your gut bugs a good home to live in, here are my top 5 suggestions for feeding the cells of your intestines:
1. Eat plenty of protein, especially the amino acid glutamine.
Unlike plants, which are primarily made of carbohydrates, the tissues of the human body are primarily made of protein, which is made up of a variety of amino acids. Furthermore, the amino acid glutamine is the preferred fuel for rapidly dividing cells like those of the intestinal wall, making it especially critical when trying to heal a damaged intestine. Fortunately, lots of protein foods are good sources of glutamine including lean cuts of meat, poultry, fish, shellfish, eggs, cheese, soybeans, lentils and peas.
Whenever possible, get your glutamine from food rather than supplements because the body converts glutamine to glutamate, the predominant excitatory neurotransmitter. Although a little excitement is good, too much glutamate can lead to migraines, epilepsy, treatment-resistant depression and other brain-related problems.
2. Consume enough omega-3 fatty acids.
Omega-3 fats are anti-inflammatory (meaning they calm an unnecessarily irritated immune system) and we’ve heard for years that we need to get plenty of these in our diets. In addition to helping soothe an inflamed intestine, omega-3s have been shown to improve the integrity of the intestine wall, at least in the lab. That’s two good reasons to be sure that you are getting enough of these healthy fats when trying to heal your gut!
To be sure you are getting enough omega-3 fatty acids, include the following in your diet: flaxseeds, walnuts, fatty fish (like salmon, sardines, herring and mackerel), grass-fed beef, chia seeds, butternuts, soybeans, shrimp and roe.
3. Get plenty of vitamin C, vitamin A and zinc to support growth and maintain integrity of the intestinal cells.
Vitamins and minerals are crucial to the body’s ability to function properly, including healing itself after injury (and, yes, we do consider a leaky gut to be a kind of injury). Vitamin C, vitamin A and zinc are co-factors (i.e., helper substances) in the processes that generate new cells and keep existing cells healthy. Therefore, getting plenty of these micronutrients is essential to maintain a healthy gut.
Although we immediately think of citrus fruits when we think of vitamin C, remember that it is also found in many other fruits and vegetables like papaya, bell peppers, broccoli, Brussels sprouts, strawberries, pineapple, cantaloupe and cauliflower. Vitamin A is abundant in leafy greens such as collard greens and Swiss chard, as well as orange colored foods like sweet potato, carrots, and winter squash. Great sources of zinc include oysters, beef, lamb, sesame seeds, pumpkin seeds, and legumes such as lentils and garbanzo beans. (Of course, you can also get these nutrients in a good multi-vitamin.)
4. Ingest loads of antioxidants to counteract the oxidative stress caused by inflammation in your intestine.
Antioxidants are substances that stop free radicals from causing oxidative stress in the body by giving them an electron. In other words, antioxidants are like the caring auntie that says to damage-causing free radicals, “Here have an electron, because you just aren’t yourself when you’re missing one! All better?”
The body has several different kinds of antioxidants and all of them are necessary to keep inflammation down, so be sure you are getting all of them by eating a variety of foods. The main antioxidants and their sources include:
- Vitamin C (sources mentioned above)
- Vitamin E: sunflower seeds, almonds, leafy greens and avocado
- Selenium: Brazil nuts, liver, seafood and fish
- Alpha-lipoic acid: organ meats and green vegetables
- Glutathione: grass-fed dairy and cruciferous vegetables like cauliflower and kale, as well as being produced by the body from other nutrients
- Catechins: green tea, black tea, cocoa, berries and cherries.
(As I’ve mentioned before, I will be writing a whole post about anxtioxidants and oxidative stress in the near future!)
5. Consider going gluten-free, either completely or partially.
No doubt the number of people you know who are fully or partially gluten-free is increasing, and for good reason as it relates to leaky gut. Without getting too scientific, imagine your intestine is a long tube made of bricks (the cells) and mortar (the tight junctions) and that there is a substance capable of disintegrating the mortar between the bricks. Zonulin is the tight junction “killer”, and the cells of the intestine release zonulin when exposed to gluten.
So, if you have (or think you have) a leaky gut, reducing or eliminating the gluten in your diet will remove one of the causes. Of course, there may be other causes, but if you eat a lot of gluten-containing products (like most cereals, breads, pastas, crackers, etc.), this is certainly not helping you reach your goal of a healthy and properly functioning gut!
Having a leaky gut can lead to a variety of problems throughout the body. Fortunately, as you can see, there are many steps you can take to correct it using whole food! Plus, proper care and feeding of your intestinal wall can lead to improvements in symptoms associated with other conditions as well. What could be better than that?!
To see this post as it originally appeared on Happy Living, click here. Image via UNSPLASH.
— Rodriguez, T. Gut Bacteria May Exacerbate Depression. Scientific American Mind. 2013;24(5):8-9.
— Peng X, Yan H, You Z, Wang P, Wang S. Effects of enteral supplementation with glutamine granules on intestinal mucosal barrier function in severe burned patients. Burns. 2004;30(2):135-9.
— Tapiero H, Mathé G, Couvreur P, Tew KD. Glutamine and glutamate. Biomedicine & Pharmacotherapy. 2002;56(9):446-57.
— Mokkala K, Laitinen K, Röytiöa, H. Bifidobacterium lactis 420 and fish oil enhance intestinal epithelial integrity in Caco-2 cells. Nutrition Research. 2015.
— Fasano A. Regulation of Intercellular Tight Junctions by Zonula Occludens Toxin and Its Eukaryotic Analogue Zonulin. Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences. 2000;915(1):214-22.