(Created as a guest post for The Paleo Parents)
If you are concerned that you may have, or could develop, a leaky gut, then changing your diet to one that protects the gut is a natural next step for you. If you are already battling health conditions related to having a leaky gut, then you will have to be more strict with your dietary choices and also address other lifestyle factors like getting good quality sleep, managing stress, finding time for low-strain exercise, and getting outside.
The first and most important thing to do to heal a leaky gut is to stop eating foods that damage and inflame the gut lining! It can take six months or more for the gut to fully heal depending on the extent of the damage, the health of the gut microflora and your individual genetics (for people with Small Intestinal Bacterial Overgrowth, recovery can take up to two years!). Until the gut is completely healthy, it is important to abstain from all grains, all legumes, and all dairy products (some people may tolerate ghee and/or butter from grass-fed sources, but I recommend leaving it out for at least a month before trying it). It is also important to avoid additives in processed foods (many of which irritate the gut) and refined sugars (which promote inflammation). Some people will also need to eliminate vegetables from the nightshade family (tomatoes, eggplants, peppers of all kinds, and especially potatoes), eliminate egg whites (I actually rinse my egg yolks before eating them), and limit nut consumption (other than coconut and macadamias). Changing your diet to avoid gut-irritating foods is critical. But, it is also important to include foods that can reduce inflammation and help heal the damaged gut.
Eat foods that reduce inflammation. It’s very important to be mindful of both your omega-6 and your omega-3 polyunsaturatedfatty acid intake. Omega-6 polyunsaturated fats, which are found in large quantities in modern vegetable oils, meat from grain-fed animals, and many nuts and seeds, increase inflammation. Omega-3 fatty acids, which are found in large quantities in wild-caught fish, pastured/free-range eggs, and meat from pastured animals, decrease inflammation. To help reduce overall inflammation and heal the gut, aim for a 1:1 ratio of omega-3 to omega-6 fatty acid intake in your diet. There are several ways of doing this: you can make sure that all of the meat in your diet is exclusively from grass-fed animals (beef, bison, goat or lamb); you can eat plenty of wild-caught seafood; and/or you can supplement with a good quality fish oil.
Vegetables are rich in anti-oxidants, vitamins and minerals which help control inflammation (and help with just about every other normal function of the body!). Eating a variety of differently colored vegetables, a variety of dark green leafy vegetables, and a variety cruciferous vegetables (broccoli, cauliflower, cabbage, turnip greens, kale, Brussels sprouts, etc.) every day will provide all of the essential vitamins and minerals in a way that is easy for the body to absorb (no more need for a multivitamin!). Fruits, especially berries, are also a good source of antioxidants, vitamins and minerals. However, most people will need to exercise some portion control with fruits due to the high sugar content. I recommend eating vegetables at every meal (it can be a bit strange getting used to eating vegetables at breakfast, but it’s amazing what a difference it makes to how you feel for the whole rest of the day!).
It is also important to make sure you are getting enough Vitamin D. You can achieve this by simply spending some time outside in the sun every day, or from eating liver once or twice per week, or from supplementing with Cod Liver Oil or Vitamin D3 supplements.
Eat foods that restore gut microflora. If you have a leaky and inflamed gut, chances are very good that your resident good bacteria are having trouble too. To help restore their numbers and their diversity, eat as many different good sources of probiotics as possible. You can do this by taking Probiotic supplements and changing brands every time you buy a bottle (the different brands all have different proprietary strains, which helps with increasing your gut microflora diversity). Even better, you can consume probiotic rich foods, like unpasteurized Sauerkraut and other unpasteurized fermented vegetables, Kombucha Tea (my personal favorite), and coconut milk Yogurt or Kefir (which can be a little harder to find in stores but very easy to make at home). All of these can be found at alternative grocery stores (like Whole Foods), and some can be found online, but all can also be made easily and inexpensively at home.
Eat foods that promote healing: As the body tries to heal itself, it’s important to provide it with plenty of good quality protein (needed to make all those new cells and connective tissues) as well as vitamins, minerals and good fats. In this way, the best way to promote healing is to eat a paleo diet that includes wild-caught fish, meat from grass-fed sources, organ meat (preferably from pastured sources), and plenty of vegetables. There are two other healing foods that are very important to include: coconut and bone broth. Antimicrobial short- and medium-chain saturated fats, like those found in coconut oil and other coconut products, help to reduce overgrowth of bad yeast, fungus and bacteria in the small intestine. Medium chain saturated fats are very gentle on the cells that line the gut since they can be passively absorbed without being broken down by digestive enzymes and used for energy without any modification. This source of easy energy is very helpful for healing the lining of the gut. Broth made from the bones of chicken, turkey, duck, beef, lamb pork and/or fish are anti-microbial, anti-inflammatory, and contain nutrients which help rebuild the integrity of the digestive tract. Most importantly, broth is rich in the amino acids proline and glycine, which help regulate digestion, reduce inflammation, and promote healing in every part of the body.
While these dietary changes may seem overwhelming, it is important to remember that making them will keep you healthy, put many diseases into remission, and prevent dozens of other diseases from developing. For the vast majority of people, using diet to prioritize gut health will mean a lifetime of good health.