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Digestive Health

How do I know if I have a leaky gut?

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Reader question: I keep hearing the term "leaky gut". What does that mean and how do I know if I have one?

Ashley’s answer: Let's start with the basics. Your “gut” (that is, your digestive tract) is a tube that runs from your mouth to your anus, and just like any tube, it can develop a leak. Think of a car tire: a small leak might go undetected for years, and aside from a little air escaping, it seems like no big deal. But if you hit a bump the wrong way--bam! A major incident can occur as the tire blows open.

Your gut tube acts the same way. Your gut lining is designed to let certain things pass in and out (so yes, the analogy has some microscopic holes in it!) but the shape and size of those particles that can pass through the gut lining are carefully regulated. Today we know that many things affect the health of our gut, especially its lining. Stress, medications, and environmental toxins stand out as the big ones that impact your gut and can make it more "leaky". 

What leaky means here is that the lining separates to allow for larger particles, like bacteria and proteins, to escape or enter. When this happens, the body realizes that some things are going where they aren't allowed. The problem is that your body doesn’t get to them soon enough, and it leaks its distress through skin rashes, heating up after eating, bloating, and other seeming “allergic” reactions. Most of the time, this occurs when you eat foods with animal or plant protein. 

Wondering how to know if you're getting enough protein? Find out here.

How can you tell you have a leaky gut? Your best bet is to work with a dietitian or a doctor familiar with that diagnosis. There are tests you can take (though some aren't covered by your insurance) to help the practitioners diagnose you. Then, you can work with a registered dietitian like me to develop a nutrient-dense food plan that will help you not just avoid common triggers but actually heal the gut lining.

Too often patients seek out ways to reduce the symptoms without plugging the leak, so to speak. Over the last ten years, I have seen so many more patients with leaky gut; it’s frustrating, but a diet of mostly organic whole foods can help to prevent it without relying on medications. Hope this helps!  

Are you getting too much protein? Here's how to tell.

Chewing over a food quandary? Send it to AskAshley@Prevention.com.

Ashley Koff is a registered dietitian, Qualitarian, nutrition expert, and co-author of Mom Energy:  A Simple Plan to Live Fully Charged (Hay House; 2011) as well as Recipes for IBS (Fair Winds Press; 2007).