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What you need to know about leaky gut

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What exactly is leaky gut, what causes it and, most importantly, what can you do about it?

The importance of gut health has been gaining traction and we’re learning more not only about the role gut health plays in general health and wellbeing, but about how the gut may not be as impermeable as once thought – and what the knock-on effects of that may be. 

What is leaky gut syndrome?

To start with, it helps to understand that the gut has a lining that’s designed to protect the contents of your gut from escaping and entering your bloodstream. In years gone by, the theory was that this lining was essentially impenetrable, consistently forming a tight barrier. 

However, it’s now thought that under some circumstances, the gut lining can actually develop cracks or holes, which – worst-case scenario – can allow partially digested food and bacteria to penetrate the tissues beneath it, and enter the bloodstream. 

This is called “increased intestinal permeability” – or leaky gut.

Is having a leaky gut bad for you?

Knowledge around this is evolving all the time, but research does suggest that by allowing bacteria to enter the blood, people living with leaky gut may have increased levels of blood markers that signify the presence of inflammation – and chronic inflammation is thought to contribute to a range of health problems.

It's thought that leaky gut has a role to play in a few different disorders of the gastrointestinal system, including irritable bowel syndrome, and may also contribute to the development of other conditions that occur beyond the digestive tract. 

Scientists are also interested in and investigating whether leaky gut may even influence mental wellbeing and cognitive health.
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What causes leaky gut?

Genetics are likely to play a significant role, but environmental and lifestyle factors do, too.

Emerging evidence suggests that eating a typical Western diet, which tends to be low in fibre and higher in added sugar and saturated fat, may increase the risk of developing leaky gut. Stress and drinking too much alcohol may also be risk factors.

How to avoid leaky gut

1. Eat a healthy diet

A healthy balanced diet helps to decrease the risk of gut-related inflammation. A healthy gut diet involves sticking to a nutritious, unprocessed diet, rich in lean proteins, healthy fats, whole grains and fruits and vegetables. 

2. Exercise regularly

Research published in the  International Journal of Sport Nutrition and Exercise Metabolism suggest that cardiovascular fitness is linked to a larger volume of a beneficial type of gut bacteria by-products.

Study author Ryan Durk told Science Daily, "These metabolic by-products help strengthen the intestinal lining and help prevent leaky gut syndrome," said Durk. He says this research reinforces the idea of "exercise as medicine."

"When we say that phrase, we think of it as meaning that exercise will help people stay healthier and live longer. But you don't think about your gut bacteria," Durk said. "We now know that exercise is crucial for increasing beneficial bacteria in the gut."

3. Feed your gut microbiome

As part of a healthy diet you should also look to include plenty of foods that support a healthy gut.

Top up your diet with probiotic containing foods such as yoghurt and fermented foods like sauerkraut and kimchi. Prebiotic foods are also essential to help feed the beneficial bacteria in the gut. Prebiotics foods include tomatoes, bananas, asparagus and leaks.