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What Is Leaky Gut? Why You Need to Heal Your Gut – 9 Ways to Start Immediately!

Can you heal the gut? Do gut healing diets actually work? Here’s how gut healing is possible. 

It houses 80% of your immune system, the food you eat, and your poop. The gut is the clearinghouse for your body’s health. When things aren’t running smoothly down there the answer is often to heal the leaky gut. But what is leaky gut?

When gut health is in order healthy foods impact us more, bad things impact us less, and our body can stop fighting gut inflammation and move on to more important things. It seems like almost any health problem we have from skin rashes, to stomach pain, and mental fog, the answer is “heal your gut.”

Simple strategies to help with gut healing.

But what does “heal the gut” actually mean??

You may know how to heal a cold, a headache, or a skinned knee, but how do you heal the gut?

Someone asked me that after she’d seen the advice without enough explanation a few too many times. It’s an important question to address head-on!

The basic answer is this:

Give your gut a rest!

When you’re sick with a horrible cold, fever, or stomach bug, what do you do? If you want to heal as fast as possible … you take a break and rest.

You may take immune-boosting herbs or try to knock out the nasty bugs with essential oils or homeopathy (and you definitely want to hydrate), but if you don’t slow down and rest first, recovery will be slow.

When you skin your knee a bandage helps keep dirt out and prevent your pants from re-scratching the tender skin. The gut is the same.

When the gut is bombarded with processed foods, harmful pathogens, and foods you’re sensitive or allergic to – gluten, dairy, whatever – it needs a break. It needs a rest from not just those foods, but anything else that will “scratch it” and prevent healing.

It’s like watching paint dry.

If you want the paint to dry … give it a rest before you touch it.

If you want the gut lining to heal… don’t scratch it.

This article was medically reviewed by Dr. Madiha Saeed, M.D., a board-certified family physician and best-selling author of The Holistic Rx: Your Guide to Healing Chronic Inflammation and Disease. As always, this is not personal medical advice and we recommend that you talk with your doctor.

What is Leaky Gut?

Our guts are lined with tiny, hair-like things called villi. These villi stand up so the small intestine can absorb nutrients from food, then pass them on to the bloodstream. Imagine your intestinal wall with little, jelly-fish like fingers standing tall. Like a forest of sea anemones waving in the flow of a tide pool.

intestinal villi - heal the gut

These little dudes are like the gateway from gut to blood. When villi work right, they allow the right amounts and types of nutrients to enter the bloodstream. Villi also trap less than fully digested food and attack it with enzymes so the body can finish digesting them. (source)

RELATED: How to Get Rid of Stomach Aches.

They should act like Weeble Wobbles as food passes by –  and never fall down.

If your gut is damaged you can have leaky gut symptoms like these:

  • Abdominal bloating 1-2 hours after eating
  • Less than one bowel movement a day
  • Diarrhea or constipation
  • Yeast and candida infections
  • Bad breath
  • Strong body odor
  • Increased pulse after eating
  • Sensitivity to certain foods
    (source)

When that happens,  the villi have been damaged and the line of defense between food and your body are lying down on the job.

The gateway is open.

Partially digested food, pathogens, and the wrong kinds of particles sneak in the backdoor to the bloodstream where they can wreak havoc on your immune system and cause inflammation.

leaky gut

Give it a Rest with a Gut Healing Diet 

To get villi healthy again we need to stop damaging them. Stop sending foods through the gaps that will scratch up your paint job so to speak.

This doesn’t mean you have to go on a water only diet. However it does mean you have to cut out certain foods and emphasize others. Just like you’d put a bandage over a scraped knee and don’t crawl around the floor for awhile.

Rather than experiment one by one to see which foods are your triggers, it’s easier to cut them all out, heal your gut, then reintroduce foods one at a time to see if there any sensitivities remain. Different leaky gut healing diets, like AIP and GAPS, have specific instructions for how to reintroduce certain foods.

Simple Steps to Help Heal Your Gut

Sometimes it feels like there are 100 things you have to do to get healthy.

And in reality, there are like 100 little baby steps. Let’s focus on the big picture, and break everything you can do down to nine different big-picture categories.

#1 Gut Damaging Foods to Stop Eating Right Now

The scratchy foods that bother your gut might be a little different than what bother someone else, but here are some common culprits.

Gluten  – This includes wheat, oats (which are often contaminated with gluten), rye, barley, and others. (source)

All grains – Including corn. Some leaky gut healing protocols also nix pseudograins, which include amaranth, buckwheat, and quinoa.

Dairy –Milk, soft cheeses and other unfermented dairy products. Some leaky gut healing diets allow butter, while others don’t. Some plans encourage fermented dairy, like yogurt, while others say stay away. This will depend on if you’re sensitive/allergic to all dairy, even fermented.

Sugar – White processed sugar, maple syrup, cane sugar, and any sugar in all forms, including high sugar fruits. The GAPS and AIP diet allow some raw honey in moderation. (source)

Nightshades – This class of foods includes peppers (including cayenne and paprika seasoning), tomatoes, eggplant, potatoes (not sweet potatoes though), tomatillos, goji berry, and pimentos. (source)

Beans and legumes – These are high in starches, carbs, and other things hard for the gut to digest, especially for those with candida issues. The GAPS diet allows only green beans and fermented navy beans, while AIP recommends no beans at all. And peanuts are technically a legume, so they’re out too (at least at first).

Cookies, beans, bread, almonds, and cashews are all difficult to digest.

Nuts and seeds – The main gut healing diets eliminate all nuts and seeds at first, but some can be reintroduced later.

Fruit – Fruit is packed with fiber and can be a good source of nutrition, but it’s also high in sugar. For a leaky gut healing diet and especially for those who have candida, it’s best to skip most fruits for now.

Vegetable oil – Canola, soy, corn and other processed, refined oils are big sources of inflammation in the body. Studies have shown the high Omega-6 content in unsaturated vegetable oils have lead to serious health issues, like cancer and obesity. Sources: 1, 2

Processed junk food – If your great-great-grandma wouldn’t recognize it as food, chances are your gut won’t either. This includes processed meats like lunch meat and salami, which have been linked with damage and increased cancer risk.

Alcohol – Even moderate amounts of alcohol can cause significant gut damage. Researchers also found it feeds bad bacteria in the gut, so there’s more of it to slip through the damaged gut lining. While a glass of wine does have some health benefits, gut health experts recommend to skip it for now.

CaffeineCaffeine messes with our adrenal glands and cortisol levels, which can then effect the endocrine system, the gut, and worsen autoimmune disease. This includes coffee, chocolate, tea, and energy drinks. While caffeine is generally considered anti-inflammatory (yay!) coffee is more complicated.

Our genes may play a role in who benefits from coffee, and who sees damage and inflammation. Bottom line: skip (or greatly reduce) caffeine on a leaky gut healing diet.

#2 Got Candida?

Sugar cravings, digestive issues, fungal infections … these are all signs candida may be the culprit. Candida is naturally found in our gut, but when things get out of balance it can take over and cause problems. You can do a quick saliva candida test to see.

Heal Your Gut, one of my sources, demonstrates:

Simple saliva candida yeast test find out what gut healing you need

If you have candida overgrowth, it can help to nix fungus-promoting foods like cheese, mushrooms, vinegar, and more and add more raw garlic to your diet. You can also add in probiotic strains specifically for candida overgrowth.

#3 Does Histamine Not Play Nice With You?

If you have candida issues many leaky gut health gurus recommend low carb diets and maybe stay away from fermented food and vinegar. This is also true for people who have problems with histamine. Headaches, dizziness, nausea, sneezing, congestion, and fatigue are some signs of a histamine intolerance.

Still not sure? Dr. Amy Myers details how to know if you have histamine issues and what to avoid here. These foods are some of the top culprits.

  • Anything fermented: Alcohol, sauerkraut, vinegar, yogurt, kombucha, etc.
  • Cured or smoked meats
  • Tomatoes, avocado, eggplant and spinach.
  • Dried fruit
  • Cow milk
  • Nuts
I can’t tell you how many doctors have told me skin issues like eczema likely aren’t related to food. Dr Shiela Kilbane is convinced otherwise. In this interview I talked to her about how she became convinced, and how eliminating one food can make a HUGE difference for eczema.

This article was medically reviewed by Dr. Sheila Kilbane, M.D. of Infinite Health in Charlotte, NC, and founder of Healthy Kids, Happy Moms.

#4 Gut Damaging Toxins to Avoid

There’s more to this gut healing thing than food. Toxins hide in household cleaners and skincare products and can wreck havoc on the gut. Endocrine disruptors from plastics and certain chemicals change what’s in our gut and how well our gut works. Scientists now even point to light at night as a strong endocrine disruptor! Sources: 1, 2

Here are some non-food things to avoid.

  • Food that comes wrapped in plastic. This is easier when we avoid processed foods!
  • Conventional cleaning products
  • Toxic personal care products, like toothpaste, soap, deodorant, etc.
  • Drugs and antibiotics which have a major impact on gut health.
  • Avoid blue light at night from screens

Want to be able to easily refer back to this list of gut-healing steps so you don’t forget any of the actionable tips?

PRINT ME - Heal Your Gut Checklist

I made a printable checklist of what to seek out and what to avoid to promote gut healing, and I’d love to send it to you!

#5 Gut Healing Foods to Focus On

Step one is take away the scratchy, irritating foods. Step two is add in nourishing, gut healing foods to repair the damage. Here’s what you need to focus on to heal leaky gut syndrome.

Fermented Foods

Yes, I know I just got done talking about candida and histamine, but fermented foods can also be great for healing leaky gut. They’re a cheap, natural source of probiotics the gut needs. Some good options are sauerkraut, fermented veggies, and fermented dairy.

If you have issues with candida or histamine then it’s recommended to skip these though. Different healing diets allow fermented dairy, others skip it in the beginning stages, while others say to skip it altogether.

Lots of Liquids

Our kidneys need enough water to do their job and eliminate toxins in the body. Not enough water and constipation can become an issue too, which is another key way the body gets rid of toxins. Water, herbal tea, and bone broth are all excellent options.

mug of bone broth

Try to stay away from anything sugary (like soda or juice), alcohol, and caffeine. Homemade bone broth (not chicken flavored water in a box from the store) is fabulous for healing the gut. Broth is high in minerals, gelatin (use the coupon KS10 for 10% off!), and nutrients for leaky gut repair.

Healthy Fats

Fat was good, then it was bad, now it’s good again? Certain vegetable oils, like hydrogenated ones, are inflammatory and hard on the body. However, good fats are important for healing the gut.

Saturated animal fats from pastured or grass-fed animals are high in anti-inflammatory Omega 3 and have been the backbone of traditional eating for centuries. Minimally processed vegetable oils are also excellent choices.

The GAPS diet allows butter if tolerated, and both GAPS and AIP encourage ghee or clarified butter.

Here are some healthy fats to focus on.

  • Coconut oil
  • Olive oil
  • Ghee or clarified butter
  • Lard and tallow from pasture-raised animals
  • Butter (maybe, see above)

Vegetables

Vegetables seem to be the backbone of any healthy eating plan and a gut healing diet is no exception. Green vegetables and seaweeds are high in chlorophyll to help the body cleanse toxins. And sulphur rich vegetables, like garlic, onion, broccoli, cauliflower, kale, and cabbage, help our body make glutathione, our main drainage antioxidant.

It’s best to stay away from starchy veggies which feed candida and are hard on a healing gut though, like potatoes, beets, and parsnips.

Fruit

While fruit does have health benefits, it’s also high in sugar, which spells trouble for healing leaky gut. Low sugar citrus fruits like lemons and limes are helpful though since they’re high in the antioxidant vitamin C and cleansing. Low sugar, antioxidant rich berries are another good option in moderation and include raspberries and blueberries.

Start Fresh

Healing the gut is a lot like reverting to being a baby – you hardly eat anything and then add gentle, soft things one food at a time. Except most babies eat grains first…unless they follow a more traditional baby diet. My last baby’s first foods were bone broth, soft-cooked eggs, and avocados – perfect gut-healing foods.

It allows your gut to start over.

#6 Supplements and Herbs for Healing the Gut

You don’t need all of these supplements by any means, but they all can offer some leaky gut healing benefits. The digestive system starts long before our colon begins, so addressing issues further up the line (like heartburn from low stomach acid), is a necessary piece of the puzzle.

Supplements to Increase Glutathione:

Herbs for Cooking and Supplements

These herbs are a nutritious addition when used in culinary amounts in food and great for a healthy, happy gut. It’s easy to throw together a list of helpful herbs, but everyone is different and not every medicinal herb is the best fit for everyone. It’s important to do your research and/or talk with a natural health practitioner before you take any herb in large, therapeutic doses.

spices and herbs for gut healing include cloves, parsley, paprika, turmeric, black pepper

Some Quality Probiotics

Some of these I’ve used, some I’m planning to use, and some have been recommended by friends and professionals alike. It’s good to remember a few things about probiotics: 1. People should get different colonies of probiotics, so switching brands/strains every so often (6 weeks?) is good practice. 2. What works great for one person’s needs doesn’t always work for another. 

I’ve personally tried:

  • Just Thrive Probiotics – this one can be taken during antibiotics and not be rendered ineffective, which almost all other probiotics are! It’s the top-recommended probiotic overall by Paleo Mom Sarah Ballantyne. 😮 (Be sure to use the code Katie15 for 15% off; also found on Amazon and from Perfect Supplements where you can use the coupon KS10 for 10% off!)
  • Seed Daily Synbiotic – the new player in the field but recommended by superstars like Chris Kresser for its unique probiotic/prebiotic synergy. Here’s my full review including a number of surprises for my thinking and a 15% off code! 
  • Note: If you’re struggling with digestion, especially constipation, or you feel like you really need to populate your gut with healthy probiotics, I would recommend Saccharomyces Boulardii in addition to any other you choose (except any above which include this strain). Saccharomyces Boulardii is research-proven to get through the digestive tract without being killed, which is rare. 
  • Balance One probiotics with a unique time-release formula (use the code KITCHENS15 at either Balance One’s site or even Amazon to save 15% either place! Wow! Use the code at checkout on Amazon btw.)

For Little Ones (we use all of these):

  • Mary Ruth’s liquid probiotic is a liquid probiotic that doesn’t need to be refrigerated and tastes like…nothing! It’s my new favorite for administering to kids! (Use code KCRF15 for 15% off!)
  • WellBelly by WellFuture (9 strains of probiotics in apple and banana carrier – it’s a powder)
  • Buddies in my Belly probiotic powder (2 strains of probiotics + potato starch carrier and prebiotics) or chewable tablets

Recommended by experts I trust:

Digestive Herbs for gut healing 

These herbs stimulate and tone the digestive system and are considered safe for most people. Burdock and dandelion are also prebiotics that feed beneficial gut bacteria.

#7 Healthy Habits to Start (or Keep Doing!) for Healing the Gut

Regular exercise is important, but it’s also helpful to heal a leaky gut. Try low-intensity options like walks, yoga, or interval-style workouts for no more than 20 minutes.

Chill out

According to Harvard medical school “stress can trigger and worsen gastrointestinal pain and other symptoms, and vice versa.” Relaxation techniques, prayer, deep breathing, and mediation can all help calm a racing mind and relieve stress.

Here’s a helpful technique from Live Pain Free:

Live Pain Free stress relieving workout example

Catch Some Zzz’s

Without enough sleep our body can’t make the repairs it needs to be healthy, but it also has a direct impact on our gut health. Our circadian rhythms and gut microbiome are connected and when that natural rhythm is disrupted our gut health suffers.

It works the other way around too. When our gut is out of whack, it can make it hard for us to get quality sleep.

#8 Jumpstart Gut Healing With Drainage Pathway Support

When your liver and digestive system are overloaded with toxins, it can be hard to heal. Here are some simple ways to support your drainage pathways and jumpstart a gut healing plan.

Phew! Was that 100 little steps to take to work on gut healing yet? It might be getting close…and if you’d like more, experts will walk you through it:

#9 Programs and Resources to Heal Your Gut

I’m guessing about every adult in America (and most kids too!) would benefit from some gut-healing protocols. But you don’t have to do this alone or make things up as you go along.

There are a few different diet programs formulated specifically to give guts a rest or heal them. Some are meant to be temporary until you heal and others people with chronic diseases may need to follow forever.

Gut Thrive in 5 is a program that was developed by a clinical and holistic nutritionist who used her years of experience and thousands of clients to figure out how to package up expensive one-on-one custom protocols into a program that can be successfully accomplished by people at a distance through this online course.Gut Thrive in 5 is the program my husband and I are using to improve our decent health to much more (we hope) optimal health. It’s  developed by a clinical and holistic nutritionist who used her years of experience and thousands of clients to figure out how to package up expensive one-on-one custom protocols into a program that can be successfully accomplished by people at a distance through this online course.

Some recommended strategies, like the GAPS diet, may take over a year to complete. Many others are only 3-4 weeks… very doable.

The main gut healing diets are:

  • GAPS (Gut and Psychology Syndrome) Diet
  • SCD Diet
  • Maker’s Diet
  • AIP (Autoimmune Paleo)

I cover how those gut healing diets compare here.

You can check out a super interview I did with two young women who healed their guts via the Paleo diet and had incredible health transformations HERE, and if you want to feed your science geek brain, read more about the microbiome and gut health HERE.

If you want to try a grain-free or gut-healing diet, these resources might help you:

Have you ever been told you should heal your gut? Have you ever tried to clean your digestion up?

The next obvious question…”How do you know when your gut is healed?

Want to be able to easily refer back to this list of gut-healing steps so you don’t forget any of the actionable tips?

PRINT ME - Heal Your Gut Checklist

I made a printable checklist of what to seek out and what to avoid to promote gut healing, and I’d love to send it to you!

Simple Steps to Heal Your Gut - You Can Start Today!

Sources Used on Healing the Gut:

15 thoughts on “What Is Leaky Gut? Why You Need to Heal Your Gut – 9 Ways to Start Immediately!”

  1. My daughter was just diagnosed with Drug-induced lupus, metabolic dysfunction due to nutrient deficiencies, malabsorption, gastrointestinal dysfunction and dysbiosis. It is difficult to maintain a healthy diet with so many foods to eliminate.

    1. Hi Clarrisa,
      My daughter was diagnosed with Celiac disease & malabsorption, gastrointestinal dysfunction. Most everything she was eating was killing her and ruining her childhood. She is now grain free, not just gluten free. We also found that most all the additives to preserve foods are also made from grains. She only eats simple foods (fresh fruit & veggies, meat with no additives for color, and raw milk) She is slowly healing, but clearly healing. We have hope for her health now. She says it is all worth the sacrifices so that she is not sick daily. It’s not as difficult as one might think to make these changes when the alternative was severe illness. She is also seeing a naturalpath for additional treatments and chinese herbs for healing.

      1. Sherri,
        Phew, what a relief to know that she is healing and there is hope! I can’t imagine how you all felt when food was just painful and awful for her. Good for you to have found the right path, and thank you so much for sharing your story! 🙂 Katie

  2. I was on a paleo diet for 4 months and felt immensely better during and after it. I did this after finding out I have a candida overgrowth and probably leaky gut. It helped but did not heal all the way. This was 2 years ago and I am still gluten free, but now have grains. I would like to finish the healing process, but it takes a lot of work. I have a couple of amalgam fillings that need replacing before I can completely detox. I also found that during the 4 months of paleo I was so busy sorting things out preparing food that it was difficult to do much else. I homeschool 3 kids and luckily I did the paleo portcol during summer.
    I just had a bad reaction to corn, which I new I was sensitive to, but i’ve never had vomiting due to food. I really need to do some healing! Bone broth is hard to do because I have a hard time getting good chickens;(

    1. I hear you, Farhaana, it is SO much work! I think bone broth is even a good thing with conventional chickens. Sometimes better to have “good” even if it’s not “ideal.” You can also buy gelatin or collagen and add it to anything you cook. Best of luck to you! 🙂 katie

  3. The spit test is not at all accurate for checking for candida. On a personal note, according to the spit test I have candida but not according to PCR testing.
    http://renegadehealth.com/blog/2011/06/30/is-the-candida-spit-test-accurate

  4. can u tell us a bit more about infant probiotics? Can I give my baby probiotics before weaning him? which ones are safe in your opinion?

    1. Absolutely hf-m’s mom – I wrote a whole post about and do give my baby the WellBelly product, ever since he’s had food to mix it in (still nursing at 11mo). http://www.kitchenstewardship.com/2015/06/29/baby-might-need-probiotics/ 🙂 Katie

  5. Hi Katie,
    Quick question…I read through your elimination list and most of them I’m already doing… Can you provide a list of what we SHOULD be bringing into our diets in order to heal our guts? For example, if we eliminate gluten and wheat, what can we substitute in their place? Same for starchy veges?

    Also, after our guts a healed which of the elimination items can we “re introduce”? Or should we begin to live a lifestyle that is free from these items…for good?!

    Thanks!

    1. Dana,
      It feels like a few different issues to tackle….

      1. foods to eat to HEAL the gut – includes bone broth, gelatin, fermented foods – everything under “here’s what you add.”
      2. If you are looking for something to substitute for omitting wheat in particular, there are lots of gluten-free recipes that would suffice. To sub for grains, you really just eat more vegetables, or perhaps a good grain-free baked good with coconut flour. For starchy vegs, non-starchy vegs like sweet potatoes, greens, etc.
      3. If you can get your gut healed, many people can reintroduce foods, but some can’t. It’s really variable based on your body’s needs. I’d peek at the GAPS diet to see how things are reintroduced in that diet; will give you a gauge about what comes first.

  6. New to this but the time is NOW to be gluten free. I feel like an alcoholic giving up the drink, so dependent am I to bread and toast and pastries, and…

  7. In true “baby steps” spirit! Thanks, Katie! I know my whole family could benefit from some gut-healing. But GAPS seems so overwhelming for our current season of life, and a bit extreme given we don’t have any big health concerns right now. Thanks for giving me a springboard of ideas to gently give our guts a boost! 🙂

  8. Are all of these suggestions safe during pregnancy? Is there anything special to know about cleansing the gut during pregnancy?

    1. That’s a good question Mindy – I usually hear people say pregnancy isn’t the right time for a CLEANSE, and you’d want to look up each herb, for example, individually. The food things should be okay – just cutting and including – as long as you’re staying balanced, hydrated, and getting enough protein. But I definitely didn’t write this with pregnancy in mind and am not a health professional, so please check with your provider before making any major changes while expecting. 🙂 Katie

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