On Your Health

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What is Leaky Gut? Can Dietary Changes Help?

Although the science is still up in the air, the expression "leaky gut syndrome" is getting a lot of attention on blogs and alternative health sites. This unpleasant-sounding proposed digestive condition is also known as "increased intestinal permeability," in which the lining of the intestines has become more porous.

Is Leaky Gut Syndrome Real?

Inside our bellies there is an extensive intestinal lining which forms a barrier to control what gets absorbed into the bloodstream. The thinking goes, if an unhealthy gut is "leaking," it may have tiny holes that allow toxins and bacteria to leak into the blood, which some believe can lead to a weakened immune system.

According to an article in the Harvard Health Blog, these toxins cause an autoimmune response and "trigger inflammation in the gut and throughout the body and cause a chain reaction of problems, such as bloating, gas, cramps, food sensitivities, fatigue, headaches, and joint pain, to name a few."

Even though inflammation is a body’s natural response to infection or injury, it can overreact and affect healthy parts of the body. This is the case in many autoimmune conditions.

Some scientists believe that modifications in the intestinal lining and inflammation from food sensitivities may play a role in the development of several common chronic diseases such as celiac disease, Crohn’s disease, irritable bowel syndrome and rheumatoid arthritis (although there is not yet significant scientific evidence to prove a direct correlation with all autoimmune conditions).

It’s important to note the mainstream medical community does not view leaky gut syndrome as a true medical diagnosis. But on the horizon, there is scientific evidence beginning to show that leaky gut may be associated with multiple health problems. Another Harvard Health Blog article says that leaky gut "is somewhat new and most of the research occurs in basic sciences. However, there is growing interest to develop medicine that may be used in patients to combat the effects of this problem."

Can You Treat Leaky Gut Through Diet?

Genes play a role in how permeable our intestines are, but a person’s diet also plays a large part. The Harvard Health Blog says, "If leaky gut is a possibility, he or she can try several strategies to help relieve symptoms and reduce inflammation. The most common is to review your diet and eliminate known dietary causes of inflammation," such as alcohol, processed foods, refined sugars, and foods that commonly cause food sensitivities like gluten and dairy.

The Autoimmune Protocol

The Autoimmune Protocol, abbreviated to AIP, is a complementary approach to chronic disease management focused on providing the body with the right nutritional resources to eliminate unwanted inflammation and heal the gut. The goal is to put a body’s autoimmune conditions into "remission" with better eating habits.

The AIP is similar to an extreme version of the Paleo way of eating. It’s an elimination protocol to cut foods that cause inflammation while increasing intake of vitamin- and nutrient-rich foods. Gradually, certain foods previously eliminated can be reintroduced if they provide nutrition and don’t cause subsequent inflammation.

Studies have shown that the AIP is an effective treatment for IBS and potentially Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis; another study says it is effective in treating Hashimoto’s disease. Other studies say the AIP can be effective against rheumatoid arthritis.

Although the Autoimmune Protocol was designed to help personalize someone’s diet to eliminate dietary triggers for other autoimmune conditions as well, more studies are still needed to confirm its effectiveness in treating other autoimmune conditions. A study from the National Institutes of Health does say, "Single nutritional components have the capability to potently modulate autoimmune responses and inflammation," but scientists agree more research is needed.

What You Can and Can’t Eat in the Autoimmune Protocol

The AIP diet is a restricted eating plan with a focus on whole, fresh foods, but there are multiple whole foods that must be completely avoided, as well. In general, you should avoid processed foods, refined sugar, alternative sweeteners, emulsifiers and food thickeners, gluten, dairy, grains, legumes, industrial seed oils, eggs, nuts, seeds and nightshades.

Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (including ibuprofen, aspirin and naxopren sodium) should also be avoided.

There are several food groups that can be enjoyed in moderation, including fruit and natural sweeteners. To see everything you can and can’t eat, check out the infographic below.

autoimmune protocol infographic

After strictly following the Autoimmune Protocol for three to four weeks, you should slowly reintroduce restricted foods to your diet. There are several ways to reintroduce foods, although the most common practice involves reintroducing one food every five to seven days, as it can take up to 72 hours for your body to show an immune response. If your symptoms return, that food is likely a trigger for your symptoms.

Keep a food journal during the elimination process to log what elicits an autoimmune response. Make sure to monitor your energy, mood, sleeping habits, sinuses, bloating and digestion.

The Bottom Line

Healthy food can be therapeutic for a variety of conditions, but it is not always a cure. The benefits of dietary changes depend on the type of illness. Additionally, some people see improvement from avoiding just a few foods, while others require a strict regimen to see change, or they don’t see change at all.

There is no one-size-fits-all solution to inflammation and autoimmune conditions. Stress, lack of sleep, imbalanced hormones, exercise and unhealthy habits like smoking all contribute to autoimmune flares. Speak to your doctor or a registered dietitian before beginning the Autoimmune Protocol. To explore a holistic approach to health, visit Integrative Medicine practitioners at INTEGRIS.

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