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Are you struggling with Lyme disease and typical Lyme symptoms such as brain fog, joint pain, chronic fatigue, skin issues, or food sensitivities? Lyme disease is known to trigger this collection of symptoms. However, did you know that another critical and often overlooked health condition called “leaky gut” can co-occur with Lyme disease, exacerbating these symptoms?
“Leaky gut” is the colloquial term for “increased intestinal permeability,” a phenomenon in which gaps develop between the cells that line the small intestine. These gaps allow substances to escape from the gut into the bloodstream, triggering an inflammatory response by the immune system that adversely affects nearly every organ of the body. In my clinical practice, I often find leaky gut to be a significant problem for my clients with Lyme disease, as well as other environmental illnesses, such as mold illness. Repairing leaky gut is essential for restoring whole-body health, including promoting Lyme disease and mold illness recovery. Read on to learn about seven foods and nutrients you should include in your diet to support leaky gut repair.
What is Leaky Gut?
Usually, the cells of a healthy intestine are bound together by proteins, creating a resilient barrier that prevents substances from “leaking” from the inside of the intestine (the lumen) into the systemic blood circulation. However, various factors we encounter in our modern-day environment can “punch” holes between our intestinal cells, disrupting the proteins that typically bind these cells together. Once gaps develop between our intestinal cells, substances such as food proteins and bacterial byproducts can leak from the inside of the intestine into our bloodstream. The immune system recognizes these substances as foreign and launches an inflammatory attack against them.
A variety of factors in our modern-day lives increase intestinal permeability, including:
Chronic stress (1)
A processed Western diet (2)
Unaddressed gluten sensitivity (3)
Antibiotic usage (4)
NSAID usage (5)
Without an intact intestinal barrier, your body can become an “inflammation factory,” with inflammatory substances from your gut continuously entering your systemic circulation and triggering an immune response. This ongoing inflammation damages tissues and organs and distracts your immune system from handling more critical problems, such as acute pathogen exposures or chronic infections like Lyme disease. Therefore, restoring the intestinal barrier is essential for getting inflammation under control.
Symptoms of leaky gut include:
Skin irritations, such as eczema
How is Leaky Gut Diagnosed?
If you ask your typical gastroenterologist to test you for leaky gut, they will likely scoff at the idea and tell you that leaky gut doesn’t exist. This is frankly inaccurate; we have a plethora of scientific research indicating that increased intestinal permeability is a significant and common phenomenon and plays a role in numerous health conditions, ranging from neurodegenerative disorders to autoimmune diseases. (6, 7) That being said, your gastroenterologist may not be able to help you determine whether leaky gut is a problem.
Fortunately, functional medicine testing can help us determine whether leaky gut is at large. For example, in my clinical nutrition practice, I use a stool test called the Gut Zoomer to assess imbalances in digestion, gut inflammation, and the gut microbiota. However, this test also includes zonulin, a marker of intestinal permeability. Another more specific test for assessing intestinal permeability is the Precision Point Diagnostics Advanced Intestinal Barrier Assessment.
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7 Foods and Nutrients That Support Leaky Gut Repair
Eating a nutrient-dense, whole foods-based Lyme disease diet is the first step you should take to heal leaky gut if you have Lyme disease. If you haven’t already read my article series on how to eat to support Lyme disease recovery, you can read Part 1 here. However, our gastrointestinal systems also require specific nutrients to maintain a resilient intestinal barrier. Furthermore, the incorporation of particular foods can further fortify the intestinal barrier.
Vitamin A (comprised of three fat-soluble vitamins – retinol, retinal and retinoic acid) is essential for the maintenance of the intestinal barrier and immune tolerance in the gut, meaning it helps the gut mucosal immune system tolerate substances that are relatively harmless or beneficial, such as foods, while defending us against harmful substances, such as pathogens. (8) True vitamin A (retinol, retinal, and retinoic acid) are found only in animal foods, including egg yolks, liver, and fatty cold-water fish such as sardines and salmon. The vitamin A precursor beta-carotene is found in plant foods but must be converted into vitamin A in the body. This conversion process is inefficient in many people, necessitating dietary intake of vitamin A.
Vitamin D deficiency promotes barrier dysfunction in the intestine, rendering the gut (and the rest of the body) more susceptible to harmful bacteria and other microbes. (9) Conversely, vitamin D replenishment may help restore intestinal barrier integrity. (10) You should ideally maintain a vitamin D level between 40 and 60 ng/mL. It is essential to test your vitamin D level at least twice a year to ensure it stays within this range, particularly during the winter months when sun exposure is limited.
Like vitamin D deficiency, zinc deficiency promotes a leaky gut. Conversely, zinc supplementation modifies tight junctions (the proteins that bind intestinal cells together) and improves the integrity of the intestinal barrier. (11) The best dietary sources of zinc are animal foods, including oysters, red meat, poultry, and seafood. Certain plant foods, such as sprouted pumpkin seeds, provide zinc but not with the same degree of bioavailability as animal foods.
L-glutamine is an amino acid that is an essential fuel for epithelial cells of the small intestine. It also helps maintain the tight junction proteins that bind small intestinal cells together, repairing and maintaining gut barrier functions. (12) L-glutamine is rapidly used up in the small intestine during times of physiological stress (including mental/emotional stress, since this type of stress has real physiological impacts!), necessitating replenishment through L-glutamine supplementation and whole foods that contain glutamine, such as bone broth and gelatin. L-glutamine supplementation has been shown to suppress pro-inflammatory signaling in the intestine, allowing it to repair itself. (13) When supplementing with L-glutamine, I prefer to use a supplement that combines L-glutamine with botanicals that have soothing effects on the intestine, such as aloe vera and larch arabinogalactan.
Arabinogalactan is a carbohydrate molecule consisting of arabinose and galactose monosaccharides. Essentially, it is a type of starch that is indigestible in our small intestines but can be broken down by beneficial bacteria in our large intestines. Arabinogalactan is found in certain foods, such as carrots and radishes, but is present in the highest concentration in the larch tree. Supplementation with this starch molecule improves intestinal barrier function and increases the abundance of anti-inflammatory gut bacteria. (14, 15)
Green tea contains phytochemicals, such as catechins, that reduce intestinal inflammation and alleviate leaky gut. (16) However, it is crucial to be selective about the type of green tea you consume. Be sure to choose an organic green tea that doesn’t come in plastic tea bags; you don’t want microplastics leaching from plastic tea bags into your cup of tea! My preferred brand of green tea is Pique Tea; try their Sun Goddess Matcha or Sencha green teas. Their teas are certified organic, specially processed to optimize their polyphenol contents, and are rigorously screened for harmful heavy metals, pesticide residues, and mycotoxins.
Fermented foods, such as sauerkraut and yogurt, provide probiotic microorganisms and probiotic metabolites that support a healthy, robust intestinal barrier, reversing leaky gut. (17) Try to incorporate fermented foods into your diet daily, such as sauerkraut, kimchi, coconut yogurt, beet kvass, and low-sugar kombucha. If you can’t tolerate fermented foods, you may first need to do more work on balancing your gut microbiota.
In addition to consuming foods that support intestinal barrier healing, we need to remove foods that compromise the intestinal barrier. Common dietary contributors to leaky gut include gluten (in those who are gluten sensitive), refined carbohydrates, and industrial seed oils, such as canola, corn, and soybean oils. (18, 19, 20) It is also crucial to avoid emulsifiers (such as polysorbate 80 and carboxymethylcellulose), common additives in processed foods, as these ingredients have also been shown to exacerbate leaky gut. (21)
Limiting added sugars and refined carbohydrates is also crucial for optimal gut barrier function because these foods promote the growth of Candida albicans and other opportunistic yeasts. Candida albicans and other forms of fungal overgrowth can contribute to a leaky gut (22), so we need to keep these critters in check in our guts. I like to use a combination of stool testing, such as the Gut Zoomer, and organic acids testing (such as the GPL OAT) to assess for yeast and fungal overgrowths. It is important to work with a qualified healthcare practitioner when yeast or other fungal overgrowth is suspected, rather than doing DIY treatments oneself.
A strong, resilient intestinal barrier will keep substances that belong only in your gut exactly where they belong, minimizing inflammation and allowing your immune system to prioritize more important concerns.
Do you have Lyme disease and suspect that you may be struggling with leaky gut? Consider working with me! I am currently accepting new clients in my clinical nutrition practice. If you’re interested in diving deep into improving your health by working one-on-one with me, reach out to me here to schedule your discovery call. The discovery call will allow us to meet and talk together to decide if my nutrition services are the right fit for your needs. I look forward to connecting with you!