Given the focus of this blog, you can imagine that I feel gut health is pretty important to overall health. This not only applies to people who are dealing with functional gastrointestinal disorders such as IBS, SIBO, and IBD, but also to health and longevity as a whole. There’s a ton of evidence linking “leaky gut” to many of the chronic diseases of aging including obesity, type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and Cancer. So, basically, most of the things that will end up killing you.
A recent paper looked at leaky gut and longevity. The paper found that disease-free centenarians living in one of the Blue Zones had lower levels of markers of leaky gut than healthy 40 year olds. In addition, when compared to 40 year olds who had just had a heart attack, markers of leaky gut in these centenarians compared even better.
I believe avoiding leaky gut is one of the best ways to avoid chronic disease and the multiple years of declining health that comes with it. This is primarily through a reduction in age-related chronic inflammation, also called “inflammaging”. Unfortunately, most people think they’re going to throw some probiotics and fiber at their gut and they’re good. This would be like believing you could grow tomatoes in weed-ridden concrete by simply throwing some seeds in it.
On the contrary, while I believe probiotics and fiber are healthy and potentially useful, lifestyle is going to be the primary driver of the pristine, weed-free, nutrient-rich soil that is your gut. So to even get those things to be useful, you need to fix lifestyle first.
But, how do you this? Welp, you’re in luck. Here are the top 9 ways you can prevent leaky gut by changing your lifestyle.
1)Optimize your circadian rhythms
Basically, every aspect of your physiology is in some way regulated by your circadian rhythms. Circadian rhythms help optimize function by translating environmental signals in to biological outputs. For example, you wake up every day because your body can anticipate when it’s time to wake up based off your habitual exposure to light, feeding, and physical activity. If this didn’t happen, going to sleep in a dark room would be terminal.
Most functions of your gut are circadian in nature, including leaky gut. Circadian disruption in mice, whether you induce it by deleting genes or changing environmental exposures, causes leaky gut. Not only does it do this by making your gut leakier at all times, it also makes it leakier than normal when you’re exposed to things that induce leaky gut, many of which you will find below. Just a note in humans, all of the chronic diseases I mentioned in the introduction typically correlate with circadian disruption.
For more on circadian rhythms and how to set up your life to take advantage of them, click the link at the bottom of this blog post.
2)Don’t make a habit of taking NSAIDS
There’s a long history of data supporting the fact that non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs, including ibuprofen, cause leaky gut. A review of the topic found that, “Virtually all studies agree that all conventional NSAIDs increase intestinal permeability in the human within 24 h of ingestion and that this is equally evident when they are taken long term.” A recent study found that this artifact of NSAID use may predispose to Non-alcoholic fatty liver disease.
Of course, this doesn’t mean that you can never take them and that you shouldn’t take them when prescribed. What it means is that you probably shouldn’t use over-the-counter medicines such as ibuprofen(Advil), aspirin, or naproxen(Aleve) on a chronic, daily basis to manage pain. Common examples include managing headaches, menstrual pain, or hangovers.
Any amount of alcohol can cause leaky gut. Really, that about sums it up. If you’re going to consume alcohol, do it wisely. Basic recommendations are to consume it in moderation, don’t consume it at night, not on back-to-back days, and don’t consume it without optimizing circadian rhythms first. A special note: Alcohol-induced leaky gut was one of the methods shown to be exacerbated by circadian disruption in the study referenced in #1 above.
This relationship has actually been observed in humans, with people working the night shift, a classic example of circadian disruption, having greater levels of intestinal permeability than day workers when exposed to alcohol.
4)Maintain a healthy weight/body mass index(BMI)
Two recent studies found a moderately strong correlation between body mass index(BMI) and measures of leaky gut in adolescents. Each study found this correlation despite using different measures of leaky gut.
The first found higher levels of lipopolysaccharide(LPS), a component of the cell wall of bacteria found in the gut, in the blood. LPS levels also correlated with elevated liver enzymes. The second study found higher levels of lipopolysaccharide-binding protein(LBP), which does exactly as its name suggest when LPS enters the blood. At any rate, maintaining a healthy weight is likely very important in preventing leaky gut.
Note: If you carry a lot of muscle mass, BMI may not be a great measure for you, body fat percentage may be better. However, for 95% of the population BMI works just fine.
5)Calorie restrict, or put another way, don’t over-consume calories
Getting people to calorie restrict is extraordinarily difficult; they certainly aren’t going to do it based on any mouse study. Fortunately, we have a human study in obese women showing that a very low calorie diet(800 calories) decreased leaky gut by 3 different measures. And before anyone jumps in and says this is probably via weight loss, the change was reversed almost immediately after increasing calories and prior to weigh regain.
In other words, high calorie intake independently of weight gain increases leaky gut, at least in obese women.
6)Get adequate sleep
Sleep is important for health for so many reasons, not the least of which is to prevent leaky gut. A study in mice found that sleep fragmentation caused leaky gut, but a return to normal sleep reversed it. This effect is believed to be due to changes in the microbiome as:
- Sleep fragmentation changed the microbiome in mice
- Leaky gut could be transferred to other mice via fecal microbiome transplant
- The microbiome and gut leakiness returned to normal upon resolution to normal sleep.
Important point: It’s perfectly normal to wake up a few times every night, particularly after each sleep cycle. That’s not the same as the sleep fragmentation used in this study.
Hyperglycemia is quickly becoming a more respected cause of leaky gut thanks in large part to a study published early last year. The researchers found that inducing hyperglycemia in mice caused leaky gut by altering the way cells in the gut process glucose. Taking it a step further, they found that hemoglobin A1c, a measure used to estimate your average glucose over the last 3 months, had a strong correlation with the amount of bacterial products that end up in the blood.
So, in a nutshell, there’s a strong argument that hyperglycemia causes leaky gut. For a closer look at the study, check out my review of the study here.
8)Consume fewer meals
Just like getting people to reduce their calorie intake is difficult, getting them to cut back on their number of meals is difficult as well. Fortunately, again, we have a human study to the rescue. The study looked at meal size and frequency in obese and lean women with a mean age of 34 years old.
What they found was that women had lower LPS levels when they consumed 2 meals than when they consumed 5. This study was strongly controlled in that the women ate exactly the same food and calories in both conditions, the only difference was the number and size of each meal. Even though lean women had lower levels of LPS in their blood during both conditions than obese women, lean women had higher LPS levels when they consumed 5 meals than when they consumed 2.
This is a pretty clear indication that consuming fewer meals reduces your risk of leaky gut.
9)Avoid toxic relationships
This may seem shocking to people, but stress in general can increase leaky gut. To illustrate this, researchers recently observed couples fighting, measured their levels of hostility, and measured the leakiness of their gut. In short, couples with more hostile encounters had greater LBP than couples with less hostile ones.
Additionally, couples with hostile encounters coupled with a history of mood disorders had elevations in inflammatory markers that came with leaky gut. So, marry wisely.
Whether you’re a biohacker looking to live a healthy life forever or someone trying to fix a damaged gut, lifestyle is the first line of defense for preventing a leaky gut. Following the 9 strategies listed above can help you prevent or reverse leaky gut. In fact, I would put a lot more weight to these behaviors than any supplements you’ll ever find.
You may notice that avoiding certain foods such as gluten or dairy are absent from the list. While those foods can be problematic for some people, I believe sensitivity to those foods may be more of a symptom of an unhealthy gut rather than a cause in the vast majority of people. I believe a big part of this may be mediated by the microbiome, which improves by correcting lifestyle and short term restriction of inflammatory foods. That said, if you have Celiac disease, don’t eat gluten.
Need help optimizing your circadian rhythms? Many people have jumped in on blocking blue light at night and time-restricted feeding, but there is so much more to circadian rhythms than just these 2 habits. How much more? I’ve put together a program that’s 16 hours of powerpoint presentation videos covering everything you need to know about optimizing your circadian rhythms. If this piques your interest, check out my Circadian Retraining Program here.