‘Leaky gut’ is often thrown around by health practitioners. ‘Increased intestinal permeability’ is a fancy term that doctors refer to in relation to the gut lining. What you might not know is that these two things are the same. But what is it, and how do you deal with leaky gut in kids?
Watch the video or keep reading below to learn more about healing leaky gut in kids.
What is leaky gut?
Leaky gut is when the lining of the digestive tract becomes damaged. This allows undigested food particles, toxins and bacteria to leak through into the bloodstream. This can set off the immune system, causing inflammation and a full immune response.
Our intestinal wall is just one cell thick – the same thickness as your eyelids. But these gut wall cells are like bricks with mortar to hold them together and keep them tight.
When the lining is damaged, the mortar between the bricks loosens, allowing things to leak through the other side. If something leaks through that the body doesn’t recognise as being allowed, the immune system puts the body on high alert that there are invaders.
Leaky gut is a factor in many chronic health issues, including autoimmunity, inflammatory bowel conditions, allergies, asthma, autism, ADHD and eczema. But we don’t know what comes first – the condition or the leaky gut.
Currently, there is no reliable testing for leaky gut. Some practitioners use different tests to indicate whether it might be an issue, but there is no definitive testing. This is part of why many doctors dismiss it altogether.
The signs and symptoms of leaky gut in kids (and adults!)
As there is no reliable testing for leaky gut, we need to look to the signs and symptoms that tell us it may be a problem. These signs and symptoms can be a sign of other conditions, but often leaky gut is at least involved.
Food intolerances and sensitivities – particularly those that develop quickly. It’s also common in people who become more sensitive to more foods over time.
Skin conditions – the gut is a primary organ of elimination, and skin is secondary. If the gut isn’t working optimally, the skin will pick up the slack and release more toxins from the body. This can lead to inflammatory skin concerns such as acne.
Mood imbalances – this ranges from cranky and irritable behaviour from a moody kid all the way to depression and anxiety. We now know that the gut and brain are closely linked, and the gut produces many of our feel-good brain chemicals. If the gut isn’t functioning correctly, the nervous system and brain will be affected.
Autoimmune conditions – these conditions occur when the immune system is confused, and attacks its own organs. For example, Hashimoto’s attacks the thyroid, Coeliac affects the gut and rheumatoid arthritis affects the joints. Some, such as lupus, affect the whole body. Although many of these are less common in kids, they are on the rise.
The big 5 childhood conditions – autism, ADHD, eczema, asthma and allergies all have links to leaky gut in kids. I covered this in more detail in a previous blog post – you can read it here.
Common causes of leaky gut in kids
There are many factors that contribute to the development of leaky gut in kids. There is some evidence that suggests some people are genetically predisposed to gut health concerns including leaky gut. But the majority of factors fall under diet and lifestyle choices.
In my experience, the diet is the biggest contributor to leaky gut in kids. There are foods that can directly damage the gut wall, as well as foods that can cause inflammation. But there are also nutrients lacking from the average diet that can protect the gut lining.
When it comes to problem foods, sugar, processed foods, wheat and gluten are the biggest culprits. Wheat and gluten can be abrasive on the gut lining, particularly for those who are predisposed to gut issues.
Another issue can be any foods that you are intolerant or sensitive to. Consuming these can increase inflammation in the gut, throw out the balance of good bacteria, and leave the lining vulnerable.
When it comes to protective nutrients for leaky gut, the most important is fibre. Healthy bacteria are fed by prebiotic fibres, which they break down. This breakdown produces short-chain fatty acids such as butyrate. Butyrate is an energy source for the cells of the gut lining, and also has anti-inflammatory actions.
Unfortunately, most people don’t consume enough fibre in their diet. Many kids consume low levels of fibre, as their diet is lacking in fibre-rich wholefoods such as vegetables, nuts, seeds, legumes and wholegrains.
There are many environmental and lifestyle factors that can leave the gut vulnerable to leaky gut, including:
- Medications, including antibiotics, steroid medications and antacids. These affect the microbiome and leave the lining exposed to damage
- Toxins and chemicals such as alcohol, anti-bacterial care products, pesticides and preservatives. Many of these can’t be completely avoided, but can be minimised
- Stress. You might not think of your kids as being stressed, but sudden changes and busy schedules can cause high levels of stress.
How to heal leaky gut naturally
When it comes to leaky gut, particularly with kids, it is best to work with a practitioner. This can help you to pinpoint the issues contributing to leaky gut, and support you as you make changes. But there are a few ways that you can support the body while it heals the gut lining.
Eliminate problematic factors
When healing the gut, you’ll want to avoid foods that are causing problems. This means reducing sugar, modern wheat, and high-gluten products. Instead, switch in other wholegrains such as quinoa, buckwheat and brown rice.
You’ll also want to identify and eliminate any foods that are causing inflammation due to intolerance. This is not a long-term approach – I don’t believe in strict elimination diets – but taking them out short-term can be helpful while healing the gut. If you’re not sure which foods could be a problem, it’s best to work with a practitioner.
Seed and feed
As the good gut bacteria are essential for a healthy gut lining, we want to seed and feed with probiotics and prebiotics.
For probiotics, you can include foods such as sauerkraut, coconut kefir, kombucha and natural yoghurt. If your child won’t eat fermented foods, you can use a supplement instead. The best probiotic depends on your child’s specific needs, so seek professional advice.
These probiotics then need to be feed with prebiotics. Prebiotics are found in plenty of wholefoods such as fruit, vegetables, nuts and seeds. Cooking and cooling potatoes, rice and pasta can increase the prebiotic content. Potato salad is a great option if you have a child who doesn’t like other veggies!
If you have a fussy eater, there are supplements you can use. One I like to use is green banana starch – you can add it to their smoothies and baked treats.
Repair the lining
Rebalancing the gut bacteria will support healing over the long-term. But the lining can heal much faster if you include nutrients that repair the lining. Zinc and glutamine are two nutrients to consider. Collagen is another good option – it is found in bone broth, and you can find it in supplement form.
Other herbs and nutrients can rebuild the mucus layer and restore balance to the lining. This is a highly individual approach, and requires a practitioner to prescribe the best options.
Want to learn more about how to heal your child’s gut issues, including leaky gut? Download my free Kids Gut Health ebook today.