Is glutamine really all that’s required to heal a leaky gut? Or is it just another health fad?
If you google leaky gut + glutamine, you’ll be flooded with more than ten pages of articles. Most of these articles praise glutamine as a cure for leaky gut syndrome (aka intestinal permeability).
Like most fads, they start out in the realm of science. But from there, they quickly blow up into being much bigger than what was originally published in the research. It’s a bit like that game of telephone. The message at the end is often much different than the beginning.
So is glutamine legitimate?
Or is it another over-hyped natural health product?
What is leaky gut (aka, intestinal permeability)?
The gastrointestinal (GI) tract runs from the bottom of the throat (esophagus) all the way to the anus. This entire tract has a single layer of cells that separates the inside of the tract from the rest of the body. In a healthy gut, only small, specific nutrients make it from the digestive tract into our body. In a leaky gut, our body struggles to filter the good nutrients from the bad.
Separation between the inside and outside of the GI tract is very important as there are many things that can create or perpetuate inflammation if they get through the intestinal barrier. In fact, leaky gut is a prerequisite to developing an autoimmune disease.
Imagine your digestive tract is like cheese cloth. Small nutrients can make it through the cheese cloth and into our body. When we have leaky gut, our cheese cloth has large holes in it. These large holes then allow items that would normally remain in the digestive tract to enter our body. This is where problems can begin.
What causes leaky gut? (1)
Leaky gut is a lifestyle disease – it occurs because of factors under our control. These factors include:
- The food we eat,
- Stresses of our daily life,
- Bacteria we were exposed to early in life.
The number of bacteria in your large intestine can reach levels of up to one trillion per gram. Of these trillions of bacteria, most of us have about one hundred different varieties in our digestive tract. These diverse bacterial colonies must work properly for good gastrointestinal health.
In general, leaky gut can be caused by:
- Eating a diet high in processed fats and carbohydrates (ie. fast food and junk food) increases intestinal permeability.
- Consuming too much sugar – specifically fructose. Sugars can create an overgrowth of bad bacteria. The overgrowth of bad bacteria will then lead to intestinal permeability. Read more about how bad bacteria can lead to IBS.
- Not eating enough food that is high in quercetin (grapes, onions). Quercetin increases the ability for cells in our digestive tract to better handle challenges. Unfortunately, many of these foods are missing from the standard Western diet.
- Vitamin A
- This vitamin, found in dark, leafy vegetables among other foods, regulates the growth and differentiation of our intestinal cells.
- A deficiency in Vitamin A results in an increased susceptibility to infection. Within a few weeks the intestinal barrier becomes impaired.
- Vitamin D
- Vitamin D can be obtained by eating fatty fish, fortified foods, or from the sun. Due to the distance from the sun, those in northern climates should fortify vitamin D. A deficiency has been linked to severe symptoms in IBS patients.
- Research suggests that a lack of vitamin D may also compromise the mucosal barrier in our digestive tract which contributes to leaky gut.
Short-chain fatty acid deficiency
- Insoluble fibre feeds the bacteria in our digestive tract. Insoluble fibre is the fibre that doesn’t change when you add water to it ex. celery.
- The bacteria in our digestive tract ferment carbohydrates which produces short-chain fatty acids.
- When we don’t eat enough fibre we can have a deficiency in short-chain fatty acids.
- Without enough of the short-chain fatty acid butyrate, lesions may develop in the digestive tract. This contributes to developing leaky gut.
- In rat models, a supplement of butyrate helped to keep the rat’s gut healthy.
Lack of prebiotics in the diet
- Prebiotics are the building blocks your intestinal bacteria needs to create short-chain fatty acids. They are a non-digestible fibre found in a number of different vegetables.
- Prebiotics help to regulate the amount and type of beneficial bacteria in your intestine. In turn, this can improve the integrity of your digestive tract.
- By feeding the healthy bacteria, prebiotics also protect against bacterial infections such as salmonella.
Deficiency of probiotics in the GI tract
- Beneficial bacteria are necessary for a healthy digestive tract.
- Without enough beneficial bacteria, bad (pathogenic) bacteria may take up residence in your digestive tract. An overgrowth of the bad bacteria will lead to a leaky gut.
How is leaky gut diagnosed?
Permeability tests use specific carbohydrates called oligosaccharides and sugars. Oligosaccharides are very large molecules and will only cross the intestinal barrier if leaky gut exists. Comparatively, sugar molecules are small and easily cross the intestinal barrier.
The test consists of drinking a solution of oligosaccharides and sugars. The small sugar molecules cross the intestinal barrier and will appear in the urine. However, if leaky gut exists the large oligosaccharides molecules will also cross the barrier and appear in the urine. The detection of the oligosaccharides in the urine indicates leaky gut is present.
How to treat a leaky gut
Now we get back to the topic of this post. Does L-glutamine heal a leaky gut?
L-glutamine is an amino acid, and yes, it repairs the gut’s mucosal lining and reduces intestinal inflammation.
However, it may only be a band-aid fix.
If you have been diagnosed with leaky gut, don’t immediately reach for the glutamine. Instead, take the time to identify which of the underlying causes I outlined above are causing your intestinal permeability.
This means you need to identify all potential food allergies and sensitivities. You can do this through an IgG blood test or by following an elimination diet. Check out this post for more information on how to properly implement an elimination diet.
Once the root cause of leaky gut has been removed, you can then create a plan including supplements and dietary fixes to help rebuild the intestinal lining.
Steps for healing a leaky gut
At Flourish Clinic, this is what I recommend to heal a leaky gut:
- Vitamin A and Vitamin D supplements – you can source both of these from a high-quality cod liver oil.
- Zinc – You will need a very high dose is required. However, do not supplement high levels of zinc for longer than eight weeks.
- Butyrate or short-chain fatty acids
- You can supplement sodium butyrate at 3-4g/day
- Eat at least one serving a day of insoluble fibre or prebiotic to make sure you are creating enough short chain fatty acids.
- Look for foods like green plantain, Jerusalem artichoke, chicory root, and yucca (cassava) as they are the best sources of insoluble fibre and prebiotics.
- Make sure you take a probiotic supplement on a regular basis. Research has shown certain strains of probiotics have greater effects than others. This means you should avoid generic strains of probiotics. Instead, look for the following types of probiotics as they have been proven to work:
- Lactobacisllus Plantarum
- Sacaromyces boulardi
- Soil based organisms
- E coli nissel 1917
- Glutamine or whey protein*
- Take 20-40g of glutamine/day
- *If you have a known dairy sensitivity, whey protein may not be the best option.
- This is a prescription medication used to treat constipation in IBS.
- It has also been shown to assist with treatment of leaky gut.
While glutamine is an effective means of treating leaky gut, taken alone it is likely not a cure. Instead, you should focus on removing offending foods from your diet. If you decide to take glutamine, try to combine it with the above supplements/medications to make your treatment even more effective.
Now, I want to hear from you.
How have you treated leaky gut?