Depending on whom you ask, leaky gut syndrome is either the cause of many of our modern medical ailments or doesn’t exist at all. Leaky gut is increasingly a focus of research and attention as medical professionals try to learn more about the reasons for increases in conditions like food allergies and celiac disease. But there isn’t yet an established definition of the condition or a medical consensus that it exists at all.
What is clear is that intestinal permeability exists, and can increase.
"Gastrointestinal permeability, or simply intestinal permeability, is a term used to describe a condition in which the lining of the gastrointestinal tract becomes porous or ‘leaky,’” says Douglas Wyatt of supplement company Sovereign Laboratories.
But whether or not that constitutes a syndrome like leaky gut syndrome, and how that might be tied to specific health conditions, is still unclear.
Read on to learn more about what is known about leaky gut, what the evidence is in support of leaky gut syndrome, and how you might improve your own gut health either way.
What is leaky gut? Leaky gut is a consequence of proteins entering the intestines due to a variety of problems, including low stomach acid, food intolerances, or low digestive enzymes, says chiropractor Dr. Jason Sonners. When the junctions between the thin cell lining of the intestines are no longer tight, waste material from the GI tract can pass into the bloodstream, Wyatt says, igniting an immune response. But while we know that intestinal permeability exists, the effects of that permeability or the existence of a specific “leaky gut syndrome” aren’t yet established.
What might cause it? Intestinal permeability is thought to cause leaky gut, and that permeability is seen in conditions like celiac disease or Crohn’s disease, according to WebMD — though it’s not known if that permeability is a cause of those conditions or a result of them. Other potential causes might be radiation treatment or food allergies, but no specific causes are yet clear.
What are the problems with leaky gut? Over time, some believe that leaky gut can lead to issues like gas, bloating, constipation, and diarrhea, Sonners says, and it can lead to long-term inflammation and related problems. But these symptoms can be associated with a variety of conditions including food intolerances or allergies, digestive conditions like Crohn’s or irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), or even ovarian cancer. It’s important to fully investigate your symptoms and rule out potential causes.
Does leaky gut actually exist? We know that intestinal permeability exists but what hasn’t been established is what that means for the body, and how it might be prevented or treated — if it’s a specific condition to treat at all. In many ways, the gut remains a mystery to medical professionals and new research into aspects like intestinal permeability, intestinal flora, and food intolerances are ongoing and constantly changing what we know about our digestive system.
How is leaky gut diagnosed? Some recommend an IgG test to identify which foods could be causing a problem, says wellness coach David Nico. But the tests lack clinical trials proving their effectiveness and many regulatory bodies don't recommend their use. "The test is not 100 per cent foolproof as there may be false positives or false negatives and there are other factors involved,” Nico says. What may be more helpful is keeping a food diary, paying attention to when you experience gastro symptoms, and seeing if patterns emerge.
How do you treat leaky gut? For some people, removing foods that cause problems may be the best course of treatment. "Some clinicians recommend eliminating inflammatory foods 30, 60, 90 [days] and even up to six months depending on the severity," Nico says. "Others may have to eliminate certain foods for life.” Some may find their problems have lessened after a period of elimination, after which foods can be slowly reintroduced. Others might have to avoid certain foods long-term. But make sure that other conditions have been ruled out so you aren’t treating symptoms and not an overlying disease.