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Is Leaky Gut Real?

Updated on March 22, 2022
Written by
Joel
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The term “leaky gut” conjures unpleasant images. But is leaky gut real? 

There are various opinions about leaky gut. Health experts cannot seem to agree on the same thing. Common questions surrounding the topic are:

  • Is it a medical condition in itself that warrants a specialized form of treatment?
  • Is it merely a symptom of a far more severe chronic disease?
  • Is there significant medically reviewed scientific evidence to support the leaky claims?

The best way to understand leaky gut is to first understand the inner workings of the gut.

Is Leaky Gut Real? 4
Is Leaky Gut Real? 5
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The Intestines and How They Function

The large intestine and small intestine are parts of the digestive system.

They turn nutrients from food into essential components which include:

  • Fatty acids
  • Amino acids
  • Sugar

These essential components are then utilized in various body processes.

Our intestines possess a semi-permeable lining that acts as a barrier. It allows certain substances to pass through while preventing others from doing so.

Intestinal permeability should remain intact for the body to stay healthy.

Intestinal Barrier and Intestinal Permeability

The intestinal barrier allows the passage of essential nutrients and regulatory proteins into the bloodstream.

It restricts the following from leaking from the gut:

  • Pathogen-carrying molecules
  • Bacteria
  • Toxic substances
  • Undigested food particles

Maintaining intestinal permeability is vital. This ensures that normal gastrointestinal function is carried out effectively.

Various structures make up the intestinal lining or barrier of the gut. It has a mucus layer overlying the intestinal epithelium (outer layer of the intestines). 

The mucus layer acts as a sieve, filtering what goes in and out of the gut. Additionally, it is in the mucus layer where regulatory and immune-sensing proteins are secreted.

Meanwhile, present in the intestinal epithelium of the gut are intestinal epithelial cells. They form an uninterrupted covering held together by tight junctions.

This covering serves two functions: 

  • It regulates the transport of small ions and molecules
  • It helps maintain the integrity of the intestinal barrier

When intestinal permeability is compromised, leaky gut occurs. Toxic substances can enter the bloodstream. 

What is Leaky Gut Syndrome?

Leaky gut happens because of an impaired gut barrier function. Problems in the tight junctions of the intestinal wall cause increased intestinal permeability.

As a result, pathogens, bacteria, and toxins can pass freely through the intestinal wall. They get absorbed into the bloodstream.

Increased intestinal permeability brings about a leaky gut.

This means that the intestinal barrier is compromised. When this occurs, three things happen:

  1. Partially-digested food, pathogens, bacteria, and toxins get into the bloodstream.
  2. Since these substances are considered foreign, the body’s immune system will attack.
  3. It initiates an immune reaction that causes inflammation.

Inflammation in the GI tract alters the balance of bacteria inside the gut. This leads to digestive health problems and more.

It presents with several symptoms that typically occur together. Thus, it is referred to as leaky gut syndrome. 

What are the Symptoms of Leaky Gut Syndrome?

Increased intestinal permeability presents with several signs and symptoms.

These are usually associated with leaky gut syndrome:

  • Abdominal pain
  • Asthma and shortness of breath
  • Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD)
  • Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD)
  • Anxiety
  • Brain fog, headaches, memory loss
  • Chronic muscle and joint pain
  • Confusion, mood swings, irritability, and poor memory
  • Depression
  • Digestive system (bloating, constipation, diarrhea, indigestion, and gas)
  • Extreme tiredness
  • Mental health problems
  • Stomach pain
  • Skin problems: acne, eczema, rashes
  • Unusual cravings for carbs and sweets
  • Weak immune system characterized by frequent colds and recurrent bladder infections

What Conditions are Associated with Leaky Gut Syndrome?

Leaky gut syndrome is associated with several health conditions and shares many of its symptoms with them.

Here are some of them:

  • Autoimmune diseases: Rheumatoid arthritis, Hashimoto’s thyroiditis, and Psoriasis
  • Celiac Disease
  • Chronic Fatigue Syndrome
  • Chronic Liver Disease
  • Inflammatory Bowel Disease such as Crohn’s Disease
  • Diabetes
  • Food Allergies and Food Sensitivities
  • Hormonal imbalances: Premenstrual Syndrome and Polycystic Ovarian Syndrome
  • Irritable Bowel Syndrome
  • Nutritional Deficiencies
  • Systemic Lupus Erythematosus

The medical conditions listed above present with the same signs and symptoms as a leaky gut. However, they could be indicative of the medical condition itself. It may not exclusively be leaky gut syndrome.

Medical experts say there’s not enough medically reviewed scientific evidence supporting leaky gut.

There are no definitive and conclusive results regarding the claim of increased intestinal permeability. This makes it hard for doctors to make a stand-alone diagnosis rather than associate it with, for example, Celiac disease or Crohn’s disease. 

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Who Gets a Leaky Gut and Why?

It’s important to note that lifestyle choices profoundly affect our bodies. Not everyone will be diagnosed with leaky gut syndrome in their lifetime. However, some people are more predisposed than others.

People with the following conditions are at higher risk of getting a leaky gut:

Bacterial imbalance

One of the leading causes of leaky gut syndrome is dysbiosis. It is when the normal balance of bacteria inside the gut is disrupted. This could trigger the onset of leaky gut syndrome.

Excessive alcohol consumption

A research study revealed that light to moderate alcohol consumption helps reduce the risk of developing cardiovascular diseases. But anything in excess will have adverse health effects throughout the body.

Excessive alcohol consumption may stimulate the growth of bad gut bacteria and cause dysbiosis. This effectively disrupts the normal gut microbiome, leading to a leaky gut.

Is Leaky Gut Real? 5
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Prolonged exposure to toxins

We are unnecessarily exposed to tens of thousands of chemicals and toxic substances every day. This is an inevitable fact of life.

However, chronic exposure to toxins can lead to leaky gut syndrome. These include:

  • Antibiotics
  • Aspirin
  • Pesticides
  • Contaminated tap water

Poor nutrition

We are what we eat, they say – and eating poorly will eventually lead to poor health.

Fried, fructose-rich, and processed foods are not good for the body. It may trigger the growth of bad gut bacteria. Other things to avoid in your diet include red meat, caffeine, and foods containing artificial sugar.

Poor stress management

Stressors come in different forms, and how we cope plays a huge role in our overall health and wellbeing. 

Poor stress management is linked to:

  • Sleep deprivation
  • Anxiety
  • Depression
  • Disruption of the body’s circadian rhythm

It also affects gut bacteria. When tested in mice, research study results revealed that chronic stress leads to intestinal inflammation. 

How is Leaky Gut Syndrome Diagnosed? 

Health professionals are still wary about making leaky gut syndrome an official diagnosis. It is not a condition that is formally recognized in the medical world.

However, this does not make the symptoms less real. It simply means that they may be symptoms of other gastrointestinal conditions.

Mannitol and Lactulose Test

Natural health advocates consider this as the standard test for leaky gut. However, a research study revealed that it is not a valuable tool in detecting indigestible sugars.

Health experts remain skeptical with the lack of conclusive medical studies.

Gastroenterologist Checkup

If you’re experiencing symptoms, the best medical advice is for you to consult with a gastroenterologist. 

Tell your doctor about what you’re feeling. From there, they may ask you to undergo diagnostic tests to determine the cause further.

They may refer you to a specialist for more in-depth medical advice and for you to receive proper treatment.

At-Home Microbiome Tests

At-home microbiome test kits are available. This allows you to know the health status of your gut. These are tests that you can take from the comfort of home. 

Some of these are Thryve's Gut Health Test and Verisana’s Leaky Gut Complete test . Using a stool sample, these tests will determine the state of your gut microbiome.

They test for:

  • Candida
  • Mold
  • Bacterial imbalance
  • Secretory IgA
  • Zonulin value 

What is the Treatment for Leaky Gut Syndrome? 

There is no standard form of treatment for leaky gut syndrome. This is because it is not recognized as a legitimate medical condition despite the claim.

The usual form of treatment is symptomatic. This means that your doctor will treat you based on your symptoms. 

However, no “official” treatments are in place. Your doctor will typically recommend the following. These will help alleviate your symptoms and generally improve your gut health:

Lifestyle Change

A lifestyle change is necessary to promote a healthier gut. Here are some helpful ways on how to achieve that:

  • Avoid unnecessary use of antibiotics
  • Exercise regularly
  • Get a sufficient amount of quality sleep
  • Minimize alcohol intake
  • Reduce and manage stress
  • Stop smoking

Dietary Modifications

Making smart dietary choices can help significantly improve gut health. Here are some tips:

  • Avoid food rich in fructose and artificial sweeteners
  • Add more prebiotic and probiotic foods to your diet
  • Eat high-fiber food such as whole grains and vegetables
  • Eat less red meat
  • A gluten-free diet is recommended for those who are sensitive to gluten

Talk to your doctor about what you feel - because even if there is no legitimate diagnosis or scientific studies to back the claim, you deserve support and relief.

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Joel
Joel
Content Contributor
Joel is a writer that loves exploring DNA, at-home health, and optimizing my health. He believes that the democratization of home health is in its early stages.
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