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Is Leaky Gut Real?

Updated on September 16, 2021
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The term “leaky gut” is pretty much self-explanatory. We know what the gut looks like; imagining it being leaky isn’t hard to do. While the term conjures unpleasant images, the question remains: is leaky gut real? 

There are various opinions about leaky gut. Health experts cannot seem to agree on the same thing. Is it a medical condition in itself that warrants a specialized form of treatment? Or is it merely a symptom of a far more severe chronic disease? Is there significant medically reviewed scientific evidence to support the leaky claims?

Before we delve deeper into what the medical world has to say about leaky gut and intestinal permeability, it’s best first to understand the inner workings of the gut - or the intestines.

Is Leaky Gut Real? 2

The Intestines and How They Function

The large intestine and small intestine are part of the digestive system. The intestines are responsible for turning nutrients from food into essential components like fatty acids, amino acids, and sugar. These are then utilized in various body processes.

Our intestines possess an intestinal lining that is semi-permeable. This lining acts as a barrier that 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 pathogen-carrying molecules, bacteria, and toxic substances from leaking from the gut. Maintaining intestinal permeability is vital to ensure that this normal function of the gastrointestinal tract 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, and toxic substances 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, pathogen-carrying substances, bacteria, and toxins can pass freely through the intestinal wall and get absorbed into the bloodstream.

Increased intestinal permeability brings about a leaky gut. This means that the intestinal barrier is compromised. It allows partially-digested food particles, disease-causing molecules, bacteria, and toxins to get into the bloodstream. Because these substances are considered foreign, the body’s immune system will respond. It initiates an immune reaction that causes inflammation.

Inflammation within the gastrointestinal tract will alter the normal balance of bacteria inside the gut microbiome. 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 usually associated with leaky gut syndrome. They are:

  • Abdominal pain
  • Asthma and shortness of breath
  • Brain fog, headaches, memory loss
  • Chronic muscle and joint pain
  • Confusion, mood swings, irritability, and poor memory
  • Extreme tiredness
  • Mental health problems: attention deficit disorder (ADD), anxiety, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), and depression
  • Stomach pain
  • Problems in the digestive system such as bloating, constipation, diarrhea, indigestion, and gas
  • 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 and not exclusively as 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. 

Who Gets a Leaky Gut and Why?

It’s important to note that our lifestyle choices profoundly affect our bodies. While not everyone will be diagnosed with leaky gut syndrome in their lifetime, 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. A disturbance in homeostasis of the gut microbiota, with overgrowth of bad bacteria, 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.

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 such as antibiotics, aspirin, pesticides, and even contaminated tap water can lead to leaky gut syndrome.

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, and depression. It also disrupts the body’s circadian rhythm and affects gut bacteria too. 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.

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

With the lack of conclusive medical studies that support the existence of leaky gut syndrome as an official diagnosis, health experts remain skeptical. But 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 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. 

One of these is Verisana’s Leaky Gut Complete test. Using a stool sample, it tests the gut microbiome for candida and mold, bacterial imbalance, secretory IgA, and Zonulin value. 

Thryve Gut Test

Thryve - Best Gut Health Test

Thryve gets our recommendation for the best microbiome test because they've been around the longest, they specialize in only testing microbiome, and they also have a good follow-up service (personalized probiotics and other items).

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, because no “official” treatments are in place, your doctor will typically recommend the following to 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.

Content Contributor
Joel is a writer with a passion for the science of DNA and the power of its manipulation.
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