As far as strange medical conditions go, leaky gut syndrome is among the most intriguing— and possibly the most distastefully named.
It is also somewhat controversial. Because it’s only recently begun to be studied, leaky gut syndrome is still poorly understood. Some experts are skeptical of the legion of problems that other doctors blame upon a leaky gut.
Here’s the lowdown on this syndrome and what some medical experts believe it does to your body:
The intestine as traffic cop
Think of your intestines as having two main functions. First, “it is the organ through which we absorb the nutrients into our bloodstream to nourish the body,” says Michael Klaper, M.D., of True North Health Center in Santa Rosa, Calif.
“But there is also an important barrier function,” he adds. “There are a lot of molecules that we do not want in our bloodstreams,” and the intestinal wall prevents them from getting there. Or it should.
In a person with leaky gut syndrome, the intestinal wall is more permeable than usual. “Consequently, substances that normally are not allowed through by the barrier gain access to the body,” says Andrew Roorda, M.D., clinical assistant professor of medicine in gastroenterology and hepatology at Stanford University School of Medicine.
In defense, the body’s immune system fires up, causing inflammation. “Serious diseases, from inflammatory arthritis to various autoimmune diseases, can be triggered by this mechanism,” Klaper says. Leaky gut syndrome has been associated with food allergies and intolerances, inflammatory bowel disease, acne, fatigue, and other conditions.
A cause or an effect?
But some experts aren’t completely sold on the notion that leaky gut syndrome actually causes these diseases.
While most experts agree that increased permeability exists, not all agree on what causes it or how it may affect the body. “It is very important for the general public to know that leaky gut syndrome is not a diagnosis,” Roorda says.
In other words, there is no diagnosis code officially recognized in the International Classification of Diseases (ICD). That’s because there’s still more research to be done— evidence in the medical literature is lacking, Roorda says. “Leaky gut may occur in a variety of disease states; direct causality has yet to be proven.”
One theory: We’re too hard on our guts
Klaper believes that increased intestinal permeability is self-inflicted. “We do things that injure the gut lining. We take nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs, we kill off our good bacteria with alcohol, antibiotics, chlorinated drinking water, pesticides, herbicides and other chemicals in our food— and then we consume sugars in candies, soft drinks, and baked goods.” All that, he says, leads to decreased intestinal function.
He might be right. In November 2014, a study published in the journal Gastroenterology provided evidence that specific foods cause increased breaks and gaps in the stomach lining. Despite such findings, “we do not know what the clinical implications are for these observations,” Roorda says.
What to do
If you have a leaky gut, symptoms start with gastrointestinal distress like diarrhea, constipation gas, cramps or bloating. Symptoms of malnutrition such as brain fog, headaches, fatigue, and memory loss may also be present, in addition to low immunity. If you have any of these symptoms, only your doctor can help you find the true cause— so before self-diagnosing, start with a checkup.
While increased intestinal permeability has been the subject of more and more research recently, Roorda says more studies are needed to pinpoint the true causes of the syndrome. “We should be skeptical of leaky gut as a diagnosis,” he says. “Further, we should not adopt any proposed treatments that are currently being marketed unless they are proven effective.”
In the meantime, though, Klaper proposes a treatment that is less controversial than the syndrome itself: following a healthy diet and using certain substances only in moderation. Klaper recommends limiting alcohol consumption to once a week and avoiding continuous use of nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory medications like aspirin and ibuprofen for more than three to five days at a time.
He also recommends avoiding foods with pesticides or added sugars, like sweets and sodas. Some severe cases, he says, benefit from supplements and probiotics to encourage healing of the intestinal lining— talk to your doctor before trying this tack.
Klaper believes that eating such foods has a negative effect on the intestinal tract.
“Remember, your body is never not looking," he says. Though the evidence may not all be in yet, it’s one more endorsement for a healthy lifestyle.