Ever heard of leaky gut syndrome? Of course you have. In the world of natural health, the term gets tossed around almost as often as kombucha or detox. But what does it actually mean—and is it as freaky and dangerous as it sounds?
That depends on who you ask. “Leaky gut syndrome is something of a medical mystery. From an MD’s standpoint, it’s a very gray area,” says Rudolph Bedford, MD, a gastroenterologist at Providence Saint John’s Health Center in Santa Monica, California.
Here’s what you should know about this mysterious condition, how it could be putting you at risk for weird health problems, and what to do about it.
What is leaky gut syndrome—and how do you get it?
Leaky gut syndrome (sometimes called intestinal permeability) is thought to occur when the layer of cells that line the intestinal wall become irritated and stop working the way they should. Normally, these cells act as a protective barrier that absorbs particles from food, toxins, and other microorganisms. But if the cells get damaged, they can become porous or leaky. So instead of absorbing those particles, the particles make their way into the bloodstream.
How does the gut become more porous? Experts don’t know the exact cause, but it’s thought to be the result of inflammation. Leaky gut is linked to inflammatory conditions like celiac disease, Crohn’s disease, or inflammatory bowel disease says Bedford. Other common stomach irritants, including NSAID pain relievers, alcohol, and antibiotics are thought to be culprits, too. Some integrative and alternative practitioners also say that a diet high in inflammatory foods—like gluten, sugar, or dairy—could also have an impact. “These foods are hard to digest, so they wear down the digestive system and leave undigested food particles in the gut—triggering inflammation,” explains Dr. Taz Bhatia, integrative health expert and author of The 21-Day Belly Fix.
What happens when your gut is leaky?
Experts agree that increased intestinal permeability can cause particles from undigested food, toxins, and other microorganisms to make their way into the bloodstream—where they shouldn’t be. That triggers the immune system to treat the particles as invaders, which creates even more inflammation, Bhatia says.
That can cause a lot of problems. Over time, it’s thought that the inflammation caused by leaky gut syndrome can spur problems like bloating, gas, and cramps, as well as psoriasis, eczema, and allergies. It could also lead to fatigue, unexplained pains, or even depression. When food particles make their way into the bloodstream instead of getting properly digested, the body is less able to absorb nutrients—including vitamins B and D, magnesium, and certain amino acids that can impact mood and energy levels, Bhatia says.
But not everyone is on board with that. While most mainstream gastroenterologists acknowledge that these particles can pass through the gut lining, they say that the particles aren’t irritating enough to actually cause symptoms. “So-called leaky gut syndrome is a distinct medical condition claimed mostly by nutritionists and alternative medicine physicians,” Bedford says. “Within the medical community, this syndrome doesn’t exist.”
Are there natural ways to treat leaky gut?
Knowledge about leaky gut syndrome is still pretty murky, so there’s no official test to diagnose the condition. But if you’re experiencing symptoms that sound like leaky gut, it’s worth talking with your doctor. She may consider testing you for conditions that can make the gut more permeable—like celiac disease, Crohn’s disease, or irritable bowel syndrome.
As for natural remedies? Cleaning up your diet might be the first line of defense. For some, gluten, sugar, and dairy are tougher to digest and can trigger inflammation. Cutting these foods out for at least 6 weeks could stop new inflammation from happening and help your leaky gut heal, Bhatia says. Once the gut is healed, it may be able to tolerate these kinds of foods in small quantities.
Supplements could help, too. Glutamine is an amino acid that plays a role in growing and repairing the lining of the gut—so taking 2 to 3 grams per day could be beneficial, Bhatia says. Or, try collagen powder in your morning smoothie. (Here are 6 things you need to know before taking a collagen supplement.) You’ll get similar amino acids by supplementing with 1 gram daily, she says.
This article first appeared on Rodale's Organic Life.