The colon and its expansive microbiome of bacteria and yeast is complex, and experts are still learning about its effects on overall health and wellness. Research has indicated that probiotics—beneficial bacteria in the gut—are important for many aspects of health, including immunity, weight regulation and even your mood. But there are even more aspects of gut health that are being explored and don’t have definitive answers yet. One of these is leaky gut syndrome.
What is leaky gut syndrome?
Leaky gut syndrome refers to problems in the colon in which the intestinal walls “leak,” allowing toxins and bacteria into your bloodstream.
Despite what you may think, the walls of your intestines are not impermeable. They are actually porous, made up of millions of cells that form a barrier between your gut and the rest of your body. This barrier selectively allows some things to pass out of the colon and into the bloodstream, such as water and nutrients broken down from your food. Harmful things like pathogens and food particles are not able to pass through the intestinal barrier…at least, not in a healthy gut.
Proponents of leaky gut syndrome believe that an unhealthy gut can develop tiny holes in the walls. This makes the intestinal barriers less effective, allowing toxins, bacteria and other problematic particles into the bloodstream.
The causes of leaky gut are not completely clear, although there are a few sources believed to be common. The first is genetic, meaning you were born with a weaker intestinal barrier or a health problem that damages the intestinal walls.
The second has to do with diet. A low-fiber, high-sugar diet may be responsible for weakened intestinal walls and leaky gut, whereas healthy and probiotic-rich foods fuel bacteria that strengthen the intestinal walls.
Stress, which has the capacity to affect your entire body, is also believed to cause leaky gut. Stress can impact your intestinal microbiota and lead to higher inflammation, damaging the intestinal walls.
The condition may also be linked to digestive diseases like inflammatory bowel disease, celiac disease and Crohn’s disease, but scientists have not discovered exactly how yet.
The trouble with leaky gut syndrome, however, is that it’s not easy to diagnose. In fact, it’s not currently recognized as a legitimate medical diagnosis. There’s no real test to determine the strength of your intestinal walls, so it’s not possible to definitively say whether you’re experiencing leaky gut or not.
Potential effects of leaky gut
Symptoms of leaky gut are varied, but the most common include:
- Stomach pains
- Brain fog
- Skin rashes
- Joint pain
These symptoms are believed to be caused by inflammation as a result of bacteria and toxins leaking out into the bloodstream. And, in addition to potentially being caused by gut imbalances, leaky gut may also further disrupt the delicate balance of microbiota in your gut—a problem also known to produce symptoms of gastrointestinal distress.
While the links between leaky gut and gastrointestinal discomfort are more straightforward, more research is needed on how it might affect other parts of the body. Early research on the “gut-brain axis”—how your intestinal flora and mental health are connected—might begin to explain the brain fog and headache symptoms often associated with leaky gut. Some also believe that leaky gut syndrome could lead to more significant chronic health problems like diabetes and autoimmune disorders.
Healing leaky gut
Unfortunately, if you’re experiencing the symptoms of leaky gut, solving your problem is not as simple as getting a diagnosis and taking a pill. Leaky gut can be treated, but it might take time and patience to discover what approaches are best.
Mitigating inflammation within the gut and throughout the body is often the first step. Usually, this means cutting out inflammatory foods and foods you might be sensitive to, including processed foods, high-sugar foods, alcohol, gluten and/or dairy. Removing irritating foods from your diet may allow your gut to repair itself over time.
Other healthy lifestyle choices, such as exercising, sleeping well and reducing stress, have also been shown to play a role in the overall health of your gut. Making these changes may help reduce intestinal permeability.
However, because there is much more to learn about leaky gut syndrome—and its legitimacy in the medical field—it’s always a good idea to speak with your doctor or a gastrointestinal specialist about your symptoms. You may have an undiagnosed illness that has a more straightforward remedy.