What Is Leaky Gut Syndrome?

You may have heard of leaky gut syndrome — perhaps you're even concerned you have it — but is intestinal permeability really an issue? The research is mixed.

Marcelo Campos, a primary care doctor at Harvard Vanguard, explained in an article for Harvard Health Blog that leaky gut refers to when the lining of the gut has cracks or holes that allow things like partially digested food and unwanted bacteria to penetrate it, which can change the gut microbiome and lead to digestive issues. These cracks or leaks can lead to conditions like celiac disease or irritable bowel syndrome, but some researchers have also suggested that a leaky gut can lead to other autoimmune issues like arthritis and even allergies.

The term "leaky gut" is most often used by alternative medicine practitioners and less commonly by traditional Western medicine doctors, though it's becoming more common (via Healthline). It's speculated that leaky gut syndrome is caused by factors like a poor diet, bacterial infections, excessive alcohol consumption, or even more environmental factors like chronic stress, according to Verywell Health.

What to do if you think you have leaky gut syndrome

Unlike a leaky gut that allows partially undigested food to pass through, a healthy gut lining only allows properly digested and broken down fats, proteins, starches, fatty acids, and electrolytes to pass through it and into the bloodstream (via Verywell Health).

Unfortunately, there is little research on how to effectively repair a damaged gut, according to the United Kingdom's National Health Services. The NHS warns people to be wary of any supplement or product claiming to heal leaky gut, and to consult a professional before trying an elimination diet like the low-FODMAP diet.

If you think you may have leaky gut syndrome, consult a doctor who's willing to help you figure out the best solution for you. "Leaky gut really means you've got a diagnosis that still needs to be made," gastroenterologist Donald Kirby told WebMD. "You hope that your doctor is a good-enough Sherlock Holmes, but sometimes it is very hard to make a diagnosis."