Is Leaky Gut Syndrome an Actual Medical Condition: An Unbiased Review
The “leaky gut” phenomenon has gained a lot of attention lately, especially among natural health enthusiasts.
Leaky gut is also known as increased intestinal permeability. It is a condition that affects the digestive tract. It is characterized by leakage of toxins and bacteria through the wall of the intestine.
However, as popular as the condition is, the leaky gut syndrome is not recognized as a medical diagnosis by mainstream medical professionals.
But then, it is also worth mentioning that there is some scientific evidence supporting the existence of a leaky gut. The leaky gut syndrome is also believed to be associated with several health problems.
In this article, we will critically review the evidence on this subject.
Overview of leaky gut
Food is digested in the human digestive system. The digestive tract is also where nutrients are absorbed.
The human digestive system is also involved in the protection of the body from harmful substances. Your intestines have walls that act as barriers, regulating whatever gets into the bloodstream.
The intestinal wall has small gaps known as tight junctions. These junctions allow the passage of nutrients and water while impeding the passage of toxins. Intestinal permeability refers to the ease with which substances pass through the walls of the intestine.
When these tight junctions get loose, the gut’s permeability increases, and this may allow the passage of toxins and bacteria from the digestive tract into the bloodstream. This condition is what is referred to as “leaky gut syndrome.”
When your gut becomes easily permeable to toxins and bacteria, it can trigger widespread inflammation as well as an immune reaction.
Symptoms of the leaky gut syndrome include fatigue, skin problems, digestive issues, and food sensitivities (1).
But then, the mainstream medical field does not recognize leaky gut syndrome as a medical diagnosis. Some healthcare providers can swear by their license that the condition does not exist.
On the other hand, proponents of the leaky gut syndrome claim that it is the primary cause of various medical conditions, such as migraines, chronic fatigue syndrome, multiple sclerosis, thyroid conditions, food sensitivities, fibromyalgia, skin conditions, autism, and mood swings.
The thing is – not many scientific studies have been done on the leaky gut syndrome. Either way, medical and healthcare providers agree that intestinal hyperpermeability (increased permeability of the intestine) exists in some chronic diseases (1, 2).
What causes leaky gut syndrome?
The leaky gut syndrome is somewhat shrouded in mystery – medical mystery precisely. Medical professionals are still attempting to determine its exact cause.
The activation of zonulin in genetically susceptible individuals can lead to a leaky gut. Gluten and intestinal bacteria are two major factors that trigger the zonulin’s release. Gluten is a protein present in wheat and other grains (3, 4, 5).
Several factors may contribute to the onset of the leaky gut syndrome. These include:
- Consuming sugar in excess
- Long-term use of non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) such as ibuprofen
- Excessive intake of alcohol
- Deficiencies in nutrients such as vitamin A and D, and zinc
- Chronic inflammation
- Poor gut health
- Overgrowth of yeast
Health conditions associated with leaky gut
It is important to note that there’s no scientific proof that leaky gut is the foundation of modern diseases. But then several studies have found a link between increased permeability of the intestines with multiple chronic diseases (3).
Celiac disease is an autoimmune condition characterized by hypersensitivity to gluten. Some studies have found that the intestines in celiac disease patients have a higher permeability than those without this disease (1, 6, 7).
Type 1 diabetes is caused by the destruction of beta cells of the pancreas. These cells are responsible for the production and secretion of insulin (8).
A particular study found that a high percentage of type 1 diabetes patients had very high levels of zonulin. Zonulin regulates the permeability of the intestine (11).
Increased permeability of the intestine contributes to the onset of Crohn’s disease. Crohn’s disease is a digestive disorder of the digestive system characterized by inflammation of the intestinal tract (1, 12, 13).
This suggests that there might be a genetic component to intestinal permeability in Crohn’s disease.
Irritable bowel syndrome
Some studies report that IBS patients are prone to increase intestinal permeability (17, 18). IBS is a disorder of the digestive tract characterized by constipation and diarrhea. A particular study found that increased permeability of the intestine is prevalent in people with diarrhea-predominant IBS (19).
If you have a leaky gut, proteins from the food you eat may cross the intestinal barrier, and thus trigger an immune response.
Is leaky gut a symptom of a disease or a cause of a disease?
Proponents of this condition (leaky gut syndrome) claim that it is the major trigger of most health conditions.
Several studies have shown that several chronic ailments are characterized by increased intestinal permeability.
But then, it isn’t so easy to prove that most diseases are caused by a leaky gut.
Critics believe that increased intestinal permeability is more of a symptom, rather than an underlying cause of any disease (22).
The evidence tends to support the theory that a leaky gut plays a role in disease development.
Conversely, another study found that intestinal permeability in celiac patients returned to normal in over 87% of gluten-free dieters (26).
This suggests that increased permeability of the intestine may be a response to ingestion of gluten and not the cause of celiac disease.
Either way, there’s not much evidence to show that a leaky gut causes chronic diseases.
Tips to improving your gut health
It is important to note that Leaky gut syndrome has not been officially recognized as a medical diagnosis. Also, there is no recommended treatment.
Nevertheless, there are a couple of steps that can help you boost your gut health. One way of improving your gut health is by increasing your gut flora. Your gut flora refers to the number of beneficial bacteria in your gut.
Some tips include:
- Limiting your carb intake
- Taking probiotic supplements
- Eating fermented foods like kimchi, plain yogurt, kombucha, kefir, and sauerkraut. These foods contain probiotics that can boost your gut flora.
- Eat foods that contain plenty of fiber. Fiber feeds the bacteria in your gut.
- Limit NSAIDs usage. Prolonged use of NSAIDs such as ibuprofen contributes to the leaky gut syndrome.
Ifiokobong Ene is a Medical Physiologist, and a freelance medical writer. Ifiok brings his years of medical research experience to help consistently create high-quality, and engaging articles and products that uphold the highest medical standards. He is dedicated to making health and wellness information available, actionable, and understandable so that readers can make the best decisions about their health.