We hear this phrase thrown around a lot in this day and age, so we decided to give it a deep dive.
Woman with hands on stomach
Credit: Getty / Carlo107

If you're tuned into the health sphere—and are particularly interested in a holistic approach to wellness—you've probably heard the term "leaky gut" in recent months, if not years. But if you were to look in a medical textbook, chances are you wouldn't find even a single mention. That's because "leaky gut" is a relatively new term, and the syndrome has yet to be clearly defined by the medical community (though that's beginning to change). What does this mystery diagnosis really mean? We tapped two medical professionals for answers.

What does leaky gut mean?

Here's the biggest question surrounding leaky: What, exactly, does it mean? According to Dr. Tarek Hassanein, a surgeon, researcher, professor at The University of California San Diego School of Medicine and the founder of the Southern California Liver & GI Center, "leaky gut" is a more of blanket term that covers a variety of different GI issues than a specific diagnosis. "Leaky gut syndrome is the manifestation of multiple different ailments," says Dr. Hassanein. "It essentially is when the lining in the stomach and the cell walls on the small intestine experience degeneration to the point where bacteria and other consumed content can leak out into other areas of the body."

What causes leaky gut?

There are a variety of health issues that could lead to intestinal damage—but leaky gut typically refers to problems caused by diet and lifestyle choices. "There are well-known diseases that can cause damage to the intestinal wall, including non-steroidal anti-inflammatory use, inflammatory bowel disease, or celiac disease," says Dr. Ashley Gilmore, a gastroenterologist at Indiana University (IU) Health.

"The causes for leaky gut syndrome are mainly attributed to poor diet, little to no exercise, and consumption of other acidic items, like alcohol," adds Dr. Hassanein. "Excessive intake of those unnatural substances can work to break down the linings and put massive stress on the digestive system. Essentially, it is food items that are not promoting healthy gut bacteria, and instead invasive and corrosive bacteria."

What are the symptoms of leaky gut?

Because leaky gut isn't an official diagnosis, the condition doesn't have an official list of symptoms. "The symptoms can vary for each individual, but it manifests in constant bloating, gas, and diarrhea, nutritional deficiencies, headaches, fatigue, skin rashes, cravings for things like sugars and carbs, [and] joint pain," says Dr. Hassenein.

How is leaky gut diagnosed?

When it comes to diagnosing this, "there is a lot of gray area," notes Dr. Hassanein. "'Leaky gut' itself is not necessarily a diagnosis, but rather that you have something happening that needs to be diagnosed." Unfortunately, because there's not a lot of research on the condition, there's no definitive way to diagnose it. "We simply don't have the tools or proof to test and treat 'leaky gut syndrome' at this time," says Dr. Gilmore.

However, if you're experiencing intestinal distress or any symptoms commonly associated with the condition, it's important to get to the doctor. "If you are concerned about 'leaky gut,' you should see your gastroenterologist or primary care doctor for a full evaluation," adds Dr. Gilmore. "As knowledge about 'leaky gut' is still in early stages, there are no specific treatments. There are treatments, however, for conditions known to damage the intestinal wall and other GI issues."

Can you avoid leaky gut?

Official diagnosis or not, leaky gut isn't a pleasant experience. So, how can you avoid it? While research is still in the early phases (and, as such, there's no proven correlation), "ongoing stress, poor health (including bad diet and little exercise), and other medical conditions can make you more susceptible to symptoms attributed to 'leaky gut syndrome,'" explains Dr. Gilmore.

But making better diet, lifestyle, and overarching health choices can help you avoid the problematic symptoms associated with the ailment. "Changing your diet and lifestyle to include more activity is the key to healing the leaky gut," says Dr. Hassenein. "Colorful fruits and vegetables, greens, and lean eating with an emphasis on vegetables will help. Along with that, abstaining from things [like] alcohol, which can be incredibly corrosive, will do wonders."


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