How Much Should You Worry About Having A "Leaky" Gut?

Photographed by Alexandra Gavillet.
You've probably come across the phrase "leaky gut syndrome" floating through the alternative medicine circles of the internet. According to those supposed health gurus, the condition is seemingly responsible for pretty much every digestive ailment you could ever have. But what does it actually mean to have a leaky gut? And how can your insides be leaky anyways?
The short answer is that they're not: "To date, there are no scientific studies that truly validate [the existence of leaky gut syndrome]," says Felice Schnoll-Sussman, MD, a gastroenterologist at NewYork-Presbyterian Hospital and Weill Cornell Medicine, in an email to R29.
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The basic theory behind leaky gut syndrome is that chronic stress or taking too many over-the-counter painkillers causes the lining of your guts to be more permeable, possibly letting extra bacteria, undigested fats and proteins, and mysterious "toxins" into your bloodstream. Supposedly, this causes indigestion, bloating, and cramps along with widespread inflammation, leading to more ambiguous symptoms such as fatigue and irritability.
Proposed treatment for leaky gut syndrome usually includes eliminating gluten and/or dairy from your diet, taking probiotic supplements, or a variety of herbal remedies. Of course, none of these been "tested adequately to determine whether they are safe or effective for this condition," Dr. Schnoll-Sussman says.
And, to make things extra confusing, the symptoms of so-called leaky gut syndrome mimic those of Crohn's disease, ulcerative colitis, and irritable bowel syndrome, Dr. Schnoll-Sussman explains. Increased intestinal permeability, is seen in all of those conditions, but doesn't actually cause them. Of course, less serious conditions (such as plain old overeating) can temporarily cause the symptoms of leaky gut syndrome.
That's why Dr. Schnoll-Sussman still advises you to check in with your doctor if you think you might have leaky gut syndrome: Even though that's probably not what's really going on, your symptoms are real and can be treated, and there's a chance they may be signs of something more serious. You deserve to have a working gut, even if leaks have nothing to do with it.
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