What is Leaky Gut Syndrome?

You may or may not be familiar with a term called Leaky Gut Syndrome; a proposed gastrointestinal disorder by alternative medicine practitioners who believe it is responsible for ill-health in many people. There is a wide range of symptoms that are associated with a leaky gut which include gastrointestinal issues such as diarrhoea, constipation, gas, bloating, and stomach pain as well as headaches, brain fog, memory loss, fatigue, skin rashes, and joint pain.

There’s been a recent increase across health blogs warning about leaky gut syndrome and a growing audience of people who believe they may have it. At present, leaky gut syndrome is not a formally recognised medical condition however it does not mean people aren’t experiencing debilitating symptoms — it just means that these symptoms are not thought to be caused by a leaky gut [1].

So what is ‘leaky gut’ syndrome and where did this concept come from?

The human body’s digestive system is responsible for breaking down food and absorbing nutrients as well as protecting the body from harmful substances. Inside the intestines, there are tight junctions that control what materials the intestine absorbs and what it allows into the bloodstream. For this to happen the membrane must be permeable to allow electrolytes, water, and nutrients into the bloodstream. In some people, the physical structure of their intestines is compromised and the tight junctions don’t work properly, allowing larger substances to cross over into the bloodstream[2]. This is referred to as intestinal permeability which is the concept leaky gut syndrome is based on.

Studies have shown that people who have increased intestinal permeability suffer from Crohn’s disease, coeliac disease, people receiving chemotherapy, and those who have a high intake of bowel-damaging substances such as aspirin and alcohol [3]. However, intestinal permeability is a symptom of these ailments, not a cause and does not lead to anything more than inflammation of the bowel walls. For example, it is known that for people with coeliac disease, eating gluten will trigger an immune response that can damage the intestinal lining in the digestive system.

While there is still much research needed on intestinal permeability, it’s still not clear how it could cause such a wide range of symptoms associated with leaky gut — especially the symptoms not directly related to the gut such as headaches, brain fog, skin rashes, and joint pain.

Beware of false treatments/ solutions

There is a lot of misinformation around ‘treating’ leaky gut based on fad diets and no scientific grounding. For example, a common ‘solution’ for people with a ‘leaky gut’ is to avoid foods with a high sugar content (fruits included) as it is believed excess sugar can cause an overgrowth of a certain strain of yeast which is responsible for the damage to the intestinal wall. While there is evidence on the negative impacts of a diet high in simple sugar on the gut, there has been no evidence on the association between cutting out fruit and improving gut symptoms [4]. It’s also been advised to cut out gluten and dairy as it can damage the intestine however there is no evidence to support this claim unless you are coeliac or have lactose intolerance.

Another common issue is that alternative medicine practitioners who support this unverified condition try to sell products as a treatment for leaky gut syndrome. These supplements have no medical basis and are unregulated which is why they are able to make big claims without having any evidence it works. These supplements will cost you money while doing little to reduce symptoms [5].

I’m experiencing symptoms — what do I do?

If you are currently experiencing gastrointestinal symptoms or other symptoms associated with leaky gut, it is advised to work with a doctor, specifically a gastroenterologist, to evaluate the symptoms for other diagnoses that may be present. As mentioned previously, ‘leaky gut’ or intestinal permeability is a symptom — not the cause and it could mean something more serious is going unnoticed.

If you are wanting to improve your gut health, start with the basics and focus on foods that can benefit your gut. This includes eating fruit and vegetables, whole grains, legumes, pulses, and beans. For more information on a healthy gut, check out our article on Feeding your Gut.

References

[1] E. M. M. Quigley, “Leaky gut-concept or clinical entity?,” Current Opinion in Gastroenterology. 2016, doi: 10.1097/MOG.0000000000000243.

[2] M. Camilleri, “Leaky gut: mechanisms, measurement and clinical implications in humans,” Gut. 2019, doi: 10.1136/gutjnl-2019–318427.

[3] M. C. Arrieta, L. Bistritz, and J. B. Meddings, “Alterations in intestinal permeability,” Gut. 2006, doi: 10.1136/gut.2005.085373.

[4] R. Satokari, “High intake of sugar and the balance between pro-and anti-inflammatory gut bacteria,” Nutrients. 2020, doi: 10.3390/nu12051348.

[5] M. A. Odenwald and J. R. Turner, “Intestinal Permeability Defects: Is It Time to Treat?,” Clinical Gastroenterology and Hepatology, 2013, doi: 10.1016/j.cgh.2013.07.001.

Information this week by: Kirstyn Church, an Associate Nutritionist​ with Nutrition Consulting Services. Tru Valu Supermarket is one of the leading grocery chains in Trinidad and Tobago with five stores and the best customers. Have a question? Email us truvalusupermarkets@gmail.com.

Always consult your GP or health practioner before making dietary changes. This information is for knowledge purposes and does not constitute medical advice.

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