“Leaky gut” is probably not the sexiest term you’ve ever heard, but it’s steadily becoming a buzz word among leading physicians—like Frank Lipman and Mark Hyman—on the alternative and functional medicine scene.
Why? The physicians credit the phenomenon with being one cause of a host of chronic health problems, from digestive issues and acne to autoimmune diseases like arthritis and psoriasis. And collectively these affect a huge number of people.We got the scoop on this problem with the yuck-factor name that may be affecting your health.
What is leaky gut?
Leaky gut syndrome is known as “increased intestinal permeability” in the conventional medical world. “There are tight junctions between the cells of the gastrointestinal (GI) tract,” explains Christine Frissora, MD, a gastroenterologist at the Center for Advanced Digestive Care at NewYork-Presbyterian Hospital/Weill Cornell Medical Center. “These junctions decrease the permeability of the lining of the GI tract, so that bacteria and other toxins cannot enter the blood stream.”
The problem occurs when those junctions are loosened, and bacteria and other harmful substances literally leak out of your small intestine into your blood stream, triggering an inflammatory reaction in the body. And that’s not a good thing.
The causes and effects of leaky gut
While there are a lot of studies on leaky gut, there’s still no consensus in the medical world on its cause. Diet is one proposed cause, and many physicians point to foods that cause inflammation in the body, like alcohol and modern wheat. Studies also suggest that inflammatory compounds formed through cooking or processing foods at high temperatures, called AGEs (advanced glycation end products), may play a role. Food allergies have also been implicated. “True food allergies (not food sensitivities) may loosen the tight junctions,” says Dr. Frissora.
The overuse of NSAIDs, a class of drugs that includes aspirin and ibuprofen, may also be a cause, and leaky gut is often found in individuals with GI diseases like IBS, Crohn’s, Colitis, and Celiac, although the cause-and-effect relationship in these cases isn’t cut and dry.
In addition to the digestive issues that leaky gut may cause, the syndrome is most often linked to autoimmune diseases like psoriasis and arthritis, and many alternative health practitioners have turned to leaky-gut treatment plans to reduce symptom outbreaks, with great results. It’s also associated with creating and exacerbating allergies, acne, and eczema.
Finally, some physicians, such as Leo Galland, MD, who writes extensively on the topic, say leaky gut may also lead to chronic fatigue and depression.
While there is still considerable disagreement on the leaky gut landscape and its causes, there are some steps most physicians recommend to prevent and treat the syndrome. Probiotics are often cited to help promote a healthy gut, and Dr. Andrew Weil and Dr. Galland both recommend avoiding alcohol and NSAIDs, and adopting an anti-inflammatory diet that’s high in fiber and low in refined starches and added sugar. All of which are steps towards a healthier lifestyle anyway, whether your small intestine is ultra-permeable or not.
Originally published April 11, 2013. Updated September 25, 2019.
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