What exactly is leaky gut?
Leaky gut is a condition that hasn’t been well defined, and it means different things to different people.
We know that the gastrointestinal (GI) tract is full of micro-organisms, such as bacteria and fungi. (Here are the foods to eat for a healthy microbiome.) These generally stay inside the gut because of the integrity of the wall of the GI tract – like how water stays inside a garden hose. Some experts have theorized that those organisms can leak out under certain circumstances and that this can have negative consequences.
It might be about inflammation
Ulcerative colitis and Crohn’s disease are examples of inflammatory bowel disease (IBD) where this can happen.
In these cases, something disrupts part of the gut wall that holds micro-organisms in – like when the bricks and mortar of a wall have cracks or crumbles. When these micro-organisms seep out, the body recognizes them as foreign and does what it’s supposed to do in the face of an enemy, mounting a massive inflammatory response. This inflammatory response drives the symptoms of those diseases.
Your inflammatory response can be measured – we can actually see inflammation when we do a scope and look inside the gut or if we take a sample and look at it under a microscope. We can also usually detect inflammatory cells in blood and stool samples.
When most people talk about leaky gut, what I’ve just described isn’t what they have in mind. It’s likely based on the general principle I described above, but people aren’t usually referring to someone with Crohn’s disease, ulcerative colitis or any other detectable or measurable inflammation of the GI tract.
Leaky gut is more of a symptom than a condition
The term “leaky gut” has been used as a blanket diagnosis for a whole host of symptoms – from abdominal pain and bloating to fatigue and rashes – without any clearly defined or diagnosed syndrome or any scientific explanation as to how these symptoms could be related to each other or to something leaking from the gut.
That said, the gut is a major immune organ in the body, so the concept isn’t totally impossible – it’s just not a condition we’ve studied or defined yet. It has gained some Internet popularity, but it isn’t founded in sound science.
If you are wondering if you should worry about leaky gut, the short answer is no. (Here are eight normal reasons your belly is bloated.)
That doesn’t mean you should dismiss worrisome symptoms such as cramps, bloating and abdominal pain, but it means that they will likely be investigated appropriately and attributed to a better-defined, better-understood syndrome or condition.