Modern life is hard on your gut. Your entire digestive tract can be affected by stress, processed foods, alcohol, medications, and bacteria.
All that chronic irritation can lead to inflammation and, eventually, to a lot of little pinprick-style leaks in the very thin and delicate lining of your intestinal wall.
And even a tiny leak can cause surprisingly big problems. A healthy gut is very selective about what gets passed into your body. But a leaky gut can release undigested food particles, bacteria, and toxins into your bloodstream, leading to a potentially outsized immune response.
What Is Leaky Gut?
If the damage to the lining of your gut is bad enough that such substances regularly leak through, it can wreak havoc on your health.
The long list of conditions associated with leaky gut syndrome (a.k.a. increased intestinal permeability) include acne, allergies, arthritis, asthma, autism, and many more.
Alessio Fasano, MD, director of the Center for Celiac Research & Treatment at Massachusetts General Hospital for Children in Boston, recently discovered that leaky guts can even lead to autoimmune disorders.
And it’s a bit of a vicious cycle: “Our bodies can only fight so many fires at one time,” explains Liz Lipski, PhD, CCN, author of Digestive Wellness. “If someone is suffering from chronic stress, disease, or inflammation, the normal repair and maintenance of the gut gets deferred.”
What damages the gut? Lipski and other experts say the top culprits include nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) like ibuprofen, as well as sugar, alcohol, processed foods, and any foods that trigger an allergic response. Other irritants include chronic stress, toxins, and microbiome imbalances.
Given how commonplace such irritants have become in our lives, it’s not surprising that intestinal-permeability problems are pervasive, says Jacob Teitelbaum, MD, coauthor of Real Cause, Real Cure: The 9 Root Causes of the Most Common Health Problems and How to Solve Them. “These days,” he asserts, “virtually everybody’s gut leaks to some degree.”
Leaky gut syndrome has been treated by the integrative and functional-medicine community for years. But now, more of mainstream medicine is acknowledging it, too.
So what’s changed? Our understanding of the microbiome, for one thing.
The discovery that human health and behavior are profoundly influenced by a huge population of microorganisms living predominantly in our guts shook up a lot of docs, says Leo Galland, MD, a conventionally trained internist in New York City who now serves as director of the Foundation for Integrative Medicine. “Western medicine’s acceptance of the leaky gut model has been nothing short of a sea change.”
Leaky-gut symptoms vary. If the leakage is minor, symptoms will generally be confined to the gastrointestinal (GI) tract, explains Tom Sult, MD, a Minnesota-based physician and author of Just Be Well. Typical results? Bloating, gas, or cramps.
More significant leaks are more likely to produce bodywide symptoms, he says, including fatigue, joint pain, rashes, respiratory issues, asthma, and autoimmune responses — including psoriasis.
As the condition of the gut degrades, notes Sult, the health impacts can be dramatic. So if you think you may be experiencing the symptoms of a leaky gut, it’s wise to address it promptly.
The good news, says Galland, is that the cells of the intestinal lining replace themselves every three to six days. This means that, given the proper support, your gut can repair itself quickly.
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