The wellness world keeps talking about ‘leaky gut syndrome’ – but what does that actually mean?

Leaky gut syndrome is taking over the wellness world, but does it really exist? 

Low-FODMAP diets, starving bacteria and daily shots of olive oil are just some of the buzzy (and mainly unnecessary) gut trends you’ll find on social media. But these ‘cures’ don’t exist without a problem. From IBS to excessive stress, there are a lot of conditions that are known to impact our gut health. But now there’s a new ailment being touted as the reason behind your pain – leaky gut syndrome.

With nearly 350,000 posts on Instagram, the ‘condition’ has taken over the wellness world. But for every guru claiming it’s responsible for your symptoms, there are experts calling bullshit. 

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Dr Adrian Chavez, known for his anti-biohacking stance, tells Stylist that “Leaky gut is something that is more nuanced than what [people online] are describing,” saying that it’s almost certain most regular people don’t suffer from this. So what exactly is going on?

What is leaky gut syndrome?

“The idea behind leaky gut is that the junctions between cells in the bowel wall are not as robust as they should be, and this lets larger particles, bacteria and pro-inflammatory matter into the bloodstream,” says dietitian Sophie Medlin. According to the leaky gut experts online, symptoms can include eczema, acne, fatigue, bloating, headaches and brain fog as these pathogens permeate the gut lining and make us unwell. 

Leaky gut involves the intestinal wall being broken down

In the medical world, it’s not so simple. Leaky gut doesn’t actually exist as a diagnosis, but something called ‘intestinal permeability’ does. This is the same concept – that the lining of the gut thins or contains ‘holes’ that let through bacteria. Only, intestinal permeability is a symptom of rare and more sinister illnesses, rather than its own medical problem.

In a 2019 review of the literature from Gut by the British Medical Journal, researchers said that it’s true that there’s evidence for “barrier dysfunction in diseases resulting in intestinal inflammation and damage such as coeliac or Crohn’s disease or ulceration from non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs)”. 

However, they state that changes to the intestinal barrier are an epiphenomenon – a by-product of these illnesses, rather than a condition that can exist on its own within healthy populations. 

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“It is true that in conditions such as Crohn’s disease and coeliac disease there is damage to the integrity of the bowel wall. However, for the majority of people, if you had bacteria leaking into your bloodstream on a regular basis, you would have something called sepsis which is life-threatening,” adds Medlin.

Current narratives also link chronic illness, autism and other serious diseases. In less worrying but similarly unproven claims, leaky gut is thought to be down to ‘dysbiosis’ of the gut microbiome that can be solved with fermented foods and diet plans. 

“Information on ‘healthy’ or ‘leaky’ gut in the public domain requires confirmation before endorsing dietary exclusions… or use of supplements to repair the damage,” write researchers in Gut. And they add that no chronic illness or other diseases “can be cured by simply normalising intestinal barrier function”. 

So why the obsession with something that’s not true? Researchers write that it’s potentially down to “frustration about the lack of perceived advances in the management of common GI [gastrointestinal] symptoms such as pain, diarrhoea and bloating” and say that causes like leaky gut offers a solution to those who are in need. However, they express concern for those who might believe that leaky gut syndrome offers a solution to their problems.

Medlin says: “What you’ll notice about all these conditions is that modern medicine doesn’t currently have a ‘cure’ for them which makes the people who live with these conditions more likely to seek help. A ‘diagnosis’ of leaky gut and the promise of ‘healing your gut’ is not evidence-based in medicine or a moral way to take care of people who are struggling with chronic illness.”

The vague symptoms of leaky gut are linked with many other health conditions, so if you are struggling, then it’s important to visit a doctor or healthcare professional who can help you figure out what is more likely to be happening. 

Images: Getty

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