Leaky-Gut Syndrome

Leaky-gut syndrome is not a medical diagnosis at all, but a term that has come to be used by both alternative and traditional medical doctors to describe a set of symptoms for which the cause is not known. As with any illness that involves failure of a body’s system, we can describe the failure and how it causes the symptoms, but occasionally we cannot immediately determine why the failure happens. Such is the case with leaky gut syndrome. First described by alternative practitioners and only recently beginning to be recognized by MDs, it is poorly understood. “We don’t know a lot but we know that it exists,” says Linda A. Lee, MD, a gastroenterologist and director of the Johns Hopkins Integrative Medicine and Digestive Center. “In the absence of evidence, we don’t know what it means or what therapies can directly address it.”

Evidence is accumulating and even traditional medical practitioners are beginning to recognize that leaky gut syndrome is a real condition that affects the lining of the intestines. The theory is that leaky gut syndrome (also called increased intestinal permeability), is the result of damage to the intestinal lining, although there may be any of several causes for that damage. When damaged, the intestine is less able to protect the internal environment as well as to filter needed nutrients and other biological substances. Some bacteria and their toxins, incompletely digested proteins and fats, and waste not normally absorbed may consequently “leak” out of the intestines into the blood stream. This in turn triggers an autoimmune reaction, leading to gastrointestinal problems such as abdominal bloating, excessive gas and cramps, fatigue, food sensitivities, joint pain, skin rashes, and IBS. All of these conditions, unfortunately, can also be caused by other agents, so that the diagnosis can be quite challenging.

With regard to development of allergies, the theory is that whatever causes the unusual permeability of the intestines allows partially digested food particles to enter the bloodstream, where they are recognized as foreign bodies by the immune system. As a result, the immune response that is the heart of the allergy occurs throughout the body, mimicking or perhaps even being responsible for autoimmune disorders such as Crohn’s Disease or fibromyalgia. Treatment is largely experimental at this time, since the causes are not clearly understood. Although doctors do have treatment options, there have been no scientific long-term studies, so results of treatments are anecdotal and not necessarily true for all sufferers.