What is leaky gut?

woman holding her stomach in pain
(Image credit: Getty Images)

As the saying goes, you are what you eat. But what if it's more like you are what you digest? Feeling like your meals aren't going down the right way? Getting bloated and uncomfortable after every meal? A quick Google search may have suggested something called 'leaky gut'. But what does this actually mean?

Leaky gut is a term commonly used to describe what happens when the body's digestive system stops functioning properly. Leaky gut can be uncomfortable and annoying — it can also lead to more serious health problems in the long run. 

We spoke with a few gut experts to bring you a comprehensive guide to leaky gut syndrome. Here, we'll be covering what a leaky gut is, symptoms, and what you should do if you think you have leaky gut syndrome. And if you’re concerned about your gut health, check out the best probiotics or these five ways to improve your gut health

What is a leaky gut?

So, what exactly is a 'leaky gut' anyway. Whilst it’s not quite as horrible as it sounds, it can lead to serious health problems if left untreated.

"Leaky gut syndrome is currently not recognized as a medical diagnosis," 

Kellyann Petrucci, M.S., N.D., tells LiveScience. "Instead, it's what medical professionals refer to as a hypothetical condition or an expression used to describe the intestines of an individual’s body not functioning optimally.”

As Petrucci explains, leaky gut is usually used to describe when the body's intestinal barrier is damaged. "This damage can allow toxins to enter the bloodstream which can trigger an inflammatory response," she says. "Think of a leaky gut like a leak that develops in your home allowing dirty and contaminated rainwater to drip into your home." 

An illustration of the gut microbiome.

(Image credit: Shutterstock)

According to registered dietician and gut health expert Amanda Sauceda, there are a number of reasons why you might develop a leaky gut. The most common reason is inflammation. 

"Diet may play a big role with leaky gut along with your gut microbiome. Digestive diseases may also contribute to leaky gut as well," she tells us, citing one 2020 study published in the American journal of physiology, Gastrointestinal and liver physiology. "For the most part there is no one factor that contributes to leaky gut. It’s more a combination of factors that come together and impact the integrity of your gut barrier." 

Petrucci also adds: "It's important to note that there are many different theories on what may trigger leaky gut syndrome – and that is why it's difficult to both diagnose or treat.” 

Some people believe that leaky gut is caused by allergies, while others believe it's caused by antibiotics. Some also cite sugar, or that even the excessive use of antacids can irritate the intestine and trigger the condition. 

Saucedo adds that leaky gut should never be taken lightly. In fact, she notes, new research is indicating that it may lead to other conditions like diabetes or arthritis.

What are the symptoms of leaky gut?

As Saucedo and Patrucci both note, leaky gut can be hard to diagnose because it's quite a nebulous condition that still needs more research. However there are a few signs to look out for that may indicate leaky gut syndrome.

"The first place I look is digestive health and gastrointestinal symptoms," Patrucci explains. 

Common signs, she says, include:

  • Bloating
  • Gas
  • Cramping
  • Abdominal pain
  • Bowel movement irregularities 

"But this syndrome can manifest in so many ways," she adds, "Not just in your stomach or gut." 

woman holding her stomach in pain

(Image credit: Getty Images)

Gut health problems, she notes, can also result in:

  • Skin rashes, including eczema and hives
  • Headaches
  • Fatigue
  • Joint pain
  • Mood disorders 

Saucedo adds that it can also be useful to take note of changes in how your body responds to food — especially foods you are used to eating.  

You think you have a leaky gut — what should you do?

If you're experiencing changes in your digestion or any of the other tell-tale signs of leaky gut, you may be wondering, 'What should I do next'?

First of all, you'll need to accept that while you might be dealing with leaky gut, you might also be dealing with something else. As Patrucci puts it: "Because symptoms of leaky gut are so broad and could be a sign of many other conditions, diagnosing leaky gut is challenging."

Her recommendation? Keeping a ‘21-day poop diary’. By taking note of everything you eat, every bowel movement (including shape, consistency and color) and any digestive symptoms in a 21 day window, you'll be able to help your doctor understand what is going on in your digestive system at your next appointment. 

"With this information they can begin to rule out what could be causing symptoms and if a leaky gut could be to blame," she says. "This could also indicate if and what further testing is needed."

Sauceda also suggests keeping a ‘food and mood journal’. "This is a great tool that will raise awareness of how food and mood is impacting your gut," she says.

However, she cautions against eliminating foods, even if you think you may have a food sensitivity. "This can backfire on you as the more you restrict the less variety you will have in your diet and variety is key to good gut health," she warns.
"Elimination diets can be helpful to identify food sensitivities but they should be followed by reintroduction and don’t always get to the root cause of leaky gut."

If you think you may have problems with your digestive health, start taking note of abnormalities. Be sure to visit your doctor who can run further tests to help you find out whether you are dealing with a leaky gut or something else entirely.

This article is for informational purposes only and is not meant to offer medical advice.

Meg Walters
Freelance Writer

Meg Walters is a freelance journalist and features writer. Raised in Canada and based in South East London, Meg covers culture, entertainment, lifestyle, and health. Her work has appeared in Cosmopolitan, i-D, Refinery29, Stylist, GQ, Shondaland, Healthline, HelloGiggles and other publications. When she's not writing, Meg is probably daydreaming about traveling the world, re-watching an old rom-com with a glass of wine, or wasting time on Twitter, where you can follow her @wordsbymeg.