If you’re suffering from bloating, constipation, diarrhea, or any other handful of gastrointestinal symptoms, you hope that visiting your doctor will end with a diagnosis, treatment, and relief. Unfortunately, there are many people who continue to suffer with GI issues because doctors are unable to figure out what’s going on. This prevalence of mysterious GI conditions, combined with the recent evidence that gut health impacts so much of our well-being, has led alternative medicine experts to suggest a condition called leaky gut syndrome is to blame.
Leaky gut syndrome is marked by symptoms like bloating, gas, cramps, food sensitivities, aches and pains, and overall malaise. It’s not an official diagnosis, and many in the traditional medical community don’t consider it a real condition. But for those who have gone through the wringer in trying to decipher what’s ailing them and are left with no answers, leaky gut syndrome may help explain their symptoms-and finally bring relief.
“Some patients go down all paths for typical mainstream diagnoses-they’ve had an endoscopy, colonoscopy, ultrasound, blood work, tests for bacterial overgrowth, seen allergists for food sensitivities-and none of these things help,” Felice Schnoll-Sussman, M.D., gastroenterologist and director of the Jay Monahan Center for Gastrointestinal Health at NewYork-Presbyterian and Weill Cornell Medicine, tells SELF. “These people may wind up getting diagnosed with leaky gut when they end up in the hands of an alternative medicine practitioner.” And whether or not it’s a “real” illness doesn’t really matter if it ends in them finding relief.
What does it actually mean to have a leaky gut?
“Leaky gut occurs when our bodies are bombarded by toxins-whether from the environment, prescription drugs, processed foods, home cleaning and personal care products or other sources,” Josh Axe, a doctor of natural medicine, doctor of chiropractic and clinical nutritionist, and author of Eat Dirt, tells SELF. The thought is that these toxins kill good bacteria in the gut, allowing bad bacteria to thrive. “This causes the lining of our intestines to become more permeable, literally allowing undigested food particles, toxins, and other foreign invaders to escape the gut and enter the bloodstream where they can cause a variety of health concerns, from skin issues like psoriasis, to brain fog, to liver and gallbladder disease.”
Schnoll-Sussman says that there haven’t been any substantiated medical studies showing that food particles can actually slip through the gut into the bloodstream. But she says that for those who haven’t been able to find an answer for their symptoms, it’s worth considering the idea of a leaky gut-whether or not what’s happening is really as literal as the name implies.
What causes a “leaky” gut?
There are a handful of theories on what can lead to a so-called leaky gut, but anything that impacts gut health can be considered a contributing factor. “Some people believe it could be related to stress,” Schnoll-Sussman says. The thought is that chronic stress can weaken the immune system, affecting our ability to fight off bacteria and viruses and affecting the permeability of the gut.
Other factors that are thought to contribute to the incidence of leaky gut: diets high in refined sugar, chemicals and preservatives in foods, overprescription of pharmaceutical drugs (especially antibiotics), and chemicals in our environment. “The problem now is that our bodies are being attacked from so many directions simultaneously, and it’s too taxing on our systems,” Axe says. “All of these things working in tandem have created the explosion of leaky gut and overall sickness in this country.” Schnoll-Sussman adds: “What’s very popular now is the idea that gluten is doing it. Some people believe they might not have Celiac but rather a sensitivity to gluten that can be an instigator for this.”
How is leaky gut syndrome treated?
“It’s hard to get a specific treatment for a disease that has no specific ideology,” Schnoll-Sussman says. But treatment usually revolves around diet. “I believe that food is medicine,” says Axe, who outlines eating patterns to treat leaky gut in his book. Identifying foods that might be causing GI distress is the first step. Schnoll-Sussman recommends seeing an allergist to figure out if you have any unknown allergies, and then working with a dietitian to come up with a healthy eating plan around that. She also suggests upping fiber intake and adding probiotics to your diet. “Helping to reinoculate the gut with beneficial bacteria really does help.” Eating probiotic-rich foods like yogurt or kefir every day, and taking a probiotic supplement, can help.
If you have a GI problem that’s been impossible to pinpoint, seeking help from holistic or alternative health practitioners is a smart next step. “I always recommend that people find a health practitioner they can trust and who is also well-versed in the latest natural and pharmaceutical-free ways to heal their bodies,” Axe says.
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