The alleged connection between leaky gut and IBS symptoms has gained increasing attention, particularly in alternative health circles.
However, it’s important to note that “leaky gut” is not a recognized medical diagnosis.
In this blog, we aim to shed light on what is meant by ‘leaky gut’. We will also separate fact from fiction by uncovering the scientific evidence surrounding its alleged connection to IBS.
What is leaky gut syndrome?
‘Leaky gut syndrome’ is a term used to describe a theoretical condition in which the lining of the intestinal wall becomes more permeable than normal.
However, it is not a recognised medical condition.
Increased permeability would allow toxins, undigested food particles, and bacteria to leak through the intestinal barrier and enter the bloodstream (1).
This is theorized to be linked with health conditions such as IBS.
Why is leaky gut not a recognized medical diagnosis?
It is essential to clarify that mainstream medical authorities do not recognize leaky gut as a medical diagnosis.
The term “leaky gut” is primarily used in alternative health circles and lacks formal recognition in the scientific and medical communities.
Unlike established medical conditions, no specific laboratory tests or clinical markers definitively diagnose leaky gut. Also, there’s no consensus on how to diagnose a leaky gut.
While ongoing scientific investigations explore the concept of increased gut permeability, there is currently no evidence that a leaky gut can directly cause other medical conditions.
However, the following medical conditions or scenarios have been linked to having increased gut permeability as a symptom of the condition;
- Inflammatory bowel disease (e.g. Crohn’s and Ulcerative Colitis) (2)
- Gut infections (e.g. salmonella and norovirus) (3)
- Celiac disease (4)
- Chemotherapy (5).
- Chronic kidney disease (6)
- Cystic fibrosis (7).
- Type 1 diabetes (8, 9)
- Sepsis (10)
Although these conditions are linked with increased gut permeability, this does not mean that the increased permeability causes these conditions.
No evidence reducing the permeability of the gut would help to treat these conditions.
For example, gut permeability reduces in celiac disease after removing gluten from the diet (4).
If the theory of leaky gut causing celiac disease were true, gluten-free diets would cure coeliac disease.
The role of the gut lining
The gut lining, or intestinal barrier, serves as the interface between the inside of the intestines and the bloodstream.
The gut lining is designed to strike a delicate balance between absorbing essential nutrients from our food and protecting our body from potentially harmful substances.
It consists of a single layer of cells called epithelial cells, tightly packed together and connected by tight junctions.
Tight junctions act as gatekeepers, allowing the absorption of nutrients into the bloodstream while selectively blocking the entry of larger molecules, toxins, bacteria, fungi and viruses (11).
A mucus layer, a physical barrier against harmful substances, protects the gut lining. It also contains specialized immune cells to defend against potential pathogens (12).
Factors affecting gut barrier permeability
Several factors can disrupt the integrity of the gut barrier and contribute to increased intestinal permeability, such as:
- Imbalance in gut microbiota (dysbiosis)
- Chronic inflammation: Prolonged inflammation in the gut can weaken the gut barrier, affecting its permeability. Inflammatory mediators can alter tight junction proteins,
- Environmental factors: Exposure to toxins, pollutants, or certain medications
- Stress: Chronic or prolonged stress can influence gut barrier integrity. Stress hormones may impact the function of tight junctions, potentially increasing permeability (13).
Are ‘leaky gut’ and IBS linked?
Studies investigating the connection between leaky gut and IBS have yielded mixed results, and only a few studies are available.
Not all individuals with IBS show signs of increased gut permeability. This is unsurprising as IBS is a multifactorial disorder with a complex interplay of various factors.
However, research studies show increased gut permeability is found in up to 62% of individuals with IBS-D and 50% of individuals with IBS triggered after gastrointestinal infection (16).
Does leaky gut cause autism spectrum conditions (ASC)?
Some theories propose that increased intestinal permeability, or leaky gut, may contribute to the development or severity of autism spectrum conditions (ASC) via immune triggers.
However, this evidence is feeble, with small sample sizes and often tangential or anecdotal. There is no evidence to suggest any causality.
While the idea of a gut-brain connection and its implications for ASC is intriguing, ASC is unlikely to be caused by one factor, such as a leaky gut, due to its complexity.
What if your gut isn’t permeable enough?
Now that we have discussed increased permeability, let’s cover the more common problem of reduced permeability, which is a part of other health conditions.
Inflammation can reduce gut permeability in certain autoimmune conditions such as:
- Crohn’s Disease
- Coeliac Disease
- Ulcerative Colitis
Reduced permeability means fewer nutrients are absorbed so individuals can suffer from conditions like osteoporosis and anemia (due to lack of calcium and iron absorption).
However, medical treatments and dietetic input can improve this reduced permeability, and malabsorption conditions can either be resolved or prevented from worsening.
The concept of “leaky gut” and its alleged connection to various health conditions, including IBS and autism spectrum conditions, has generated significant interest and debate.
The gut barrier is a critical interface, balancing nutrient absorption with protection against harmful substances.
A leaky gut is not recognized as a medical diagnosis. Gut dysbiosis, chronic inflammation, environmental influences, and stress can affect intestinal permeability.
Although a leaky gut has been suggested to contribute to IBS and ASC, no evidence convincingly backs up any of the claims of increased gut permeability in these groups.
Annabelle is a registered dietitian who has a special interest in the complex interplay between gut health and mental health. In her NHS role, Annabelle specialises in mental health and learning disabilities, seeing patients in hospital for their mental health as well as supporting people in the community. Annabelle has also been working with the Food Treatment Clinic as one of our writers since she was a dietetics student.
Last updated on August 26th, 2023 at 03:37 pm