You’re not feeling well. Maybe you have digestive issues — gas, bloating, heartburn, or food sensitivities or intolerances. Or maybe your symptoms aren’t related to digestion — you have chronic sinus congestion, post nasal drip, or allergies; achy or stiff joints; fatigue; or swelling or inflammation in your arms, legs, or even your face.

Your doctor has done a careful physical examination, run a battery of lab tests, and maybe ordered x-rays and still can’t figure out what’s wrong. You’re taking medication to deal with the symptoms, but you still feel lousy.

Has your doctor considered the possibility of leaky gut syndrome (LGS)? If not, that’s a good place to start.

What is leaky gut syndrome?

Leaky gut syndrome (LGS) occurs when the intestinal tract becomes more permeable than it should be, allowing certain substances that should stay in the intestinal tract to pass through its walls. Think of the lining of your intestinal tract as a window screen that lets the air pass through but prevents flies and mosquitoes from getting inside. If you were to push a pencil into the holes in that screen to widen them, mosquitoes and other small insects could more easily pass through.

Your intestinal lining performs a similar screening function; it keeps certain substances inside the intestinal tract while allowing others, such as nutrients, to pass through it into the bloodstream. The cells that comprise the intestinal lining are connected by tight junctions that prevent fluid from leaking out between the cells. When these junctions are weak or damaged, bacterial toxins and immune peptides can more easily pass through the intestinal wall into the bloodstream.

When potentially harmful substances pass through the intestinal wall, your immune system launches an attack on them, which can trigger physiological chain reaction that leads to chronic inflammation and autoimmune disorders.

But my digestion is fine!

You can have leaky gut without any digestive symptoms — gas, heartburn, bloating, constipation, diarrhea, or reactions to certain foods. Symptoms arise due to what leaks out of the digestive tract and how your body responds to those substances.

The problem with conventional diagnosis and treatment

Conventional medicine focuses on identifying and treating symptoms.

  • If you have heartburn (acid reflux), the doctor prescribes an antacid.
  • If you feel tired or depressed, you’re likely to be prescribed an antidepressant. If you have allergies, you may be advised to take antihistamines and decongestants.
  • If you’re feeling joint pain or muscle aches, you’ll probably be placed on painkillers and anti-inflammatories.
  • If you have diarrhea, you’ll be taking an antidiarrheal.
  • Constipation? You may be given a fiber supplement or laxative.

Because leaky gut commonly produces a variety of symptoms, you’re likely to be prescribed numerous medications to treat them all, even when they can all be addressed by identifying and treating the cause — leaky gut.

Why doesn’t my doctor know about this?

Even though leaky gut is well documented in medical literature, for several decades the conventional medicine community has considered it quackery. Most physicians continue to deny its existence, but that will change. The mounting scientific evidence will eventually be too difficult to ignore or deny. Many doctors who practice conventional medicine and are current with the latest studies have already accepted that leaky gut is a very real health condition at the root of many serious illnesses.

Leaky Gut Diagnosis in Functional Medicine

A leaky gut diagnosis typically begins with a suspicion that it may be at the root of your health issues. If you any of the conditions or symptoms listed at the beginning of this post, and these symptoms cannot be connected to another underlying cause, a test for leaky gut can confirm it or rule it out as the cause. (The two most common tests for leaky gut are the Laculose/Mannitol Test and the Cyrex Labs Array 2 Intestinal Antigenic Permeability Screen.)

Confirmation of leaky gut, however, is only the beginning. The real work is in tracking down the cause(s). Several factors may contribute to leaky gut, including the following:

  • Medications, including antibiotics and NSAIDS (aspirin, ibuprofen, and so on)
  • Gluten, dairy, and other inflammatory foods
  • Sugar, corn syrup, and other sweeteners
  • Excessive alcohol
  • Small intestinal bacterial overgrowth (SIBO)
  • Candida (a type of yeast) overgrowth
  • Bacterial or viral infection
  • Stress

Discussing your condition, medications, diet, and lifestyle with a doctor like me (one trained in Functional Medicine protocol) can help identify the most likely possible causes. I can run lab tests for food allergies and sensitivities that result in us identifying foods that may be triggering an immune response. Stool tests can be performed to rule out pathogens (bacteria or viruses that cause disease), assess digestive function, and look for levels of beneficial bacteria known as probiotics.

Leaky Gut Treatment in Functional Medicine

Because so many factors and interactions can cause leaky gut, treatment is highly individualized, but it typically involves dietary changes and nutritional supplementation. For example:

  • I often ask my patients to keep a daily food journal, which can help me identify specific foods that may be irritating your gut.
  • Dietary changes are made and symptoms monitored to confirm or rule out suspected food sensitivities.
  • Certain medications may need to be changed or discontinued.
  • Supplements may be provided to reduce inflammation.
  • Targeted therapies are provided to support the healing of the intestinal barrier.
  • Probiotics and prebiotics may be prescribed to restore healthy gut microbes and improve digestion and bowel patterns.
  • Antibacterial, anti-fungal, and anti-parasitical agents may be provided to eliminate potentially harmful bacteria, fungi, and parasites.

Regardless of the path taken to repair a leaky gut, treatment must be monitored closely until all causes and triggers have been addressed, and you’re consistently feeling better.

If you are experiencing any of the symptoms presented at the beginning of this post or other symptoms that your doctor has been unable to attribute to an underlying cause, I highly recommend you see a doctor who is familiar with the diagnosis and treatment of leaky gut and is not in denial. Ignoring it will not make it go away, and it will lead to more serious conditions that will become more difficult to treat over time.

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About the Author: Dr. Matt Lewis, D.C., CFMP®, specializes in diagnosing and treating the underlying causes of the symptoms related to chronic and unexplained illness through nutrition, lifestyle, chiropractic, and other natural approaches to whole-health healing in Tampa, Florida. He earned his B.S. in Biology from Shenandoah University, his Doctorate in Chiropractic from Life University, his CFMP® from Functional Medicine University, and his certification as a Digestive Health Specialist (DHS) through the Food Enzyme Institute. Dr. Lewis’ passion for health and wellness stems from his own personal experience. With a family history of autoimmune conditions and diabetes, and his own lab tests showing his genetic susceptibility to Hashimoto’s thyroiditis (autoimmune thyroid), he has learned how to restore his own health and vigor to prevent the onset of these illnesses and live an incredibly active life. Through this process, he acquired a deeper understanding of health and wellness, which he now offers his patients in Tampa.

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Dr. Matt