Putting a stop to leaky gut

Matthew Solan

Executive Editor, Harvard Men's Health Watch

Leaky gut gets blamed for everything from everyday stomach issues to pain to anxiety, yet it is one of the most mysterious ailments to diagnose and treat.

Part of the reason for this medical mystery is because the gut is such a vast and complex system. “Science continues to find new ways that the gut can influence everything from heart health to keeping our brains young,” says Dr. Alessio Fasano, director of the Center for Celiac Research and Treatment with Harvard-affiliated Massachusetts General Hospital. “There is much we know about leaky gut in terms of how it affects people’s health, but there is still so much that is unknown.”

What is leaky gut?

You have to begin at the cellular level. The lining of your intestine is made of millions and millions of cells. These cells join together to create a tight barrier that acts like a security system and decides what gets absorbed into the bloodstream and what stays out.

However, in an unhealthy gut, the lining can weaken, so “holes” develop in the barrier. The result is that toxins and bacteria can leak into the body. This can trigger inflammation in the gut and throughout the body and cause a chain reaction of problems, such as bloating, gas, cramps, food sensitivities, fatigue, headaches, and joint pain, to name a few.

How do these “holes” form? The biggest culprits are genes and diet, according to Dr. Fasano. “Some people may have a weaker barrier because they were born with it, or they follow an unbalanced diet low in fiber and high in sugar and saturated fats, which may be the trigger that weakens the gut lining.” Age also plays a role because as you age, cells get damaged more easily and heal slowly, if at all, so the gut becomes more vulnerable.

The role of leaky gut in overall health remains unclear

“Leaky gut could be the cause of some health problems, or a sign of something larger,” says Dr. Fasano. “The science is still up in the air.” For example, digestive conditions like inflammatory bowel disease, celiac disease, and Crohn’s disease share many of the same symptoms as leaky gut, and all are linked with chronic inflammation, but it’s not known how, or if, they are connected.

“The challenge is that it’s difficult to measure the strength of a person’s gut barrier, so you can’t know for certain when leaky gut is really present, or what influence it may have elsewhere in the body,” says Dr. Fasano.

Can you treat leaky gut?

You can, but the approach is similar to diagnosing a broken car, says Dr. Fasano. “You don’t know the exact problem until the mechanic lifts the hood, looks around, and tries different things — there is not a simple, direct approach to fixing the problem,” he says. “It’s the same with leaky gut. We have to try different strategies to see what helps.”

Your first step is to share your symptoms with your doctor. If leaky gut is a possibility, he or she can try several strategies to help relieve symptoms and reduce inflammation. The most common is to review your diet and eliminate known dietary causes of inflammation, such as excessive consumption of alcohol and processed foods, and to explore whether you have any food sensitivities — for instance, to gluten or dairy. “In theory, reducing inflammation from your diet like this also may rebuild the gut lining and stop further leakage,” says Dr. Fasano.

The best way to protect yourself from leaky gut is to invest more in your overall digestive health, he adds. This means being more attentive about following a gut-healthy diet that limits processed foods and high-fat and high-sugar foods, and includes enough fiber. Sticking to a regular exercise program also can strengthen your digestive system. For example, studies have suggested that taking a 15-to 20-minute walk after a meal can aid in digestion. “Your gastrointestinal system is complex, but caring for it doesn’t have to be,” says Dr. Fasano.

Related Information: Understanding Inflammation


  1. Melanie

    I wonder the role of probiotics in leaky gut, and whether there is an actual preventative side effect of any probiotics whether disease process Is through infection or chronic illness.

  2. Beth Bacon

    Hello everyone, I fortunately had a chiropractor who had some training in nutrition mention that I might have leaky gut which lead me to a gastro. Who did an upper GI and found Atrophic Autoimmune Gastritis which I now know I’ve been struggling with for 14 years without any help. So I know the severe anxiety that comes with flares and for me unrelenting stress that caused the condition are the most detrimental.
    So then food sensitivities and allergies then occur. So then this can lead to the point of being allergic to many foods. Fortunately meditation and a semi- retired lifestyle does help. If you can retire early I’d recommend it to get your stress under control if you suspect that as for me I consider this a serious condition. I wish you all the very best, do check your food allergies extensively!

  3. Stan

    Interesting topic, but the term is in the teens, the text not new to any who suffers from the condition.
    Advices to contact doctors sound a bit rosy, to those who have passed through hundreds of consultations, from GPs, gastroenterologists, allergy, intolerance or nutrition or else doctors or consultants. The truth is that is it a profitable industry, the spread of anti-acids, and even if the problem is diagnosed, the advice is: anti-acids, in any form, milder or stronger, regularly taken.
    The “traditional” medicine does not care, the rest can’t help.

  4. Manu Zarabi

    Is the common ailment of hyperacidity also the result of a leaky gut?

    • Faye

      If you are talking about heartburn and acid reflux I used to have it all the time. I don’t have it when I don’t overeat. I only have acid reflux when I have eat too much all day long. I have felt like it is from eating before the food I have eaten is digested. I also don’t eat 4 or 5 hours before going to bed.

  5. Mohammed Jawad

    Thank you for sharing a very interesting article. It would be great to share also diagnostics parameters for the leaky gut condition! Best regards

  6. Shelli Belleci

    I suffered terribly for some time and found myself sensitive to gluten, dairy, coffee and alcohol. It’s amazing what living a Whole Foods plant based lifestyle did for me, and I’m thankful I never had to take any medications.

  7. Nand Dhawan

    One must avoid heavy items like fats , sugar,tamarind,cheese ,tea, coffee,fried foods,high fat milk and take rest and should take potassium rich foods like bananas,curd,rice ,plenty of home available fluids,zinc syrup.one must diagnose his disease to get proper treatment.Gastro physician is best option.

  8. sarvan minhas

    Medical science often declares that it does not know ‘why’ a particular ailment strikes us, why it happens in the first place. From cancer to macular degeneration to gut leakage – to anything same is the story. Modern medical science is also unwilling to take the alternative systems of medicine seriously – except therapies like acupuncture, yoga, etc. Illnesses and patients are growing at the same pace as the number of medicines, hospitals and doctors. Scientists ignore the working of total body-mind in their research as well as the impact of whole external environment – socioeconomic and physical.

  9. Karina Peden

    Thank you for writing this article. I hope doctors read it. I don’t feel so crazy explaining what I have!

  10. Herb

    Can someone with knowledge of the effects of water soluble fiber on the absorption of saturated fats, trans fats and cholesterol from the stomach and intestines into the blood stream please explain how the blockage occurs and whether it occurs when water soluble fiber is consumed before or after consuming fats . Does the water soluble fiber have identical effects on the absorption of mono and polyunsaturated fats?

  11. Jkumar

    Helpful article.

  12. Marie

    Hi, I read about leaky gut when I was having skin rashes which were possibly a form of psoriasis. It was very distressing and they itched and could be painful. I followed a leaky gut healing diet recommended by Dr John Pagano a chiropractor and author of the book Healing Psoriasis. This rashes went away. I don’t gt them anymore.

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