Leaky gut: mechanisms, measurement and clinical implications in humans

Gut. 2019 Aug;68(8):1516-1526. doi: 10.1136/gutjnl-2019-318427. Epub 2019 May 10.


The objectives of this review on 'leaky gut' for clinicians are to discuss the components of the intestinal barrier, the diverse measurements of intestinal permeability, their perturbation in non-inflammatory 'stressed states' and the impact of treatment with dietary factors. Information on 'healthy' or 'leaky' gut in the public domain requires confirmation before endorsing dietary exclusions, replacement with non-irritating foods (such as fermented foods) or use of supplements to repair the damage. The intestinal barrier includes surface mucus, epithelial layer and immune defences. Epithelial permeability results from increased paracellular transport, apoptosis or transcellular permeability. Barrier function can be tested in vivo using orally administered probe molecules or in vitro using mucosal biopsies from humans, exposing the colonic mucosa from rats or mice or cell layers to extracts of colonic mucosa or stool from human patients. Assessment of intestinal barrier requires measurements beyond the epithelial layer. 'Stress' disorders such as endurance exercise, non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs administration, pregnancy and surfactants (such as bile acids and dietary factors such as emulsifiers) increase permeability. Dietary factors can reverse intestinal leakiness and mucosal damage in the 'stress' disorders. Whereas inflammatory or ulcerating intestinal diseases result in leaky gut, no such disease can be cured by simply normalising intestinal barrier function. It is still unproven that restoring barrier function can ameliorate clinical manifestations in GI or systemic diseases. Clinicians should be aware of the potential of barrier dysfunction in GI diseases and of the barrier as a target for future therapy.

Keywords: mucus; permeability; tight junctions.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Disease Management
  • Gastrointestinal Diseases* / metabolism
  • Gastrointestinal Diseases* / pathology
  • Gastrointestinal Diseases* / therapy
  • Humans
  • Intestinal Mucosa* / metabolism
  • Intestinal Mucosa* / pathology
  • Permeability