There are always hot topics and trends when it comes to health. The past year might well have been the “year of the tummy troubles.”

From probiotics and fermented foods to gluten and "leaky gut," many self-help books and bloggers can’t stop talking about upset stomachs and potential solutions.

The leaky gut topic gained traction from the news and television’s celebrity doctors. But the mainstream health profession doesn’t recognize leaky gut as an official illness, and your doctor won’t give you a leaky gut diagnosis.

Still, some continue to believe that bacteria or products of bacteria "leak" through the intestinal wall. Once they enter the bloodstream, they can travel throughout the body.

Some people believe leaky gut can lead to a group of symptoms, including:

  • Bloating
  • Cramps
  • Fatigue
  • Food sensitivities
  • Achy joints
  • Rashes
  • Headache

Gastroenterologist Dr. Alan Buchman, a Blue Cross and Blue Shield Plan medical director, has explored so-called leaky gut in patients and in the lab. He says leaky gut is not a name for a disease.

“There is so much misinformation that can be found online,” Dr. Buchman says. “One of my red flags when looking at a research article is when there are more review articles critiquing the research than the actual research article.”

So What Is Causing Gut Problems?

Why do people believe in a leaky gut diagnosis? “Sometimes doctors don’t have all the answers. We just don’t know enough about how this works,” Dr. Buchman says. “The concern is that people may be self-diagnosing or trying treatments or supplements that may be expensive or actually harmful."

And why don’t doctors know everything? They are just starting to unlock the secrets of the intestinal microbiome. That’s the name for the 10 trillion to 100 trillion bacteria that live in each person's intestine.

The bacteria in the GI tract do many things, both good and bad. They can steal your nutrients, help you digest food and protect you against other disease-causing bacteria. “With so many bacteria and fungi, we don’t know yet what is normal and what isn’t,” Buchman says.

Though research is being done on the topic, there’s no evidence that bacteria or their toxins leak through the gut wall. Even so, some studies suggest that not only can having “good” bacteria in your intestines protect your digestive tract, having "bad" bacteria go through your intestinal track could wreak havoc and possibly cause or worsen some chronic health problems. 

It seems humans and gut bacteria have developed a relationship. In exchange for a warm feeding environment, these bugs play a key role in your immune system and your metabolism. Good bacteria can:

  • Latch on to receptors in your gut and crowd out “bad” bacteria. But they can also bind with food products and turn them into toxins, like what may happen with some processed meats.
  • Produce essential nutrients, including vitamin K that is vital for blood clotting, and folic acid, which helps prevent birth defects.
  • Help your immune system sort between harmless particles and potentially disease-causing pathogens. This boosts your resistance to illness and lowers your risk for allergies.

What Can You Do to Promote a Healthy Gut?

Like your hair color and skin tone, your genetics determine much of your microbiome. But it’s also influenced by your diet, activity level and other habits. Exposure to different environments can also play a role. All these variables make our bacterial blends as unique as our fingerprints.

You can’t change some of the things that influence your bacterial mix, including your gender, ethnicity and genes. But making healthy choices may boost your gut health.

  • Eat more fruits, vegetables and fiber and less fat and sugar. Be consistent with your healthy eating. Research suggests that a high-fat diet can change your gut bacteria in as little as a day. That could cause the cells that line your digestive system to produce bad bacteria, which increases inflammation in the surrounding tissues.
  • Maintain a healthy weight. Experts are looking into the relationship between obesity and bacteria. A 2013 study used sets of human twins with one healthy weight twin and one obese twin. After researchers put gut bacteria from the twins into mice, the mice that received bacteria from overweight twins became overweight. The mice that received bacteria from twins with healthy weights remained at a healthy weight.
  • Use discretion with antibiotics. These powerful medications wipe out both good bacteria and harmful pathogens. Never demand them for viral infections, such as colds or flu. If your doctor urges them for a bacterial infection, take them exactly as directed — finish them even if you feel better — and don’t share a prescription.
  • Work out regularly. Though researchers are still gathering more information, they know an active lifestyle promotes better digestive health.
  • Don’t smoke. Research suggests that smoking may negatively change the gut bacteria.
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Talk to your doctor.

While it’s common to have an upset stomach some of the time, talk to your doctor if you are having ongoing issues.