IBS vs. Leaky Gut: What’s the Difference?

Maintaining proper gut health plays a key role in optimizing your personal wellness. Risk factors such as autoimmune disorders, poor nutrition and stress have all been linked to disruption of the gut’s microbiota, resulting in varied GI conditions. However, it’s not always easy to distinguish between common diagnoses.

Like many GI disorders, IBS and leaky gut continue to be a mystery to many, so we wanted to break down the differences (and similarities) between the two.

What is IBS?

Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) is a chronic, functional gastrointestinal (GI) disorder that primarily impacts the large intestine. Though it impacts up to 20 percent of the global population, there is still relatively little known about IBS. Common symptoms include abdominal pain, bloating, constipation and/or diarrhea.

Despite how it sounds, IBS isn’t a type of inflammatory bowel disease (IBD). IBDs are diseases characterized by the presence of inflammation in the gut, including Crohn’s Disease and Ulcerative Colitis. However, IBS is not an established disease, but a combination of symptoms that point to an improperly functioning GI system. Though inflammation isn’t a prerequisite for an IBS diagnosis, it’s a commonly associated symptom.

“If we have irritated bowels, they’re irritated by something,” says Notch Medical Advisor Dr. Chris Meletis, N.D. This could be anything from chronic stress to undiagnosed food sensitivities or exposure to environmental toxins.

What is leaky gut syndrome?

Like IBS, leaky gut is not an IBD, but simply a phenomenon associated with what we call “increased intestinal permeability,” or damaged tight junctions in your gut’s epithelial barrier. Symptoms of leaky gut can vary more widely than IBS, but often include skin conditions, infections and joint or muscle pain alongside common gastrointestinal symptoms. There is also a lot of discussion and conflicting research on whether leaky gut is a cause or symptom of diseases such as IBD and type 1 diabetes.

How do they differ?

Though the similarities between the two GI disorders are clear, it’s not always easy to distinguish the differences. However, IBS is GI disorder with more established criteria for diagnosis, while leaky gut is linked to a wider range of symptoms and disorders. There are more established treatment options for IBS, as it is a more commonly accepted diagnosis.

“You can have an irritated bowel without it being so damaged or dysfunctional that it results in a leaky gut,” says Meletis. “Leaky gut can exist with or without IBS and IBS can exist with or without a leaky gut.”

How can I address it?

If you think you might have IBS and/or leaky gut, the only person that can give you an accurate diagnosis is an accredited healthcare practitioner, such as your general physician or a gastroenterologist. Nonetheless, there are steps you can take in the meantime to try and assuage your symptoms.

Meletis suggests starting with an IgG food sensitivity test to determine which foods might be problematic for your gut.

“When you have IBS or a leaky gut, you don’t want to eat foods that are going to cause it to become more irritated or inflamed,” he says. If your gastrointestinal tract is sensitive to a specific food and large enough amino acids are let in, your body reacts as if it were a foreign invader.

“The average U.S. citizen eats the same 25 foods day in and day out,” he says. “If you’re overeating a specific food, the test will help determine whether or not it has become an irritant.”

If you’re new to food sensitivity testing, Notch has a collection of tests that cater to a variety of diets and cuisines, all of which can be completed in the comfort of your own home.

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