Although medicine is finally beginning to acknowledge the role of what we eat in making us ill, the hidden factor in illness is how well we digest it. A few pioneers like our panellist nutritional doctor Leo Galland, author of Superimmunity for Kids
The deciding factor, it seems, is the condition of the membrane of our small intestine, which when working properly, is a clever sieve, with the ability to allow simple carbohydrates, amino acids and essential fatty acids "through", while blocking toxins and substances like whole proteins from entering our bloodstream.
When this protective, selectively permeable membrane is damaged, the larger proteins and toxins it's meant to protect us from get "leaked" into our bloodstream, leading our immune systems to attack these proteins and eventually, our own bodies as foreign matter. What Galland and a number of others believe is that this situation is behind many autoimmune conditions, from inflammatory bowel disease to arthritis.
Galland goes as far as to argue that a leaky gut is associated with AIDS and HIV infection and even conditions like autism.
One of the latest and most interesting theories comes from health writer Susie Cornell, who postulates that leaky gut probably plays a central role in the development of multiple sclerosis. In one research project of 40 MS patients, all were found to have a number of nutritional deficiencies, even among those taking supplements. The patients show particular deficiencies of magnesium, manganese, selenium, zinc and mostly all of the B vitamins.
This could mean, she said, that the patients with MS absorb food poorly, possibly due to a leaky gut.
Because different parts of the intestinal wall absorb different nutrients, damage to the wall in one area may cause poor absorption of one particular nutrient, says Cornell. This is why a patient might be show one single deficiency rather than wholesale malnutrition. The symptoms of B12 deficiency and magnesium deficiency fatigue, irritability, nervous system disorders, tingling and numbness in fingers and toes and even balance problems are the symptoms we have collectively termed "MS".
Furthermore, she says, many of these symptoms of MS are also the symptoms of the leaky gut syndrome.
No one really knows whether these diseases are solely caused by a leaky gut; the situation is probably chicken and egg. Once your gut "leaks" and foreign proteins get through the intestinal barrier, your immune system begins to inappropriately react to them, and your liver and pancreas begins to operate faultily, the gut doesn't receive the nutrients it needs for optimum health, leading the intestinal sieve to grow larger and larger. A leaky gut leads to an ill body, which leads to a leaky gut.
If Galland and writers like Cornell are correct, then we have to entirely rethink what we term disease as not something we catch but something mostly under our control, caused by the breakdown of digestive processes. The symptoms that we gather together into a classifiable disease may be no more than the manifestation of one or more vitamin deficiencies, caused by a faulty gut. The most important supplements we take may not be vitamins and minerals per se but all the digestive enzymes and substances which ensure that our gut properly absorbs what we eat.
We must return to the notion that the most important determinant of disease is food, but this now includes whether our bodies are receiving the benefit of a plentiful table.