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Hippocrates: “Let Thy Food Be Thy Medicine”

Story Highlights
  • Hippocrates, acknowledged as the “Father of Medicine,” is credited as being the first to propose “food as medicine and medicine as food.”
  • Gut health and the concept of the “leaky gut” appear to play an important role in the pathogenesis of most autoimmune disorders as well as many other diseases.
  • Dietary therapies aimed at healing the compromised intestinal tract may be the first step toward addressing the host of maladies that plague industrialized nations.

“You are what you eat.” There’s a scary thought for you, but it can also be an empowering one. Before the introduction of processed, prepared, canned, boxed, frozen, powdered, freeze-dried or instant “convenience foods,” the type of food we ate was a non-issue. We ate local because that’s what was available; from the time human beings started to settle in one place we ate fresh from the field or garden and found a way to put up our extras for the winter. We made food from scratch using whole ingredients.

Along with urbanization and the commercialization of food transport came a plethora of food choices from across the country and around the globe. It became possible to taste a pineapple without visiting a tropical island and to buy fresh produce in February.

Food processing came into its own in the early 1940s, with food goods initially intended to feed the troops overseas: M&M candies were introduced in 1941 so soldiers could snack on quick energy candies without getting their hands sticky, and instant coffee was first supplied to the troops in 1942 before being released publicly in 1945.1 In those early days, foods were minimally processed, with a specific goal in mind: Keep foods from spoiling during transportation, so more people could have access to a variety of fresh foods even if they were isolated from the source. (For those of a certain age, remember James Dean in “East of Eden”?)

No one set out to eat poorly, or to feed their children in ways that were unhealthy, but that’s been the result of the all-out welcoming embrace given to processed foods. Grocery aisles are crammed with every form of processed goods from sodium-laden canned vegetables to frozen convenience dinners to packaged sweets and breads, to powdered drink mixes and bottled soda, all loaded with unpronounceable chemicals added to maintain some semblance of similarity to the taste and texture of fresh foods.

The convenience factor of the ready-to-eat food trend has been a major selling point as the Western social structure changed since the introduction of processed foods. As the old standard of “one wage earner and one stay-at-home parent” has given way to two-income families or single-parent households, family and leisure time comes at a premium and anything perceived as saving some of that time has a widespread appeal.

Unfortunately, it is becoming clear that processed foods, along with other interventions of the modern age, such overuse of antibiotics and vaccines are wreaking havoc with the finely tuned mechanisms that govern the human body.

The past few generations raised on a diet heavy in instant, quick, pre-made convenience foods are now paying a hefty price for that convenience. Burgeoning rates of cancer, heart disease, liver disease, asthma, diabetes, obesity, autoimmune disorders; unprecedented rates and types of allergies; and an epidemic of learning disabilities, ADHD and autism spectrum disorders—these are the unwelcome fruits of industrialization, and diet is one of the key players.

Certainly, the idea of diet as a cornerstone of good health is no new idea. Hippocrates himself said, “Let thy food be thy medicine and thy medicine be thy food,” believing even then that disease begins in the gut. That old idea is enjoying a resurgence of attention today, with more and more disorders from liver disease to autoimmune disorders tied precisely to the biological mechanisms at work in the gut and the quality of the gut bacteria.2 

Gut Health Affects the Entire Body

We ask a lot of our intestines: With only a single layer of cells separating the contents of the intestines from the bloodstream, that vital barrier must be permeable enough to allow nutrients into the blood but tough enough to keep toxins and other waste products out. The bonds between the epithelial cells of the intestine are so-called “tight junctions,” meaning that they are so closely bonded that there is no space between them. When something happens to compromise those bonds, the result can be increased permeability, or “leaky gut.”3 

Many factors are thought to contribute to the development of leaky gut, but the medical community is not clear on why it happens. Gastroenterologist Dr. Donald Kirby, director of the Center for Human Nutrition at the Cleveland Clinic says, “From an MD’s standpoint, it’s a very gray area. Physicians don’t know enough about the gut, which is our biggest immune system organ.”4  Dr. Linda A. Lee, a gastroenterologist and director of the Johns Hopkins Integrative Medical and Digestive Center, agrees, saying, “We are in the infancy of understanding what to do.”

Even in people with Crohn’s or celiac disease, both of which are classified as autoimmune disorders and are known to include intestinal hyperpermeability, doctors are not sure whether it is a cause or an effect of disease. Especially since leaky gut seems to be associated with so many other disorders as well, Lee says it is crucial to find a doctor who listens and really pays attention to what’s going on.4  Both Lee and Kirby agree that diet and chronic stress may be important contributors.

Leaky Gut Contributes to a Host of Disorders

With toxins, partially digested food particles and inappropriate proteins crossing the compromised intestinal barrier into the blood stream, the body’s immune system is “kicked into overdrive,” which can lead to chronic inflammation, an increased burden on the liver and the rest of the body’s immune functions, and from there to chronic disease.5 

Some of the factors leading to chronic disease are beyond our control, like genetics; some are somewhat controllable, like exposure to environmental toxins or stresses; and some are totally within our control, like the food we eat and whether we choose to drink alcohol or smoke cigarettes.6  Vaccination falls somewhere in between. Although by rights, vaccination belongs in the category of “totally within our control,” current laws place it in the “partially controllable” category and, if the push for by Pharma and medical groups for mandatory vaccination is successful, it may end up “beyond our control.”

Once the phenomenon of increased intestinal permeability develops, dietary measures are among the steps that may help to heal the gut and reverse the effects of intestinal hyperpermeability. Thankfully, many health care providers are waking up to the truth in Hippocrates’ old saw about food as medicine, and a number of dietary therapies offer hope for healing the gut and reversing disorders as disparate as insomnia and cancer, fatty liver disease and autoimmune disorders, Alzheimer’s and autism spectrum disorders.

Though there is a sense that mainstream medicine has traditionally viewed dietary therapy as “fringe medicine” at best, many health care providers are embracing the idea of food as therapy. Looking at some of the major nutrition/health connections that have been accepted by the medical community at large (like the discovery that citrus could treat or prevent scurvy, or the importance of “vital amines”—now known as vitamins7 )—in combating illness, perhaps healing the gut through diet will be restored  to its well deserved place of honor in the preservation of health.


References:

1 Toops D. Food Processing: A History. Food Processing, the Information Source for Food and Beverage Manufacturers Oct. 5, 2010.
2 Fasano A. Leaky Gut and Autoimmune Diseases. Clin Rev Allerg Immunol.
3 Jacob A. Gut Health and Autoimmune Disease—Research Suggests Digestive Abnormalities May Be the Underlying Cause. Today’s Dietitian February, 2015.
4 McMillen M. Leaky Gut Syndrome: What Is it? WebMD 2011, reviewed April 2013.
5  Leaky Gut: The Gateway to Chronic Disease. The Paleo Secret Dec. 7, 2012.
6 CDC: Egger G. In Search of a Germ Theory Equivalent for Chronic Disease. Prev Chronic Dis 2012.
7 Jangi S. The Nutrition Gap. The New Republic May 27, 2015.

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