The Unbearable Permeability of Being

This post is about the concept of permeability. A strange word, perhaps an unfamiliar one in discussions about health. But recently I can’t stop thinking about how permeable our bodies are. The food we eat, the air we breathe, the creams and soaps and underarm odor preventers we use – all of these end up influencing what we become and how we change because they permeate our bodies and our cells.

This fact is widely recognized in Western culture and medicine, although in narrowly defined ways. Take issues of weight, for example. It is accepted as fact that what and how much we eat has a direct impact on the shape and size of our bodies. People modify their behavior based on this understanding, attempting to lose weight by changing the chemical composition of their meals and snacks – fewer carbs, fewer fats, fewer calories. We also recognize permeability when it is too obvious to avoid – in cases where we intake substances that quickly make us ill – like  severe alcohol poisoning  or toxic levels of exposure to metals like lead.

Yet this same principle, the same underlying fact about the permeability of our bodies – that they are open to and susceptible their environments – thoroughly informs our existence at every moment and in every way. All the cells in our body are permeable. It is this openness to the outside that allows our cells and organ systems to function in ways that promote life – allows oxygen and nutrients and proteins and everything else we need to be exchanged and moved and transformed into energy and movement and activity. Our bodies are constantly exchanging substances not only within themselves but also with the world around us through our skin, respiratory and digestive organs, and other tissues. This makes us vulnerable and susceptible in dynamic and powerful ways to our environments. What we eat, drink, and breathe ends up in our blood and our tissues and can have important and long-lasting effects on how our bodies function and change over time.

It seems clear that this thorough going permeability is not fully accounted for in the way mainstream allopathic (Western) medicine thinks about health and disease. Permeability is an underlying factor in both health and illness, because what permeates us influences our bodies in both positive and negative ways. The relationship between permeability and diet, for example, extends in both degree and complexity far beyond questions of body size. The overall functioning of our bodies, including their temperatures, synchronicities, and energies, depends on their abilities to take in a particular, wide range of nutrients and minerals in specific combinations and amounts. Why aren’t we paying more attention to this fact in our research and education about chronic illnesses like diabetes, heart disease, cancer, Alzheimer’s, chronic fatigue, etc.? Might it be the case that people who develop these diseases aren’t getting enough of these vital substances from their food, perhaps because they don’t know how to eat well, or don’t have access to the right kinds of foods, or because, due to unsustainable agricultural practices, their food itself is not absorbing all these substances from the soil? If we look at developmental disease through the lens of permeability, we will be inclined to see that nutritional deficiencies might set the stage for, or trigger, latent (genetic) potentials for these illnesses.

On the negative side of permeability, these illnesses might also be caused by bodies absorbing substances from their environments that cause  their normal processes to go awry. The permeation of bodies by various substances that have detrimental effects over time has been suggested as an explanation for diseases like Alzheimer’s and cancer. Excess aluminum in the cells of the brain and body, for example, is thought to contribute to Alzheimer’s disease. Aluminum is present in food (through cookware) or drinking water (aluminum sulfate is used for filtering), and then gets absorbed by the tissues and cells of the body (Pitchford 112). Chemical components of certain plastics, like phthalates and vinyl chloride, are also known to be absorbed by the body through the digestive and respiratory systems where they disrupt the endocrine system and cause cancer, particularly in young children whose smaller, less developed systems are less able to rid their bodies of these toxins (Tuana 200-1).

Why aren’t these relationships being more fully researched? According to the Alzheimer’s Association, Alzheimer’s is the sixth leading cause of death in the United States and is the only leading cause of death that cannot be prevented, cured, or even slowed. Clearly we need a new way to conceive of this disease if, in over 100 years, we have found no medically effective way to intervene to stop, prevent, or alleviate it.  The only suggestion given to the public by the NIH concerning “environmental” causes of the disease is that obesity might play a role (as it might in other diseases like heart disease). Why hasn’t more attention been given to environmental influences? This is especially alarming since environmental causes in the form of widely used chemical products have been linked to other degenerative nerve diseases like Parkinson’s (see this article from BBC health). The ability of plastics, pesticides, and other environmental toxins to cause cancer in humans and other mammals and animals is widely recognized, and yet, as Barbara Ehrenreich points out in her essay “Welcome to Cancerland”, the American Cancer Society spends less than .1 percent of its annual budget to researching environmental and occupational causes of cancer.

This is extremely problematic, not only scientifically, but ethically. People are suffering in unimaginable ways. We must figure out why so many of us are getting cancer, Alzheimer’s, and other chronic illnesses. In order to do so, we urgently need to face the fact that as embodied organisms, we are highly permeable and highly susceptible to the substances in our environment. It is inconvenient that this is the case, since our industrial modes of production are filling our environment with new chemicals and other substances whose long-term, accumulated effects in our bodies are unknown and difficult and expensive to test. But as long as we continue to delude ourselves into thinking that we are individual atomic units that can operate independently from what we put into the air we breathe and the food and water we consume and the products we spread on our skin, the true causes of and solutions to widespread chronic diseases will continue to go undiscovered.


Pitchford, Paul. Healing With Whole Foods: Asian Traditions and Modern Nutrition (2002).

Tuana, Nancy. “Viscous Porosity: Witnessing Katrina”. In Material Feminisms, edited by S. Alaimo and S. Hekman (2008), 188-213.