I wrote the following for our community here at Sundance Natural Foods in Eugene, Oregon:
Our bodies are not just a composite of human cells, but a veritable “super-organism”— a coherent ecosystem of countless microorganisms, all mediated by a liquid-crystalline network of water.(1) Even our own cells evolved through an integration of ancient microorganisms.(2) The immune system’s job is not, as was once thought, to defend a rigid self-boundary against a completely foreign “other”, but to find a balance with an environment it is always in the process of taking-in and reorganizing.(3)
With this in mind, much of what we call disease is actually the body’s own response to an environment that it may be having trouble adjusting to.(4) To build better immunity therefore, creating an environment of healthy living is essential. So let’s look at some of the principles of a healthy lifestyle and environment:
Healthy living: eating natural food, sun exposure and natural light, a life of happiness and serenity, high morale, a positive attitude, adequate rest and sleep, fresh air, physical exercise, good posture and bodily awareness, friendship, meaning and purpose.
Of course these things are not always easy to fully achieve or balance. Any difficulty can increase stress to a point where illness becomes acute or problematic, and likely a further source of stress. So let’s look at what should be avoided as unhelpful stressors:
Unhealthy influences: processed food, pollution (both chemical and electrical), excessive artificial light (especially at night), drugs, or any excessive consumption or behavior.(5)
What of germ exposure? The research has been shifting expert discussion on this question very radically in recent years. It is still very clear that we don’t want certain kinds of life in certain places in any large amount. For example, we don’t want the microbes on our skin getting too much into the blood if we have a cut. So it makes perfect sense to wash a wound. It also makes perfect sense to wash your hands in certain environments to prevent excessive microbial cultures from overwhelming immune balance. People that already have trouble maintaining immune balance should especially be careful of too much exposure to the strong microbial cultures that exist in unsanitary environments.
But biology is also discovering that immune function greatly depends on exposure to and incorporation of a diverse microbial ecosystem. Research is converging on the idea that there really are no good or bad microbes.(6) What we used to fear as dangerous microbes, are actually a normal part of our body’s ecosystem, but they can grow out of control when that ecosystem lacks the diversity to keep any one microbe from dominating, or if the integrity of bodily organization is compromised through stress and unhealthy influences.
An incoherent bodily environment can create the conditions where normally benign microbes replicate aggressively in order to stay alive, or where normal human cells become cancerous for the same reason.(7) When our guts in particular are out of balance, the compromised ecosystem there can have effects that are systemic. Too much genetic and toxic material can leak into the blood, throwing off other bodily processes and creating a cascade into chronic illness.(8)
Maintaining a balanced and diverse gut microbiome is therefore crucial. The principles are the same in every area of health: to achieve balance we need a certain amount of exposure to the stress of a changing environment to maintain vitality, but not so much that it overwhelms us.(9) Stress is helpful up to a point, and that point is different for everyone and is always changing. Some people are so ill that they cannot handle the stress of exercise; they are too weak. Some people cannot maintain balance in the stress—or the microbial novelty—of new or changing environments. Overwhelming stress is not healthy for anyone, and an environment full of stressful organisms may be full of genetic material that expresses that stress (viruses/exosomes).
But the challenges of an unhealthy environment are part of why we are here: to meet and transform our environments into healthy and nourishing communities. To that end, here are some additional things that can help us on that journey to building better health for ourselves, and, by extension, our community:
*Adequate nutrition is sometimes difficult to achieve with food, especially when health and gut function have been compromised. Of particular importance for immune function are vitamin C, A and D, selenium, and zinc.*Countless herbs and supplemental compounds can be helpful in adjusting to environmental changes and immune challenges. Medicinal mushrooms in particular can help build deep immunity. Probiotics can affect the gut microbiome in beneficial ways, which can help reduce inflammatory processes going on in many other parts of the body, especially immune-system challenges. But remember, health is not just about the immune system, but all systems, and there is more to health than the absence of disease, especially more than the absence of infectious disease! Please see our staff for further questions.
Notes and References:
(1)This is the picture emerging in systems-biology and biophysics, summarized well in the book by scientist Mae Wan Ho, but building off a generation of researchers challenging the old paradigm dominated by deterministic chemistry
(2) Once a heresy championed by Lynne Marguilis, now standard textbook biology, with some interesting new consequences explored in books by popular scientist and writer Nick Lane
(3) This was another radical notion not too long ago, basically the view held by the great systems theorist Fransisco Varela; now it is pretty much the working model implied by much of the rapidly expanding research into the microbiome and viral biome. (4) Another obvious implication of systems biology, but this kind of phrasing could be credited to Dr. Thomas Cowan.
(5)The research on electrical and light pollution’s effect on health is gaining steam despite much resistance by many well funded interests. Arthur Firstenberg’s “The Invisible Rainbow” and Joseph Mercola’s “EMF*D” are important popular summaries of this research.
(6)This isn’t to say an abundance of certain microbes in the wrong bodily space can’t have an ill effect. However, good and bad are defined by numerous contexts, not just location. Even the supposedly good probiotics can become overgrown in certain people if misused. (The functional medicine community is the best resource for more information on this complex subject, especially Chris Kresser).
(7)A complex topic, but this simple analogy is backed up by much of the research into the microbiome as well as the less-funded cancer research looking at the environmental triggers for cancer (See Dr. Thomas Cowan’s book “Cancer and the New Biology of Water”)
(8)The links between many chronic illnesses, especially autoimmune diseases, and leaky membranes (the gut as well as the blood/brain barrier) is expanding in research.
(9)This is the concept of hormesis, an old concept that is coming back as the research community is adjusting its recommendations in concert with doctors and patients needing individualized care that recognizes the different limits of each person.