Tuesday, May 5, 2009

What is health?

Even though science has not yet given us definitive proof on whether or not viruses are the cause or by-product of disease, I think we can all agree that disease exists. But if we want to know what health is, we need to know what disease is. If disease is the toxic terrain off of which microorganisms (bacteria, viruses, and parasites) feed, then health would be the detoxification of the terrain and support of beneficial organisms. However, if microorganisms are the cause of disease, health would seem to be the absence of those microorganisms.

We have the Romans to thank for improving sanitation practices and making our cities more habitable. We have toilets, toilet paper and running water. And, as Grandma Barbara says, “If you can’t be good, at least be sanitary.” We’re clean. So why are we still getting sick?

Incidences of allergies and autoimmune disorders are on the rise. Ironically, by declaring a war on germs, we may just be declaring a war on ourselves. When we go so far as to use antibacterial soap, immunizations and antibiotics, we are killing communities of beneficial microbes, as well as unwanted germs. In 1989 David P. Strachan published an article in the British Medical Journal entitled “Hay fever, hygiene and household size.” In the long-term study, Strachan studied nearly 20,000 children. He observed them from birth until they were 23 and found a striking correlation between larger families and the absence of allergic hypersensitivity (atopic disease).

“Over the past century declining family size, improvements in household amenities, and higher standards of personal cleanliness have reduced the opportunities for cross infection in young families. This may have resulted in more widespread clinical expression of atopic disease, emerging earlier in wealthier people, as seems to have occurred in hay fever.” Strachan D P (1989) Hay fever, hygiene and household size. BMJ 299: 1259-1260 [PubMed]

Strachan’s research has been widely studied and has become known as the hygiene hypothesis. Studies have been done in Europe on the absence of allergies in rural farming communities. Like Bechamp’s cellular theory, the hygiene hypothesis also looks to the physiological terrain. When our body ecology has not been exposed to various microorganisms in the environment, it isn’t being exposed to the world. It isn’t being educated about what works with it and what works against it. When the boundary between self and environment is lacking, allergic hypersensitivity or autoimmune diseases occur. The body senses that it is under attack. Conversely, when the body has been discriminately exposed to microorganisms in its natural environment, it knows better how to deal with them.

While we should not abandon basic hygiene practices and awareness of illness around us, perhaps it is not the absence of microorganisms that constitutes health. Perhaps health is a strong and educated terrain in which microorganisms and our organism are in balance. We only become aware of our bodily processes when something is out of balance, uneasy, or dis-eased. But our body primarily acquires this education without our awareness. This requires a degree of trust—trust in our vitality and our interconnectedness with the world. It also requires that we listen to our bodies so that we are aware when we are becoming imbalanced and can take action.


  1. I love this way of putting it - that the body is educated.
    Where we live, the locals are obsessed with germs. They cocoon their babies and children.
    You should see the horrified looks I get when I let her tuoch things or crawl on floors.

  2. People here are obsessed with germs, too. I'm not entirely obsessed, but...I wish that I had more trust in my body. I'm workin' on it. :)

    I'll bet you get horrified looks, but that's good. I've definitely had those indignant moments before. Like, I'd NEVER do that! But then, I start thinking...and new possibilities appear.

  3. I agree with this completely. I only wish the very large family I associate with knew it too. They are always sick!!