The body's community is key to immunity
What if the military model of "fighting" disease, "killing germs" and "defending" ourselves against the "bad guys" ramped up our body's stress responses and actually made us more vulnerable to getting sick?
I have to confess this was something I had not thought about until I started my studies of plant medicine. The military model of medicine is such a dominant way of framing health in our culture that it becomes an ingrained assumption of how biology works. Listen to the first sentence of the "Resistance and immunity" chapter of my anatomy and physiology textbook:
From life in the womb to the moment of death, an individual is under constant attack from an enormous range of potentially harmful invaders, including bacteria, viruses, parasites and foreign (non-self) cells.
Even in the pre-covid days, hearing something like this would make you want to put on a paper suit and hunker down behind the nearest airlock. And I definitely had my own brand of worries about "catching something", always wondering what I could do, what I should take, in order to keep myself safe and healthy.
But that's starting to change. Thanks to my herbalism teacher Nikki Darrell, I have started to question the military model. Not so much whether it is "true" (such a fraught word these days) but rather what the effect is of using these metaphors of national security when we're living in a body that turns out to be more foreigner than self. The most recent scientific estimate of human body cells vs bacteria, viruses and other microbes has been put at just 43%, meaning people are 57% germs. (Or, as I put it in a poem once, a me-to-we even split.)
What does that mean for immunity, when the "outsiders" are inside?
Here is how Nikki explains the body as community:
So, each individual cell is a very small ecosystem. The cells then work together to form the tissues and organs of our bodies, so our bodies can be viewed as a community of cells working together, or as several smaller communities of cells that form a larger ecosystem; interdependent specialised microcosms within a macrocosm. ... Apart from the ecosystem formed by our cells we have bacteria and other micro-organisms living on our skin, up our noses, in our mouths, in the gastro-intestinal tract and so forth; we actually have a cloud of them around us, an aura of microflora. There are actually more cells in this commensal bacterial community, which lives in such close proximity it is hardly separate from us, than there are in our own tissues. They work in harmony as part of our immune system when everything is in balance.
This kind of blew my mind. The "bugs" that are conventionally considered pathogens, from E-coli to staph, are an essential part of our immune system. And although they live all over us and around us (I love "an aura of microflora"), the part of the body where they are concentrated is in the gut.
So if we want to be healthy in general, and either not get infections or recover quickly when we do, we have to be good to our guts, nourishing and supporting the bacteria that live and work there. Eating whole foods high in fibre and adding probiotics like sauerkraut, kim chi, kefir, kombucha and other fermented foods to the diet is the foundation.
We also need to tend to our mental and emotional well-being. As Nikki writes:
Any hyper-vigilant state or chronic stress state can lead to chronic inflammatory diseases. In these conditions the immune system is always affected, the adrenal energy and core energy is depleted, the nervous system is often on alert and the gut is always in need of support.
Mucilage-rich herbs like marshmallow root and oat straw can help soothe the gut, though by themselves they won't solve the problem. Coming back to the metaphor of community: if the residents of a particular town are struggling and isolated, and the local industry is extracting natural resources 24-7, then planting flowers or offering meditation classes can only go so far in addressing the symptoms of a fundamental imbalance. The town and its residents won't start to thrive until the terms of the economy and the ways they relate to each other shift towards reciprocity, nourishment and rest.
Immunity then becomes not about fearing, fighting and defending, but about making peace with ourselves, and making community with the multitudes that are in us, and the multitudes of us, on the planet.