August 26, 2014
Something I like to tell my patients is that we are all profoundly affected by two ecologies. There is our outer ecology: the earth, air, food, and water that we depend for life. And there is our inner ecology: the community of trillions of bacteria that live within each of us, known as our microbiome.
As is well known, our outer ecology is currently in jeopardy. Our environment is suffering from an overload of toxins—pesticides, heavy metals, industrial chemicals—that are poisoning our soil, toxifying our food, and polluting our air and water.
But our inner ecology is in danger as well. The diversity of our microbiome—the wide variety of bacteria on which our bodies depend—is being compromised. Our inner ecology is under attack, from environmental toxins, antibiotics, unhealthy fats, and a diet that is way too high in sugars and starches.
The consequences for ecological destruction are grave. When our outer ecology is in danger, the food, water, and air that we need to survive become actual threats to our health. When our inner ecology is in danger, we develop symptoms and disorders, everything from acne to cancer—and also, of course, obesity.
We often think of the inner and outer ecology as separate entities. In fact, they are mirror images of one another. If one becomes dysfunctional, so will the other.
Many of us are experiencing punishing effects of stress from the failures of the outer ecology. We suffer from toxic food and polluted water, and also from a lack of meaning and purpose, a feeling ofdisconnection, a sense that our lives have gotten beyond our control. This creates terrible outer stress in our society, but it also creates inner stress on the microbiome.
By the same token, when our microbiome—our inner ecology—is out of balance, we are prone to anxiety, depression, and brain fog. It’s easy to become angry, aggressive, frustrated, or resentful. It’s also easy to become hopeless, discouraged, dispirited, demoralized. These feelings in turn endanger our outer ecology as we abuse or neglect our natural environment and our social world.
If either one of our ecologies is in distress, the other suffers. But we know so much now about how to support each ecology. We have a tremendous opportunity to turn our negative synergy into a positive synergy, with each ecology supporting, nourishing, and inspiring the other. As a physician, I see it every day: the power of health to emerge out of illness, transforming everything in its path.