Health Advice – What Makes Us Sick?

Vreni Gurd

What Makes us sick, the germ or a poor immune system?

Guest Post By Vreni Gurd

www.wellnesstips.ca

Germ Theory stipulates that we need to kill the microbes, as they are the cause of sickness. Biological Terrain Theory stipulates that it is the health of the host and the strength of the immune system that determines whether or not one gets sick.

This question which first came up in France in the mid 1800s is still worth asking today, because one’s view of how to obtain optimal health and wellbeing depends upon which side of this debate one agrees with. Germ Theory was put forward most famously by French chemist and microbiologist Louis Pasteur, and states that certain sicknesses are caused by the invasion of micro-organisms that cannot be seen without a microscope. As such, treatment or prevention involves figuring out which microbe (bacteria, virus, fungus, parasite) has invaded the body and then killing it to prevent or stop the disease. This is the theory upon which western medicine is based. You get sick, you go to the doctor and get an antibiotic/antiviral/antifungal to get better. Much of our food, like milk, juices, canned food and even nuts like almonds are pasteurized in order to eliminate the bacteria to avoid sickness. Many people use anti-bacterial soaps and hand sanitizers in order to prevent the spread of infection. These actions are all about killing the germ, and are in support of Germ Theory.

Claude Bernard, a contemporary of Pasteur, is known for his idea called “Mileu Interior” or “Internal Environment”, and is credited with the concept of “homeostasis”. He suggested that to optimize health, the body wants to maintain a constant internal environment, and will do what it can to correct any deviations back to physiological norms. So for example, if blood sugar is too high, the body will lower it. If blood sugar is too low, the body will raise it.

Then Antoine Bechamp, another French scientist, furthered Bernard’s homeostasis theory by suggesting that if the body is not able to maintain physiological norms or “homeostasis”, the body will be more susceptible to illness. Continuing the blood-sugar example, if too much starch and sugar is consumed on a regular basis, some individuals develop insulin insensitivity, and eventually type 2 diabetes. The body can no longer cope with the constant influx of sugar, and the metabolic system is thrown off. Or, if the body is deficient in a particular nutrient, certain metabolic pathways may be compromised. The body is no longer in homeostasis, so the internal environment or “biological terrain” now makes that individual is more susceptible to getting sick from an invasion of a virus or bacteria.

We have all experienced times when a group of us are in the presence of someone who is sick. Germ Theory would stipulate that once in contact with that germ, everyone would get sick. However more frequently, only some people get sick and others do not. Why is that? The Biological Terrain Theory would suggest that who gets sick depends not on the germ, but on how healthy the host is. What a microbe can do in the body depends upon the internal environment of the host. One cannot start a fire if the wood is soaking wet, nor can a germ spark a sickness if the immune system is healthy and strong.

Germ Theory requires one to depend on the medical system to be healthy which is expensive, as doctors are needed to diagnose which bacteria or virus is causing the problem, and drugs are needed to kill the microbe in question. And would killing all microbes make us the picture of health? Absolutely not. For example, we have “good bacteria” in our gut that is needed for good immune function and to help us digest our food. So antibiotics kill the good along with the bad, leaving us more vulnerable to bad microbes in the future. Also these drugs may have side effects that throw the body’s system further out of homeostasis, potentially requiring another drug to treat another symptom. This is the quick-fix solution, but is it the right fix long term?

Biological Terrain Theory is less expensive, takes more time, and requires individuals to do what is necessary through diet and lifestyle changes to improve their internal environment so the immune system can effectively deal with microbe invaders. Biological Terrain Theory is the paradigm under which most alternative health practitioners as well as functional medicine doctors work, where the germ is seen as a symptom of an internal environment problem that must be corrected for optimal health to be achieved. So Biological Terrain Theory believes in preventing illness by doing what is necessary to restore homeostasis.

So, what side of the debate do you fall on? If you believe in the Biological Terrain Theory, here are some things you can do to improve your health and immune system.

  • Optimize Vitamin D levels – especially helpful to fight the flu. If possible, go outside without sunscreen but don’t get burnt. Food sources of vitamin D include high vitamin cod liver oil (read the label!), lard (pork fat), pickled Atlantic herring, eastern oysters, catfish, sardines, mackerel, sturgeon roe, shrimp, egg yolk (fresh), butter, liver
  • Reduce sugar and flour intake
  • Eat lots of veggies of all colours, some of them raw, each day.
  • Eat fermented foods daily like yogurt, sauerkraut, kefir, kimchi to populate the gut with “good” bacteria. Make sure the food has not been pasteurized after it was fermented, or all the good bacteria will be dead.
  • If you can’t integrate fermented foods into your diet daily, take a good quality probiotic daily.
  • After antibiotics, take probiotics. Good gut bacteria is critical to a healthy immune system.
  • Get adequate sleep and dark time
  • Exercise enough to make you feel good
  • Do what you can to reduce stress levels
  • Avoid toxins as much as possible by choosing organic foods, natural skin products, non-toxic cleaners etc.
  • Avoid anti-bacterial soaps and cleaners.
  • Get a cat or a dog. (Unless you are allergic.)
  • Spend time in nature. Plant a garden and get your hands dirty.
  • Allow your body to fight non-dangerous sicknesses without the use of anti-virals or antibiotics. Our immune systems get stronger if they are exposed to viruses and bacteria, as they build up immunity to what they are exposed to. A germ-free environment leads to a poor immune system as it has no experience fighting anything off. Also the less germ exposure, the more allergies develop.

Obviously there is a place for antibiotics and anti-virals, as they can be life-saving at times. However, they should be used with care in my opinion, and not given for every little bug.

With respect to the current H1N1 panic, some final thoughts. This flu appears to be milder and less deadly than the seasonal flu. Australia and New Zealand, whose flu season just ended, had fewer deaths from the flu this year than other years (with no vaccine available), and they are attributing that to the fact that more people were infected with H1N1 than seasonal flu. Remember that if you recover from H1N1 flu you will be immune for life, unlike the temporary immunity you would get from a vaccine.

In the 1918 flu epidemic, over 96% of the people that died had a bacterial co-infection, not only the flu. Of the people that died in the States this year of H1N1, 30% of them also had a bacterial co-infection. If you get sick with the flu, you should start to feel better in three or four days. If you don’t, or you start to feel better, then suddenly make a turn for the worse, that is when you need to see your doctor ASAP, as you may also have a bacterial infection. This is when antibiotics may be needed, as flu combined with a bacterial infection seems to be the more deadly scenario, particularly for the young and the old, and those with underlying health conditions.

Rhee, Seung Yon Louis Pasteur, 1822-1895 National Health Museum Resource Center
Cannell JJ et al. On the epidemiology of influenza. Virol J. 2008 Feb 25;5:29.
Cannell JJ et al. Epidemic influenza and vitamin D. Epidemiol Infect. 2006 Dec;134(6):1129-40. Epub 2006 Sep 7.
Yamshchikov AV et al. Vitamin D for treatment and prevention of infectious diseases: a systematic review of randomized controlled trials. Endocr Pract. 2009 Jul-Aug;15(5):438-49.
Cannell JJ, Hollis BW. Use of vitamin D in clinical practice. Altern Med Rev. 2008 Mar;13(1):6-20.
Parra MD et al. Daily ingestion of fermented milk containing Lactobacillus casei DN114001 improves innate-defense capacity in healthy middle-aged people. J Physiol Biochem. 2004 Jun;60(2):85-91.
Parra D et al. Monocyte function in healthy middle-aged people receiving fermented milk containing Lactobacillus casei. J Nutr Health Aging. 2004;8(4):208-11.
Morimoto K et al. Modulation of natural killer cell activity by supplementation of fermented milk containing Lactobacillus casei in habitual smokers. Prev Med. 2005 May;40(5):589-94.
Opp MR. Sleeping to fuel the immune system: mammalian sleep and resistance to parasites. BMC Evol Biol. 2009 Jan 9;9:8.
Palma BD et al. Immune outcomes of sleep disorders: the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis as a modulatory factor Rev Bras Psiquiatr. 2007 May;29 Suppl 1:S33-8.
Schedlowski M, Schmidt RE. Stress and the immune system Naturwissenschaften. 1996 May;83(5):214-20.
Calder PC, Kew S. The immune system: a target for functional foods? Br J Nutr. 2002 Nov;88 Suppl 2:S165-77.
Keith P. Klugman et al. Time from Illness Onset to Death, 1918 Influenza and Pneumococcal Pneumonia Emerg Infect Dis. 2009 February; 15(2): 346–347.
The Current Podcast H1N1 and Bacteria – CDC Expert CBC Radio, Oct. 29, 2009.

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