The idea that humans are separate from the natural world is a new one. Humans and nature evolved together, developing and perfecting symbiotic (mutually-beneficial) relationships over 6 million years. Has our recent separation led to an increase in health issues, particularly autoimmunity?
The environment around us affects the environment within us, including our microbiome (the little organisms- bacteria, viruses, and other microbes- that live in and on us). The microbial diversity in our gut can have a major effect on our overall health, especially immune health.
Densely populated areas tend to have more concrete and less plant life, more chemicals and less clean air or water, and provide little opportunity for communing with the natural environment we were meant to live in. In fact, as we get less natural light exposure, our gut microbiome becomes less healthy!
How does being away from nature increase our chances of developing autoimmunity?
The Gut Microbiome
Have you seen the hit Pixar movie “Finding Nemo”? I bring this up because it demonstrates a great example of a symbiotic (harmonious, or mutually-beneficial) relationship between different organisms. Clownfish secrete a substance onto the surface of their skin that protects them from the sting of the sea anemone. This allows them to live and hide among the sea anemone’s tentacles. In return, the clownfish attracts other fish for the sea anemone to eat.
Over the course of millions of years, clownfish developed this special protective mucus that makes this mutually beneficial relationship possible. This is an example of coevolution!
Similarly to the clownfish and sea anemone, humans and microbes have coevolved to help each other. Human bodies provide a perfect environment for many types of bacteria, viruses, and fungi, which in turn help us digest, make nutrients, and provide a backbone for our immune system.
Keeping the balance between microbes in our gut is very important for our overall health. These little life forms help to regulate infection, digest foods, and even make some vitamins. Dr. Yehuda Shoenfeld, the “father of autoimmunity”, has been quoted as saying infections and microbiome diversity may be the key player in preventing and supporting autoimmunity.
Playing in the dirt allows our bodies to meet more microbes and build a stronger immune system. The hygiene hypothesis is the theory that our society’s obsession with sterility and killing germs has kept our immune systems from learning diverse microbes and building a strong backbone. If our immune system is not well-educated, it can become confused and start to mistake our own cells for pathogens that need to be destroyed, setting the stage for autoimmunity.
Rising pollution levels are not only directly affecting the quality of air we breathe, but they are contributing to climate change and the increase in wildfires (more smoke in the air = even more pollution).
9 out of 10 people in this world breathe highly polluted air, which contributes to 7 million deaths per year. Breathing in polluted air irritates the lungs and mucosal lining, increases permeability of the mucus membranes (which allows for more irritants to enter the bloodstream), and causes both acute and chronic diseases as a result. It can aggravate and increase the risk of developing chronic conditions like asthma and emphysema (a type of lung disease).
Children’s lungs are in a state of development, with more than 80% of their air sacs developing after birth, so they are among the most highly affected populations. Children who grow up breathing polluted air are at a much higher risk for developing asthma, bronchitis, or even pneumonia. When air quality improves, children’s lung function shows clinically and statistically significant positive change, according to this large California study.
Air pollution can trigger autoimmune disease in genetically susceptible individuals by increasing inflammation. For example, rheumatoid arthritis (RA) is strongly associated with air pollution as a risk factor. In a 5-year Polish study, the prevalence of type 1 diabetes (another autoimmune disease) increased by 1.5 times as the air quality depleted.
Can We Use the Environment to Heal?
The average American spends 93% of their time indoors. Besides teaching our bodies new microbes and giving our lungs a break, are there other health benefits to be gained from spending time outside?
The ancient Japanese practice of shinrin-yoku, or forest bathing, has been shown to reduce blood pressure, reduce stress levels, and increase immune system balancing. This practice just refers to walking among trees and focusing on your senses- what you see, hear, taste, smell, and feel. It can be done in an actual forest, or simply at a park.
Similarly to shinrin-yoku, a growing trend in earthing, or grounding, simply means having skin contact with the Earth and absorbing it’s abundance of electrons. Our cells operate using electrons, but the frequencies we are exposed to throughout every day can deplete them. The Earth consistently gives off a frequency of 7.83 hz (the same as our alpha brain waves), which we can actually tune into!
Here in Boulder, Colorado, we are lucky enough to live within minutes of lush pine forests and incredible peaks. Wherever you are, find a safe spot among trees where you can go periodically, especially when you feel stressed or overwhelmed, just to play in the dirt, walk barefoot, and breathe.
Routinely incorporating this practice is not the newest fad. We have evolved around nature and as we digress from it we increase dis-ease, and as we move towards it we plant the seeds of healing and optimal health!
Yours in health,
Ian Hollaman, DC, MSC, IFMCP