The Ecology of Health

There’s a growing body of compelling evidence indicating that a healthy balance of microorganisms inside the human body is a major factor in health. There are strong associations with obesity, which is itself associated with Type 2 diabetes, certain types of cancer, and heart disease. This suggests that cultivating a healthy microbiome may be the key to the treatment of some of the most serious health problems facing us today.

It is interesting to note that the health of the digestive system, the functioning of the colon, and the quality of the stool were preoccupations across many traditional medical systems, including traditional Chinese medicine, Ayurveda, Greek medicine, Arabic medicine, Tibetan medicine, as well as modern naturopathic and functional medicine. 

What is also interesting is the shared terminology that all of the pre-modern medical systems used in describing how the body fell out of balance. This similarity is probably a natural byproduct of all these systems developing in agricultural communities. It was understood by humans early on that healthy plants required well nourished roots, good circulation, the correct balance of temperature and moisture, and the ability to transform or eliminate waste. In other words, certain plants only thrived in certain ecosystems. Extending this observation to the human body, pathology in all of these medical systems generally focused to some extent on deficiency of nourishment, accumulation of waste, impaired circulation, excess heat or cold, and excessive or inadequate moisture. In short, the human body was understood to be a similar sort of system as the fields in which they grew their plants.

Practitioners of Chinese herbal medicine will immediately recognize how these concepts correspond to the medical concepts of deficiency, excess, stagnation, hot, cold, dampness, and dryness. Practitioners of traditional medicine generally ask a lot of questions about the functioning of the digestive system as well as making a careful inspection of the tongue and tongue coating, which are the only parts of the digestive system that are easily observed. However, they also generally have a particular interest in things like the frequency of bowel movements, the quality, shape, and odor of the stool, whether there is undigested food or oil present, etc. It is a common observation by practitioners of traditional Chinese, Ayurvedic, and naturopathic medicine that sustained normalization in the frequency and quality of the stool often coincides with the resolution of many other (especially inflammatory) symptoms throughout the body. In other words, the ecosystem has been restored to balance. From this perspective, the traditional descriptions of dysfunction used in Chinese and Ayurvedic medicine, which have seemed overly simplistic to modern researchers, take on new meaning.

The ancient Chinese and East Indians couldn’t see the microorganisms in the colon and they had no understanding of the modern science of ecology. However, they would certainly have observed that sometimes stool was too wet or too dry or too hot or too excessive or too infrequent. Then, by paying close attention to what foods in what patients reduced heat or increased motility, etc., they were able to create effective therapeutic regimens that they described using words like clear heat or free up stagnation. In the process, they were likely creating a better intestinal ecosystem, which would have had wide-ranging benefits on digestion, assimilation of nutrients, immune function, detoxification, and more. Perhaps what was once thought of as ignorant may turn out to have actually been prescient.