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Turning to Terrain
Growing and Healing with a Lifestyle Mindset
If you’ve been here for a bit, you may have read my piece titled, Food is Medicine and are perhaps familiar with the raisin-bran-fiber incident during my pregnancy. But what I didn’t explicitly mention in that piece was my turn toward a lifestyle rooted in the teachings and practice of terrain theory.
So, how did I get here?
A Look at Allopathy
The American medical system (the Western medicine orthodoxy) champions allopathy in disease and health management. Allopathy is a system in which medical doctors are licensed to practice and treat symptoms and diseases through medication, surgery, radiation, pharmaceuticals, and other therapies and procedures. By nature, allopathy requires a focus on external intervention to achieve, sustain, or maintain health.
And this is well in alignment with the germ theory of disease, which posits that external and invisible microorganisms in the atmosphere, soil, and water are the fundamental cause of all disease. And there are a number of people around the world who are terrified of germs. There’s even a term for it: mysophobia.
In the realm of germ theory (which people forget is just a theory), the only defense a person has against malevolent pathogens is aggressive vaccination, sterilization of the environment, and playing the avoidance game: declining to be around animals, farms, and other “dirty” places, for example. And all American standards of care are based on allopathic methods, which means that most if not all insurance coverage is also based on those same allopathic methods.
And there’s some serious money to be made in the practice and promotion of germ theory and allopathy. In 2020, for example, the U.S. antibacterial products market shot up to several billion dollars and is expected to grow throughout the decade. Behind all this is a message of progress in healthcare. The CDC reports that “advances in public health and health care have increased life expectancy by approximately 30 years and led to dramatic changes in the leading causes of death.”
But behind the increase in life expectancy was the shift from acute and debilitating conditions to long-term chronic conditions. The CDC goes on to report that “heart disease death rates have declined by almost two thirds during the past 50 years, and stroke rates have declined by more than three quarters…these major declines have resulted largely from declines in smoking and improvements in diet, detection, and treatment.”
Did you catch that?
The CDC reports that the majority of positive change in healthcare is due first to lifestyle change—reductions in smoking rates and improvements in diet.
A Look at Lifestyle
When I worked in the corporate health insurance space, there was a poster in the stairwell that read: if your dog is overweight, you’re not getting enough exercise. Why that poster wasn’t in the elevator, I don’t know, but the message is true. The American Kennel Club describes obesity in dogs as a “major health threat hiding in plain sight.”
But when people attempt to talk about the dangers of obesity, a form of malnutrition, in humans, we’re met with a brick wall of body positivity. Now, don’t get me wrong. I will neither support nor tolerate body shaming of any person for any reason at any time. Hard stop.
However, failing to talk about the dangers of obesity in humans because it’s an uncomfortable topic is disastrous. Obesity carries several major consequences for obese individuals, including (as reported by the CDC):
high blood pressure and cholesterol
type 2 diabetes
joint problems and pain
gallstones and gall bladder disease
anxiety and depression
low self-esteem and quality of life
bullying and social stigmas
And if you’re saying to yourself, “Fal, I know this. But an obese person affects nobody else,” I would tend to agree with you in theory, though not in practice. Because the reality of the Western medical system, especially the interrelationship between health care and health insurance (which are not the same thing), means that all Americans bear the financial brunt of obesity. In 2019, obesity-related medical costs in the U.S. were nearly $173 billion. And on top of that, obesity-related illness results in workplace absenteeism to the tune of $6.38 billion.
Those are staggering numbers.
And it’s not just obesity that is problematic for Americans. Poor hydration is linked to early aging and chronic disease. In fact, NBC reports that poorly hydrated people “were 50% more likely to show signs of physical aging beyond what would be expected for their years.…They also had a roughly 20% increased risk of premature death.” And CNN Health reports that “about half of people worldwide don’t meet recommendations for daily total water intake.”
Sleep is also a problem. Poor sleep is typically underrecognized as a public health danger though it’s strongly associated with morbidity and mortality. In a study available in the National Library of Medicine, “more than 80% of older adults who report sleep disturbances describe at least one major mental or physical disorder, particularly depression, heart disease, pain, and memory problems.”
Another aspect to add to the list? Exercise. Because regular physical activity is associated with important health benefits. In a Science Direct article linked by the CDC, research found that lack of exercise was associated with premature death, cardiovascular disease, ischemic stroke, type 2 diabetes, colon and breast cancers, and depression.
Most people know (or should know) that eating a properly balanced, nutrient-rich diet with fresh, organic vegetables and fruits is a basic requirement for health, as are maintaining sufficient hydration levels, getting proper amounts of exercise, and getting enough restorative sleep. These are all the basics of what it means to maintain the human body.
These influences in human health—diet, hydration, exercise, sleep—represent four of the six pillars of lifestyle medicine. They also make up the foundation of the terrain theory of disease.
What is Terrain Theory?
Terrain theory comes from the work of French physicist, chemist, and cellular researcher Antoine Bechamp, who held that disease starts within the human body itself as a result of stresses—emotional, psychological, and physical—upsetting the homeostatic balance of innate health.
Bechamp’s discoveries led him to the conclusion that our bodies are essentially mini ecosystems with a homeostasis that is individually and uniquely ours. The Weston Price Foundation summarizes Bechamp’s work to say that “when an individual’s internal ecosystem becomes weakened—whether due to poor nutrition, toxicity or other factors—it changes the function of the microbes that are naturally present in the body, producing disease. In other words, microorganisms only become pathogenic after environmental factors cause the host’s cellular “terrain” to deteriorate.”
So terrain theory posits, generally and broadly, that it is not the presence of a malevolent, invisible germ that makes us sick but the state of our inner terrain that produces sickness. In essence, while germ theory “others” illness and makes it external, thus creating victims of the ill, terrain theory internalizes illness and recognizes that we all have the power to get and remain well with proper attention on the state of our terrain. In the terrain theory of disease, humans are not victims of microbes. Instead, fighting and preventing disease is directly within our control.
But this doesn’t sit well with the modern oligarchs in charge of the governmental alphabet agencies overseeing health standards and the corporations who get super wealthy adhering to them all the while Americans suffer with debilitating disease and chronic condition management.
Politics and Politicking
While I’m not going to tell you that germs don’t exist, I am here to say that there’s more to the story than we’re being told.
Because while Popular Science calls terrain theory a “pseudoscience,” and a “fringe set of beliefs,” it comes from the 19th century—right around the same time Louis Pasteur was popularizing the germ theory of disease. But Pasteur had political connections (are you surprised?), including Emperor Napoleon III. Pasteur likely achieved his level of notoriety because his perspective was popular with the science and politics of his day.
In fact, as the Weston Price Foundation reports, the germ theory of disease is “dear to pharmaceutical company executives’ hearts.” Most of the major pharmaceutical companies we know today got their start in the 19th century (again, are you surprised?).
And the most egregious part of the politics behind the promotion of germ theory is in the denial of indigenous and traditional medicines—lifestyle medicines, including plant medicines—used to treat and cure disease.
While Western medicine mostly just prescribes specific drugs to treat diseases, thus capturing patients within the Big Medicine money-making scheme temporarily or permanently, Eastern medicine focuses on the person as a whole to address root causes, rather than treating their symptoms. This includes body work, of course, but it also includes medicine focused on the mind and on the spirit. And this appears to be in line with Hippocrates, who famously said that “Everyone has a doctor in him or her; we just have to help it in its work. The natural healing force within each one of us is the greatest force in getting well.”
Because natural medicine was once common sense.
People knew that the immune system was everyone’s innate, internal defense system. A birthright. And the terrain theory of medicine was practiced long before germ theory came about, even if it wasn’t yet titled as such.
But within the American health system, terrain theory is denied. And the denial of the terrain is a disaster for diversity in health care. People aren’t one size, but Western medicine, allopathy, attempts to squeeze people into ill-fitted boxes to carry out the standards of medical care and treatment, often regardless of individual considerations, including cultural preferences and traditions. The American health system, despite its “progress,” flies in the face of diversity, is antithetical to diversity.
So, what’s next? How can we heal the medical system in America?
One of the biggest changes I’ve made over the years is my perspective on plants and plant medicines. When I was a snot-nosed kid rebelling against my pot-smoking parents, I went hard in the paint for germ theory. I screeched at parents who refused to vaccinate their children. Complained about those who spoke against Frankenfoods and cellular radiation. Really, I was a shitty teenager.
But years later, after curing myself of asthma, allergies, depression, and anxiety by leveraging my power under the terrain theory model, I can’t believe how far I’ve come—and how much time I previously wasted on a germ-theory model that only ever resulted in temporary relief and side effects, never cures.
Getting the entirety of the United States on the terrain-theory train sounds like a burden I’m not willing to undertake. I mean, it’s hard enough practicing a terrain-theory lifestyle against what’s considered “normal,” thank you very much.
But if we are going to positively change health care in America for the betterment of all Americans, we must start taking the human terrain—and the terrain theory of disease—seriously.
Radical Wellness in a Sick World
Living a terrain-theory focused life has meant some serious, positive benefits. I no longer have chronic GI upset, nor do I get acid reflux. And I don’t mean I don’t get it as often; I mean I don’t get acid reflux at all anymore. It’s gone.
I used to be chronically fatigued, but since prioritizing sleep and practicing yoga daily (or almost every day; nobody is perfect), quality, restorative sleep happens naturally. The fatigue is gone, and I have so much more energy than I used to. In fact, that energy from sleep is what allowed me to start daily yoga. Now, it’s something my kiddo and I can do together—bonus!
Pharmaceuticals, both OTC and RX, have no place in my medicine cabinet. Where I once relied on an albuterol inhaler to manage chronic asthma, following lifestyle change, asthma is no longer a chronic condition affecting my daily life. And instead of albuterol, I use a plant medicine readily available in my geographic region (for free) that most people think is a weed. Instead of an anti-psychotic, I used adaptogens to manage a bout of severe anxiety, but with continued lifestyle change, I no longer use acupuncture or ashwagandha.
And I no longer carry health insurance. While there’s decidedly some benefit of having protection in the case of functional, medical emergencies, the majority of health insurance spending—and the reason insurance is so expensive—is on chronic conditions.
Since American health insurance doesn’t cover herbal medicines, or pay for organic groceries, or gym memberships (or equipment), or Eastern medicine techniques, or anything terrain-related, the monthly cost of insurance was just that—a cost. And it was without benefits for me.
Adopting Terrain Theory in Practice
If you do nothing else for yourself this year to adopt a terrain-focused lifestyle, change your diet. There is absolutely no question in my mind that diet is of utmost concern for success in a terrain-theory model. Currently, the Mediterranean-style diet is the one most often recommended, the one my naturopath recommended to me, which includes fiber-rich, polyphenol-laden fresh fruits and veggies, spices, is full of omega-3s, and cuts out ultra-processed food.
My partner and I used to eat lots of frozen foods, too tired to cook after long work days. We drank lots of alcohol. I even smoked cigarettes. That changed before and during my pregnancy, and I never looked back.
From the Food is Medicine piece, here are four food-focused tips you can implement today to start you on the path of repairing your terrain.
Trash the Numbers. Avoid synthetic food dyes, flavorings, and perfumes, artificial sweeteners, and preservatives. If the ingredients include numbers (e.g. red 40), it's junk. Get rid of it.
Raise a Food Forest. Plant (native) fruit trees and shrubs, and if you haven't started gardening already, make this your year to raise food for yourself, your family, your neighbors, even your local food shelf. Share the wealth, share the health.
Shop Local + Organic. Visit farmer's markets, co-ops, and rub elbows with your local farmers and gardeners. We need them around, and they have extensive knowledge most are willing to share about the food system. Just ask.
Cook and bake from scratch. I now make all my sandwich bread from scratch using about six basic ingredients—far fewer than grocery stores loaves. Need a recipe? Send a note! And remember to practice patience with yourself as you learn the art of breadmaking, because it isn’t easy.
And the biggest tip: BE PATIENT WITH YOURSELF.
It’s hard to maintain a healthy lifestyle—at first. After about a month of making conscious terrain-focused choices, making those choices will become easier and faster. You’ll know what to look for, what to stay away from, and be able to deduce the reasons for your cravings faster. Because food cravings are an early sign of deficiency, be it mineral or vitamin.
And because food isn’t everything, check out this article on 10 Ways to Cultivate Your Internal Terrain from Dr. Hoffman.
If you’re interested in terrain theory, want to talk about making lifestyle changes for health, or want to share your approach to a terrain-theory lifestyle, leave a comment or send me a message.
I’m one of those annoyingly positive people who believe we truly can change the chronically sick world for the better. And I believe it starts with food.