Those of you in the wellness world might have noticed a curious polarization between “germ theory” and “terrain theory” advocates during the pandemic. But as I write in my book Sacred Medicine: A Doctor’s Quest To Unravel The Mysteries Of Healing, we can resolve this argument once and for all if we entertain this idea not as an either/or binary, but as a both/and paradox of healing.
First, what is “terrain theory?” According to the Conspirituality podcast show notes, “You might have heard some revolutionary news: germs don’t exist. Ok, they exist, but they only make you sick after you ruin your relationship with your environment—the terrain.”
Now by all means, I am no germ theory denialist. As a doctor, I know that the old school debate between Louis Pasteur and Antoine Béchamp has been resolved as much as round earth vs. flat earth debates have. Louis Pasteur won. Germs are real, including Covid. Germ theory denialism was debunked. End of story.
But not so fast… That doesn’t mean the terrain of our natural landscape, as well as the terrain of our inner terrain, doesn’t impact how those germs affect the health outcomes of people who get infected.
You might have heard a lot of nonsense during the pandemic about how New Agers and yogis and some people in the wellness and spirituality community inaccurately suggested that if only we take enough supplements and drink enough green juice and meditate on world peace, we’ll be immune to Covid- or that Covid isn’t really even a virus.
Nobody Is Invulnerable To Infectious Diseases
It’s true that there are germ theory denialists under the spell of “conspirituality” who
who peddle all number of grifts as a way to fluff up your “terrain” so you’re allegedly invulnerable to those pesky germs. It’s a very grandiose idea, that any human body could be so impeccably tended inside that they’re not vulnerable to threats from the outside.
It makes sense that some people might feel safer believing such a delusion because it might give them a sense of false control in uncertain times, so from a trauma-informed perspective, I understand why some people might have hoarded products peddled by germ theory denialists. I get why people might have emotional nostalgia as they culturally appropriate from animist traditions and try to sell programs or sessions about how Indigenous wisdom will keep you safe from Covid so you don’t need to get vaccinated.
I also get enraged when I hear wellness influencers cashing in on these vulnerabilities in terrified trauma survivors desperate for some sense of control in an out of control world.
I get why people who can afford these products might be vulnerable to hoarding all the pricey things wellness influencers have been selling during the pandemic. One of my colleagues is a front line Covid ER doctor who was terrified of dying in Spring 2020. He sent me these harrowing photos of himself in a hazmat suit, once he actually had PPE, which he did not have for weeks while he was intubating Covid patients. I understood why he took dozens of supplements every day and drank his green juice and prayed and meditated and worked out daily. It gave him a sense of control and also might have been part of why he never got Covid. He tended to his inner terrain impeccably. But that didn’t prevent him from jumping at the chance to get the first vaccinations.
With that disclaimer, trauma-informed empathy does not make germ theory denialism or the idea that we can make our terrains invulnerable through downward dog or raw foods or supplements or shamanic ceremonies factually accurate. It also doesn’t mean those interventions might not have real health benefits.
The stark and scary truth is that none of us were immune to SARS- CoV- 2 when it first emerged from China, because none of our immune systems had ever seen it before, so we had no antibodies. No amount of eating nutraceuticals was going to protect you from getting Covid in Spring 2020, though a whole lot of conspiritualists sure cashed in by conning some people into believing it could. The scientific truth is that all of us were vulnerable to getting infected, although some people were asymptomatic when they got infected, others died, and others got long Covid. Our individual bodies clearly responded differently to that novel infection, and that’s where the case for tending to our terrain might have some benefit- by improving our chances of a good outcome should we get infected. But more on that in a minute.
The Inner Terrain Matters
What I’m suggesting is that while germs are real and we catch them contagiously and get sick, it’s also true that the inner landscape of our bodies and the outer landscape of a culture collectively traumatized by rampant colonization, systemic racism, genocide, war, homophobia and transphobia, deforestation, species extinction, extractive capitalism, climate crisis, and all the other horrors human impose on each other and on the natural world impact how those infectious agents affect our human bodies.
While the law of attraction idea that “thoughts create things” has a grain of truth because our thoughts do influence our bodies and our realities, it’s also true that our thoughts don’t control our reality. Law of attraction teachings can cause people to blame themselves if they get sick and avoid getting live-saving medical treatment because they’re under the delusion that they can simply think themselves well. By the time they realize they failed to cure their cancer with affirmations that cause you to gaslight yourself, it’s too late.
While your thoughts don’t 100% control your health, it’s not true to suggest that your thoughts have nothing to do with your health. What is true is that the terrain of our thoughts, beliefs, feelings, personal and collective traumas, and environmental influences affect our nervous systems and through epigenetics, our DNA. They also affect our immune systems, our endocrine systems, our microbiome, the amount of chronic inflammation in the body, and other organ systems. This kind of impact on the terrain of our inner landscape can make us more or less sensitive to severity of disease when we are exposed to infectious diseases, leading to more or less severe symptoms as a result of those infections.
The science on this- via psychoneuroimmunology, as described by Candace Pert in The Molecules of Emotion and via what we’re learning in the cutting edge field of traumatology- is pretty clear. As Bessel Van Der Kolk suggests, trauma impacts the body in very real ways and “The body keeps the score.” If you don’t believe that, listen to California Surgeon General Nadine Burke Harris’s TEDMED talk “How Childhood Trauma Affects Health Across A Lifetime.” The science is clear on this, as I spell a lot of it out in the revised edition of Mind Over Medicine and my new book Sacred Medicine
It’s true that we’re all exposed to germs every day, and most of us don’t get sick from them. We’ve all experienced that when we get run down or traumatized or burned out and we fail to tend to our inner life, we’re more vulnerable to getting a cold. That’s what I mean by terrain theory, that 100 people could be in a room with strep bacteria floating around and only one person might get strep throat. Why that one person? Because their terrain might be poorly tended and their immune system might be weakened because of a number of factors that impact this kind of bodily terrain.
It’s Not Just Germ Theory Either
I was triggered throughout the pandemic by the science denialism and rebellion against public health guidelines unethically broadcast by corrupt and deluded conspiritualists, but I was also triggered by the complete absence of education about simple preventive measures well documented by science to help fight viruses like Covid that went completely ignored by the CDC and other public health departments.
The scientific materialists ignored any recommendations that might support the terrain, and the conspiritualists ignored the public health recommendations that might protect them from germs. Both were problematic, from my point of view, if our real goal was to help people avoid Covid and if they get it, to help them have the best possible outcomes.
For example, every good integrative and functional medicine doctor I know has a list of natural food recommendations, lifestyle recommendations, and supplements like Vitamin C and Vitamin D that they recommend for Covid prevention and treatment. I understand food deserts and health equity issues, so I get that some of these health recommendations are not widely available or affordable for low income populations, and public health departments are required to make sure their recommendations are broadly applicable, for valid health equity reasons.
I understand that while cutting edge trauma treatment, for example, might improve the terrain of our nervous systems and impact the way our bodies react if we catch infectious diseases, I also understand that these treatments are not usually covered by insurance, and in my country, many people don’t even have insurance, so the CDC is not going to say “Get your trauma treated so you’ll have an optimal Covid outcome should you catch Covid in spite of your vaccination.” They’re also not going to say “Drink your green juice and take 100 supplements so your terrain is in better shape should you get Covid.” Because have you seen how much a glass of green juice costs? And do you get what a privilege it is to be able to access fresh raw organic kale and afford 100 supplements? And how many people can pay for or even find a good Internal Family Systems or Somatic Experiencing or Advanced Integrative Therapy trauma therapist?
So I get it, but it still triggers me that they don’t at least acknowledge that in addition to getting vaccinated, wearing masks and social distancing when the case numbers call for it, washing your hands, and following other public health recommendations, if you can afford it, you might also improve your odds of a good outcome if you get Covid by following these other recommendations meant to tend to the inner and outer terrain of the body and the sea in which our bodies swim:
1) Avoid toxic substances
2) Eat ethically sourced, organic, nutrient dense foods, mostly plants
3) Exercise regularly
4) Get 8 hours of sleep
5) Take Vitamin C and D (and I’ve previously published the list of others I recommend for those who can afford them for Covid prevention and treatment)
6) Get into trauma therapy if you have any kind of trauma history (all of us do, if you include collective trauma and developmental trauma in that definition, which I do in Sacred Medicine
7) Avoid stressful situations and toxic relationships if at all possible
8) Drink plenty of water (and green juice if you can)
9) Make sure you get your needs for love, connection, and community met as best as you can while following public health guidelines
10) Change public policy to protect social justice
11) Go green, follow Indigenous wisdom when it comes to caring for nature, and basically follow the recommendations in the book written by Paris agreement negotiator The Future We Choose
12) Calm your nervous system with spiritual practices like non-spiritually bypassing meditations and yoga and contemplative prayer
Preaching To The Choir Here
I could go on, but you get the picture. I don’t need to teach those of you who have read Mind Over Medicine or my friends Jeff Rediger’s book Cured or Kelly Turner’s book Radical Remission what healthy lifestyle choices and behaviors are and how to make yourself miracle prone. You all are the proverbial choir here, and we should not throw the baby out with the bathwater.
But I’m also not suggesting that if you do everything recommended in our books, you’ll be immune to Covid and never die of it- or that if you do get sick with long Covid or die from it, it’s because you did something wrong. To ever suggest that would be misleading and hyperbolic, not to mention cruel to anyone who had a horrible outcome from Covid.
As I said throughout the pandemic, we need to follow public health guidelines to protect ourselves and each other from a potentially infectious disease (germ) but we’d also be wise to care for the internal landscapes of our bodies in ways that prepare us to survive Covid should we get infected with the virus (terrain.) If your “terrain” is a body that has been overeating processed foods and undernourishing yourself, failing to get enough sleep, avoiding exercise, ingesting toxic substances like cigarettes, riddled with chronic inflammation as a physiological side effect of untreated trauma and the nervous system dysregulation and immune system dysfunction that rides shotgun with trauma in the body, and swimming in a sea of collective trauma (like systemic racism, genocide, war, colonization, and climate crisis), then it’s scientifically accurate to say that this body’s terrain is more vulnerable to a bad outcome if it meets the germ of Covid.
The problem, in my editorializing opinion, with both the public health/ conventional medicine “camp” and the alternative medicine/ natural medicine “camp” during Covid is that both sides are doubling down on only side of the “germ theory AND terrain theory” paradox of healing. Public health and conventional medicine are largely ignoring and neglecting the impact of a body vulnerable to any kind of infectious disease and parroting only, “Avoid getting the germ- or vaccinate against the germ.” And yes, by all means, try to avoid the germ and vaccinate against it! But what about preventive health measures that, if covered by nationalized health care and offered in a more health equity-friendly format, could significantly improve outcomes should people be exposed to any germ?
Likewise, some Q-adjacent and conspiritualist wellness influencers are waxing poetic about terrain theory and falsely insinuating that you’d only be vulnerable to contracting Covid or getting sick from it if your terrain wasn’t pure, which is utter nonsense! Yes, it is my opinion that we might see better health outcomes from Covid in those who tend to the terrain of their inner landscape with things like cutting edge trauma treatments that can reduce the trauma burden in the body, eating a nourishing diet, avoidance of toxins, immune-boosting nutraceuticals, healthy sleep and exercise, Vitamins C and D, and lifestyle modifications meant to calm the nervous system so the “ventral vagal” aspect of the parasympathetic nervous system can flip on and facilitate fighting off the virus should it infect you. Yes, these people might have a higher likelihood of surviving Covid without long-term sequelae than those who are couch potato lounging, junk food eating addicts with an Adverse Childhood Experience score of 8 who have never been in therapy. And if those people’s terrains have also suffered the burden of being Black or Indigenous People of Color in the United States, for example, it’s my opinion that such a terrain might put them at even greater risk, which could explain at least part of why BIPOC died so much more often from Covid than the rest of the population.
Yes, it’s true that there are health equity issues in the privileged wellness industry, and that is a major public health issue that needs to be addressed at the level of social justice policy. But with that disclaimer, can we agree that germs are real and cause infectious diseases? And how we tend to the terrain of our bodies, including not just typical lifestyle choices and healthy behaviors but also how we tend to our traumatic burdens emotionally, mentally, somatically, spiritually, societally, and politically is likely to impact our health outcomes should we get infected with some pathogen?
*Sacred Medicine is now available wherever you buy books. You can watch the book trailer here.
P.P.S Preorder Sacred Medicine here to find out what else I learned along the way.
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