Nature is not a place to visit. It is home.
Gary Snyder (1990)
Humankind is a young and not-yet wise species who left home and lost its way. Our love story with nature is going through a very rough patch. As the industrial society wreaks destruction on itself and other species through over-consumption, waste and global warming, we may wonder what went wrong and how we might fix it. Our hubris may be taking us down, yet the rest of nature will probably prevail long after we were gone. Yet surely, if nature can survive, we can learn to do so too. As health practitioners, how can we share our knowledge of how life functions to help us recover a healthy relationship with nature?
We are nature
Our shared natural history started some four billion years ago, with the formation of a persistent, tiny singlecelled organism. It’s thought that all life evolved from this last universal common ancestor, or LUCA. Billions of years ago, bacteria and viruses shared genetic information which transferred to animals and eventually became part of our human genome (Crisp et al, 2015). Every individual life-form that has developed since shares many of the same genes necessary for basic cellular function, such as for replicating DNA, controlling the cell cycle and helping cells divide, and other genes that control the basic metabolism of all plants and animals. It is not surprising to learn that consequently humans share some 75% of their genes with the pumpkin.
So nature embraces all life within our vastly biodiverse system. This common urge for life is reflected in the form and function of all organisms, which have themselves been shaped through evolution by the co-creative and co-operative relationships between organisms and their everchanging environment. This symbiosis, as first proposed by biologist Lynn Margulis (1967), is recognised as driving evolution onward.
Our human-nature connection; biophilia
These shared genetic codes may explain in part why our connection to nature is in a sense instinctual and why it feels so fundamental. We may feel awe, wonder and love for the exterior natural world, as Stephen Harrod Buhner suggests, ‘because the experience of nature and other life forms is so deeply interwoven into our emergence as a species… human beings possess a genetic predisposition for wild nature and for other life forms – though it must, through specific experiences, be activated’ (Margulis, 1967)
Living in natural harmony
Nature, time and patience are the three great physicians.
This activation is where herbalists, and indeed anyone with a deep feeling for nature, can have a role in reconnecting us to the life within and beyond us. For herbalists, our medicines are the plants themselves and an understanding of how natural systems function and interrelate. We use plants directly as natural medicine, but they can also act powerfully on our imagination to awaken us and our patients to ‘biophilia’. Edward O Wilson coined this term to name humans’ innate feeling for and caring about living forms (Wilson, 1984). Biophilia can extend our empathy to encompass the natural environment, all of life, ourselves and other humans.
Love the world as your own self; then you can truly care for all things’.
Lao Tzu, Tao Te Ching (6th century BC
Diversity and symbiosis
The human body contains communities of viruses, bacteria and fungi that probably outnumber our own cells. In our gut, trillions of these co-evolved microbial ‘old friends’ digest fibre, pigments and food particles that our own juices cannot deal with. In return, they produce protective acids and manage potentially harmful viruses and bacteria within the gut’s ecosystem. On the surface of the body, microbial species adapted to our skin help maintain its immune barrier by turning sweat, skin cells and sebum into protective acids. Our health depends on our interdependence with other life forms, a living network inside and out. It also rests on social and environmental health – for if they are impaired, so will our health be, albeit indirectly or in the long term.
Reducing stress load and supporting function
These approaches are fundamental to improving health. Ill-health often results from not listening to internal warning signs such as poor sleep, pain, depression and fatigue. So how best are we to allow our evolutionary nature to flourish? We evolved in groups so loneliness and isolation, and disconnection from self and others, can contribute to a sense of dis-ease. Excessive stimulation and busyness has to be counter-balanced by slowing down so we can recover. To practise being in the here and now will more closely mirror nature’s timescale: we know from the evidence on mindfulness that this is a healing state. Simply sitting quietly and opening up to our senses will quicken our appreciation of life.
Cell chemistry functions in lockstep with Earth’s day-night cycle, because life evolved over billions of years in constant relation to the planet’s rhythms of dark and light. Daylight prompts the morning surge of cortisol that wakes us up; melatonin production builds as light fades and moves us into sleepiness. Growth hormone secretion helps repair us while we sleep. Electric light has artificially lengthened our day, but mild permanent jetlag is the consequence of ignoring the bodyclocks embedded in every cell of the body. Returning to the planetary rhythm of eight-hours sleep, eating and exercising by daylight and fasting overnight matches our true biological tempo, so buffering us against stress and building our ability to adapt to adversity.
Real food is medicine
Much more than mere fuel, what and how we eat can nourish us on all levels, body–mind and spirit. Feeding connects us instantly to our bodies; eating together binds us to other people. Food has taste, texture, shape, colour and sound, as well as nutrients. It can link us to where and how it was grown. But an impoverished way of eating cannot do this. Fast industrial food can be cheap but the true price of poor quality, fast-grown, diluted and phyto – nutrient-poor food will eventually be paid in ill-health.
It’s increasingly recognised that there is no single ideal diet. We are beginning to discover there is a basis for individual needs, and this is thanks in part to a better understanding of the role of genomic differences and the ecology and distribution of gut and soil microbes. But there are some key principles to what and how we should eat, and at their heart lie nature’s favouring of complexity and diversity. My own approach builds on what food activist Michael Pollan laid down with his 64 rules, summarised as: ‘Eat food. Not much. Mostly plants.’
My own approach to dietary advice is:
- mostly plants, with their fibre and phytonutrient-rich edible skin, pith and seeds
- not too much and mostly during the day
- many colours, the darker the better
- some raw
- from a variety of plant families
- a new vegetable or fruit regularly
- something wild every day (for concentrated phytonutrients).
Food provenance matters
What did that animal eat and how was it bred and raised? In what soil and surroundings was that plant grown? Albeit transformed, we are eating what that animal ate or the soil in which that plant grew. Highly-marbled meat is usually due to ‘finishing’ or fattening the cow with an unnatural diet of corn, grain and/or soya bean, high in inflammatory omega 6 fatty acids, rather than anti-inflammatory omega 3s from pasture-fed animals. Science has shown that animals have emotions and can suffer much as humans do. An animal slaughtered so we can eat it should die with as little stress as possible, having been respected in life, herding with its fellows, and eating a natural diet of mixed pasture.
Rediscovering complex food tastes
Having evolved to savour nutrient complexity and to protect us from toxins, our taste and smell can detect at least 100,000 flavours. We are hardwired for a variety of tastes, but we have been seduced by salty and sugary foods to narrow our taste preferences. A food that feels deeply satisfying is likely to be waking up many taste receptors. For example the complex flavour of a wildgrown plant like watercress tells us that it’s full of phytonutrients and vitamins, minerals and soil organisms from a mineral-rich river bed, stimulated to make the kind of defence chemicals that act as plant medicines (such as immune-stimulating bitters). A fast-grown plant mollycoddled in hydroponics and fed a chemical fertiliser mix won’t have had the chance to do this. We can literally taste the difference. The fats, proteins and carbohydrates of a slow-fermented ham from a pig who ate a wild and complex diet get broken down further by microbes specific to each atmosphere from cave to attic, into hundreds of tasty amino acids, fatty acids and sugars (IQWiG, 2011).
Gather, grow, prepare, share and eat food together
Ritual and celebration often revolve around food. The body’s digestion system works best when we slow down. And as we slow down we feel more open and communicative; our thinking brains work better too. When we rest and digest we also like to tend and befriend; with access to others, their ideas and skills we find solutions together (Hari et al, 2015). Loneliness is as damaging to our health as smoking and obesity and shortens our life.
Some stress can build resilience
A little stress is a good thing. Hormesis is an adaptive response to a moderate stressor that stimulates response and so builds resilience. As our muscle and bone build on sensing a load, so a plant threatened by a predator or pathogen makes its own defence chemicals. Merely knowing that difficulty can strengthen us physically and mentally can change our attitude and behaviour towards what we tend to avoid.
Our state of health is not permanent
Health involves a dynamic adaptation to a constantly changing environment. We are complex creatures and we can adapt and grow. When faced with a challenge we may discover unknown coping capacity and inner resources. Rather than resisting an unfamiliar reality, how can we experience the now as a moment full of possibilities, a feeling of not being fixed in an illness or misery? By holding this acceptance our current state is eligible to change. One theory about the healing power of nature connectedness is that it diffuses our over-focused attention and widens our sense of self.
Finding our way back home to nature as teacher and lover
Long-lived healthy communities do exist. The world’s blue zones – regions of the world where people live much longer than average – (Buettner, 2005) share several key characteristics: regular physical activities like gardening or household tasks; a sense of life’s purpose; a plant-based diet including legumes; strong family and social cohesion especially for the elderly; moderate alcohol intake; reduced stress; and the expression of spirituality or religion. Genetic or other factors must also play a role in their good health, but what is obvious is that these communities’ all live simple, slower and rhythmical lives that involve connection, give and take.
One way home to our natural selves is through our deep and real relationship with the natural world. We humans co-evolved the other-than human world whose diversity and rhythms encourage us to be more patient with life’s processes. Nature is calling us to tackle the profound ecological and social challenges of the extraordinary time in which we are living. Since humans are the planet’s organs of awareness and conscience we must not ignore the symptoms of planetary illness. Global warming and species loss should prompt us to join together to heal ourselves and the other-than human world.
The anchor of my purest thoughts, the nurse, The guide, the guardian of my heart, and soul, Of all my moral being… A motion and a spirit, that impels All thinking things, all objects of all thought, And rolls through all things.
Nature in its beauty and economy models a sacred reciprocity. If we observe closely and patiently how it works, and appreciate the hidden, long-term consequences of our actions, our natural wisdom will guide us home to a healthier balance with each other and the Earth.
- Buettner D (2005) The secrets of longevity. National Geographic, November.
- Buhner SH (2002) The lost language of plants: the ecological importance of plant medicine to life on Earth. Hartford, VT: Chelsea Green Publishing
- Crisp A, Boschetti C, Perry M, Tunnacliffe A, Micklem G (2015) Expression of multiple horizontally acquired genes is a hallmark of both vertebrate and invertebrate genomes. Genome Biology 16(50).
- Hari R, Henriksson L, Malinen S, Parkkonen L (2015) Centrality of Social Interaction in Human Brain Function. Neuron 7(88): 181–93.
- IQWiG (2011) How does our sense of taste work? Institute for Quality and Efficiency in Health Care. Available at: www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/ books/NBK279408 (accessed 3 February 2019).
- Margulis L (1967) On the origin of mitosing cells.J Theor Biol. 14 (3): 255–274
- Wilson EO (1984) Biophilia. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.