Germ Theory VS. Terrain Theory

Germ Theory VS. Terrain Theory

Alexandra Lucier, RHNP


“It’s not what happens to you, but how you react to it that matters.”

                                                        - Epictetus


This old adage has perhaps never been so well encapsulated as it is in the idea of “Germ Theory vs Terrain Theory”.


In 1892, a Russian immunologist named Elie Metchnikoff was living in Paris, France, where a deadly cholera epidemic had broken out. Being a good and ever-curious scientist, Metchnikoff figured the best way to study the pathogen was to drink a broth of cholera himself, and see what happened. Much to his surprise, he did not get sick. One of his colleagues, however, when administered the broth, fell deathly ill and nearly died.


Eager to discover the reason his colleague had taken ill while he himself was spared, Metchnikoff examined a bacterial profile from both of their digestive tracts under a microscope. What he found was that the “microbiome” (or bacterial composition) of his own sample was in fact very different from his colleague’s, despite the fact that both were infected with cholera, and that it was specific strains of benign bacteria in Metchnikoff’s sample that were helping to fight off the cholera.


This story is a perfect example of something we now call “Terrain Theory”.  


The way that much of the Western world views illness (and the way modern medicine treats it) is largely based on the idea that microorganisms and other pathogens are the cause of most diseases. This approach is rooted in the idea of “Germ Theory”, first popularized in the 1800’s by a French chemist named Louis Pasteur.


By contrast, Pasteur’s friend, physiologist Claude Bernard, posited that the “terrain” of the human body was more important than the pathogens that infect it. Unlike Germ Theory, Terrain Theory explains why some people get sick while others, when exposed to the same pathogens, do not.


Indeed, about 95% of the human body is made up of bacterial cells (making us, in actuality, only 5% human). These bacteria form a microbiome that is as diverse as the Amazon rainforest, and which is responsible for the same number of mental and physiological functions as our brains (some say even more!). We now know that 80% of our immune function is performed by our gut bacteria. They are also responsible for 90% of our seratonin production (the “feel-good” neurotransmitter), much of our memory and cognitive function, hormonal balance, and of course our digestive health and nutrient absorption.


Germ Theory, unfortunately, acknowledges none of this, and focuses much of its attention instead on killing infectious bacteria and other disease-causing pathogens through the use of antibiotics, disinfectants, and other harsh antimicrobials, not only ignoring the role of a healthy internal terrain, but destroying much of it in the process.


It’s true that soaps and sanitizers can help protect us during a particularly bad viral or bacterial outbreak, and antibiotics (when used appropriately), can be life-saving. When used excessively, however, or without the proper accompaniments of nutrition, probiotics, stress-management, and other immune-building tools, they run the risk of damaging the natural defense system of our internal “terrain”, leaving us more vulnerable to infection in the long run.


So what can we do to help build up our Terrain?


Nutrition, sleep, stress-management, and exercise are all fundamental to a healthy immune system. We can ensure we are getting enough immune-boosting vitamins and minerals by investing in a high-quality multivitamin, or even taking some extra Vitamin C, Vitamin D, selenium, and zinc in the form of supplements. Of course, all that nutrition isn’t going to do us any good if we aren’t absorbing it! This is where a good-quality probiotic (or digestive enzyme, if you have tummy troubles) comes into play.


If you live a very active or high-stress lifestyle, you may also want to consider B-vitmains, magnesium, GABA or L-theanine to relax the nervous system, which is important for the body to “rest, digest, and repair”. And natural sleep supplements like melatonin or passionflower can help ensure you are getting enough “zzz”s.


On his deathbed in 1895, it is said that Louis Pasteur admitted, “Bernard was right: The pathogen is nothing. The terrain is everything!”