Nurturing your body's internal "terrain"
Updated: Mar 27
The concept of biological terrain was originally developed over a hundred years ago in France, amidst a fierce intellectual battle concerning the true cause of disease. Louis Pasteur argued external germs that invade the body were the primary cause of human illness. In order to get well, you needed to identify and then kill whatever germ made you sick, employing tools such as drugs, surgery, radiation and chemotherapy. At about the time that Pasteur was promoting his germ theory, Claude Bernard (and a second Pasteur contemporary, Antoine Bechamp) developed the theory that the body’s ability to heal was dependent on its general condition or internal environment. Germs and disease could only emerge if the internal environment or “milieu” of the body was out of balance (and became favorable to germs). Thus, we do not catch diseases, we build them.
Since history is written by the winners, we know that Pasteur’s germ theory prevailed, becoming the dominant paradigm that defines modern medicine even today. What may be less well-known is that Pasteur is said to have recanted on his deathbed, admitting that Bernard was right and that “the microbe is nothing, terrain is all.”
In contrast to Pasteur, Bernard and Bechamp believed that disease represented a condition of imbalance within the internal terrain of body. Both men emphasized the context or ecosystem in which germs live, rather than the germs themselves – stressing that the true cause of disease is the internal environment of the living organism, not the external micro-organisms that attack it. So long as the body’s internal terrain is balanced – or homeostatic – germs cannot flourish. If, on the other hand, the terrain is out of balance, then germs are likely to thrive. In short, Bernard and Bechamp argued that germs do not cause disease. They are a sign of the diseased condition within the internal environment – a sort of biological canary in the coal mine – but not the cause of that condition.
Over a century later, it is more relevant and imperative than ever to appreciate the idea that the “terrain is all” – with its emphasis on adopting a balanced, naturalistic approach to health and wellness. The intent of holistic medicine – and traditional Chinese medicine, in particular – can be thought of as bringing the internal terrain back into balance so that health may flourish. Rather than viewing humans as (merely) reactive targets who are at the mercy of microbes, a natural healing perspective places emphasis on the environment in which microbes seek to live. More importantly, it also recognizes people as proactive agents of their own health, whose deliberate choices can create a strong, balanced terrain that is impervious (or at least, less vulnerable) to the potentially deleterious effects of germs.
Our body’s internal environment matters because anything that alters the biological ecosystem upsets homeostasis and ultimately, causes disease. Homeostasis is the body’s balancing mechanism, and balance is a key word in health. Traditional Chinese medicine believes that when the body is out of balance, our vital energy or Qi, can no longer flow freely. In turn, this obstruction of energy leads to pain and illness. Health and vitality, in a very real sense, require the free flow of energy throughout our body to nourish and animate the physical, emotional and spiritual aspects of our being. Consequently, (re) establishing our body’s equilibrium and keeping it in balance is fundamental to good health.
Bechamp considered germs to be nature’s scavengers, only appearing when the “soil” is polluted enough to be conducive to their existence. While illness is caused by bacteria, it is equally true that bacteria require fertile soil to grow and multiply. So long as the body is maintained in excellent condition, with an internal environment that naturally gravitates toward equilibrium, harmful bacteria cannot flourish within the body. Bechamp emphasized the need to clean the “soil” instead of attack the germs – and maintain our body so that germs can’t upset its equilibrium and drugs aren’t needed to kill them off. As long as our bodies and tissues retain a high degree of vitality, germs, infection and disease cannot make progress. Ironically, disease cannot survive in a “hostile” terrain that is healthy and balanced.
Several factors undermine the equilibrium of our body’s internal terrain, including:
Hypoventilation (shallow breathing)
Inactivity and a sedentary lifestyle
Environmental toxins and pollution
Negative thoughts and emotions
Structural imbalance and constitutional deficiencies
Overtime, all of these factors add up and conspire against us to generate a biological environment that blocks the flow of energy and allows disease and discomfort to flourish. Simply put, disease and illness are a reflection of the condition of our body’s internal ecology – it either nourishes optimal health and vitality, or slowly, but surely destroys it.
Anyone who tends a garden has a concrete understanding of the importance of terrain. Growing strong plants requires healthy soil, rich in organic matter and minerals, balanced pH, adequate hydration and healthy bacteria levels. If a plant has its roots in soil that is well fertilized and hydrated, it will grow strong and beautiful. If, instead, seeds are planted in soil that contains artificial chemical fertilizers, lacks moisture or has been soaked with acid rain, the plant will fail to thrive. And even as it struggles to grow, nutrient uptake from the soil will be diminished, leaving the plant susceptible to external disease and parasites. The need for herbicides and chemical pesticides increases in proportion to the decreasing health of the soil. Finally, if the plant is subjected to acid rain or air pollution, the plant will find it nearly impossible to defend itself against rot or insect infestation, and will die before its time.
This same concept of biological terrain can be applied to our own health and propensity for disease. Our body's cells are no different than the seeds a gardener tends. To maintain good health and vitality, cells need their own balanced terrain. And just like the gardener, we are concerned with pH balance, mineral supply, hydration and healthy gut bacteria. Whole, clean food and water that nourishes us, a well-balanced acid-alkaline pH, stress management, detoxification, and emotional equanimity are all vital components that define our internal ecological health. Supporting the body’s vital energy, restoring internal communication grids (acupuncture meridians), boosting immune system function, synchronizing the mind-body-spirit and keeping a positive mental outlook all nurture optimal health and well-being.
How can we think about our body’s biological terrain or ecosystem? Given that the human body is 60 – 70% water (and the brain is closer to 80%) – our biological terrain is basically the fluid environment that surrounds the billions of cells in our body. If our cells are under-nourished, dehydrated or unable to remove waste products, they will start to feed on the body itself and damage the immune system. This interstitial cellular environment is responsible for delivering nutrients to every cell in the body, including electrolytes, enzymes, vitamins, minerals, hormones and water. The trillions of cells in our body depend upon the biological terrain to supply the specific levels of nutrients and hydration it needs to maintain life and vitality.
The pH level of this internal, fluid ecosystem affects every living cell in our body. When the acid-alkaline balance is off, enzymatic reactions within the body slow down and oxygen delivery to our cells is impaired. When enzymatic activity slows down, illness appears. When acidity becomes chronic, various psychological functions of the body, including immune function, deteriorate. An overly acidic terrain is extremely attractive to viruses, funguses, yeast, molds, microbes and parasites. Such an environment allows these organisms flourish and attack our immune systems and steal the nourishment from our foods and supplements. Micro-organisms such as viruses, bacteria and yeast (as well as many disease, including cancer) all grow more easily in an acidic, oxygen-deprived environment that is overly-acidic. The acidification of the body’s internal terrain is, in fact, the source of many health problems ranging from fatigue and premature aging, to heart disease and cancer.
Rather than kill germs to prevent illness, Bechamp advocated the cultivation of health through diet, hygiene, and healthy lifestyle practices such as fresh air and exercise. With a strong immune system and good tissue quality, germs cannot manifest. It is only when health starts to decline (often due to personal neglect and poor lifestyle choices) that we fall victim to infection. Arguing that germs are opportunistic (often already living inside of us in a symbiotic relationship), it is only when the tissue of the host becomes damaged or compromised that they will begin to manifest as symptoms. Bechamp saw infection as a footnote to the state of illness, not the primary cause of it. As a result, he was less concerned with killing the infection and focused more on restoring the health of the patient’s body through healthy lifestyle choices. He repeatedly found in his own research that as the person restored their health through diet, hygiene, and detoxification, infection went away on its own, without necessitating more extreme measures to kill it.
Altering the inner terrain focuses on correcting and rebalancing the conditions within us that allow bacteria, viruses, germs, yeast or the mutant DNA expression to take root in the first place. An overly narrow focus on destroying pathogens (such as disease causing bacteria) with pharmaceutical drugs intent on eradicating the invader can be seen as one of the major shortcomings of conventional medicine. Often, this produces a vicious cycle of infection, drugs and increasingly poor resistance (due to a weakened gut and immunity) that eventually leads to even more aggressive procedures and drugs.
Pasteur, Bernard and Bechamp had a long, bitter rivalry regarding the true cause of illness. Ultimately Pasteur’s ideas were accepted by society while Bernard and Bechamp have been largely forgotten. The practice of Western medicine is based on Pasteur’s germ phobia which gives rise to the use of vaccinations, antibiotics, and other antimicrobials. The frightening – but not surprising – recent news that an invincible bacteria strain has proven to be completely resistant to all antibiotics highlights the modern day importance of this century-old battle. The bacteria is reported to be resistant even to colistin, a decades-old antibiotic that has increasingly been used as a treatment of last resort against such superbugs. As Bernard and Bechamp tried to warm us, the fight for good health is not just about the enemy, but the ecological battleground where it is staged.