No body is an island

December 9th, 2009  |  Published in Stumpblog  |  5 Comments

Hot on the heels of my “bring fitness to the people” ideas comes this brilliant (as usual) essay from the folks at Exuberant Animal. An excerpt:

Given what we now know about the tight interconnection of human health and the surrounding world, we are forced to ask some hard questions: Is it even possible to be healthy in the midst of a sick culture or biosphere? Does it make sense to focus on the health of individuals while simultaneously ignoring the biological and cultural context?

The short answer is completely unsatisfactory. Yes, it is possible, for a time, to isolate individual bodies and promote individual adaptations. This is precisely what we see in the world of elite health clubs and athletics. Wealthy individuals channel a massive stream of energy and resources to themselves and so, in the short term, manage to build up islands of health. But this apparent health is not particularly meaningful, enduring or interesting. Given enough resources, just about anyone can do it.

In fact, health islands are not a good model for our future. Yes, we can direct vast amounts of time, expertise and resources into building up the state of individual bodies, teams or athletic programs, but what exactly have we accomplished? Aside from pumping up the appearance, vitality and status of the “islanders,” all we’re really done is stretch the social health gradient, increasing the distance between the health rich and the health poor. Ultimately, the process becomes self-defeating as the islanders, fit and healthy as they might be, find themselves isolated in a world of declining health.

Our understanding of human continuity gives new meaning to the practice of holistic health. In conventional circles, we reflexively label mind-body-spirit orientations as “holistic.” But if we’re only talking about my body, my mind and my spirit, what we’re doing isn’t even close to being holistic. In fact, just the contrary. When the mind-body-spirit orientation is focused on the individual, the best we can hope for is a temporary, unsustainable health island. If we really want to be holistic, we have to include the rest of the biological and social world. In this respect, the conventional prescription for health must be expanded to include a third element:

diet + exercise + activism

In other words, watch what you eat, get off the couch and start being inconvenient. Eat real food, practice functional movement and stand up for environmental preservation, sustainable agriculture, peace and social justice. Take care of your internal organs, of course, but take care of your external organs too. It’s all one body.

I’ve been working on a semi-crackpot theory about how we’re actually multiple organisms, with a particular view to the GI tract. In some ways, we handle our own digestion, but in other ways, a host of bacterial critters handle it for us.

The same is true of other animals, e.g. ruminants, who don’t actually digest the grass they eat — the friendly bacteria living in their rumen do it for them. (This is why, by the way, corn-fed beef is an abomination: cows did not evolve to eat corn [or much of the other crap they’re fed], and to “enable” [such as it is] their digestive systems to do so requires specialized breeding, massive doses of antibiotics and results in the growth of deadly E.coli strains.)

Anyway, recent research, which I’ve mentioned, suggests that the GI tract is involved in even more complex regulation of things. It would not surprise me if humans are actually just a sort of delivery system for bacteria.


  1. Adalia John says:

    December 10th, 2009at 1:33 am(#)

    Hmmmm. Humans could actually be a delivery system for bacteria. You’ve definitely are an outside the boxer and have stimulated my thinking. I loved watching twilight zone because the episodes were loaded with lessons about life and the human spirit. The kind of things most of us tend to numb ourselves to or escape from with the many frivolous distractions we have at our disposal.

  2. Alicia says:

    December 10th, 2009at 1:06 pm(#)

    What a great post! First off, I love thinking of myself as that guy in Men in Black who actually was just a vehicle that a tiny, adorable alien was driving.

    Second, the island issue has been on my mind a lot, since it’s the holidays and my family eats differently than I do. I’ve realized that the differences aren’t that huge, and yet they’re fundamental. Butter vs margarine, whole grains vs white bread, organic vs mainstream, etc.

    Third, I have to say that this is why I shop at Whole Foods. Once or twice a week, it’s great to feel like I’m not an island.

    I have no idea what to do about the activism part though. Aside from bringing a healthy dish for Xmas dinner.

  3. Mistress Krista says:

    December 10th, 2009at 1:52 pm(#)

    Alicia: Activism can take many forms.

    For example, Jamie Oliver has a program that involves teaching people a healthy recipe. They are then instructed to pass that recipe on to others.

    Simply engaging with food together — shopping, cooking, eating with awareness — is an act of activism. Talk to your farmer at the farmer’s market. Bring your family along to the farmer’s market and share your fun.

    Pester your grocer about where the veggies come from. Grocery managers do listen.

    If there are kids around, introduce them to weird and cool new foods. (My nephew loves my weird-coloured shakes because he’s 7 and 7 year-old-boys love funny-coloured food, especially if it has inventive, slightly transgressive names.) Or be active at their schools around healthy food provision.

    Gardening is activism, especially if you get involved with folks/organizations like this:

    Basically: Share your joy (rather than your furrowed-brow nagging… I know it’s hard… sigh). Find ways to connect the worlds. I find that family esp. will often harrumph initially, but secretly pay attention.

  4. Alicia says:

    December 10th, 2009at 3:23 pm(#)

    I love those ideas! Thanks.

  5. Leela says:

    December 26th, 2009at 6:27 pm(#)

    Have you seen this NY Times piece from last summer, about microbes and their relationship with us, possibly much deeper and more complex than previously believed? It’s fascinating!

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