Germ Theory or Terrain Theory? The Body as a Garden - square title image

Germ Theory or Terrain Theory? The Body As a Garden

Germ Theory or Terrain Theory? The Body as a Garden - horizontal title image

There’s a lot of debate in the health world — especially when you begin to step out into alternative medicine — about germ theory vs. terrain theory. That is, whether health is driven by germ theory or terrain theory. I believe the answer is “yes,” and I’ll explain why in a moment, but first a little side note…

Although some bias is inevitable (everyone has a bias), I generally try to keep posts on this site based heavily in facts and evidence. I don’t like to lean heavily on opinion (except, perhaps, in a product review) and I don’t like to speculate, because I want you to know you can trust the information you find here. This post is a little different. While I don’t believe it’s untethered from facts and evidence, it is, by nature, something other than sheer evidence and fact.

But I think this is an important topic to talk about because what we believe about health overall colors the way we filter (and apply) all of the facts and evidence when we read them. I hope you’ll find my conclusion to be an evidence-based opinion, but the heart of this post is not, itself, incontrovertible fact. If you disagree with my conclusion, I’d love to hear your evidence-based reasons for why.

What Are Germ Theory & Terrain Theory?

First, a quick primer in case you’re not sure what germ theory and/or terrain theory are, so you’re not lost from the start!

Most of modern Western medicine is built around the idea of “germ theory.” Popularized largely due to Louis Pasteur‘s influence, the idea behind germ theory is that “germs make you sick.” In other words, take a healthy body, introduce a pathogen, and you get illness.

Terrain theory” is the idea that illness is about balance in the body. A body with a balanced terrain is healthy, and a body with an unbalanced terrain is sick. Many terrain theory proponents reject the idea that there’s any such thing as a “germ” or “pathogen.”

The Problem with Germ Theory

Pure germ theory presents a problem: it simply doesn’t hold up in the real world. If pure germ theory were the real-life model, then virtually everyone with a given “germ” would be visibly sick, and that isn’t the case. For example, there are people who are pretty sick with “strep throat”…and there are people who test positive for strep bacteria on swabs who aren’t sick at all. So germ theory, at the very least, cannot be the full picture.

The Problem with Terrain Theory

Terrain theory seems to be a sounder overall approach. It accounts for the fact that not everyone with a given “germ” is sick.

However, pure terrain theory has its issues, too. Pure terrain theory negates the entire concept of contagion. According to terrain theory, nothing is contagious; you can’t “catch” any illness. All illness is a matter of your own body’s internal environment. But history is full of evidence of patterns of illness that suggest person-to-person transmission. (This doesn’t necessarily mean everything considered to be contagious really is. But there does seem to be evidence that contagious illness truly exists.)

So how do we account for this apparent contradiction?

Terrain + Germ Theory: Body as Garden

The solution I believe best accounts for the evidence is a combination of terrain + germ theory, where terrain is the most important foundation but certain germs can disrupt even a previously-healthy terrain.

This is best understood, not as an abstract concept, but using the illustration of a garden.

The overall health of a garden is based on the health of the soil and the overall balance of plants growing in it (the ratio of “desirable” plants to “weeds”). This is the terrain.

A reasonably-healthy garden can handle some seasonal variation. And it often contains some weeds. But the weeds are kept in check by the abundance of desirable plants. The mere presence of weeds isn’t an indication of an unhealthy garden.

The garden becomes unhealthy when things get out of balance. When the weeds start to take over. If they’re choking out the desirable plants. If the soil is depleted or compacted.

All of this, so far, is terrain theory in practice.

But what happens in a garden when an invasive species is introduced?  Something that’s foreign to the local ecosystem? These invasives have a tendency to take over even healthy gardens, because the balance they’re designed for doesn’t include them.

That invasive species may be perfectly harmless in the environment it’s intended for, but it’s harmful in an environmnent it wasn’t intended for. And some plants are just pests under even ordinary circumstances. Have you ever tried to get rid of poison ivy? You’d be hard-pressed to find anyone who considers this a “beneficial” plant in any context, and it can rapidly take over if it finds its way into your garden.

This is how I see certain “germs” functioning. Some may be the equivalent of the ordinary weeds — problematic if they grow out of control, but not a big deal in small numbers and easy to keep in check if the garden is healthy. But others are more like invasives and cause problems almost any time they show up.

I believe this model is an intellectually consistent way of accounting for all of the data, and a useful one for practical application.


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