In my previous post, I proposed the idea that we might want to start thinking of ourselves as ecosystems or better yet, ecosystems within ecosystems, and that chronic diseases are the result of those systems being out of balance. I’d like to double down on that idea.

Throughout history, infections have posed the biggest challenge to human health. The power of the germ theory of infectious diseases and strong economic development in the 20th century helped alleviate many problems with increased attention being paid to public health and hygiene, the discovery of antibiotics and routine childhood vaccinations. One disease, one medicine became the dominant view of Western medicine! With typical Western optimism America felt the battle against disease had been all but won.

But by the middle of the 20th century, along with our increasing economic development, a transition occurred with chronic diseases replacing infectious diseases. Over 70% of diseases now result from chronic conditions in developed countries with rapidly developing countries experiencing the same pattern. And our diseases have gone from being mostly mono-causal, mainly germs, to being multi-causal. This makes assigning causality extremely difficult.

The dominant paradigm in the life sciences starting in the 1960s  has been the rise of molecular biology and its ability to manipulate DNA. The present approach to understanding the biological world is to break very complex problems into smaller, more manageable pieces. The argument goes that if we understand the separate pieces, then we can put our separate understandings together and understand the whole.

 

Life is considered to be a machine and the elements of the machine, genes and the proteins they make, determine everything. This deterministic way of thinking is failing us in many ways but it is especially apparent in how we treat chronic diseases. In the process of breaking up human beings into parts and pieces, the connections and interactions between them get lost and denying the fluid nature of life.

Are we trying to understand chronic disease in our complex industrialized world by using an outdated way of thinking?

The new fluid or dynamic view confirms that no gene works in isolation. Recent discoveries about the complex microbial ecosystems that dominate life on earth have changed our view of life. Rather than an organism separated from the rest of the world, the human body is actually a superorganism that interacts with the microbial ecosystems in the environment around us through the trillions of organisms that make up our personal microbial world.

Although there’s still a lot we don’t know about the complex relationship between bacteria, humans, and the rest of the environment, we do know that our microbiome is shaped not only by things such as diet and pharmaceutical use, but also by the microbes and genes (e.g., horizontal gene transfer) we encounter from the food we eat, water we drink, air we breathe, and the humans and other animals we interact with.

We depend on the continued interaction between all our parts (30+ trillion cells and 100 trillion microbes) and our environment over time. To solve and eliminate chronic diseases, more attention needs to be paid to factors such as the initial conditions surrounding our developmental history from conception through early adulthood, trans-generational effects, both genetic and epigenetic, as well as multi-chemical “hits” throughout life but especially in childhood.

Iris Wellness Labs believes in this more “holistic” or “ecological” approach to the diagnosis and prognosis of a disease. This approach argues that there are emergent properties that result from the interactions of a system’s components that cannot be determined solely from their study in isolation. In other words, knowing a gene is not enough!

I think most of us are familiar with the concept that correlation does not necessarily equal causation but many correlations do. Obesity has a strong correlation in breast cancer but by itself, it is not the cause. The same holds for metabolic syndrome. Put a bunch of correlations together – genome, microbiome, lifestyle, environment, family history etc and you hone in on causation. This quantitative approach to understanding disease allows physicians to be, not only more precise but predictive and preventive as well.

Written by Bill Schaser, Director of Education