We aren’t immune. And we shouldn’t be.

Glory, Hallelujah, I am in possession of a functional computer!

As soon as I finish transferring my data from the old hard drive, I’ll be posting all my pretty pictures from the last few weeks of One Local Summer.

In the meantime, remember my posts on the human ecosystem, way back when? I was going on about how the human body is not an isolated organism, but a complex ecosystem (think gut bacteria) as well as an element in larger ecosystems (think kaleidoscope).

Well, lately I’ve been thinking about the absurdity of the term “immune system.” Immune to what? There’s so much baggage tied up in that name. It assumes human bodies are at war with their surroundings, that a healthy human interface with the world is based on staying pure, “immune” to the non-human. Ridiculous.

We really have only the fuzziest idea how the human ecosystem works. And the more scientists investigate, the less it looks like humans are at war with the non-human. Scientists used to think that “germs” were universally dangerous. A lot of people still think this way. Hence (dangerous) antibacterial soaps. Thing is, your skin is covered with helpful bacteria — they’re calling them “commensals” now — and if you kill them, you throw the whole ecosystem out of balance.

We really have no idea what the consequences are when we alter these complicated systems. I bet it never occurred to you that your gut bacteria might make you less likely to get kidney stones.

And what about worms? They’ve been in the news lately as a potential treatment for “autoimmune diseases” of all sorts.

We evolved as groups of critters, not as separate entities.

So. Any suggestions for a new name for the system that governs human ecological balance? “Interaction system?” “Interface system?” I can’t think of anything that sounds right.


  1. Lewru said,

    July 9, 2008 @ 8:16 am

    Symbiotic system?

  2. ananda said,

    July 9, 2008 @ 8:30 am

    I second: symbiotic system 🙂 although it seems general, the word feels like the most accurate.

  3. Laura said,

    July 9, 2008 @ 9:50 am

    Thank you, thank you, thank you! I’ve been waging war against anti-bacterial soaps, sanitzers, washes, etc for years now. I have only recently realized the possiblilty of a medicinal herbal garden. God bless you and all your research. I will absorbing all that I can from this site and quoting you as appropriate when I argue the benefits of Tea Tree oil against those foolish Purell users.

  4. Mist said,

    July 9, 2008 @ 1:48 pm

    How about “interdependence system” or “synergetic system” or “contact system” or “beneficience system”?

    I like symbiotic system too!

  5. Rosalee de la Foret said,

    July 10, 2008 @ 5:21 pm

    Whatever you call it I will be happy to have you back – I’ve missed your posts!

  6. Kathleen said,

    July 10, 2008 @ 11:06 pm

    Welcome back!! I’d only just started enjoying your posts when you disappeared. My computer is in a constant war with me as well so I understand how it feels! I’m a music teacher ( I teach lots of mostly little people), does anyone have any ideas for helping my body stay strong against the germs the little guys bring to me?? Only caught a bug once the whole time I was teaching primary school, but as a music teacher I’m in contact with the kids more…Specially after any ideas for cleaning my instruments – it’s suggested I spray them with antibacterial spray, but that does NOT appeal at all!

  7. hank said,

    July 12, 2008 @ 11:40 am

    I am a firm believer that my dirty, little boy-in-the-mud upbringing (and my mum’s nonchalance about said upbringing) has made me largely immune to allergies as well as food poisoning. (It’s my hidden superpower!) I have taken antibiotics only twice in my life, never let an antibiotic product enter my house, yet I seem to be OK…

  8. Jan Sensenich said,

    July 13, 2008 @ 8:55 pm

    It seems to me that you have already identified that it is an ecosystem. I think it is hard to beat that simple name – the human ecosystem. That’s what it is – right?

    As you mentioned- it’s all about balance- Keeping an internal balance as well as balance with the rest of the outside ecosystem. Getting what we need: good food, rest, exercise, acceptance and so much more seems to keep us in balance and healthy. When something is missing or knocks us off balance, we tend to get sick. That could be anything from antibiotics to losing a friend or loved one.

    Great work Rebecca. You really bring this stuff into focus.

  9. Sasha said,

    July 15, 2008 @ 4:56 pm

    thanks for the heads up about the gut bacteria/ kidney stone connection! A friend just asked me for idea on the subject of kidney stones and I was at a loss… her brother suffers from them so the first questions I had were about diet. I guess my “gut feeling” was right!!! hee hee! (: Sasha

  10. Herbwifemama said,

    July 15, 2008 @ 11:01 pm

    Yeah, I second human ecosystem. I was thinking that when I read Jan’s comment. Simple, descriptive.

  11. crabappleherbs said,

    July 16, 2008 @ 12:48 pm

    Thanks, everyone!

    I think I like “ecosystem,” too, though of course I use that term to describe the whole human being as well…

  12. Jan S. said,

    July 16, 2008 @ 4:11 pm

    But isn’t it the “whole human being” that is necessary to maintaining health and balance? As soon as you try to separate out some sub-system that is responsible for that – you are missing something. Sort of . . . It takes an ecosystem?

  13. kate said,

    July 16, 2008 @ 4:50 pm

    The different systems of the body, as defined by western medicine, are simply a tool for understanding and working with the body though. They can be quite useful as a tool! They become more problematic when they’re taken as reality, or when, as Rebecca is pointing out, they take people into certain kinds of paradigms that are unhelpful.

    Susun Weed describes the ‘immune’ system as a braid of the nervous, lymphatic, and endocrine systems. I found that a helpful model even though I know that you can’t separate the body out like that in reality.

    The word ‘immune’ comes from the Latin for ‘not ready for service’. ‘Munis’ meaning ‘ready for service’. I thought that the term ‘commune system’ might work then 😉

    Maybe we need to consider what we are meaning by the system formerly known as immune? How are we defining that?

  14. Isamu said,

    July 17, 2008 @ 5:02 pm

    Have you checked out research that’s been done by Jeffrey I. Gordon of Washington U.? A really interesting paper of his from 2002 reports that gut commensal bacteria are needed for normal development of the gut vasculature. I think the article is available for free at http://www.pubmedcentral.nih.gov/articlerender.fcgi?tool=pubmed&pubmedid=12432102

  15. Jan S. said,

    July 18, 2008 @ 9:45 am

    Point well taken Kate. I suppose the system concept can be useful as long as we agree that “systems” are more interdependent than independent. I like your term “commune” system. It is consistent with the idea that our bodies are communites more than single organisms. The mouse gut bactieria article certainly confirms that idea.

    Great topic.

  16. crabappleherbs said,

    July 21, 2008 @ 1:49 pm

    Hey, thanks for the link, Isamu! Fascinating. (That’s my immunologist cousin, everyone!)

  17. Danielle said,

    August 5, 2008 @ 7:35 pm

    As I read this post I thought, “ecological symbiosis.” I love that both words have been played with here in the comments.

    Any one with that view in your header from her kitchen window is a lucky woman indeed.

  18. Heidi said,

    August 15, 2008 @ 9:53 pm

    Mmm…I like all the names people have suggested, but don’t have any of my own to add. I just wanted to say though, that people really do seem to be monumentally misinformed when it comes to the unseen bacterial world. I can’t pretend to know much more than the average person out there, but I do know that it is everywhere at all times, and spraying Lysol on everything can only makes things more cancerous for us, not safer. Scary chemicals aren’t the answer, and never have been. Unfortunately I think that people really believe whatever they see on TV, and believe that Purell kills 99.9% of bacteria and germs on contact. What they don’t seem to realize is that we live with it on us, and in us, all day long. I mean…..I’m eating bacteria as I write this! It can’t be killed off. What a strange concept.

    I just hope that we all learn, and maybe one day we’ll understand more about this other invisible world, and what we can do to work with it, not against it.

    And I hope more people just put down the Lysol!

  19. Vicki said,

    August 25, 2008 @ 9:53 am

    One of the really fun things to do is to think about the components of the “immune system.” Our white cells, thought about properly, are alive and somewhat independent. I think of them as obligate parasites and myself as a colony. Sometimes I forget to take care of my minority populations and things get out of whack.

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