Microbiome

Everything is Connected: The Relationship Between Body and Planet

By Lauren Panoff, MPH, RD

• 6 MIN READ

everything is connected microbiomes earth

When we think about ecosystems, we often think about places like the ocean or the rainforest. These places are beautiful and diverse, housing countless species of plants, animals, insects, and microbes — but this bountiful balance of life isn’t just found in nature. There are also ecosystems inside of the human body that, in many ways, mimic those found on the planet. 

What is an Ecosystem?

An ecosystem can be thought of as a geographic area in which all species within it work together to sustain life within a bubble. As far as where ecosystems are located, they’re everywhere.[1] 

You can find ecosystems within the walls of your own home and family, within your digestive system, in the jungle, within the trees, at the bottom of a river, or underneath a rock on the ground. Every factor within an ecosystem depends on each other to sustain it. 

Ecosystems are home to countless microbes — or microscopic organisms — which are an imperative part of their sustainability. There’s no place on Earth or in the human body that are free from microbes, demonstrating just how important their presence and balance are.[2] Some microbes are dangerous to our health and planet, causing disease and destruction, while the majority are beneficial. The right balance is necessary to maintain healthy ecosystems. 

Ecosystems in the Human Body

Just as rivers and streams bring water across lands and into the ocean on Earth, humans have veins and blood vessels transporting blood throughout our bodies and microbes actively working together. There are more ecosystems in the human body than one could probably count, ranging in all different sizes and ranges. 

Some of the other ecosystems we house can be found in the stomach and intestinal tract, the skin, the mouth, and the organs. Your entire body could also be considered an ecosystem, as all of the parts work together to keep you as healthy as possible. And of course, you also have your body systems, such as respiratory, cardiovascular, endocrine, and immune, working nonstop.

The Dynamic Nature of Ecosystems

Having a healthy microbiome in our gut determines the functionality and well-being of the rest of our bodies. In fact, the link is so strong that scientists have identified what’s called the microbiota-gut-brain axis.[3] The delicate balance of this microbial ecosystem is shaped by life experiences and exposures, beginning in the womb. 

Just as our overall health relies on balance within the microbial communities in our body, the health of the environment does too. For instance, in order for oceans and forests to sequester carbon from the atmosphere — sustaining all life and regulating the temperature of the planet — they also have to maintain an optimal microbial balance. 

If you’re wondering why ecosystems are dynamic, think about any system. All of the parts are in balance and functioning normally until one piece makes a change. When this happens, the rest of the parts in the system will have to adjust or adapt to try and restore normal balance. When humans make changes to how they live — through things like pollution and the food system — this also significantly transforms the entire ecosystem over time. 

Some of the places with the most biological diversity include tropical rainforests, large lakes, coral reefs, and the deep seas. Here, you’ll find countless species of plants, insects, animals, and microbes working together to maintain the ecosystems.[4] 

Bacteria and other microbes play an important role as decomposers in ecosystems. Many are responsible for breaking down dead matter and producing carbon dioxide as a result. Some help to fix nitrogen in the soil, and others convert ammonia to nitrites and nitrates. 

Threats to Healthy Ecosystems

While healthy ecosystems are the goal, there are a number of things that can pose a threat to their balance and vitality — both in nature and in the body. 

Some of the biggest threats to a healthy ecosystem include: 

  • Stress

  • Antimicrobial resistance

  • Toxic chemicals and pesticides

  • Water overuse and scarcity

  • Climate change

In order to reduce threats and instead nurture our earthly and bodily ecosystems, the connection is imperative. We can do this through making more sustainable, ethical, nutrient-dense, and intentional food choices, by working toward policy changes to better protect the planet and reduce the overuse of antibiotics and toxic chemicals, and by physically reconnecting our bodies to the Earth. 

Reconnecting Body to Planet

Over the centuries, we’ve become increasingly disconnected from the planet we share. But the fact is that humans are made from the most common elements found in and on Earth. Seeing how many commonalities there are between human and natural ecosystems, as well as the similar threats we face, it makes sense to reconnect the two. 

One of the ways people have been able to do this is through a practice called “earthing” or “grounding”.[5] The primary goal is to restore opportunities for direct physical contact between people and the electrons on Earth’s surface. This is done by walking outside barefoot, or spending relaxed time indoors while connected to conductive systems that transfer the energy from the ground to your body.

Researchers think that reconnecting in this way, by allowing Earth’s electrons to transfer from the ground and into our bodies, could help reverse much of the physiological dysfunction and unwellness we face. 

In fact, studies on the benefits of earthing have found that people who intentionally create more direct contact with the environment in this way experience improved sleep, reduced pain, and better-reported quality of life.

The likely reasons behind these benefits are fascinating. The surface of Earth has an unlimited, constantly renewed supply of electrons. A growing body of evidence suggests that the negative potential of the planet can stabilize our internal bioelectrical environment, restoring imbalanced bodily functions to normal. 

There’s still so much more to be learned about the ecosystems that exist in humans and the planet. But for now, there’s enough evidence to show that making efforts to reconnect the two and care for them well is important for the health and longevity of both.

References:

  1. Society, N., 2022. [online] National Geographic Society. Available at: <https://www.nationalgeographic.org/encyclopedia/ecosystem/> [Accessed 27 April 2022]. 

  2. https://www.jic.ac.uk/blog/what-are-microbes-and-where-are-they-found/

  3. Cryan, J. F., O'Riordan, K. J., Cowan, C., Sandhu, K. V., Bastiaanssen, T., Boehme, M., Codagnone, M. G., Cussotto, S., Fulling, C., Golubeva, A. V., Guzzetta, K. E., Jaggar, M., Long-Smith, C. M., Lyte, J. M., Martin, J. A., Molinero-Perez, A., Moloney, G., Morelli, E., Morillas, E., O'Connor, R., … Dinan, T. G. (2019). Physiological reviews, 99(4), 1877–2013. https://doi.org/10.1152/physrev.00018.2018

  4. Sinauer.com. 2010. Available at: <https://www.sinauer.com/media/wysiwyg/samples/PrimackEssentials5e_Ch03.pdf> [Accessed 28 April 2022]. 

  5. Chevalier, G., Sinatra, S. T., Oschman, J. L., Sokal, K., & Sokal, P. (2012).Journal of environmental and public health, 2012, 291541. https://doi.org/10.1155/2012/291541, https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3265077/