Germ theory vs. terrain theory: Which is right?


Fact Box

  • Before germ theory and terrain theory were devised, the dominant belief system behind disease transmission was ‘miasma theory,’ which held that “disease was caused by infectious mists or noxious vapors emanating from filth in the towns and that the method of prevention of infectious diseases was to establish sanitary measures to clean the streets of garbage, sewage, animal carcasses, and wastes that were features of urban living.”
  • Merriam-Webster defines a germ as “a small mass of living substance capable of developing into an organism or one of its parts.”
  • According to the FDA, for everyday hygiene, simpler may be better, as “there isn’t enough science to show that over-the-counter (OTC) antibacterial soaps are better at preventing illness than washing with plain soap and water.”
  • It is believed that, on his deathbed, Louis Pasteur said, “the microbe is nothing, the terrain is everything.”

Samir (Germ Theory)

Science has long relied on the germ theory of disease, i.e., the belief that certain germs are responsible for certain illnesses in the human body. History is replete with numerous examples to support this.

In the mid-19th century, one man discovered that washing hands literally saved lives. It resulted from years of research by Hungarian obstetrician Ignaz Semmelweis, who was struck by a yawning gap in childbirth death rates in two of his clinics--one which was manned by doctors who worked on cadavers before delivering babies with unclean hands, and one manned by midwives who focused only on childbirth. After he suggested that doctors wash their hands before delivering babies, the mortality rate plummeted. 

Another discovery in the 19th century conclusively established that specific germs cause specific diseases. German physicist Robert Koch studied blood under a microscope from cows that died of anthrax, noticing specific and unusual rod-shaped bacteria in it. After he injected that same blood into other animals, they also developed anthrax, leading him to create 'Koch's Postulates,' a system still used today to determine which germs cause a specific disease. Koch's work directly led to French chemist Louis Pasteur's innovative method of preserving food by killing microbes and germs contained within. 

But it wasn't until 1928 and the accidental discovery by Alexander Fleming of the world's first antibiotic, penicillin, that effectively changed medical science as we know it. It became the standard to successfully treat such illnesses as pneumonia, strep throat, meningitis, syphilis, and gonorrhea. 

All modern medical feats--even organ transplants--owe a debt of gratitude to germ theory, an approach that has saved millions of lives.

Morgan (Terrain Theory)

The commonly held notion that infectious disease stems solely from the introduction of different microbes is detrimental to the public’s perception of health. Germ theory takes a single-minded approach to explaining the cause of illnesses, whereas terrain theory gives a more nuanced, multi-factor analysis of the root causes of disease. Louis Pasteur’s pathology model is embraced today because it is profitable, perpetuating the use of pharmaceuticals. Further, his theory was accepted primarily because of his political connections and personal alignment with the public’s popular opinions about disease. 

Germ theory laid the groundwork for the commercialization of medicine--pharmaceuticals manufactured to combat various bacteria, viruses, and parasites, all of which could not thrive in a balanced body. Yet, germ theory has proven to be a poor model for eliminating disease, given its track record in the western world, with higher rates of chronic conditions in the US than in most impoverished countries.

Eastern medicines with several hundred--if not thousands--of years of successful use have long conceived that the root causes of disease lay within an imbalanced diet, lifestyle, and/or mentality. Within everyone’s body is a complex, unique mini-ecosystem. If any components of this terrain are excessive or deficient, the function of the whole is compromised.

Where germ theory falls short is in the phenomenon that certain pathogens can trigger serious illness upon entering the body of an unhealthy person while causing no harm to a healthy individual. Dr. Sebi was a modern healer whose methodology was highly criticized because he rejected conventional medicine. Yet, he effectively cured hundreds of people of AIDS, herpes, and cancer while completely disregarding germ theory.

Health is found in the terrain and not in eradicating germs.

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