How can a healthy immune system become so distraught that it stops defending and starts attacking itself? Is there a path back to health for someone suffering from chronic inflammation?

It is becoming common knowledge that inflammation is the root cause of many debilitating conditions. With autoimmune and gastrointestinal disorders on the rapid rise, we as a society are continuing to deepen our understanding of how much of an impact inflammation has on all the systems of the body. But to truly understand the impact, you may need to take a step back and change how you think about the health of your body.

The Terrain of Health

The standing belief in conventional western medicine has been that we are exposed to microbiota – the microscopic life making up the microbiome: bacteria, viruses, parasites, and yeasts – which then attack the immune system and are the root cause of disease. This view goes back to a famous rivalry between 19th century biologist Louis Pasteur and chemist Antoine Béchamp.

Pasteur, inventor of pasteurization, believed that health ultimately comes from reducing exposure to microbiota. For a long time, this was the accepted view. Béchamp, on the other hand, believed that a diversity of microbiota could self-regulate. In Béchamp’s view, unfavorable environmental conditions destabilize the terrain of the microbiome, and this imbalance is actually the root cause of disease. Luckily for us, we live in a time when scientific minds are actively seeking to understand more about how important the terrain of the microbiome is for our health.

Would a coral reef be able to survive if only one species of fish inhabited it? In such a vibrant ecosystem, diversity is key. Each of the thousands of species of creatures in a coral reef plays a unique role, and the same is true for our microbiomes. The complexity of life in the human gut is such that bacterial cells outnumber our human cells tenfold! And encasing this diverse gut microbiome is the gut lining, a thin membrane that extends from your nasal passages all the way through your digestive system. About 80% of the immune system lies right behind this first line of defense. Keeping it strong has huge impacts on the on the immune system.

What Conditions Harm the Microbiome?

We know we should try to maintain and protect the diversity of our microbiomes. So, what are the conditions in our environments that can disrupt this diversity?

The use of antibiotics, pesticides, and herbicides in industrial farming is probably the largest environmental disturbance we face. Glyphosate, the main ingredient in Roundup and the most widely used herbicide in the world, directly damages the gut lining, and since 1974, it’s estimated that as much as 8.6 billion kilograms of glyphosate has been used globally.

READ MORE: An unprecedented legal battle against the makers of Roundup

The damage caused by glyphosate to the gut lining can ultimately result in leaky gut, allowing food, toxins, and foreign particles to pass directly through to the bloodstream. When anything can bypass the gut lining, the immune system is overwhelmed from trying to defend against the onslaught and becomes inflamed. If the immune system is constantly trying to defend against threats from our food, how can it effectively defend against larger threats of illness? Eventually, a once healthy immune system that only occasionally defended against contagion becomes so stressed that it cannot distinguish friend from foe. In trying to heal itself, the immune system attacks anything it sees as a threat, allowing inflammation to manifest itself throughout the body.

On top of the damage glyphosate causes, people are being prescribed antibiotics at an unprecedented rate. The CDC reported that in 2016, 270.2 million prescriptions were written for antibiotics in the United States. Antibiotics are absolutely a life-saving tool when used effectively, but the amount of time it takes for the microbiome to recover can be extensive, depending on the person (since the gut microbiome of each individual is so unique).

Industrial farming and antibiotics are a physical, measurable form of constant damage from our environment. But stress is also a massive factor in inflammation, and our lives are riddled with it. Stress can manifest in all situations: from work to finances, family to politics. It often seems that there is no escape. Relieving stress, moderating our exposure to glyphosate, and being mindful about the diversity of the microbiome are all key to reducing inflammation, but what’s the best way to start?

3 Easy Ways to Reduce Inflammation

Feed your Microbiome with Healing Foods

Sugar and carbohydrates are so tempting for a reason – certain microbiota in our gut crave the stuff and thrive off it. Species like Candida will grow rapidly if fed a sugar and carb-rich diet, causing imbalance, discomfort, and digestive stress. Gluten, often present in spades in a carb-rich diet, actually causes damage to the gut lining in much the same way that glyphosate does.

Eat as low as you can on the food chain. Seasonal, organic fruits and vegetables carry the most nutritional bang for your buck, and if you’re diverse with the nutrients you take in, you’re more likely to support a diverse and happy microbiome. And eating organic is the best way to moderate the levels of glyphosate you’re exposed to.

Get Out and Move…in Ways That Soothe Inflammation

Getting outside ensures that you encounter as many microbes as possible. Breathing, walking, and touching plants and the soil brings you in direct contact with those wonderful soil microbes that can help to heal your gut. Even though glyphosate is used rampantly as a weed killer in many of our public areas, you can still get a net benefit by getting in touch with the earth as often as you can.

We often think that in order to benefit from exercise we have to give it all we’ve got. Your body benefits just as much (if not more) from gentle, mindful movement like Qi gong, yoga, and mindful breathing exercises. Restorative practices like these and complementary benefits of weight training or cardio help generate healing from within.

Small, Conscious Changes Can Have Huge Healing Impacts

Just like any health goal, recovering from inflammation means a lifestyle change. The lifestyle that brought us to this state of illness needs a reset in order to recover from it. The easiest way for many people to incorporate new healthy habits is to start small. Small, conscious changes can compound and create lasting change.

If you, like the majority of us, find yourself going from a drywall box to a fume-filled vehicle to another drywall box and then back again every day, taking small steps to fit in some connection with nature can make all the difference. Here’s an easy one: promise yourself that you’ll touch the plants between your car and your door. Just touching the leaves of your shrubs or stopping to pick a weed from the sidewalk brings you in direct contact with tons of rich microbiome, directly from the earth. Take slow, mindful breaths as you make your way to the door and you’ll already feel more relaxed by the time you get there.

All the different forms of damage we are presented with in our modern lives greatly impacts the ability for inflammation to occur anywhere and everywhere in the body. Taking steps to relieve stress in your busy life may have the most impact, but the path out of chronic inflammation can seem like a long one. The best way to start is with simple, gentle changes to help guide your body back to a state where it can, once again, heal from within.