Germ vs. Terrain Theory

Are we out to eradicate all bacteria in our environment or to strengthen our defenses against bad bacteria? Are we out to fight disease in it’s invisible realm, or strengthen our immune systems to prevent it’s overcoming us?

Is it the microbe or the milieu that we should be most concerned about?

Such are the questions in the long-going germ vs. terrain theory. I first heard it explained clearly and simply in a Vintage Remedies course, (which I hope to complete soon and then be able to present the Natural Health and Real Food Essentials workshops in my area!)

To begin a look at the theory, we have to go back to the work of three 19th-century European men:

Louis Pasteur, 1822-1895

Claude Bernard, 1813-1878

Ignaz Semmelweis, 1818-1865

Pasteur has a name we are all familiar with, due to his research on the microbe. In fact, a Dutch Christian Reformed scientist, Antonie van Leeuwenheok, had been the first to discover the microbe, and his work was published by the Royal Society of London in 1673. However, it is Pasteur’s name which has gone down in history books with all the fame.

Louis Pasteur rightly noted that microbes are the source of virus and disease. His theory, consequently, is called the “germ theory”. Yet his work had some other elements as well: he believed that the human body is sterile–basically a blank slate free of germs.

We now know that the human body is not sterile, but is teeming with both good and bad bacteria which are vying for position. In fact, our bodies contain bacteria more numerous than our cells.

If the human body is sterile, however, as Pasteur thought–and upon which concept most medical practice is still based–it leads to two unfortunate conclusions: 1) Boosting health and prevention is completely useless. 2) We have to combat germs all the time, in every way.

Raw milk is at the center of this debate. Using Pasteur’s model, milk should be pasteurized in order to kill all of the bacteria. Using a different model, many of us believe that raw, unpasteurized milk contains all the good bacteria to keep the bad bacteria from multiplying undesirably.


Claude Bernard coined the term “milieu interieur,” French for “internal environment”. He believed that this terrain (hence the “terrain theory”) determined our level of health. When all of the bodily fluids and tissues were functioning in homeostasis (a stable equilibrium in physiological processes), the whole system works well. When immunity and detoxification, carried out by the body’s processes, were operating well, there was a healthy terrain which could handle variables (toxins, germs) thrown in its way.

Bernard “did not believe that disease and life were distinct enemies, rather that the quality of the terrain and the elements it faced determined an individual’s susceptibility to disease.” (Jessie Hawkins, Vintage Remedies Natural Wellness course)

Our bodies are living ecosystems full of bacteria which sustain our lives. Healthy colonies of good bacteria protect us from bad bacteria, and without the good flora we have little defense. People with severely weakened immune systems have to be careful not contact pathogenic germs, yes; but the normal ideal is to have a strong immune system that wards off pathogens without needing to hide from them.

It used to be more understood, prior to Pasteur’s movement, that there is a beneficial relation between our bodies and the microbial world. This is why traditional peoples let their food ferment or preserve in the forms of yogurt, sauerkraut, sourdough, cod liver oil, cured bacon, pemmican, and so much more. Good bacteria was encouraged–and valued.

Now, in modern times–apart from the sustainable food movement–the whole food industry, not to mention hospitals, prides itself on sterilization. That is Pasteur’s legacy–to wage war on the microbial world.

Evidently, Pasteur verbally disagreed with Bernard, but on his deathbed Pasteur admitted that “The microbe is nothing; the milieu is everything.” But Pasteur’s work had already become most prevalent, and still is. Thankfully, more information is coming to the forefront all the time about healthy gut flora, probiotic foods, strengthening immunity, and preventing disease.

Example: Teeth

As an illustration, let’s consider the germ vs. terrain theory as it applies to teeth.

With the germ theory, we would eat whatever we wanted, and strip the teeth clean as often as possible. Brush them, floss them, get dental cleanings twice a year, swish with antibacterial mouth wash, and the list goes on. Don’t let candy sit on your teeth; don’t drink juice before bed without brushing…

With the terrain theory, we would say that what we eat makes a huge difference on the health and strength of our teeth. Eating mineral-rich animal foods, and avoiding refined sugars and flours (which are mineral-deficient) will help to avoid decay. Much more important than brushing–though that isn’t a bad idea–is the internal health of our teeth and whole body.

I want to write more on teeth in the future. I’ll just briefly note that Dr. Weston A. Price found the terrain theory to be true as he observed the teeth of indigenous peoples all over the world. Anyone that had a clean, unprocessed diet of nutrient-dense plant and animal foods had strong teeth, though many of them never brushed, flossed, or saw a dentist. As soon as ever they (especially the younger generations) switched to the foods from industrial civilization, tooth decay happened soon after. And decay is not so much from refined foods sitting on the teeth, as it is from eating refined foods that are deficient in nutrients and don’t provide anything to build up the teeth.

(For more information, read Cure Tooth Decay by Ramiel Nagel, or Wellness Mama’s articles on maintaining strong teeth.)

Pasteur Building, Karlovy Vary (Carlsbad), Czech Republic.

Ignaz Semmelweis was the one who began the “hygiene hypothesis” and found that mortality rates drastically decreased in hospitals where doctors’ hands were washed between caring for patients.

Cleanliness has since saved many lives and prevented the spread of infection and disease in hospitals, in homes, in communities, and in agriculture.

Coupled with the germ theory, however, it’s possible for the cleanliness standard to rise too high, such that if there is never exposure to germs, our immune systems will not be fortified.

It turns out that “basic hygiene prevents the spread of pathogenic microbes, but the body requires constant exposure to milder microbes for exercise.” (Jessie Hawkins) Without some exposure to germs, the immune system never matures, never gets established. 

It turns out that when everything around us is sterilized (though often still toxic), allergies and autoimmune disease are increasing at an alarming rate. “Superbugs” in hospitals are becoming resistant to antibiotics–and so are we.

What do we take from this?

Of course, it’s hard to determine the precise standard of what is clean and what is not–and even harder to know where there is good bacteria versus bad bacteria.

I’m all for cleaning away visible dirt or grime on any surface–sinks, floors, or door handles. My understanding is that it’s helpful to wash it away, preventing our contact with too much growth of bad bacteria, and preventing it being a magnet for more bacteria. (Not to mention aesthetically pleasing to have it clean.) Mild, thorough washing should usually be enough without constant sterilizing with disinfectants such as bleach–which probably kills everything in the air around it, too! Vacuuming the floors helps to get rid of the dusty environment that mites and other bacteria love to hang out in.

Late Spring cleaning

For washing hands, don’t ever use antibacterial soaps. They kill both good and bad bacteria and strip the skin of the environment it needs to sustain good bacteria. Washing with simple soap dislodges and removes surface particles just fine without stripping everything on the skin, including the environment for good bacteria to colonize. Soap should nourish the surface, and get rid of the residue from whatever you have just done (washing the car; using the restroom) in order to avoid cross-contamination.

Hand-washing and kitchen and bathroom sanitation are very important to avoid, as I just mentioned, cross-contamination. If you have just been at the park, or in the grocery store, or working in the yard, or slicing raw chicken on your cutting board, or cracking eggs with your hands–it is very wise to wash your hands with soap and water to dislodge the bacteria that are foreign and could be harmful.

For instance, we wash cutting boards with hot water, soap, and optimally, bleach, after cutting raw meat because we don’t want the same bacteria to take up residence in other places in our kitchen or stock of food, and grow. That’s a time when harsh sanitation is wise.

In our own homes among our own family, we want to build up our immune systems. That’s why letting children crawl on the floor is fine. That’s why sharing a glass or a spoon with your sister is fine. That’s why being around numerous babies in the church nursery is fine. (Always wash your hands after changing diapers–not so much to protect your health as to avoid cross-contamination and growth of bacteria in other places.)

Promote the growth of good bacteria. Eat as many cultured foods as possible. Make your own cultured foods–and keep them clean, but don’t start wondering if pasteurization is better. Prevent bad bacteria from growing by keeping pasteurized, perishable foods refrigerated, but when you know there is plenty of healthy bacteria present, such as when you soak oatmeal on the countertop overnight–let it grow!

Too much of a good thing, such as sterilization, can be harmful. But the right amount is just right. We need just the balance between good bacteria and bad bacteria–because bad bacteria will always be there, but good bacteria is our friend.

And keep your own terrain strong, so that germs don’t need to alarm you.

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