The World Within

The World Within


words by wilLow defebaugh

photograph by alexandra von fuerst

Welcome to The Overview, a weekly newsletter in which Editor-in-Chief Willow Defebaugh offers an expansive look at the latest events in climate and culture—and how it all fits together.

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“What is the relationship of the obvious things that we see around us to the things that we believe we understand within ourselves? This is the ancient alchemical formula, ‘as above, so below, as within, so without.’” —Fred Alan Wolf



Did you know that the amount of microbes contained within you outnumbers the amount of your body’s own cells? Thousands of species of these bacteria, fungi, viruses and parasites make up what is known as your gut biome—a world within you that scientists are only just beginning to understand.


“The last decade has uncovered discoveries of the vast universe we call the microbiome,” writes Dr. Zach Bush, who specializes in the relationship between the microbiome and health, disease, and our food systems. “Two paradigm shifting conclusions have been ascertained from thousands of research studies: Neither human immunity or the human brain work without the interaction of millions of species of tiny organisms that inhabit every niche of the human body.”


Together, this orchestra of alien organisms composes a vital part of the body’s immune system. According to Harvard’s School of Public Health, “In a healthy body, pathogenic and symbiotic microbiota coexist without problems. But if there is a disturbance in that balance—brought on by infectious illnesses, certain diets, or the prolonged use of antibiotics or other bacteria-destroying medications—dysbiosis occurs, stopping these normal interactions. As a result, the body may become more susceptible to disease.”


Multiple diseases including cancer as well as a number of autoimmune disorders such as multiple sclerosis and even autism are now thought to be influenced by the health of our gut biome. A new study published just this week proved how certain bacteria within the microbiome help the immune system battle cancerous tumors. Gut bacteria also compose what scientists are calling the “psychobiome,” as more studies reveal how our micro-verse impacts our mental wellbeing (a topic we will explore more in next week’s newsletter).


In the context of a global pandemic, understanding immune system health may be more imperative than ever. One of the first conclusions put forward by the CDC was that those with a weakened immune system were more at risk to experiencing severe illness from COVID-19. A new study from Stanford published this week found that the primary differences between mild and severe cases of COVID-19 had to do with immunological deviations. “These findings reveal how the immune system goes awry during coronavirus infections, leading to severe disease, and point to potential therapeutic targets,” said Bali Pulendran, lead author of the study.


In a recent Atmos feature, Rachel Cassandra explores the effects of Western medicine on the microbiome, and how they mirror the ecological crisis we are facing on a macro level. As she writes, the broad-scale antibiotics approach used today is akin to nuking a whole city rather than sending in a SWAT team—resulting in an incredible loss of biodiversity, which is crucial to a healthy gut biome. “We don’t understand the long-term effects of this loss of diversity, just as we can’t accurately predict the ripple effects of a larger ecology losing a species to extinction.”


We don’t often consider ourselves to be amalgamations, and yet thousands of invisible species are working in harmony to keep the human being known as “you” alive as you read these words. In fact, it is the very diversity of these creatures that sustains you. You are many, and yet you are one. The miracles of nature are not only metaphor—they are a map, leading us back to a holistic picture of our bodies and the larger body of life to which we all belong. As we wake up to the world within, we wake up to the world without.

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