Why Community Matters for Our Health

By Heather Tallman Ruhm, MD

We just attended our daughter’s graduation.  It felt good to be part of a large community with a shared sense of gratitude and hope.   One accomplished classmate spoke about how his father had immigrated to the U.S. from Pakistan, with a 7th grade education in hopes of providing a good life for his family.  The student had initially felt isolated and alone.  But by high school he had many friends, so much so that he chose to stay alone the six months prior to graduation, attending the family business, while his parents returned to their country of origin.   During that time, sitting behind me at a sporting event, thousands of miles from his family, I overheard his lament to a friend.  It was Mother’s Day and the first time he could recall not being able to hand his mom flowers.  Later a supportive couple from the community (representing his parents) walked with him onto the athletic field for senior night.  Dad and son had succeeded.  

This story gives me a sense of gratitude for the communities, family and beyond, that have supported me in my quest to become a doctor.  It reassures me that my child might find support to reach her goals and give back too.  But there is another community I would like to acknowledge that is tantamount to her success, and ours, no matter where we live.  It is our internal community (alluded to in my earlier blog), the community of organisms we now refer to as the “human microbiome.” For every cell in our body, we have at least 10 times that number of organisms living in and on us, mostly in our intestines.  They do our housework – aid digestion, make vitamins, support our immune, nervous, and endocrine systems, clear waste and toxins, prevent infection, and collaborate with every cell that makes us human.

One person who has helped me appreciate the microbiome is Dr. Campbell-McBride, author of Gut and Psychology Syndrome , a book worth reading!  She helps recover lives from complex illnesses (from autism to autoimmunity to addiction) by healing the internal environment.  I was recently listening to one of her lectures.  To paraphrase Dr. Natasha, our belief in “the survival of the fittest” has blinded us to the fact that collaboration, not combativeness is what has evolved the human race.  Just like the dream coming true of the father described above, our individual success and our communities’ success depends more on its ability to care and collaborate than its ability to beat the competition. As a holistic doctor, I have learned that the body comes with a brilliant genetic blue print (or rather two), about 10% me and 90% biome.  I have also seen that life is better when we and our microbiome are well nourished, toxin free and balanced.   We thrive when we have vital communities based on caring and collaboration.  

Our Western approach to medicine has become combative  –  battling Alzheimer’s, fighting infections;  using chemical warfare (anti-depressants, antacids, anti-inflammatories, anti-biotics, and chemo), or radiation, or the scalpel to defeat the so-called enemy; while thousands of individuals bike, run, dance or hula to wage war on cancer.  I propose that, rather than joining the mission of search and destroy, we learn from Dr. Natasha Campbell-McBride and Mother Theresa too - when asked to march against something bad, she declined.   She only joined causes for good.  I believe in the value of striving for fitness, but let’s hike, bike and hula with a community that is for restoring health not against disease.