An Ecologist's Perspective on Health

"Birth Ecology" is a term I coined to describe my approach to pregnancy, birth, the postpartum period, and beyond. Ecology is the scientific study of how different parts of a system fit together, including all the living and non-living factors. One of my favorite ecological stories is about an alpine grass, an alpine rose, and their fungi. I’ll tell this story as a more traditional example of ecology, and then show you how an ecological approach would benefit our understanding of human health.

An Ecological Story, The Grass and The Rose: The grass and rose once equally dominated the Colorado alpine tundra. But for decades nitrogen pollution rising from Denver and Boulder has been falling on the tundra at an ever increasing rate. Nitrogen causes the grass to overtake the rose, but why? Scientists originally guessed that the grass simply uses nitrogen for growth more efficiently than the rose, but it turns out the explanation is more complicated.

All plants are hosts to symbiotic root fungi that help them survive. The grass has a very diverse fungal community, while the rose relies nearly exclusively on a single kind of fungus. If environmental changes cause one grass fungus to disappear, one of its other many fungal species will fill the empty niche. But if the rose loses its principle fungal friend, it doesn't have many other fungal buddies to take its place.

The roses main fungal partner, Helotiales, provides the rose with resilience against freezing temperatures, helps it find soil nutrients, and excretes chemicals that are toxic to its grassy competitor. Without it, the rose loses important weaponry and survival advantages. And unfortunately, nitrogen pollution kills Helotiales, which not only leaves the rose weak and dying, but also has consequences for the entire tundra.

The rose maintains the balance between all the tundra plants because it keeps the grass from overgrowing. When removed, balance is lost and the grass overtakes the rest of the plant life, causing many plant species to disappear. This affects food supply for local animals who rely on seeds, leaves, and other resources from the many plants that are meant to be there. Conversely, if the grass is removed, the rose continues to peacefully co-exists with the remaining alpine plants.

Using ecology we see the whole picture- how humans, the soil, the fungi, the rose, the grass, the other plants, and the animals fit together, how they affect each other, and how changes in one part of the system affect other parts of the system. 

When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the Universe.”
— John Muir

What does this have to do with human birth? 

The human body IS an ecosystem. First of all, we are affected by many non-living components of our environment such as light levels, nutrition, hydration, and chemical exposure. Second of all, we are not one body. We have TRILLIONS of bacteria and viruses living in and on our bodies, which are key players in our immune system, metabolismnutrition, and even mental health! Not only that, but our social interactions with other humans play critical roles in our emotional and physical vitality. Contrary to popular western thought, the mind (brain) is a body part- an organ that controls all the other organs of the body. There is no separation between mind and body! Our mental health IS our physical health, which is why our emotions make us resistant or prone to disease. We can also consider the continuity between past and future in terms of development. Experiences in early childhood, even in utero, determine how our brain, and nervous- and endocrine systems develop. These systems regulate our temperaments, emotions, and mental states, and so define our strengths and weaknesses into adulthood. Finally, the mother-fetus duo are a two-person biological system, a symbiotic pair. The mother's emotional state affects her baby's physical state. Her microbes affect her infant's health. And all of these affect pregnancy outcomes, labor outcomes, postpartum outcomes, and beyond.

The human body is an ecosystem if ever there was one. Yet medical practitioners do not receive any training in ecology, and so rarely have the skills to view human health from this perspective. Instead, they specialize in single systems and may not be fully informed about how the different systems of our body, inside and out, affect each other. I think an ecological perspective is an essential perspective to have when considering a human and her health, and I'm excited to share it with you!  If you'd like to know more details about how this ecologist ended up working in pre- and perinatal consulting (like my own pre- and perinatal experiences) check out this blog post, or if you'd like to take a look at my Mission Statement, please go to the "About Me" tab. I'd love to tell you the values to which I'm committed! You can also solicit my services to improve your parent-science literacy, and figure out how to use parenting science to improve your home life.

 

References

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©Sarah Dean, PhD