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Recent research makes clear that human health and planetary health are not just connected — they’re inextricable. It also shows that our enmeshment with our ecosystems has both negative and positive effects, something many healthcare providers now take into account.

For example, obesity rates in the United States are presently highest in Alabama, Louisiana, Mississippi, and West Virginia — a fact commonly attributed to local diets. But in her presentation at the Integrative Healthcare Symposium in 2020, integrative cardiologist Mimi Guarneri, MD, noted that farms in these states also have the highest use rates of the herbicide atrazine, which research has shown to increase insulin resistance and interfere with metabolic function.

Likewise, as rates of type 2 diabetes and kidney disease climb countrywide, researchers find that even low levels of exposure to arsenic — now common in U.S. water and soil — are associated with those ailments, as well as hypertension and cancer.

Although the environment can harm human health, it can also do the opposite. Plenty of evidence points to the salutary effects of spending time in nature. Digging in the dirt can increase the diversity of our microbiomes. Sunlight provides vitamin D, vital to immune function. And “forest bathing,” which involves breathing in the phytoncides released by trees, can lower heart rate, blood pressure, and inflammatory stress hormones.

While it may feel discouraging that toxic exposure has become a necessary metric for understanding chronic conditions, the benefits of connecting environmental and human health are twofold.

First, this knowledge gives pro­viders more tools to treat people who have diffuse chronic conditions like autoimmunity.

Second, awareness of our intimate connection with nature can reduce our alienation from it, encourage us to spend more time outdoors, and invest more energy in caring for the planet. “The earth,” says Guarneri, “is also the clinician’s client.” And our doctor, too.

This was excerpted from “The Future of Health” which was published in the July/August 2021 issue of Experience Life magazine.

Courtney Helgoe

Courtney Helgoe is the Experience Life features editor.

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