“Take courage. The human race is divine.”

— Pythagoras

“We are not meant to be alone—we are meant to be parts of bigger families, bands, and tribes. The strength and comfort of community come from the principle that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.”

— Andrew Weil, MD

“Human beings are at once biological, psychological, and social. That’s how we’ve evolved, that’s who we are. And if there’s a disturbance in any one of those aspects of being, it affects every aspect of being.”

— Dennis Novak, MD

Community and Environment: Healing from the Web of Life

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Community and environment are powerful forces that affect our physical and mental health. We are intimately and inextricably connected to the people in our lives and the physical spaces we inhabit, and that connection can contribute to illness or it can help make us well.

In 1979, a landmark study of residents of Alameda County, California, by Drs. Leonard Syme and Lisa Berkman showed that people with greater social ties lived longer than those with fewer social ties. During the 1980s and 1990s, breast cancer research revealed that women in support groups fared better than those who suffered through their illness alone. More recently, research shows that smokers who attend support groups have fewer relapses than those who don’t seek support, and that the support of a family or a community can help buffer the negative effects of stress, depression and anxiety when coping with illness.

The support and love that comes from community is part of what integrative medicine calls an “optimal healing environment,” which is defined as a system and place comprised of people, behaviors, treatments, and their psychological and physical parameters. The purpose of creating an optimum healing environment is to provide conditions that stimulate and support the inherent healing capacities of the patients, their relationships and their surroundings.

One extremely important aspect of any optimum healing environment is the physical environment in which we live and work. Evidence shows that the biology of our external environment rapidly becomes the biology of our internal environment. Mitchell Gaynor, MD, from the Weill-Cornell Medical Center, explains that while the genes a person is born with cannot be controlled, how those genes are expressed can be modulated. Ingesting toxins can “turn on” tumor-promoting genes. Conversely, proper nutrients can increase the expression of tumor–suppressing genes.

In fact, in their 2010 report, Reducing Environmental Cancer Risk: What We Can Do Now, the President's Cancer Panel reported that, "The true burden of environmentally induced cancers has been grossly underestimated.” This expert panel advised that our government "remove the carcinogens and other toxins from our food, water, and air that needlessly increase health care costs, cripple our nation's productivity, and devastate American lives."

“We now better understand that environmental management is a public health issue,” says Woodson Merrill, MD, founder and executive director of the Continuum Center for Health and Healing at Beth Israel in New York City. “As providers of health care, it only makes sense that we would do whatever we can to make less garbage and make it less toxic to the environment and human health. We are ethically obligated to deal with this issue or our mission statements are in question.”