How does Permaculture tie in with our understanding of health? Can it realistically be seen as a ‘health promoting movement’? In this article we’ll examine our connection to Nature and how it affects our health and wellbeing, we’ll look at supporting scientific research on the subject, and explore the relationship between Permaculture and wellness. I assure you that facts will surely surprise you!
Permaculture began as ‘permanent agriculture’, a sustainable food production system based on ecological principles. Growing our own food is a very healthy activity, , there is an indisputable and ever-increasing body of research which supports the health benefits of gardening: it can improve our health through stress relief, exercise, mental activity and better nutrition. Certain strains of a harmless soil-borne bacteria Mycobacterium vaccae have been found to stimulate the human immune system and boost the production of serotonin – a shortage of this mood-regulating brain chemical is associated with depression.  Who would have thought that playing in the dirt could be so good for you?
Permaculture has grown to embrace more of the human experience than just food production, to become ‘permanent culture’. Despite the tendency of some to try to make it all things to all people, Permaculture is essentially a system of ecological engineering.
By understanding how natural systems work, how all things are interrelated and interdependent, and how they interact with each other, we can create human-designed systems that reflect the properties of natural systems – which are sustainable, energy efficient, harmonious and life-affirming. We can design food production systems, intentional communities, sustainable businesses or any other human system in this way. To complicate matters even further, there’s also the phenomenon of Permaculture as a social movement.
A new perspective on health
Health can be defined in terms of our personal state of being bodily and mentally vigorous and free from disease. This raises the question of what it takes to create and maintain a sound body and mind. This is about more than balanced meals, regular exercise and adequate sleep. About more than the individual.
Since Permaculture is based on the science of ecology, if we are to explore its connections with health objectively, first we’ll need to abandon any subjective, anthropocentric perspectives that skew our perception of reality, and take a strictly ecological perspective.
To quote John Seed, the renowned Australian ecologist and one of the world’s leading environmental activists for rainforest protection: ‘… instead of seeing the world as a pyramid with humans on top, envision a web with life at the centre. We are only a strand on the web. A leaf on the tree of life. One of ten million species that inhabit our planet. In reality, nothing special’. We are a small element in a much larger web of life, and we are interdependent on many other living organisms to stay alive and healthy.
Ecology is a branch of biology, concerned with the relationship between organisms and each other, and between them and their environments. Organisms live in habitats which provide their primary needs and ensure their optimum chances for survival (and health). Nothing lives in a vacuum, and the health of any organism is dependent on the state of the ecosystem it resides in.
The illusion of separation
Humans are organisms existing within nature and subject to her laws, though humanity is plagued with the illusion of disconnection from nature. This mental delusion fools some people into thinking that they are somehow above or apart from nature; that the environment is ‘out there’ and as a result nature can be exploited, damaged, raped and pillaged with no consequences to humanity itself. Scientific knowledge more than adequately explains a lot about how nature works, but to some the science of ecology is an inconvenient truth.
People speak of ‘returning to’ nature or ‘reconnecting with’ it, but in reality, there is nothing to return to because we can never leave it. Everything we have comes from planet earth: nature provides all our needs. The connection to nature is also much deeper, more intimate, than humans usually acknowledge.
Our bodies are in a state of continuous exchange of materials and energy with the world around us. The basic things which keep us alive – air, water and food – have been cycled and recycled through nature since time immemorial, and will cycle through our bodies and flow back into the complex natural cycles which keep all things alive. Even a rusty nail accidentally dropped in the dirt is recycled by nature: its iron might be taken up by spinach growing in that soil; when the spinach is eaten, the iron becomes the iron in the haemoglobin in blood, allowing it to carry oxygen. We are not separate from even such inanimate objects.
The extent to which our bodies exchange material with our surroundings is significant: each second 10 000 000 cells die and are replaced in our bodies by material provided through food. For example, carbon taken up from the air by plants (as carbon dioxide) is incorporated it into our bodies when we eat them. We are not separate from nature.
Your body … or is it?
It gets better. Our health is not our own because our bodies aren’t either! Not only do we organisms exist in a web of life, but we are each very complex ecosystems. Of the total number of cells in our body, ninety per cent are bacteria! Such bacteria – in our digestive system, in our mouths on our skin – play an important role in maintaining our health. 
As an example, research led by Dr Jeffrey Gordon from the Center for Genome Sciences & Systems Biology, Washington University in St. Louis, USA found that gut bacteria have a role in obesity. Researchers found that overweight people have different types and amounts of gut bacteria compared to lean people: lean people had higher diversity of gut bacteria species, while obese people had much less. Diet was found to be a critical factor in health of the gut ecosystem and, unsurprisingly, diets of processed foods were linked to a less diverse gut ecosystem. Gordon’s team was able to demonstrate in mice that an unhealthy diet prevented the good bacteria from colonising the gut and multiplying. 
It should be very clear by now that our health is determined by external and internal ecosystems. How can we possibly be healthy if we live in a poisoned, contaminated and polluted environment? What we put into nature, we ultimately put into ourselves.
A Permaculture analysis of human health requirements
Permaculture introduces us to the design concept of functional analysis – where we identify a design element’s needs, products, behaviours and intrinsic characteristics. Every Permaculture student has seen the classical functional analysis of a chicken, but how about a functional analysis of a human being? If we perform a quick, if limited, functional analysis of a human, we can get a clearer picture of what keeps us healthy in mind and body.
Description: A member of Homo sapiens species, a culture-bearing, upright-walking, social primate which lives in close communities with others of its kind. Shows adaptation to a wide variety of climates and natural environments.
Physical needs: Clean air and water, natural food, warmth, shelter, safety, protection.
Emotional needs: A sense of belonging, acceptance and love provided through community, friendships, family and intimates.
Mental needs: A sense of self-esteem and self-respect gained through recognition, attention, competence, mastery, self-confidence, independence and freedom.
Higher needs: Self-actualisation – the fulfilment of an individual’s full potential in life. Self-transcendence – finding meaning and purpose in a higher goal outside of the individual, such as in altruism and spirituality.
We are quite complex creatures indeed, with a wide range of needs on multiple levels. If these needs are not met, that will have an impact on our physical and mental health.
Our state of mind is important, and mental health is a growing issue, especially in affluent first world countries. The World Health Organization predicts that mental illness will be the leading cause of illness and, consequently, the leading loss of revenue in the first world by 2020.  WHO has also reported that unipolar depressive disorders alone were the third leading cause of the global burden of disease, and predicted that by 2030 these will rank first in the list. 
Establishing the Permaculture-health connection
Permaculture supplies the critical needs identified in our functional analysis through its ethics of earth care, people care and fair share. Let’s have a look at how these guide our actions.
Caring for the earth means caring for the soil, which is a very complex living ecosystem on which all life depends. It means caring for our forests, which are the lungs of the planet, ensuring a supply of clean air. Forests are also inextricably linked to the process of rain formation and the water cycle and, therefore, play a key role in ensuring our supply of fresh water. It means caring for our rivers, which are the veins of our planet, circulating the water which all life depends on. If our physical environment is healthy, our bodies are too.
Care of people is about promoting self-reliance by sharing knowledge and experience, to skill people up so that they can provide for some of their basic needs. It is also about taking responsibility for, and looking to help, one’s community. Humans are communal and social animals, and cooperative in nature: beyond physical interdependency, humans need community psychologically.
It is a commonly accepted scientific fact that having a community is beneficial to the mental health of an individual, and lack of community is detrimental. Research is telling us more about WHY this is the case. The hormone oxytocin is associated with relieving stress in humans and other animals, but research findings suggest that social contact is an important factor in oxytocin’s ability to reduce anxiety. 
Also, the negative effects of anxiety and aggression that result from social isolation have been traced to reduced levels of an enzyme 5-alpha-reductase type I that controls production of a brain hormone allopregnanolone, which acts to reduce stress through regulation of an important neurotransmitter GABA. 
Neuroscientists have found that social isolation affects how people behave as well as how their brains operate. The effects of isolation on a social animal such as a human are quite drastic – Professor John Cacioppo, of the University of Chicago, one of the founders of a new discipline called social neuroscience, has shown that loneliness undermines health and can be as detrimental as smoking. , , 
On a more positive note, the health benefits of community have even been detailed in studies of individuals working in community gardens. ,  When people collaborate to support each other, and to meet their collective needs – both physical and non-physical – this creates a bond which builds a stable, supportive and emotionally healthy community which prospers. Permaculture, as a social movement, also creates both a meaningful purpose to bring people together and the opportunity for collaborative action to create a world that truly fulfils their needs.
Fair share – also called ‘return of surplus to earth and people’ – is quite simple: if we take only our fair share, then there is enough for everybody, and there will continue to be in the future too. Furthermore, when we share our surplus produce we build more bonds between people, again fostering a sense of community. It also embraces the concept that we don’t waste resources or generate pollution in accumulating unnecessary surplus.
By embodying and living within this ethical framework, we ensure the continued survival of our species, the health of the planet and maintain a healthy respect for life itself.
Health from a holistic ecological perspective
In conclusion, what we do to our environment and to the planet, we do to ourselves. Our health and wellbeing are inextricably tied to the state of our surroundings, and to all the other living things that we depend on.
Permaculture embodies principles of harmonious coexistence with nature: through working with nature, we ultimately work to support and enhance the very systems which maintain our physical health.
Working together as a community for the greater good allows us to realise our true potential and contribute meaningfully to a significant purpose, the continuity of future human generations and all life on the planet.
So, Permaculture truly does promote health, but it goes far beyond the limited notion of individual human health: it promotes the notion of holistic health of all life on the planet, of which we are an intrinsic part. This is a much wiser approach, since all life is interconnected and interdependent.
When we care for the health and wellbeing of all life, we not only honour our own health and wellbeing, we step up to a higher level of functioning as humans and express our higher nature.
(This article is one which I wrote for PIP Magazine in 2015, and is being republished here in 2017)
- Neuroscience. 2007 May 11;146(2):756-72. Epub 2007 Mar 23.
Identification of an immune-responsive mesolimbocortical serotonergic system: potential role in regulation of emotional behavior.
Lowry CA, Hollis JH, de Vries A, Pan B, Brunet LR, Hunt JR, Paton JF, van Kampen E, Knight DM, Evans AK, Rook GA, Lightman SL.
Henry Wellcome Laboratories for Integrative Neuroscience and Endocrinology, University of Bristol, Dorothy Hodgkin Building, Bristol BS1 3NY, UK. firstname.lastname@example.org
- American Society for Microbiology. "Humans Have Ten Times More Bacteria Than Human Cells: How Do Microbial Communities Affect Human Health?." ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 5 June 2008. http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2008/06/080603085914.htm.
- Ridaura, V.K., Faith, J.J., Rey, F.E., Cheng, J., Duncan, A.E., Kau, A.L., Lombard, V., Henrissat, B., Bain, J.R., Muehlbauer, M.J., Ilkayeva, O., Ursell, L.K., Clemente, J.C., Van Treuren, W., Walters, W.A., Newgard, C.B., Knight, R., Heath, A.C., and Gordon, J.I. Gut microbiota from twins discordant for obesity modulate metabolism in mice. Science 341: 1241214 doi: 10.1126/science.1241214 (2013)
- World Health Organization, Mental Health: New Understanding, New Hope, 2001, p. 44.
- World Health Organization, EXECUTIVE BOARD EB130/9,130th session, 1 December 2011, Provisional agenda item 6.2, "Global burden of mental disorders and the need for a comprehensive, coordinated response from health and social sectors at the country level" Report by the Secretariat, page1, item 2
- Society for Neuroscience. "Oxytocin and social contact reduce anxiety: Hormone may be less effective at relieving stress for isolated animals." ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 15 November 2010. http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2010/11/101115160626.htm.
- University of Illinois at Chicago. "Effects Of Social Isolation Traced To Brain Hormone." ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 15 November 2007. http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2007/11/071114121316.htm.
- Cacioppo et al. What Are the Brain Mechanisms on Which Psychological Processes Are Based? Perspectives on Psychological Science, 2009; 4 (1): 10 DOI: 10.1111/j.1745-6924.2009.01094.x
- Cacioppo et al. In the Eye of the Beholder: Individual Differences in Perceived Social Isolation Predict Regional Brain Activation to Social Stimuli. Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience, 2009; 21 (1): 83 DOI: 10.1162/jocn.2009.21007
- University of Chicago. "Loneliness Affects How The Brain Operates." ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 17 February 2009. http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2009/02/090215151800.htm
- Wakefield, S. (2007). Growing urban health: community gardening in South-East Toronto. Health Promot Int, 22(2): 92-101.
- Armstrong, D. (2000). A survey of community gardens in upstate New York: implications for health promotion and community development. Health Place, 6(4):319-27