The Disease Tree: A Holistic Model of Disease

MHM-Disease-Tree.jpgTo help people understand how to get to the root causes of disease, I’ve been using a model I created in 1980 that we call The Disease Tree™. The idea for this model came from the writings of Samuel Thomson, who used a systematic approach to treating disease that he summarized in a short poem in his book, New Guide to Health. Part of that poem reads:

Let names of all disorders be,
Like to the limbs, joined to the tree,
Work on the root, and that subdue
And all the limbs will bow to you.
The limbs are colic, pleurisy,
Worms and gravel, gout and stone,
Remove the cause and they are gone.

Thomson’s poetic metaphor helps us realize that focusing on specific disease symptoms is only attacking the “branches” of disease. Unless we work on the “roots” or underlying causes, the disease will simply get worse or manifest in a new form. Whenever a person takes a drug to relieve a symptom or has some part of the body cut out, they are not being healed. To be healed is to be made whole, or in other words, to be restored to normal function and balance. Drugs and surgery only remove the branches. The root causes of the problem remain and will grow “suckers”—new diseases that spring up in place of the old.

Unfortunately, as Henry David Thoreau said, “There are a thousand hacking at the branches of evil to one who is striking at the root.” Nearly all of modern medicine and much of alternative medicine is focused on hacking at the branches of disease rather than looking for and correcting root causes. That’s why I often tell people that we don’t really have a health care system in this country, we have a disease care system.

This is why most newcomers to natural health care are still thinking in terms of the symptom-->disease-->treatment model. They are looking for symptomatic relief. They want the branches of their disease tree to be pruned. Many inexperienced herbalists and natural health consultants try to accommodate this desire by recommending herbs and supplements to replace their medications; however, if the root causes are ignored, the results will be disappointing even if natural substances are used. In order to really correct the problem, a person has to shift his or her focus away from disease symptoms and begin looking at root causes.

The Disease Tree™ is a model that can help people understand what good health is really all about. In fact, all of our courses and programs are built around this model and our Seven Keys to Effective Natural Healing lays out my entire basic approach to healing built around it. Here is a brief breakdown of the elements in this model.


The first element in the model is the soil, which represents our constitution. This is a person’s innate physical and emotional makeup.

We all know that genetics play some role in our health. Heart disease, cancer, diabetes and other chronic ailments tend to run in families. Not all constitutional tendencies are genetically based, since people in the same family often have similar diets, lifestyles and emotional issues, which predisposes them to similar health problems.

Your constitution is what nature and early childhood have given you to work with. A person who has a strong constitution can handle more physical stress than a person with a weaker constitution. In other words, under the same physical conditions, one person may thrive, while another will become ill.

You can’t do much about your genetics, but your genetics don’t doom you to poor health. New research in the field of epigenetics is showing that the body has mechanisms for regulating genetic expression. Adopting a healthier lifestyle, including better nutrition and mental attitudes, can alter how your genes are utilized in the cells, thus improving your health and preventing you from getting illnesses to which you may be genetically prone.

Iridology is my favorite tool for assessing constitution. Iridology tells us about a person’s innate personality and genetic weaknesses that predispose them to various health problems. We offer a Certified Iridologist training program. One can also assess constitution by looking at a person’s body shape and basic personality tendencies.

Roots—Environmental Stress

The roots of disease are the environmental stresses that overwhelm the ability of the physical body to maintain balance. There are four basic root causes of disease, as follows.

Root Cause #1. Mental and Emotional Stress

All of us encounter mental and emotional stress in relationships and life situations. Financial problems, marital problems and other emotional stresses also lay the foundation for disease. This critical root cause is often overlooked in both orthodox and alternative healing circles. People who continue to experience health problems no matter what they do, often have unresolved mental and emotional stress that must be dealt with before healing can occur. Approximately 50% of people’s health issues can be related to unresolved mental and emotional stress.

All serious chronic and degenerative diseases involve at least some stress component, so this aspect should always be addressed. We provide a few insights into this topic in Seven Keys to Effective Natural Healing and The ABC+D Approach to Natural Healing, but we have also devoted an entire certification program to this topic, the Certified Emotional Healing Coach program.

Root Cause #2. Nutritional Deficiencies

The body needs nutrients in order to function correctly. When essential nutrients are not present in a person’s diet the body does not have what it needs to stay healthy. If levels of these nutrients are low, the body may not be able to efficiently resist other environmental stresses.

There are two main reasons most people in modern society are nutritionally deficient. The first is that they consume empty calories in the form of highly processed and refined foods such as refined sugar, high fructose corn syrup, white flour, processed vegetable oils, and canned and prepackaged foods. These foods provide calories, but are low in essential vitamins, minerals and phytonutrients needed to process and utilize those calories for energy and maintain tissue structures.

The solution is to eat more whole, natural foods that are minimally processed and refined, but even then, nutritional deficiencies can occur. Modern agricultural methods deplete the soil of minerals, resulting in produce that has reduced vitamin and mineral content. This is why some supplementation is often a necessity for people living in modern society, even when they eat whole foods.

All chronic illnesses probably involve nutrient deficiencies of one type or another. The bottom line is that a person must eat a healthy diet to avoid or recover from illness. Without a healthy diet, herbs and supplements will not be sufficient to ensure good health. Good nutrition is addressed briefly in Seven Keys to Effective Natural Healing and in greater depth in our Fundamentals of Natural Healing course and The ABC+D Approach to Natural Healing.

Root Cause #3. Toxic Overload

Mechanical damage isn’t the only way the body can be injured. We can be bitten by a snake, stung by a bee, or encounter a bed of poison ivy—all of which introduce chemical poisons into the body that damage tissues. While these are generally considered forms of physical trauma, the fact that these poisons injure our health shows us that toxins can also be a root cause of disease.

In modern society we are exposed to many potentially toxic chemicals in the form of food additives, pesticides, household cleaning products, cosmetics, heavy metals, solvents and petrochemicals, xenoestrogens, prescription drugs and other chemicals. Since World War II we have developed over 80,000 chemicals that are utilized in modern society.

These toxins are likely the root cause of many modern ailments, including the high rate of cancer, autoimmune diseases and many neurological conditions such as autism and Alzheimer’s disease. Reducing exposure to these substances and finding ways to help the body detoxify itself is an important component of treating many modern ailments.

Toxic waste can also come from within the body, which produces waste in the process of metabolism. This waste must be eliminated from the system or it will damage tissues. Adequate intake of water and fiber is essential to ridding the body of these wastes, but most people in modern society are dehydrated and don’t get enough fiber. Damage to the eliminative systems can also contribute to a backlog of waste in the tissues. Whatever the reason, when wastes (or toxins) are not properly eliminated tissues are damaged and the roots of disease take hold.

Toxic overload is addressed briefly in Seven Keys to Effective Natural Healing and in greater depth in our Fundamentals of Natural Healing course and The ABC+D Approach to Natural Healing.

Root Cause #4. Physical Trauma

The body can be mechanically damaged. All physical damage, from burns and frostbite to cuts, lacerations and broken bones, causes damage to organs and tissues that can result in disease. In fact, physical trauma, if not addressed appropriately, can lay the foundation for more serious diseases later in life. For example, a damaged joint is more susceptible to developing arthritis than a joint that was never subjected to trauma.

Trauma is something modern medicine is very good at treating, but natural medicine can also help. Nutrition and herbs can help tissues repair themselves more quickly and prevent injured areas from developing into chronic problems later in life. A good class in first aid can help one deal with physical trauma, but we also cover some of the herbal and natural approach to healing injuries in our Fundamentals of Natural Healing course.

Trunk—Biological Terrain

All of the cells of the body live in an internal “ocean” of lymphatic fluid, which is supplied from the blood stream. Just as the health of a plant depends on the health of the soil in which it is grown, so the health of our tissues depends on the composition of these bodily fluids, lymph and blood. An organic farmer knows that if he keeps the soil healthy, the plants he is growing will be healthy and resistant to insect damage and disease.

The fluid medium in which cells live is called the biological terrain and is represented by the trunk of the Disease Tree™. When our biological terrain is healthy, the cells of our body will be healthy—resistant to injury, infections and chronic and degenerative diseases.

All of the root causes of disease previously discussed have an adverse affect on the biological terrain. Just as there is only one trunk to the tree, the biological terrain represents the whole picture of a person’s health. By helping to restore balance to the biological terrain, we will restore balance to the entire body.

There are six basic imbalances in biological terrain. Unlike modern reductionist medicine that seeks to isolate tissues and organs and study them independently, the six tissue state imbalances describe broad patterns of imbalance that can influence multiple systems and are fundamentally interconnected.

The six basic imbalances are irritation (heat), depression (cold), stagnation (dampness), atrophy (dryness), constriction (tension) and relaxation (atonic). These six imbalances can occur in combination (such as irritation and constriction or dampness and depression). Once you understand the basic imbalances you will be able to identify the more complex mixtures of imbalance.

This model of six tissue states was developed by a professional herbalist named Matthew Wood. You can learn more about it by reading The Practice of Traditional Western Herbalism. It is also found in his two-volume work The Earthwise Herbal. I’ve published an article on it called Six Tissue Terrains on this website. It is a major theme in The ABC+D Approach to Natural Healing and is discussed in all our herb classes (such as Nature’s Pharmacy) and health assessment classes (such as Traditional Health Assessment) as a foundational concept.

Branches—Body Systems

The cells of our body need five things to survive—nutrients, water, oxygen, waste removal and a regulated temperature. When biological terrain is in balance, cells will have all of these needs met. In order to maintain this balance, which is called homeostasis, the body contains groups of specialized tissues that regulate the various requirements of homeostasis. These specialized tissues form organs and body systems.

The root causes of disease and the imbalances in biological terrain affect the structure and function of body systems so they are less able to perform their proper functions. This is where disease begins to manifest in the body. The major branches and limbs of The Disease Tree™ represent the body systems and tissues that are no longer able to help maintain homeostasis or normal biological terrain.

It is the malfunctioning body systems that eventually give rise to the specific disease symptoms we experience, so a major part of this natural healing model is to determine which body systems are affected. This allows you to use herbs, supplements and natural therapies that support the proper structure and function of these systems. This helps restore balance to the biological terrain, which helps a person recover and maintain health.

Besides having an effect on biological terrain, most herbs also have a strong affinity for specific organs and tissues. These herbs become key herbs for certain imbalances within these body systems.  Since herbs work primarily by restoring balance to biological terrain and by strengthening weak body systems, you’ll get much better results with them when you start looking beneath the disease symptoms to the underlying imbalances in biological terrain and weakened body systems. As you grasp this concept, you’ll become much more effective at selecting appropriate remedies to restore balance to the body.

A more detailed and complete understanding of this approach to biological terrain and body systems is found in some of the courses we offer, particularly The ABC+D Approach to Natural Healing, which goes through the body system by system, taking about the biolgocial terrain and remedies for each system, and the Therapeutic Actions of Herbs, which covers all the major properties of herbs system by system.

Twigs and Leaves—Specific Disease Symptoms

Finally, we come to the twigs and leaves of the Disease Tree™. These represent the specific diseases and their symptoms. As we have already suggested, most people are only concerned with the treatment of symptoms. Treating symptoms is like pruning the tree. You may be able to eliminate certain branches by suppressing specific symptoms with drugs or by removing diseased tissues with surgery, but these actions do little or nothing to eliminate root causes, bring the biological terrain back into balance, or restore the normal function of body systems. Symptomatic approaches certainly do nothing to strengthen constitution. Treating symptoms (like pain) can be an essential part of a healing program, but the primary goal should be to work on the root of the problem, providing symptomatic relief only to make the person more comfortable or stable during the healing process.

If we focus only on the leaves and twigs (the disease and symptoms), our efforts are misplaced. When a person is obese, diabetic, suffering from depression, high blood pressure, low thyroid and arthritis—things seem very complicated. But this complication only exists when we are looking at the situation from the perspective of disease symptoms. All of these conditions are arising from the same root causes, the same biological terrain and the same imbalanced body systems. The body does not exist in pieces; it exists as a whole, and all of these disease symptoms are simply part of the pattern of the whole.

The body is self-healing when provided with the right tools and environment. So, if we simply remove the environmental stressors that are overcoming the person’s natural constitution and support weak body systems while balancing the biological terrain, the body will heal itself to the extent it is able to do so.

If you’re interested in learning how to help yourself or others heal naturally using this approach, try out our low cost course Seven Keys to Effective Natural Healing, or take our Family Herbal Certification or our Certified Herbal Consultant program.