In nature, biodiversity means vibrant and resilient ecosystems that flourish and evolve. The same principle extends to the human microbiome. Bacteria are one of the fundamental building blocks of all life on earth, indeed from where all life sprang forth. Our planet is a vast swarm of bacteria, all fulfilling vital metabolic functions and perpetuating the great cycle of life. As a human, you do not exist apart from this vast ecology – you are an essential part of it; a product of it, woven into its very fabric. Your every breath and interaction with the world around you is an incredibly complex exchange of cellular and bacterial information. To put things into perspective, the human body consists of about ten trillion cells, but harbors a hundred trillion bacteria and a vast array of different species, the majority of them found in the gut. Indeed, the genetic material of bacteria in the body outweighs human genetic bacteria at around 2 – 20 million genes to 20,000. This should surely give us pause for thought when we consider what it means to be human. What we know about the microbiome according to current and existing research:
- We have a mutualistic relationship with the bacteria in our gut, a product of co-evolution.
- The bacteria in our gut compete for territory and advantage, concerned with their own survival.
- The presence of particular species affects the choices of foods that we eat.
- They are also vulnerable to the kind of choices we make: some foods support particular strains, whilst being harmful to others.
- The presence of some bacteria works to support the proper functioning of our metabolism and overall body-system – others inhibit it.
- Bacteria even influence our brain functioning, altering neurochemicals that influence our behavior.
Whilst the dynamics of these interactions are still being explored, one thing is clear: we owe a great deal to our symbiotic microbes. Maintaining / contributing to the diversity of your biome is an integral component to vibrant physical and cognitive health. Unfortunately, it seems as though life in the modern world is geared as a fully-fledged assault on this precious resource. A number of factors drive this assault, but the prominent themes seem to be:
- The dominance of the Western medical approach to illness and disease.
- The wholesale commodification of food.
The dominance of Western medicine, or “Biomedicine”.
The dominant Western medical perspective, or biomedicine, is based on a kind of biological determinism. Disease causation is understood as some biological pathology at the cellular level and interventions are usually crudely staged at that level, via pharmaceutical treatment. Whilst this approach is sometimes necessary, the indiscriminate use of pharmaceuticals, especially antibiotics, is having a very detrimental effect on health and wellbeing. Notwithstanding the overwhelming inhibitory effect pharmaceuticals have on metabolism in general, antibiotics in particular are intensely disruptive to our microbiota.
Consider that, after a dose of antibiotics “researchers have found that there are persistent, long term impacts on human intestinal micro-biota that remain for up to 2 years post-treatment”. Albeit, the effect of antibiotics in humans varies: the composition and integrity of individual microbiota may ‘bounce back’ post treatment. Nevertheless, persistent use effects everyone sooner or later. Ultimately, bacteria and microbes, product of biomedicine’s monopoly and as a modern locus of illness and disease, have become viewed as something to be obliterated and exterminated. Our obsession with anti-bacterial creams and lotions, with disinfectants and sterilization emphasize this point. This assault on our microbial ecologies is having significant consequences; creating a competitive environment where strong strains of pathogenic bacteria, not kept in check by friendly microbes, flourish. The proliferation of killer bugs and antibiotic resistant strains of bacteria are a case in point.
Biomedicine and chronic disease.
The biomedical approach to illness and disease is not without consequence. For example, in the realm of chronic disease, which now account for over 60% of all deaths globally, the biomedical approach only seems to exacerbate problems. Whilst heart disease and cancer were rare at the turn of the century, they are today spiraling out of control. Despite efforts to control them via the typical interventions, they abound. Hypertension, IBS/IBD, arthritis, multiple sclerosis, heartburn/GERD, diabetes, osteoporosis and chronic fatigue have become a mainstay of the modern medical landscape. Not to mention the increased frequency of all kinds of cognitive ailments such as anxiety, depression, dyslexia and autism etc. Illness and disease are clearly subjective, emotional, social, cultural, spiritual, political and environmental phenomena, requiring appropriate holistic interventions. A general sense of disillusionment with the reductive approach of biomedicine has grown since the 1980’s and there has been a concomitant surge of interest in alternative approaches that are more holistic in orientation and natural in their approach. For example, in 2005 between 10 and 23% of the adult population in Western European Countries and approximately 40% of a similar population in the US indulged in some form of alternative therapy. This is not to say holistic approaches are always perfect in their approach. Indeed, whilst many holistic practitioners will treat individual conditions in a more patient-centered and natural way, they resist too critical a stance toward the social structure the client exists in. Health problems have significant social determinants – the corporate monopoly on food supply is one facet of that structure, to which we turn to shortly. That being said, nutrition and traditional food knowledge and preparation are not the panacea to health. But they are a solid foundation. Proper respect, practice and intrigue around wholesome food, traditional food knowledge and preparatory techniques serve as a gateway for real nourishment of the body, an awakening to the redundancy of current conceptions of health and disease and the unnecessary suffering perpetuated by the current system.
Capitalism and food.
In our increasingly globalized world, as communities and individuals, we are fundamentally losing touch with such basic sustaining principles in our lives. Food production and preparation once the essential hub of the community, is becoming increasingly alien to us in the West. We consume our food without any attachment to or knowledge of its production; we eat unprepared grains that are toxic to our system; we eat meats from animals farmed like objects in concentration camps, pumped full of steroids and antibiotics; consume dairy products stripped of their nutritional essence and gorge on confectionary loaded with refined sugars and an insidious host of immune inhibiting toxins. The stranglehold of massive food corporations concerned only with profit, demand the most hideous operations from their producers to keep production high and costs low. A toxic and de-natured food supply is the result. The dietary information you receive in the mainstream is completely at odds with the bodies base needs – The NHS in the UK for example promotes consumption of grains without proper preparation, advocates pasteurized dairy products which are robbed of vital enzymes and beneficial bacteria that make them tolerable to the human body and openly disputes the claims that GM (genetically modified) foods are linked to degenerative disease. Mainstream medical advice on nutrition increasingly reflects the interests of the corporations that have a monopoly on the global food supply.
The rise of the global food economy is the biggest threat to our health and environment: In the modern food business, traditional methods of food preparation are not viable in the manufacturing process: foods are amended and tinkered with in ways that only serve to sustain their durability and longevity, but which make them more intolerable and corrosive to our bodies and health. Frankenstien pathogens born out of the incubators of intensive feeding operations and industrialized packing and processing facilities, elude us through the cascade of global supply chains that have become the reality of our food economy. Further entrenching our fear of and reactivity to bacteria and microbes. Food companies exploit the fact that we have less and less time in the kitchen: “around thirty minutes a day, down from an hour in 1970”. Indeed by 2030, they project that “the ideal cooking time is forecast to be between five and fifteen minutes”. To that end they serve up a vast array of convenience products to shore up our beleaguered lives, captive of a system that demands work over life and profit over wellbeing.
Indeed, Sandor Katz in the brilliant “Wild Fermentation” alludes to this insidious project when he talks about “cultural homogenization: the standardization, uniformity and mass production of food”. He explains: “Mass production demands uniformity. Local identity, culture and taste are subsumed by the ever-diminishing lowest common denominator, as Mcdonald’s, Coca Cola, and other corporate behemoths permeate minds on a global scale to create desire for their products”. This process, notwithstanding its impact on the quirkiness and beauty of local cuisines, is also pumping out products inimical to life – genetically tinkered with, laden with pesticides and subjected to all kinds of immune inhibiting additives. The corporate stranglehold on food is ushering in quite literally, what Paul Roberts calls the “end of food”.
A crumbling paradigm.
Nevertheless, opinion is slowly changing. Research and insights on the importance of nutrition, of preventative approaches to health and disease and to viewing the body as a holistic system with specific needs and nurturing are taking hold. Not to mention a gradually more enlightened public on the grim reality of the global food economy. In particular, the link between antibiotics and deteriorating health, and a compromised immune system is now gaining traction in the mainstream media.
Recent research for example illuminates the quandary of the staggering number of food allergies emerging in the West: Individuals in the West harbor far fewer strains of bacteria in the gut than those from indigenous cultures and tribes in developing countries. Food allergies amongst such populations are radically lower than in the West (a mere 1 in 1500 suffers from an allergy). As aforementioned, chronic diseases are reaching epic proportions in the West – many of them linked to gut dysbiosis, leaky gut syndrome, intestinal yeast infections (candida albicans) and overburdened, toxic and congested livers.
What is required to stymie this crisis is a fundamental recalibration of how the cause of health and disease is conceptualized, and an associated challenge to the global food economy and the capitalist system in general. A movement is needed, to empower individuals to take back some control over their health and their quality of life, through a re-connection with their food and an understanding that true health is about equilibrium and harmony with our wider environment. This involves a truly holistic perspective – one aspect of this perspective is an understanding of the gut as center; a miraculously complex interface with our wider ecology and literally, the root of vibrant health and longevity.
The gut as center.
Interestingly, the gut in eastern philosophy is the storehouse of power and potential. For example, If you ask “a Zen monk, “From where do you think?” he puts his hands on his belly. When Westerners came into contact with Japanese monks for the first time they could not understand. “What nonsense! How can you think from your belly?”. Is it any surprise when, commonly referred to as the second brain, the gut or the “enteric nervous system” boasts around 100 million neurons, uses more than 30 neurotransmitters (the same amount found in the brain), and harbors around 95% of the body’s serotonin (serotonin plays an important part in the regulation of learning, mood, sleep and other essential regulatory processes). It enjoys a unique communicative relationship with the brain and is a primary interface with our external environment. It is also home to the largest colony of microbes in our bodies: a healthy adult on average carries around 1.5-2kg of bacteria in the gut. It has been estimated that around 80-85% of our immunity is located in the gut wall. The mucosal layer of the gut wall is a vibrant ecology of bacteria, and may be described as the right hand of the immune system: “If the bacterial layer is damaged or, worse than that, abnormal, then the person’s immune system is trying to function with it’s right hand tied behind it’s back”.
Research on probiotic therapy to restore or repair an imbalance of bacteria in the gut, is yielding very encouraging results for a whole spectrum of conditions: “Probiotics have been most definitively linked to treating and preventing disease of the digestive tract, such as diarrhea (including that caused by antibiotics, rotavirus and HIV), inflammatory bowel disease, irritable bowel syndrome, constipation, and even colon cancer. They have been shown efficacy in treating vaginal infections. Probiotics have been found to reduce incidence and duration of common colds and upper respiratory symptoms and to reduce absences from work. They have been shown to improve outcomes and prevent infections in critically ill intensive care patients and improve liver function in people with cirrhosis. Researchers have documented efficacy of probiotic treatments to lower high blood pressure and reduce cholesterol, reduce anxiety, and increase CD4 cell counts in HIV+ children. There is evidence that regular probiotic consumption can reduce dental caries in children. In many other areas of human health, researchers are exploring theoretical applications of probiotics, including allergies, urinary tract infections, and the prevention of kidney stones, periodontal disease, and various cancers, even where little hard data yet exists”. Fundamentally: “Probiotics may prove to be one of our most effective tools against new and merging pathogens that continue to defy modern medicine in the 21st Century” so says a review in the journal Clinical Infectious Diseases.
Rebuilding or improving the levels of bacteria in our gut, and the integrity of the gut in general, may also be key to improving mental health. Indeed, McBride in “Gut and Psychology Syndrome” meticulously details the dynamics of the human digestive system and its essential link with the brain. Her work came out of successfully treating her son’s autism through a specifically tailored diet, aimed at healing the gut and restoring a proper ecology of bacteria there. McBride’s work is a worthwhile read, and totally turns the mainstream approach to mental health problems, on its head. For Octopus Alchemy, McBride’s prescription for healing doesn’t make ecological sense – but nevertheless, her analysis is sound.
A debate rages about whether commercially developed strains of bacteria outstrip fermented cultures in terms of a therapeutic effect. It is unsurprising that little research has been done on the therapeutic effects of fermented foods – essentially, no one can turn a profit from a practice freely carried out in the home! However, Sandor Katz in the Art of Fermentation suggests that it is perfectly viable that the bacteria grown in home ferments are as beneficial and resilient as commercially produced strains. Indeed, what is more important is “variety, diversity and incorporating the bacteria native to different raw ingredients” and I would add, the local environment.
What should be clear by now is that the integrity of our microbiome and our gut are cornerstones of health. It follows that, whether you’re dealing with mental health problems or physical problems, the first place to start is your nutrition. No one likes to hear this, because they think cleaning up their diet is too laborious, and will impinge upon their social life and leisure time. Of course, re-educating yourself about how to properly nourish your body is difficult. The reading and the food prep is time consuming. But your nutrition should be a joyous experience – slowing down and taking time to heal and properly support your body is a radical act, a form of resistance on the margins. It’s about taking back your autonomy and health from a system that promotes and sells you food and medicine harmful to your health for a profit, and which cares only about what you produce and how fast you produce it.
Here’s where fermentation comes in: Fermentation is the transformation of food by various bacteria, fungi and the enzymes and acids that they produce. The power of fermentation has been harnessed throughout the ages to preserve foods. The other amazing offshoot being that fermentation also creates vibrant, living food that can be used as a powerful healing modality too, whilst reconnecting us with the ecology at large. Before there were cans, refrigerators and freezers, fermentation was the main way people avoided spoiling food. The earliest forms of fermentation took place in pits, lined with leaves and packed full of all kinds of food: vegetables, meat, fish, grains, tubers and fruit. The practice of fermentation is pre-history. It is difficult to ascertain how and where it began. Louis Pasteur is given credit for identifying and pioneering the science of microbiology in 1857. Before that, early cultures were experimenting with and enjoying the benefits of different ferments, without the intricate knowledge we have today.