You are what you eat. Food is Culture. The way to a person’s heart is through the stomach. Let food be thy medicine. Food is Love. You eat first with the eyes… and on and on. Everyone eats, and we have countless adages about food that attest to this. The question is how can we eat to live well? What does it take to “Let food be thy medicine?”
There are many studies coming out in the last few years that address the impact food has on our ability to live happy healthy lives. Much of that research is directly related to our gut micro biome – the universe of bacteria that we coexist with. We are beginning to understand that the particular community of microorganisms that inhabits our belly has impact on everything from our ability to fight off colds, develop allergies, our intelligence, our emotional state, our obesity or thinness, and even our cardiovascular health. The census roll of who is living in our gut tells the tale of how healthy we are.
Just as managing a sourdough starter by adding different grains and manipulating temperature impacts flavor of bread, what we eat, and how active we are, impacts who lives happily in our gut. So perhaps it is more accurate to say we are not so much what we eat, rather we are what our gut microbiome eats. The emerging understanding of the role of our Microbiome is turning even brain science on its head, which is now telling us that who lives happily in our gut determines how happy we will be. Unfortunately many things that are part of life in the 21st century are very detrimental to our micro biome. From obvious things like antibiotics, to GMO foods, pesticides and herbicides in our food and water.
What we eat directly relates to who lives in our gut, because what we choose to ingest sets the conditions that favor certain biota over others. Do you remember playing with Legos? Searching through the huge pile on the floor for just the right piece to finish your spaceship, or base or whatever? How frustrating that could be when what you needed was missing? This is the frustration our micro biome experiences when our diet does not provide the nutrients they need to do their joyful work of keeping us healthy. When our microbes are frustrated they send out distress calls and chemical messages to our brains, which set us up for unhappiness. Distress hormones trump healing and repair hormones, so we create a vicious downward cycle if we don’t take action in response to their call.
Just who sets up residence within starts early. My sister Mary sent me a New York Times Article, Breast-Feeding the Microbiome, which articulates the connection between breast milk, and setting up a baby for health. Turns out that breast milk is at least as much about providing nutrients for the micro biome as it is about “feeding” the baby. Many of the complex sugars are tailor made for specific beneficial bacteria. Scientists have identified 200 different sugars so far, and counting. Just as the micro-community that is responsible for turning raw cabbage into Sauerkraut are present within the seed that the cabbage grew out of, we set our babies up with the community of tiny friends they will need from the very beginning.
So this inner community isn’t only based on what we have ingested, it is in large part more along the lines of a family tradition. We are set up with our initial belly brew of microbes from our mother and father as tiny babes. As they were set up by their parents. If our parents or grandparents have had lives which compromised their gut population, than what they passed on to us will not be as robust as we might hope. When scientists compare the micro biome of children living a traditional lifestyle, close to the land – eating nutrient dense foods – including lots of fermented foods, versus children in the “modern” west eating processed foods, the diversity ratios of their biota are vastly different. We in the west are facing an increasing deficit of microbes to pass on to our next generations. That is the bad news.
The good news is that though the micro biome can not be considered a silver bullet- it is far too complex for that, knowledge is power, and we can improve our health by deliberately supporting our microbiota, and managing towards greater diversity and health. It might be important to note that cabbage seeds also contain that which will help the cabbage to rot, and return to the soil – We are not so different, when our actions bias who lives in our gut towards the less friendly ratios we rot from within, resulting in leaky gut syndrome etc. However, as the big lugs with the fork we set the environment.
What if you had lots of antibiotics growing up, just as your parents and grandparents did? Or if you have eaten a steady diet of processed foods and sugars, what now? Is there any hope? YES! Manipulating the environment makes all the difference. This is one of the amazing things that I learned during chemo and recovery from chemo. Get the right nutrient legos in the clutches of the microbes and they will rock.
Cancer treatments are a series of catastrophic blitz campaigns against life. A chess game that kills all the Pawns, Knights, Bishops and Rooks in an attempt to get at the Tumor Queen. Antibiotics, which you may have experienced, are a mild cousin to chemotherapy as far as their effect on the gut micro biome. Most cancering folks receive plenty of antibiotics as well as chemo. Western cancer treatments are not in sync with the new research on the role of the micro biome for our health. Our microbes are like hair and brain cells, simply collateral damage.
I am so very grateful that I was concurrently seeing Naturopaths and a Traditional Chinese Medicine practitioner that does keep up on modern studies. The focus for those practitioners was all about nutrition, and repopulating my gut with the “good” guys. I actually feel like my gut is in a better state post-cancer treatments than it was before. Part of that is the daily inclusion of cultured fermented foods, the other part is getting probiotics supplements, along with fulvic acids and minerals. It was a fresh start. Like a big baby I needed to feed the micro biome, to give them what they needed to do their work.
I wonder sometimes if my “Good Attitude” during treatments has more to do with the attention I gave to the teeny tiny world within my belly than any spiritual discipline I might have been wielding. I am currently reading a book loaned to my by my friend Gila, about this, Gut and Psychology Syndrome, by Dr. Natasha Cambell-Mcbride. Explore this and other books in my library here.) There are many things we can do to improve the lot of our micro biome, and thereby improving our health and wellbeing. The micro biome has great power – but we can choose what we feed it to make it our ally.
“Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.”
I will revisit the food topic again, and hope to include some more specific actions to take. You may want to check out my post, Not By Kale Alone about the importance of intent with food. For now I will leave you with a few things to ponder in addition to the famously spare guideline set by Michael Pollen:
- Eat live cultured foods
- Remember, Genetically Modified ‘foods’ are not food
- Eat fresh, and include a wide range of colors
- Remember micronutrients* have big impact
- Protein and Fats are foods we need
- Try to eat dinner early, and fast at least 13 hours each night.
I encourage you to pick one and try it out. While remembering that the emotional energetics of food are key. Eating “right” while feeling like a victim may do more harm than good. In closing I will leave you with the motto I sign off all my emails with, Think micro biome. Act charismatic mega fauna.**
So go forth joyously and eat some delicious life enhancing foods, remember there are teeming trillions within counting on you to do so!
*Switching to using Real Salt which has 141 minerals, vs 1 mineral in most table salt, NaCl, is an easy way to supply many micronutrients to your inner landscape – we use it for making the sauerkraut we eat daily.
**Joe thinks this needs some explanation. Charismatic Mega fauna is a nerdy biologist way of referring to any sexy big animals that get all the funding. Or the organisms that you can get people excited about, thereby leveraging their wellbeing to protect whole ecosystems. The famous Spotted Owl is a good example. Clearing of ancient forests obviously impacts countless species from mycorrhiza fungi systems to various shrews. But it is a hard sell to say “Save the Fungus!” Human are a charismatic mega fauna. So by saying “Think micro biome. Act charismatic mega fauna.” I am making a joke, a play on the Think Global, Act Local – an encouragement to consider the importance of our microbes, and remember to be a little more humble about being a big charismatic animal. I am also hoping other people will find it as funny as I do.