Today’s post is definitely a must-read! If you haven’t read any of my post in 2013, please read this one! It might seem long and somewhat hard to read, but just do it! 🙂
I am reading Michael Pollan’s book, Cooked, and I’m in the ‘fermentation’ part of it, when I realized that this is exactly what I’ve been trying to say but didn’t know how (stay tuned for my comments at the end of this post). So, I am just quoting an excerpt from his book (I don’t have any permission, hopefully the copyright police will be kind to me).
But [Sandor] Katz also urged me to look into the rapidly growing body of scientific research on the role of fermented foods in gut health, and in turn the role of a healthy gut in our well-being overall. “I think you’ll be surprised.”
I did, and I was. Following up on some leads from Sandor [Katz], I began reading around in the subject, and speaking to scientists who study the “gut microbiota”* (*Biologists use the term “microbiota” to refer to a community of microbes, and “microbiome” to refer to the collective genome of those microbes.) or “microflora” — basically, the vast community of organisms (bacteria, fungi, archaea, viruses, and protozoa) that reside in our intestines and exert far more influence on our lives than was recognized until very recently. Sometimes the scientists working in a particular field come across as just plain more excited than scientists working in another area. Radical hypotheses and incipient breakthroughs and Nobel Prizes are in the professional air, creating a bracing ozone of possibility. The scientists working today on “microbial ecology” are as excited as any I’ve ever interviewed, convinced, as one of them put it, that they “stand on the verge of a paradigm shift in our understanding of health as well as our relationship to other species.” And fermentation — as it unfolds both inside and outside the body — is at the heart of this new understanding.
In the decades since Louis Pasteur founded microbiology, medical research has focused mainly on bacteria’s role in causing disease. The bacteria that reside in and on our bodies were generally regarded as either harmless “commensals” — freeloaders, basically — or pathogens to be defended against. Scientists tended to study these bugs one at a time, rather than as communities. This was partly a deeply ingrained habit of reductive science, and partly a function of the available tools. Scientists naturally focused their attention on the bacteria they could see, which meant the handful of individual bugs that could be cultured in a petri dish. There, they found some good guys and some bad guys. But the general stance toward the bacteria we had discovered all around us was shaped by metaphors of war, and in that war, antibiotics became the weapons of choice.
But it turns out that the overwhelming majority of bacteria residing in the gut simply refuse to grow on a petri dish — a phenomenon now known among researchers as “the great plate anomaly.” Without realizing it, they were practicing what is sometimes called parking-lot science — named for the human tendency to search for lost keys under the streetlights not because that’s where we lost them but because that is where we can best see. The petri dish was a streetlight. But when, in the early 2000s, researchers developed genetic “batch” sequencing techniques allowing them to catalog all the DNA in a sample of soil, say, or seawater or feces, science suddenly acquired a broad and powerful beam of light that could illuminate the entire parking lot. When it did, we discovered hundreds of new species in the human gut doing all sorts of unexpected things.
To their surprise, microbiologists discovered that nine of every ten cells in our bodies belong not to us, but to these microbial species (most of them residents of our gut), and that 99 percent of the DNA we’re carrying around belongs to those microbes. Some scientists, trained in evolutionary biology, began looking at the human individual in a humbling new light: as a kind of superorganism, a community of several hundred coevolved and interdependent species. War metaphors no longer made much sense. So the microbiologists began borrowing new metaphors from the ecologists.
It’s important to keep in mind that, despite the powerful new exploratory tools, the microbial world within our body remains very much a terra incognita — its age of exploration has only just begun. But already scientists have established that the microbiota of the human gut is in fact an ecosystem, a complex community of species doing a whole lot more than just hanging out or helping us break down foods or making us sick.
So what exactly are the five hundred or so distinct species and countless different strains of those species that make up the kilogram or so of microbes in our gut doing there? Evolutionary theory supplied the first big clue. For most of these microbes, their survival depends on our own, and so they do all sorts of things to keep their host — us — alive and well. Indeed, even speaking of “us” and “them” may soon seem quaint; as a group of microbiologists recently wrote in Microbiology and Molecular Biology Reviews,* (*Robinson, Courtney . et al., “From Structure to Function.”) we need to begin thinking of health “as a collective property of the human-associated microbiota” — that is, as a function of the community, not the individual.
Perhaps the most important function of the microbes in our gut is to maintain the health of the gut wall, or epithelium. This is the tennis-court-sized membrane that, like our skin or respiratory system, mediates our relationship to the world outside our bodies. In the course of a lifetime, sixty tons of food pass through the gastrointestinal tract, an exposure to the world that is fraught with risk. It appears that much of that risk is managed, most of the time brilliantly, by the gut microbiota. So, for example, the microbial fermenters living in the colon break down the indigestible carbohydrates in our food — that is, the fiber — into the organic acids that are the most important source of nourishment for the gut wall. (Unlike most other tissues, which obtain nutrients from the bloodstream, the gut wall gets most of its nutrients from the by-products of fermentation in the colon.) Some of these organic acids, like butyrate, are such a good fuel for the cells of the intestines that they are believed to help prevent cancers of the digestive tract.
Meanwhile, other gut bacteria have evolved the ability to adhere to the inner surface of the epithelium, where they crowd out pathogenic strains of such microbes as E. coli and salmonella, and keep them from breaching the gut wall. Many such pathogens can be found within the gut but don’t make us sick unless they manage to get out and into the bloodstream. The reason some people are more susceptible to food poisoning than others may owe less to their ingestion of bad bugs than to the failure of their epithelium to keep those bugs from escaping (as well as to the overall health of their immune system). Helping to maintain the health and integrity of the gut wall is one of the most valuable services gut bacteria provide.
As a more or less stable ecological community, the microbes in the gut share our interest in resisting invasion and colonizations y microbial interlopers. Some of them produce antibiotic compounds for this purpose, whereas others help manage and train our body’s immune system, by dispatching chemical signals that activate or calm various defenses. Though to speak of “our” immune system or self-interest no longer makes much sense. Taken as a whole, the microbiota constitutes the largest and one of the human body’s most important organs of defense.* (*This is equally true for the somewhat different bacterial communities found in other locations on the body — the mouth, the skin, the nasal passages, and the vagina. In the vagina, for example, dozens of species of lactobacillus ferment glycogen, a sugar secreted by the vaginal lining. The lactic acid produced by these bacteria helps maintain a pH low enough to protect the vagina against pathogens.)
An interesting question is why the body would enlist bacteria in all these critical functions, rather than evolve its own systems to do this work. One theory is that, because microbes can evolve so much more rapidly than the “higher animals”, they can respond with much greater speed and agility to changes in the environment — to threats as well as opportunities. Exquisitely reactive and fungible, bacteria can swap genes and pieces of DNA among themselves, picking them up and dropping them almost as if they were tools. This capability is especially handy when a new toxin or food source appears in the environment. The microbiota can swiftly find precisely the right gene needed to fight it — or eat it.
(Pollan, Michael, “Cooked”, p. 321-326)
Wow. Did you get all that? I’ve bolded some of the more interesting parts, just to make it easier to read.
Soooo… here’s what I think about all this.
Have you noticed how all of these amazing discoveries were made only in the last several years?? This confirms what I’ve thought for a long long time: as smart as we think we all are, we don’t know jack about the amazing interactions that goes on in our bodies, as well as the entire ecosystem we live in. We cannot quantify everything and we cannot live off of a few series of basic nutrients. Just as Michael Pollan said: “…the microbial world within our body remains very much a terra incognita — its age of exploration has only just begun.”
So this tells me that:
1) We need to stop obsessing over killing every bacteria/virus by using antibacterial soaps and creams, and antibiotics, because these destroy the bacteria that are there to defend us, we simply need to work with our body/microbiota, provide it with good nutrition/nutrients, and consider it in its entirety, not just in parts as if it was an automobile. I’ve always been of the opinion that if your immune system is strong, you can resist against pretty much anything that goes around, and reading this confirmed it. To quote Charlotte Gerson, daughter of Dr. Gerson: “You can’t keep one disease and heal two others. When the body heals, it heals everything.”
2) Scientists creating Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs) have NO clue what they are dealing with. They can pretend that it’s safe all they want, most GMOs were created a decade or two before they started understanding our own bacteria in our bodies; how can they pretend that they know for a fact it wouldn’t have any consequences? Since GMOs are made to control/change bacteria and genes, and we’ve now very recently discovered that our own DNA is not really ours (90% foreign bacteria), then… umm…. do you see where I’m going with this??
3) Since our bacteria changes and adapts so fast, how do we know that they won’t react to these foreign GMOs (with Frankeinstein DNA) by incorporating them into our own DNA? Maybe a few years back, people would’ve been laughing at the thought of the old movie “The Fly”, but it suddenly doesn’t seem that far-fetched, does it? I mean, we are in unknown territory here, nobody knows what happens when we mix genes from various kingdoms (flora, fauna, fungi and human), combined with synthetic chemicals on top. We know what happened when cows ate dead cows: mad cow disease. Same thing happened when sheep ate dead sheep. Cannibalism is not only frowned upon, it also seems to be forbidden by nature. There seems to be an order in which we’re supposed to do this, I’m pretty sure combining various species from different kingdoms is going to bite us in the ass. Did you know that GMOs can contain spliced genes from any of the kingdoms, including human DNA and synthetic chemical compounds made with petroleum?
Something else that comes to mind that I’ve read about a couple of years ago, was about how the GMO scientists have been hard at work getting patents on all kinds of probiotics (added to yogurts, cheeses and various supplements) as well as all kinds of medications. According to what we’ve just read, our gut flora is damn important. Is there a connection here? It makes me shiver to think of the catastrophic consequences that these foreign substances can and will do to us, in a world within us, that we don’t know much about.
At the same time, we can’t live in fear, and we can’t live off of each latest discovery either, so in order not to go crazy, I say we use the precautionary principle and eat food. Real food. Clean food. We do still have the power to control what goes into our mouths and onto our bodies through the money we spend. That means non-GMO food and products, including medications and supplements (that hasn’t been messed around with in labs at the DNA-level), that means organic (no synthetic chemicals used to grow it), that means whole foods (no extracts of everything), and no processed foods (with various added synthetic chemicals). Food that has grown/animals being raised naturally like this for centuries, that can be trusted, because that’s what people have been eating for that long. This, to me, is the true definition of ‘clean food’, and we can feel good about eating it.
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Love this post! I learned a lot and totally agree that the simplest way to boil down all of the microbiology and biochemistry is to Eat Real Food, and that’s non-GMO food, organic food, as non-processed as possible. Simple food that used to be called just, well, food. Some interesting ideas in this article.
Thanks! I’m glad you loved the post! Agreed: eat real food! It’s not that complicated. Thanks for sharing 🙂