The Hidden Half of Nature - All About Your Microbiome and Health January 20 2018
Before you decide all the buzz about the microbiome is just another fad, please take a peek at this month’s book, The Hidden Half of Nature: The Microbial Roots of Life and Health. A scare with cervical cancer prompted husband-and-wife authors David R. Montgomery, a geomorphologist, and Anne Bikle, a biologist, to step out of their areas of expertise to dig through the academic research that came out of the Human Microbiome Project.
What they learned about the microbial world and the microbiome of humans, plants, and animals led them to begin The Hidden Half of Nature in this way: “We are living through a scientific revolution as illuminating as the discovery that Earth orbits the sun.”
Today’s scientific revolution is all about microbes. A large consortium of researchers have reported findings that an array of microscopic life thrives on us and in us. The cells of this microbial life, the bacteria, protists, archaea, and fungi, far outnumber our own cells. And the whole planet is literally covered, inside and out, with microorganisms, as are the bodies of plants and animals. Symbiotic relationships, mutually beneficial between two or more organisms belonging to different species, exist between us and the microbes living in and on our bodies.
Unfortunately, we’ve been playing Russian roulette through our ignorance of this microbial world. Montgomery tells us, “In waging war against microbes for the last century, we’ve managed to unwittingly chisel away much of the foundation on which we stand.” We’ve been killing the microbial world with our overuse of chemical fertilizers, pesticides, and antibiotics. Truth is, there are way more good microbes than bad. Throughout the history of life on earth, microbes have deconstructed every piece of organic matter on our planet and thereby created new life from decaying leaves, branches, and bones.
This microbial community drives our health in unexpected ways. Researchers concur with the research dating back to agronomists Sir Albert Howard, Lady Eve Balfour, and William Albrecht. In the 1930s, Howard maintained that microbial life promoted soil fertility and human health. He believed the key to maintaining human health rested on “returning organic matter to the land, patterning agricultural practices on nature’s cycle of decay and renewal.” He just couldn’t quite prove it. Influential agronomist and farmer lady Balfour concluded the same in the 1940s from her studies of soil life and its effects on crop quality and yields. She went so far as to envision soil scientists working alongside physicians in hospitals and clinics.
Now thanks to recent gene-sequencing technologies and more powerful microscopes, scientists can see our very dependence on complex microbial communities that are essential for soil fertility, a healthy immune system, and much more.
This technology was not available in the aftermath of WW II when parts of the defense industry morphed into a rapidly growing agrochemical industry. The eager industrialists pushed aside Balfour and Howard’s insights into the fundamental connections between soil health and human health. Scientists at the time questioned the heavy-handed industrial model as they witnessed the declining nutritional value of industrially grown food. A vocal University of Missouri agronomist, William Albrecht, even predicted that industrialized agriculture would lead to a decline in soil health followed by a decline in human health. He considered soil a nation’s most important resource.
Over a half century later researchers are learning how microbes power the immune system as it runs 24/7 protecting us from pathogenic (disease-promoting) microbes and regulating the overall inflammation level of the body. Our immune system comprises a diffuse network of lymph vessels and lymph nodes that are constantly monitoring interactions between immune cells and nonpathogenic (beneficial) microbes critical to normal immune responses.
Current research indicates that 80% of the immune system is associated with the gut, or the GALT: gut-associated lymphoid tissue. The richest part of our microbiome (all the microbes in us, on us, and around us) is our 22-foot-long digestive tract, especially the last five feet. That’s the colon, and it’s home to almost three-quarters of our gut microbiome.
We can guess that damage to our gut microbiome has something to do with the fortyfold increase in the past fifty years in the incidence of gut dysfunctions: from one in 10,000 people affected to one in 250 people. And research reveals a link between disruption of the microbiome and our susceptibility to many chronic and autoimmune diseases.
Bikle doesn’t link her cancer to a disrupted microbiome. But she has learned from her naturopathic doctor that daily consumption of refined carbohydrates, lattes, and wine takes her blood sugar on a roller coaster ride. Her erratic mealtimes also cause her blood sugar to climb and dive, creating stress to her body’s organs and cells. Pinball blood sugar triggers inflammation. Determined to take better care of her body, Bikle tackled her food cravings full force and slowly lured Montgomery to do the same. She writes, “Changing what and how I ate delivered the most elixir-like effects to my mind and body I have ever experienced.”
The authors also learned that microbes play a parallel role in promoting and maintaining plant health and human health. As Howard, Balfour, and Albrecht concluded long ago. Evidence is mounting that what we eat and how it’s grown have everything to do with our immune system and our microbiome. Plants grown in fertile, healthy soil and animals raised humanely on pasture provide us essential nutrients. The human digestive system evolved to break down real food. It’s surely time to get back in sync with our biology!
Phyllis (dedicated local food eater and BBK customer)