Understanding The Nature and Role of Our Microbiome. And How Modern Medicine Is Failing Us
Getting to the root of our gut bugs has to start with a defintion. The root of probiotic – PRO and BIOS
Pro – An argument or consideration in favor of something.
Bios – God’s gift of physical life, animating all creation “to live and move and have its being”…that’s just one of the online dictionaries’ rather hyperbolic definition but sure🤷🏼♂️
Scorched Earth Policy and The Bees in New South Wales
Let’s start this story in New South Wales…to be clear that is NOT where the story started but in terms of current affairs the most egregious example of this heinous approach is playing out over there right now. Remember all that hype about bees and how they were responsible for the delivery of over 70% of our food crops? That their humble contribution is worth $15bn annually to the US food industry? Well…it seems the supportive roles are not being reciprocated…
The Fiendish Varroa Mite
In New South Wales currently the government via the DPI (department of primary industries) have taken it upon themselves to eradicate the bee population of a pesky hive infection known as the varroa mite. Their method? Poisoning ALL bee hives over a 10,000km radius. Yup they pressed the nuclear button. But did they think it through? Whose interests are they acting in? Are strong agri business lobbies behind the policy decision? We may never know. But one thing we DO know is we’re going to experience the fallout, and see the results of why this approach is FAR from the true holistic management best practice. And one other thing we know pretty well is the varroa mite. It’s actually not that novel at all. The mite has been around for over 100 years, having first been detected in “western” honey bees in 1987 in the US, subsequently making its way around Europe and completely devastating global honeybee populations.
Colony Collapse Disorder
When the term ‘colony collapse disorder’ was coined around the start of this century, the primary suspect for this mass extinction of bee colonies was thought to be the varroa mite. And so ‘science’ got to work on providing a solution. Many selective therapeutic (mostly toxic) concoctions have been developed that successfully kill off the mite, but with each year has come another novel pest/fungus/pesticide that has further weakened the species that never took its rightful place as ‘man’s best friend’…yes it’s true labradors don’t sting and they seem pretty loyal and cute on the face of it, and some of them can even bring you the morning newspaper….but are they responsible for filling over half of your supermarket aisles with food?…if so I hadn’t heard…but back to the bees and the mites.
The confounder of these broad scale agricultural policies is that they never served to strengthen the bee colonies themselves, instead hoping (in vain) that the varroa scourge would be ridden from the hives by Apiguard, Oxalic acid, formic acid or other ‘natural’ or slightly less than natural agents. But much like the coeliac who emerges from the GP’s office with the best guidance being to “avoid gluten at all costs”, no thought is given to repairing and strengthening the system that is displaying the signs of weakness and damage from ongoing injury.
The mite has been present in Ireland for over 20 years now, and over that time our policy (thank GOD) hasn’t been as drastic as the Australian government’s approach. Yes it’s true most Irish beekeepers use the various treatments annually and most of us (yes I keep bees too!) suffer an annual toll of colony losses.
A Different Kind Of Beekeeping
But my approach to beekeeping is so non-standard it’s not a good reference for Irish beekeeping norms – I haven’t treated my hives in over 6 years now – I don’t ever feed them sugar syrup, and I leave them with lots of their own honey to eat in winter , and to date I have only lost 2 colonies (out of 9) in that time – honestly due to my careless mismanagement during swarming season as opposed to hive infections. My instinct towards this less interventionist approach has been fuelled by my internal compass mostly, and a growing understanding that the historical stories told by the health of our bodies and the world around us provide great reference points for the best ways to manage both internal and external realms into the future. Interventions should be minimal, pro-active, preventative, proportionate, regenerative, phasic, limited in time.
My approach to beekeeping has been galvanised by some less published pieces of research that demonstrate that the colonies that are exposed to varroa and survive, develop immunity to future infestation. So yes, in most cases there will be losses, but that old adage of ‘short term pain for long term gain’ certainly seems to apply here. And it’s a story that is reflected again and again – if we’re willing to put in hard work now, we will reap the benefits into the future. But we’re humans, so it’s a tough lesson to have to keep learning.
Scorched Earth Comes Indoors – Harming the Bugs in Our Guts
As we start to think about this metaphor of scorched earth policy, we can find a direct correlation in our latent, still unfurling, obsession with and reliance on antibiotics. Time and again we see the following cases come to us for help at the end of this long string of ill-conceived interventions: person gets respiratory infection whilst under some type of stress, be it psychological, environmental, dietary or otherwise – usually a constellation of all these elements; person is forced to stop normal life, attends doctor, doctor prescribes antibiotics, infection lessens, person returns to work, previously experienced pressures return to a (now weakened) system, person suffers repeat infection, another collapse, further antibiotics, etc. But instead of just having a repeat of the respiratory infection, the vulnerability has now spread and shifted – towards the gut.
Antibiotics are the internal medicine version of the carpet bombing, scorched earth policy. Nobody is denying their usefulness, but EVERYONE with a brain should be questioning their overly frequent prescription. We only have to look at the history of antibiotic innovation to see how within an ever shortening timespan from a new antibiotic being launched, the bacteria it was designed to destroy become resistant so doses become stronger, complex combinations and cocktails are used, and all the time, this myopic investment in wiping out the bad bugs, takes literally ZERO notice of what’s happening the the delicate ecology of our inner world as we bomb the sh*t out of our gut to get rid of one pesky invader. So much so that drug companies have finally stopped entirely trying to innovate new antibiotics as the time to obsolescence has narrowed so severely that their profit window has closed entirely…golly there’s a few posts on that one alone…but trying to stay on track. We’re nearly at the sharp end of this where we give you the toolkit, stick with it!!
Understanding the Role of the Microbiome
Long term this stuff starts to look pretty bleak, and as we start to uncover the role that our microbiome has to play in whole body SYSTEMIC health, the world of pure science has begun a collective “AHA” moment that is closely followed by an “oh SH*T” moment as we wonder whether the damage we’ve already done can be reversed. The microbiome is SO important as to be now classified as an endocrine organ by some enlightened observers, with functions that transcend the absorption and excretion of foods, either controlling or influencing such diverse elements of our biology as our neurological patterns, our immune system function – even such seemingly unrelated areas cardiovascular health come under the remit of our gut’s vast area of impact.
So if we’re starting to understand these facts – that 70% of our immune system is gut modulated, that 95% of all our neurotransmitters are produced there – that this enteric nervous system that we only have the cause to explore once we push it to or beyond its breaking point, is possibly the primary organ in which our long term health is decided – then it’s surely time that we took some SIMPLE steps to ensure its good health in the ABSENCE of disease. No hard yards here, as you’ll see.
FIBRE DIVERSITY – 30 PLANT FOODS PER WEEK
This couldn’t be simpler really – diversity and variety provide the spice of life in all things. Studies show repeatedly that those who live longest have the most diverse range of gut bacteria. And how do we help them thrive? Feed them diverse fibres. Complexes of fibre compounds found in plants each feed different bacteria in different ratios. So, in this case, keep it complex – chew those complex carbohydrates, and many MANY vegetables of all kinds. The other magic molecules that come in with those diverse plant foods are a class of plant chemicals known as polyphenols. In terms of the immune system and weight management aspect of gut function, polyphenols are where it’s at – so whether its glugging down a shot of Aronia berry juice, or getting a box of organic fruit n veg landed to your door every week, you can be guaranteed we have a MILLION solutions for feeding your good bugs. Oh and don’t be scared of cooking your plant foods, you’ll do more damage to a vulnerable gut by overdoing raw veggies than by overcooking them.
FUEL THE FERMENTATION – PROBIOTIC AND ACIDIFYING FOODS
Who hasn’t come across a fermented food at this stage…it’s hard to imagine life before Kimchi – like whatever did our parents do when they had a sauerkraut craving. Actually my fantastically weirdo parents were brewing kombucha in our airing cupboard, but for most families a decent pot of yoghurt was all they had, and these kind of import ferments have only arrived on the scene in the past 10-15 years. They’ve brought with them a new and undiscovered country of ‘live’ cultured foods, kimchi, water kefir, the list goes on. And they really do have their benefits. I always recommend starting SLOWLY with the ferments (nobody listens!) and to treat them like condiments despite your craving. Just like every other compound we put in our mouths (??) more isn’t always better, feeding and seeding the microbiome is a delicate affair and should be engaged in with patience and restraint.
For most folk, they come to fermented foods when their gut is in a state of distress, seeking solution. And ferments often do provide the answer, or part of it anyway, but too much of a good thing can be just as poisoning in a fragile environment, so go slowly, don’t get hooked on one. The magic of these foods is not even in their actual bacterial content and concentration, but actually in the acids, bacteriocins and complex short chain fatty acids they produce, that all have a corrective effect on your body’s own microbial balance and gut immunity – often shifting patterns of bloating, constipation and other more serious gut ‘conditions’ over a period of weeks and months.*
FERTILISE THE FIELD – DEMULCENT FOODS AND HERBS
Don’t get me started on the mucosal barrier or we’ll be here all week. Suffice to say it’s the room where the magic happens along the gut lining, protecting our single-cell-thick lining from the assault of irritants, allergens, toxins and bold microbial creatures that come in with our food and try to make space for themselves along the gastrointestinal tract. It’s where the good bugs find their home too, AND it’s the slippery surface that helps us push a decent poop out at least once (but ideally thrice) per day. The mucosal barrier is SO important that in longevity studies it has demonstrated that the thicker the mucosa the longer we live…couple that with the longevity associated studies for diverse microbial populations and you’re starting to make a serious case for looking after this stuff. But how do you build up the mucosal barrier?
Slippery elm, marshmallow, meadowsweet, liquorice, all these luscious herbs belong to a group called the demulcents – they all have that slippery, slimy quality when steeped in water, and this quality supports the mucosal barrier to heal and and repair, they stop it drying out and help reduce inflammatory patterns from spreading and coroding the sensitive gut lining. We need to engage with these herbs on a daily basis. Tattoo them on your arm if you have to. You could do worse than try out our new Moss Boss Tonic, which is packed with carrageen moss, Ireland’s very own native demulcent mucolytic. Edel has somehow turned the slightly gross sea veg into a tonic thing of beauty, it’s well worth a try.
MASTICATE FOR THE WIN
Final closing point here. I think none of the above pointers or education would be necessary if we just ate like our body wants us to do. In peace, with intention, chewing and savouring the mouthfuls. Mastication (chewing) is the kickstart to our entire gastric process, and as we chew we not only break down the food mechanically making it much less of an issue for potential belly bloating issue that can occur if we send down less well digested fibres, starches and such; but we also send hormonal signals to our pancreas and other digestive organs to ramp up their secretion of enzymes and generally get ready to suck the absolute life out of whatever food we’re about to swallow. Simple advice really. And it’ll put us out of business if you all grasp it and run with it. But we’ll find something else to do promise. Don’t worry about us, just get your gut back together and we can worry about the future of The Hopsack later
*Conscious that we aren’t touching probiotics as a supplement in this post as they are a world unto themselves but perhaps we’ll give you a quick primer on these guys and our faves in the category next month!!