Swimming in a Bug Soup

So you’ve all heard the phrase “see no evil, hear no evil” right?  Well with the current avalanche of worldwide terror, I think it’s safe to say as a species we’ve had our head in the sand for a good few decades, and now the planet is showing us just how fragile our place on this earth really is.  The apex predator for the past few thousand generations, us humans are coming to understand that it’s our small but mighty (and much older) relatives, the invisible microbes that rule the planet.  And while we’ve been busy clearing them out of our homes, our guts and our soil, they’ve been adapting to thrive under whatever circumstances we’ve thrown at them.

More than 6 billion microbes exist in just one teaspoon of soil, and from the constant tilling of topsoil to the indiscriminate dosing of our own internal ecology with antibiotics, our tactics both for food production and human health maintenance have put bacteria, yeasts, protozoa and other minuscule microorganisms firmly in the crosshairs in the name of what we’ve called “progress” as a society.  And hey, we’ve got a lot out of it.

We’ve learnt that you can industrially produce concentrated amounts of food like never before, we’ve eradicated many illnesses that were fatal to our forefathers, but every step we’ve taken away from the wriggly little invisible creatures and towards a version of our destiny, we’ve moved further from our innate understanding of nature, and our interconnectedness with the world around us is coming back to haunt us.  We haven’t realised that in our quest to insulate ourselves from the consequences of nature – weather conditions that made for unpredictable harvests, bugs in our water that made daily hydration a Russian roulette – we’ve chosen paths that don’t cut the connection and leave us more vulnerable when things go really wrong – industrialised food production causing food deserts to emerge and concentrated emissions to be a threat to the newly centralised drinking water supplies.

Other versions of progress, to date ignored, are getting their moment – permaculture approaches to food production are no longer the preserve of the lunatic fringe.  Agricultural thought leaders such as Joel Salatin of Polyface Farms are proving that these concepts actually work better, for humans, animals and planet alike – regenerating bare topsoils and restoring diverse habitats whilst producing abundant food quantities.

But really I digress – we’re here to talk probiotics essentially.  You can see, though how what’s been happening at every level of society has been happening in our approach to our gut too.

The Battle Against The Battle of Good Vs Evil

This is the simplistic theological endpoint we seemed to be attached to – full of dark/light, good/bad etc.  I guess the possibility in our packed lives for nuanced discourse has been reduced to the point where we just want (and all we can handle is) the headlines.  I’m guilty of it too.  The mental load of picking apart various strands of an argument is exhausting, and we’ve got lives to live that disappear into the rearview mirror faster than we can cope.

But it is SO important that when we discuss nutrition at any level that we’re not caught in that world of opposites, dualistic thing – even so-called ‘pathogenic’ bacteria – those organisms that are blamed for disease, mostly hang out and reside within our guts at some level regardless of our intentions towards them.  And in most known cases, big baddies like E.Coli included, they have a role to play in our HEALTH.  A positive role.  Shock.  Horror.  We know.  This is not the story we’ve been sold.  Even the terror that is Candida Albicans, resides within us to help decompose us when we finally do pass our sell-by date.  So there’s no “getting rid of” about it – all we can ever hope to do is correct or maintain what is a fragile but hopefully stable ecosystem.  Remind you of anything?

Enhancing The Terrain

What we know about the gut that could be called ‘good’ or ‘bad’ is limited by what we can actually see down there.  It’s a black hole most of the time, and even the deepest probing with cameras can only tell us so much.  From what studies have shown we’ve found some things that seem to be nearly universal truths –

  • We know that the pH generally should be at the lower end of the spectrum for good health, that less helpful species of bacteria thrive and become dominant as the pH moves to more alkaline levels.

  • We know that the more diverse the colonies inhabiting our gut, the more balanced our immune system response to all things seems to be.  Exceptions exist in some interesting mouse model studies where they narrow the colonies and managed to cure Crohn’s colitis, but mice are mice.  And we can’t make any literal translations to the human gut without giving much more thought to and gaining greater insight into the mechanisms behind what’s going on here.

  • ​We also know that mucin, the substance secreted by goblet cells that line the intestines, is a vital substance to nourish the bacteria and allow them to set up a permanent and stable residence.

  • We know that there are parts of our gut we don’t want to see much if any bacteria (our stomach, though some like H.Pylori persist there in spite of the best efforts of our stomach acid – interestingly that amazing bacteria has demonstrated health benefits when it exists below a certain threshold, once again giving lie to the good vs evil debate.  Have a read of “An Epidemic Of Absence” by Moises Velasquez-Manoff if you want to really pick into this one.

Food For Thought

So what can we do to influence those big 4 items listed above?  Well, my friend, the answer is abundantly simple.  There are only a few things that you need to help your body get with the program.  Now just to be clear for a second here – this is not solution advice to correct major underlying conditions.  For tailored advice you need to give us a tinkle on the bat phone 0863384752 – and also if there’s stuff underneath there lying undiagnosed and untreated get thee to thy physician.  And we’ll play the support role where possible/appropriate.

Gosh, the segues. Okay, so lowering our pH starts in the stomach.  If we correct stomach acid – i.e. make sure we’re producing enough of it cos, guess what folks, NONE of us are.  Yes yes, I hear you all protest, you FEEL the acid.  And this is the beginning of the biggest misunderstanding in digestive health.  So in our lives, certain things deplete stomach acid – actually most things do

  • Stress

  • Salt

  • Sugar

  • Tea

  • Coffee

  • Red wine

  • Smoking

  • Drinking liquids whilst eating

Now tell me you don’t succumb to even half of that list.  Really…?  Okay, prizes are in the post.  But for the rest of us… we need to do everything we can to support stomach acid production

  • Don’t drink within half an hour of eating (either side)

  • Cut down on the above bad habits

  • Introduce digestive bitters (more in a sec)

…and the biggie

  • Don’t deal with all your shit when there’s food on your plate.  The meal is the only thing.  No to phones, to emails, to anything approaching a hard conversation.  The working lunch should have died with Maggie Thatcher (just FYI I am a complete hypocrite on this one).

What you can do if, like me, you let work infringe upon your eating – take one minute – even 20 seconds – just LOOK at the food, think about eating it, smell it.  This engages a really important hormonal trigger to digestion known as the Cephalic phase, switching on digestive enzyme secretory processes and activating the peristaltic rhythm, and top of our list right now – kickstarting stomach acid production.

On a final emphatic note.  Get into bitters.  These plant compounds that are usually present to fight off bugs and prevent consumption by grazing herds of….humans(…?), are or rather were a significant part of the human diet until the industrialised food takeover.  Thanks to those golden arches et al, the bitter foods that triggered our body to ramp up digestive processes to speed up processing and elimination of what the body perceived as a threat to health, have been basically lost to the modern urban diet.  But with just a simple couple of forkfuls of rocket/rucola/arugula at the start of a meal, you too can benefit from enhanced digestion from the top down.  Literally.  There’s no simpler habit that can do so much for your health.  Or you can get funky and go pick up a bottle of medicinal bitters (not angostura bitters, although they come from the same tradition in plant medicine).  The consumption of bitters is probably the best single thing that I do for my health.  I feel the difference.  Right after the very meal next to taking them.  And they’re actually kinda delicious when you get stuck in.

Want to hear more about how to fix your digestion, embrace a diverse ecology in your gut, enhance mucin production, and more?  Tune in next month and find out!