Saturday, September 2, 2017
Prebiotics, Probiotics, Compost and Consciousness. How we really are what we eat.
Nearly all of us have heard how our bodies are made up of more than 30 trillion cells. What we may not know is that our bodies are home to nearly ten times that amount of microorganisms. These are non-human entities, sometimes referred to as our 'microbiome,' and they consist primarily of viruses, yeasts, fungi and bacteria. Though some may be pathogenic, we could not survive without the vast majority of them. They are a part of who we are, with most of them being bacteria. They live on our skin and in our intestines and are responsible for breaking down our food so we can assimilate it. Known as probiotics they are considered "helpful," because they keep us healthy. I've heard our gut tracts likened to a jungle, full of a wide variety of life forms all acting together in harmony to create the whole.
I have a little jungle in my backyard too. We have thirty different types of trees growing around our home. Years ago because of the sheer quantity of leaves, I learned from a friend how to make compost from them using the Rudolf Steiner method. To do this you first gather quite a few very specific types of plant material including: white oak leaves, chamomile plants, valerian roots, mustard stalks, pine needles, sea weed, oat straw, yarrow leaves, dandelion leaves, and wood ash. Apparently, each of these breaks down into varying strains of bacteria, fungus, yeasts and molds when layered onto the heap with some native soil and cow or horse manure. These microbes will then quickly convert all of your garden waste into rich soil full of nutrients that will support plant growth.
Once you've created this original compost, it becomes a great way to process garden debris because you don't have to stir or turn it. Instead you just place your varying garden leaves in layers, scattering a few shovelfuls of your original compost in between each layer. Then spray it with a little water, cover it, and within two or three months it has completely broken down and is ready to use. It will look just like a pile of leaves on top, but if you dig into it, 'voila,' rich new compost awaits you. And, your new compost now contains all of the bacteria that was present in your old compost and it can now be used to "seed" all subsequent compost piles. Scattering this compost on your flower beds or around your trees is just like giving your garden a healthy dose of probiotics.
Probiotics do for our digestion the same thing that my compost does for my garden leaves. These bacteria help us to break down our food into rich nutrition that we can easily assimilate. Referred to as "friendly bacteria," they are found naturally occurring in a variety of fermented foods like kimchi, sauerkraut, tempeh, pickles, kefir and yogurt. There is a reason why so many native cultures enjoy these "weird-tasting" fermented foods. They keep our digestive tracts happy.
Prebiotics are the fibers from plant based foods that we are unable to digest, but that feed the "friendly bacteria" in our intestines. As our bacteria break them down, the end products nourish our colon cells creating better health in our systems. Some of these prebiotics break down into fatty acids that improve our metabolic health. Commonly recommended prebiotic foods include: dandelion greens, oats, seaweed, chicory root, burdock root, apples, green bananas, nectarines, flax seeds, barley grass, asparagus, onions, leeks and garlic, some of which are the same plants that I used in creating my compost for the garden.
Our beneficial bacteria is originally transferred to us while we are growing in our mother's womb. We swallow them and we also take them in through our mouths during natural childbirth. Breast feeding further transfers even more beneficial bacteria into our systems. They then make their homes in our digestive tracts and in various other areas of our bodies. These bacteria are a natural part of who we are and we have shared our lives with them since the dawn of humanity. Just like we can't live without them, they can't live without us. And once we've got them, they can thrive in our intestines for a long, long time, hopefully from birth to death, busy at their friendly little jobs of tending to our health and breaking down our food for us so we can absorb it as nutrition.
However, a problem arises when we take large amounts of antibiotics or use them repeatedly, or consume them regularly in the flesh foods of animals that are routinely treated with antibiotics, such as restaurant meats, farmed fish, or commercial eggs and dairy products. Typically, a single course of antibiotics won't destroy entirely the whole scope of our variety of friendly bacteria, but because they are non-selective in killing bacteria, even small amounts of antibiotics taken over time can seriously compromise our intestinal flora leaving our internal jungle like one that has been clear-cut. When this happens we start to see all of those very serious digestive problems, like irritable bowel, colitis and Crohn's disease, where people can have a very hard time taking in nutrition. This is why a strictly raw vegan diet has such a huge success rate for healing these disturbances. The variety of whole, fresh, raw plant foods, fermenting in our intestines helps us to repopulate the jungle.
Some time ago, I had the very good fortune to travel to New Zealand. New Zealand is a beautiful country that sustains itself in the world economy by exporting goods. One of the products that New Zealand supplies is lumber. While visiting there I saw many acres of pine trees, all planted in rows. Though these looked like fairly healthy forests, they were not at all like the forests that nature creates. A natural forest is teaming with wildlife and though there may be a predominance of one type of tree, there are many other types of plants and even other trees all growing together, creating a vast cacophony of wildness. This is not the case in a mono-crop of trees planted for timber harvest. The soil with mono-cropped forestry can only sustain two or three harvests of trees before it becomes completely devoid of nutrients and the trees are unable to survive there. And though there may be a few varieties of birds living in a mono-crop forest and perhaps a couple of different species of animals, mono-culture is unable to sustain a wide variety of life.
Sadly the same thing can happen in our gut tracts. I've heard it said and I think it's true, that we Americans tend to eat the same ten or fifteen foods over and over again. And, the food chemists, who are hired by most of the manufacturers of processed foods, know exactly which foods or combinations of food-like chemicals or additives will trigger our addictions with the result that we come back for them again and again. They include these substances in their recipes so we will regularly crave them and become the good 'consumers' that these manufacturers would like us to be. The sad thing is that many of these ingredients can erode our good health because they are not only wholly deficient in pre and probiotics, but they also lack much of the nutrition that we need to regenerate our tissues. And they tend to pack on the pounds, which slow us down, not only physically, but mentally as well.
Most would agree that preventing disease is easier than reversing it and when we suffer from a diet deficient in nutrition and characterized by "junk foods," we tend to die very slowly, with a long spiral down into poor health where we become heavily dependent on medical treatments and drugs. Whereas, when we have a good diet, rich with nutrition and living foods, we are caring for our health and we become less likely to succumb to the management of disease. The difference between these two is what we call "quality of life."
When I was in my early twenties, I would often go to visit some very good friends of mine. They had a little daughter and lived together in a small, high desert town. Every day, at 3:30pm, they'd all three walk down to the corner market to pick up what they wanted for dinner along with their groceries for the following day. This always included a little bit of chocolate which they enjoyed together for desert after dinner. Their little girl would be with them as they circumambulated around the store. They'd start in the produce section, come round past the dairy, slip down an isle or two, pass by the meats and then progress to the check out counter. This was where the fireworks would begin, right there at the candy counter. Their little girl would start with begging and progress quickly to whining and crying. Then, she'd dramatically throw herself down on the floor, right on her belly and start kicking and screaming and pounding her fists into the floor. It was such a regular scene that everyone just let her have her tantrum, went about their business and paid for their groceries. Then her parents would patiently scoop her up and carry her home.
As their daughter matured, those tantrums passed, but I often remembered that raw demonstration of craving in action, over the subsequent years, as my own desires for the candies at the check-out counter would routinely rise up to my awareness. It almost felt to me like there were hundreds, if not billions, of tiny little voices that were inside of me saying, "Wait a minute, we're starving in here and we NEED that chocolate! Don't you dare leave this store without giving us our sugar fix." And guess what, that was exactly what was happening.
We can cultivate all kinds of bacteria in our gut tracts, the good, the bad and the ugly. The friendly flora, the healthy bacteria, helps us to digest our good nutrient rich foods, like fruits and vegetables. The bad bacteria thrives on refined carbohydrates like sugar, and white flour, candies, pasta, meats, eggs, dairy products and the likes. When these bacterial and yeast populations become overly large, they cry out to be fed, regularly. Do you remember that old childhood chant, "I scream, you scream, we all scream for ice cream?" I do, and that is exactly what is happening. And we think it's us, our human cells and conscious awareness that are screaming. But, really, it's the conscious awareness of the unhealthy bacteria that is influencing our minds and demanding to be fed. This can happen with intestinal parasites too. They all want to be fed and they can't thrive on kale.
So, this brings us to the topic of consciousness and the infamous "Twinkie Defense." Perhaps you recall the terrible murder of Supervisor Harvey Milk and Mayor George Moscone by Dan White in San Francisco in 1978. During the following trial Dan White's defense attorney successfully argued that his client was mentally impaired, just short of insanity, and was thus compelled into a murderous state, due to his over-consumption of sugar laden Twinkies. Grant it, this is a very extreme case, but I think my point can be taken. Because, not only our health, but our moods and emotions are absolutely affected by what we eat. Our actions and behaviors are affected too.
Sometime ago, I wrote a blog here that I called, "No Food Cravings. Wow!" At the time I had started eating a small amount of homemade Kimchi every day with my husband After about a week of this we were both astounded by how we could walk into a grocery store and pass by the fresh baked crusty french breads, the wine, the cookies and cakes, even the pizza rich with gooey melted cheese, And, Not, Even, Notice, It. Instead, absolute peace of mind prevailed. We felt no pull, no addictive tendencies at all. In fact we didn't even notice it until we were out of the store. And that is one of the surest symptoms of beautiful health, isn't it? You don't even notice it when you have it. Your mind is clear and you are free to be who you are and do what you love.
So there's the truth of it all. We really are what we eat.