When I was visiting friends on Toronto a couple of summer ago, I found a great article in Eating Well magazine profiling Jeff Leach, who is one of a growing number of human beings curious about the communities of bacteria which live in our digestive tract.
According to author Gretel H. Schueller, “most of our resident gut bacteria are real workhorses. Some aid in digestion and produce enzymes to break down foods. Others make vitamins, like B12 and K, and other vital compounds, such as the feel-good chemical serotonin. A few help keep the intestinal lining impenetrable. Some gut bacteria help regulate metabolism. And others boost immunity and fight pathogens.”
You can click here to read Gretel’s summaries of many medical studies exploring the astounding connections between the health of the bacteria in our digestive tract and the health of our other organ systems — including circulation, how we absorb nutrients, and our immune response.
I was amazed to learn that, according to Gretel, “gut bacteria produce HUNDREDS of different neurotransmitters, including up to 95 percent of the body’s supply of serotonin, a mood and sleep regulator.”
In fact many researchers have begun referring to our digestive tract as a ‘second brain’ partly because our “vagus nerve is a major communications highway which stretches from the brain to various points about the intestinal lining, and communication travels in BOTH directions.”
For example, one species of Lactobacillus bacteria “sends messages from the small intestine to the brain along this nerve. In a study led by John Cryan, Ph.D., a neuroscientist at University College Cork in Ireland, anxious mice were dosed with a proprietary strain of Lactobacillus rhamnosus.”
Gretel further explains that “these rodents then had lower stress hormone levels and an increase in brain receptors for a neurotransmitter that’s vital in curbing worry, anxiety and fear. THE EFFECTS WERE SIMILAR TO A DOSE OF VALIUM. According to a 2011 study, when mice had this bacteria in their gut, they showed less depressive behavior.”
Aside from my discomfort with human beings experimenting on other living beings, I find this an amazing idea.
Jeff Leach does a lot of HIS experimenting on himself — eating different types of foods (fats, proteins, and carbohydrates) for a 10-12 day period and then analyzing the proportions of bacteria which are stimulated to grow in his digestive tract as a result of what he has been eating.
According to him, plant foods with complex chains of carbohydrate molecules — which include Jerusalem artichokes, leeks, chicory root, beans and asparagus — are particularly healthy for us to eat.
I was so inspired by Jeff’s research and Gretel’s article that I ended up writing a song (and recording it with Doug Hammer on piano at his wonderful studio in Lynn, MA) which you can hear by clicking the play button on the top left of this post.
Antibiotics can be a blessing which wipe out colonies of life-threatening bacteria in different parts of our body.
For example, we may take some to get rid of a lingering sinus infection.
However, we may also be unintentionally upsetting the healthy balance of bacterial colonies in our guts.
This idea reminds me of why I choose to support organic agriculture when I can.
It may be true that the nutritional value of an organically grown leek (not using pesticides and fungicides and petrochemically-derived fertilizers) is similar to a conventionally grown leek (using pesticides and fungicides and petrochemically-derived fertilizers).
However, I am interested NOT ONLY in this leek’s value to my individual health BUT ALSO in the health of the honeybees and hummingbirds and earthworms and opossums and foxes and rabbits and butterflies and bats and insects which live in and/or pass through the fields in which this leek is grown.
And I am interested in the health of the fish and frogs and newts which live in the streams and rivers into which the rain (or irrigated water) will flow from these leek fields.
And I am interested in the health and balance of the astoundingly complicated communities of bacteria which live in the soil in which this leek grows.
And some of these soil bacteria will end up in my digestive tract along with the leek if I do not wash off too much of the dirt before I eat it.
And that, it turns out, is a good thing.
We are all connected via many different, extraordinary, and still-to-be-discovered strands in the web of life.
And every day we can make choices — about what we buy to eat, about what we choose to wear, about how we move from point A to point B (walk? bike? public transportation? car?) that honor our precious inter-related connections with the rest of life on planet earth.
Thank you for reading, listening, and perhaps even humming along.
ps: I found the lovely photos in this post from a site called Pixabay.