This is an excerpt from my book, “How to Stop Colds, Allergies & More.”
In 2003 I was introduced to the Soil Food Web at a native plant conference. For most of my life, gardening organically just meant using compost and mulch, and avoiding poisons and chemicals. But here on a big screen was the whole story of what is going on beneath our feet—how a teaspoon of healthy soil is full of millions of microbes, including bacteria, fungi, and other critters that have a synergistic relationship with the plants and provide nutrients in exchange for the sugars that plants make through photosynthesis. Everything eats something else, not all nematodes are bad, microbes also live inside the plants, and so forth.
We have always been told that plants don’t know the difference between natural or synthetic fertilizers, as if that somehow justifies the lifeless soils across our country. For more information about real soil, see the Soil Biology Primer, available through the online store of the Soil and Water Conservation Service.
Well, guess what, folks? The same applies to us! Only about 10% of the cells in our body are of human origin. The rest are bacteria, fungi, and who knows what else. While they represent far less than 90% of our weight, the roles they play in our existence are still being discovered and may never be fully understood. I know this might be shocking, if you have not heard it before–but just ask any microbiologist.
The next question is, what have we been doing to the fungus among us, not to mention the bacteria? Well, let’s see. Antibiotics kill bacteria, not all bacteria are bad, and the details of our synergistic existence are still being discovered.
For example, H. pylori was linked with stomach ulcers; so it has been widely eradicated with antibiotics. Now we are learning that it also has beneficial uses, like assisting hormones in the stomach that tell us when we are full. Could that be a little clue to some of our obesity problems? It also is believed to have a role in preventing esophageal cancer, asthma, and other conditions. H. pylori is just one of many hundreds of species of bacteria that live in our gastrointestinal tract, most of which have not yet been identified, not to mention the numerous microbes that occupy other parts of our bodies.
In studying the soil food web, I learned that trees and perennials like fungi-dominated soils, while vegetables, annuals, and grasses prefer more bacteria. What do antibiotics do for the balance of fungi and bacteria in our bodies? I just know that antibiotics can have a negative effect on our digestion and are not appropriate for most chronic sinus infections, as mentioned above.
According to several health newsletters which I have received recently, our metabolic pathways are a series of chemical reactions our bodies perform to stay alive. Since the role that microbes play in our metabolic pathways is still unfolding, we really don’t know how many species of microbes may be critical to our existence. We can expect to hear a lot more about new discoveries regarding invisible friends and foes.
We have become almost obsessed with sterilizing our floors, hands, and even babies. Now we are learning that some of the healthiest children have been inoculated through mother’s milk, gradual introduction to grass and soil, etc. It is time to realize that not all bacteria are bad, and some are even beneficial. Antibacterial products are not the answer for everything.
Part 2 will include comments on an article by Dr. Joseph Mercola about fermenting your own vegetables and Part 3 will contain my recipe for the above photo.
I would like to hear your comments about fermenting vegetables.
This is a short paper packed with information about the soil food web in terms of certain types of microbial participants, along with quite a few (usually hidden) how-to’s. Included in there is quite a bit about lactobacillus, which is of interest to you for pickling purposes. It is one of our very best friends, basically.
I was trying to find the source article where I read the following but couldn’t, so don’t quote me on this but I seem to remember the following: about 40% of bacteria are neutral, about 20% are harmful and about 40% are beneficial (to living organisms like us). The neutral ones can go either way, so if you get a healthy population of favorable ones going, they will join in, meaning that basically you have an 80% favorable mix which is good for cultivation as well as various types of fermentation.
I also find it interesting that we are ‘programmed’ to like sweet flavours and this is what yeasts feed on, then they produce so much acid that they can no longer function and indeed preserve what is there (wine, sauerkraut etc.). So the sugar/sweet taste is a living signal that they are ready to go into germination/fruition; not only do we like to eat things then, but so also do the microbes. Perhaps our desire for the sweet things comes from them (they inside us), not us? And perhaps peoples’ cravings for the wrong foods is just a perversion of natural healthy appetites which are unfulfilled because of the low nutrient density of modern food, be it processed or even fresh produce from the supermarket. We crave sugars, alcohols etc. because we are not getting their equivalents in our diet. Many addictions and allergy conditions, therefore – and this is what the Gerson Institute says and I suspect they are right – are actually symptoms of malnutrition, and once you start to eat a nutrient-dense diet, they go away.
I am not a heavy drinker but a regular one. Recently I started juicing a lot of vegetables, more out of curiosity than anything else, and found to my surprise that from Day One I had no desire whatsoever for my customary evening glass or two of (home brewed) wine. And when I have less of these nutrition-packed juices, I find myself desiring sweets, starches and, yes, alcoholic drinks. If we eat more probiotically alive foods (either fresh produce grown in living soils or fermented produce), probably no end of problems will be solved. Just as healthy plants have few pest or other problems because part of being healthy is having vigorous immune systems which repel decay and disease naturally. The pest are akin to the 20% of unfavourable bacteria and yeasts, or are part of the death cycle, if you will. When our bodies are no longer living, these participants in the Great Dance of life kick up their heels and chow down on us. But whilst we are alive, such molds and yeasts etc. should be naturally repelled. When we are healthy that is….
That’s an interesting paper on indigenous microbes. There are many angles to this and so many ways the information can be used to improve our gardening efforts and our own health. I like your description of the balance of good, bad and neutral bacteria. I assume there are also balances between bacteria, viruses, and fungi which work to our benefit. I have wondered about the fact that vegetable ferments as well as dairy ferments are lacto bacilli and whether there are other important microbes among the thousands of species that we should be encouraging. But I guess that if the lacto bacilli are capable of leading the pack, I don’t need to concern myself with their relationships.
It is fascinating to read some of the information that is coming out about how groups of microbes can actually think as one entity and control processes in our body. This is no time to be germaphobic, since we can’t possibly exist without them.
Did you ever read The Secret Life of Plants? I wonder now if some of those amazing observations could have been caused by microbes on the plant, rather than the plant itself?
The acre of soil around our house is fairly sandy and deficient in most minerals needed for growing nutrient-dense food. I added compost and manure for years without seeing much benefit because our climate is so warm that most of it breaks down quickly. I tried seeding white clover in several sunny areas, but none of it ever came up. Then when I decided to dispose of a quart of raw milk that was getting sour, I diluted it with water and sprayed it on several spots as a fertilizer, thinking it might green up some grass or weeds for the hens. The next year I discovered several kinds of clover appearing from nowhere and realized they were only in the areas I had sprayed with milk. Since milk can’t carry any clover seed, I could only assume that the bacteria in the milk was conducive to growing seed that was already in the ground. Some of the clover reseeded, but it is dwindling away. I guess it is time for more milk.
Interesting! Well, what is milk? It is organically processed grass juice, processed both by enzymes and fermentation. So the fermenting cultures are part of the life cycle of those grasses, just as those similar cultures are used in germination processes (which is why natural sourdough is better because it uses cultures that grew on the grain being processed/fermented/baked).
So milk really comes from plant leaves and sap and fibre, but milk also contains, as well as attracts, certain types of microbes, i.e. microbes which themselves therefore are attuned to grasses and suchlike. AND they are good for us, because we are ‘programmed’ to eat such things given we live in this world together with them.
The more you tune into the life principle (microbes, insects, worms, plants, animals, ourselves etc.) but right now I find tuning into soil life and plants deeply satisfying. And it goes very well when listening to Beethoven concertos and Mozart, which is my current other passion too (whilst working).
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