A few weeks ago I published an article about Traditional Chinese Medicine and the Origin of Scientific Thought. Part of its emphasis was discussing Five Element Theory which marked the beginning of scientific medicine and a departure from Shamanism. The following is a discussion of the interconnected systems of soil biodiversity, plant ecology, gut microbiology, and human health and evolution.
In Traditional Chinese Medicine, each of the Five Elements, fire, Earth, metal, water, and wood “symbolize five different inherent qualities and states of natural phenomena” including five movements and five phases in the cycle of the seasons. People are often stumped by the fact that there are four seasons but five elements. Being the source of all life on this planet, Earth was the fifth, and viewed as the source of all the other elements.
The ancient Chinese scholars identified the digestive system to be an extension of and our connection to the Earth. After all, it is where the elements of Earth are taken in as food and are transformed into a living being.
The bacteria and fungi present in every square millimeter of soil ultimately act as the digestive system or Earth element for plants. They fix nitrogen and break down soil nutrients and minerals into forms that can be taken up by the plants’ roots. When we eat plants, we also take in some of the bacteria and fungi present in the soil. These become part of the incredibly complex ecosystem of the gut.
Each and every organism present in digestive system is a reflection of the organisms present in the soil. Each one creates its own unique signals and immune responses that literally determine our state of being on EVERY level.
We are already aware of the anti-inflammatory and immune boosting benefits of acidophilus and bifidus which are being marketed in several yogurt products. A more interesting example of this appeared in the journal, Neuroscience, in May of 2007. Researchers found that the presence of the bacteria Mycobacterium vaccae (which is common in soil and not pathogenic to humans) created an immune response that stimulated serotonin sensitivity in the certain parts of the brain. A couple of things to take note of here: First, not all immune responses are bad. They are simply signals. Secondly, this bacteria’s presence in the gut results in actual behavioral modifications via serotonin which has a happy, calming effect. Further investigation suggested that this is one reason gardening makes us happy.
Another example is the pathogenic fungus, Rhizopus arrhizus. This fungus is also common in the soil and in trace amounts in our digestive tract. Like an ecosystem, the richer and more diverse, the more resilient. As long as our digestive ecosystem is diverse and healthy this fungus remains at low, non-threatening levels and actually serves many beneficial biologic functions. For example, if you eat anything from the yam family this fungus converts some of the phytochemicals it into the hormone progesterone which is then taken up into the blood via the lymphatic system. It’s also used very effectively in German Biologic Medicine as a low-dose suppository to stimulate the body to break up its own blood clots and vascular congestion.
A broader example is the influence of Firmicutes and Bacteroidetes and weight gain in humans. An article that appeared in Nature demonstrated a strong correlation between a low level of Bacteroidetes and obesity. Conversely, thinner people had higher levels of Firmicutes. Further research showed that these bacteria directly alter carbohydrate metabolism in the digestive system.
Ultimately the bacteria in the soil determine what types plants can establish. However, after a plant establishes itself, it creates its own local pathogen controls by promoting rhizobacteria. When we eat plants and their roots the immunity from the rhizobacteria are passed on to our own digestive systems. From the soil, to the plant, to our own digestive system and back again. They are not separate. They are one system. The foods we eat have a direct impact on the preponderance of the various bacteria and fungi present in our gut. This, in turn, determines the signals and immune system responses. As a very simple example, too much sugar results in an overgrowth of some fungi like candida albicans. (more information on this in the future)
The emerging field of gut microbiology has incredible potential for treating disease. However, after all the research is done, I believe the ultimate conclusion will be that eating food grown in healthy soil with extensive biodiversity will manifest as a healthy, evolving human community. With our current technology we have only been able to culture between 0.1 and 1% of the soil fungi and bacteria. The rest is completely unknown to us.
It is important to consider the impact of microbial deprivation (via the use of bacteriocides, fungicides, irradiation, triple washing and chlorination of our food and water) on the human health and evolution. There is a growing body of evidence that suggests the immune system problems we are seeing in the younger generations are a result of insufficient bacterial and viral exposure. Furthermore, because plants determine the presence of specific bacteria, it’s important to consider the impact that monocultures have on soil biodiversity and how this affects human health.by