Each of us is made up of approximately 100 trillion cells. Yet amazingly, the number of bacteria inside us far outweighs that number, by a factor of 20. We have twenty times as many bacteria inside us as the 100 trillion cells we are made of. They reside on the surface and in the deep layers of the skin, the saliva and oral mucosa, and in the GI tract. Over 90% of our internal bacteria, much of it intestinal, are friendly. Not just beneficial, but critical to our well-being and our survival. (http://www.wired.com/medtech/health/news/2004/10/65252.)
Our Joint History
This internal population has been around as long or longer than we have. We’ve evolved together, and we could not get along without them. Many of our intestinal bacteria are necessary for breaking down food, digesting it properly, providing vitamins and enzymes through their action, and assimilating the nutrients from it. They keep the inner environment healthy and clean and act as part of our immune system, killing off or crowding out harmful bacteria and other nefarious intruders including fungi, viruses, and yeasts.
Unfortunately, conditions of modern life have made it difficult to maintain the proper balance of good to bad bacteria. Beginning in infancy, the foundational basis for healthy internal bacterial colonization is a regular diet of mother’s milk. But too few babies actually get this foundation. Soured and fermented foods – which strengthen and enrich the internal bacterial matrix – are still part of the cuisine in Asian and Eastern European cultures, but they are much less common in most of the developed world.
Antibacterial Soaps, Antibiotics, and Vaccines
The skin, the body’s first line of defense against invading pathogens, is richly laden with a host of protective bacteria. Though they can withstand periodic washing with traditional soaps, they are killed by antibacterial soap, and these soaps have become the norm. In the past, young children were exposed to a wide array of relatively benign pathogens, and part of their immune development was to become strong through this regular contact. Ironically, antibacterial soaps are unable to kill the truly dangerous organisms like MRSA (methicillin-resistant Staphyloccocus aureus). Our normal protection would be the beneficial or relatively harmless bacteria that would otherwise be living on the surface of the skin and hands – they would crowd out bugs like MRSA. But once these are wiped out, so is our protection. MRSA developed in hospitals – you might say it was incubated in hospitals – and has been on the rise for the past 25 years. Ever more powerful antibiotics work against it only temporarily; then these drugs serve to breed even more resistant bacteria. Moreover, both staph bacteria as well as antibiotic drugs greatly potentize the virulence of fungal infections.
The experience of allowing an illness to take its natural course through symptoms and recovery is how we have traditionally become strengthened by overcoming diseases. But this process is short-circuited when medications are given to suppress symptoms. The drug, rather than the body’s immune cells, kills the pathogen. Then the cleanup that would normally follow, of immune cells and lymph mobilizing the purging and removal of dead bacteria, worn-out cells, and morbid tissue, is also short-circuited. This leaves a gradually increasing toxic load that sooner or later requires major detoxification efforts to clear, without which chronic health issues like arthritis, congestion, inflammation, obesity, tumors, fatigue, and organ damage arise.
Many childhood diseases like measles, mumps, and chicken pox were a normal part of growing up until recent years. With the proliferation of vaccines against them, one more factor in developing native immune strength has been eliminated. And if the vaccines are administered too many at one time or too early in life, they can actively interfere with proper immune growth and development, especially if the adjuvant in the vaccine contains mercury or aluminum, both known neurotoxins.
Growing up in an environment that in many ways is too sterile deprives children of the robustness that has characterized normal childhood since time immemorial. The supplanting of rural life through urbanization, the fear of abduction by strangers, the need for after-school care and organized indoor activities for children of working parents, their being driven or bussed to school instead of walking, and the ubiquitous presence of electronic media to absorb their focus – all have dramatically curtailed the amount of sun exposure available to growing children. So one of the primary sources of immune support – a rich supply of Vitamin D – has been largely eliminated. There has been so much fear-mongering of the potential for cancer from sun exposure that many youngsters never see the light of day without sunscreen.
Because our children have weaker immune systems than in the past, they are vulnerable to many more infections and thus exposed early to far more antibiotic treatment than ever before. Of necessity, these medicines have gotten more powerful. Yet even a single two-week course of treatment with antibiotics can eliminate most or all of the gut bacteria so critical to health. The relationship between intestinal flora and overall resistance to disease is suggested by the direct correlation found by the National Cancer Institute in 2004 between antibiotic use and risk of breast cancer (http://www.cancer.gov/newscenter/pressreleases/2004/antibioticsQA).
Food and Water Supply
Finally, the rise of unsustainable farming methods has resulted in the degradation of health for all populations throughout the industrialized world – though this effect is much less pronounced in places like France, where demand for high quality cuisine has resisted giving way to profits and convenience. This change has taken place through numerous parallel routes. First, the wholesale replacement of natural farming methods with chemical fertilizers, pesticides, herbicides, and fungicides has depleted the soils and destroyed the millions of micro-organisms living in them. Health-conscious people nowadays take probiotic bacteria to support healthy intestinal flora. But before the advent of artificial farming methods in the late 1940’s, people got a plentiful supply of these beneficial bacteria simply by eating every day. The foods grown in humus-rich soils were teeming with microflora. (For this reason, it’s a good idea to include soil-based probiotics in a nutritional supplement plan.)
Factory-farmed livestock are subjected to such abysmal conditions of crowding and inappropriate feed that they live out their short lives in a diseased state, requiring continuous use of antibiotic treatment just to survive to the slaughterhouse. Beef cattle and chickens are fed large amounts of hormones and antibiotics to fatten them quickly for profitability. We, the consumers at the top of the food chain, are exposed to all these recycled drugs in our meat, milk, and eggs. We also get second-hand drugs from groundwater contamination when people flush expired drugs down the toilet, and fecal contamination of crops via spilled runoff into irrigation ditches.
Hybridization of fruits and vegetables over the past century has resulted in produce so much sweeter than traditional foods that people’s tastes have changed radically over time. Especially in America, there is very little tolerance in the typical diet for the traditional tastes of bitter, sour, and pungent – requirements in many other cultures and regional cuisines for gastronomic balance and satisfaction. This means we no longer crave some of the basic tastes that are actually necessary for health, hewing only to the sweet and salty provided in carb-laden, greasy packaging.
Currently, the decline in intestinal health demonstrated in the prevalence of IBS (irritable bowel syndrome), Candida, intestinal parasites, dysbiosis, acid reflux, colitis, obesity, malabsorption syndrome, pancreatitis, Celiac disease, Crohn’s disease, and colorectal and pancreatic cancers, represents a shift from the 90/10 ratio of good to bad bacteria to a complete reversal for many people – 10% beneficial to 90% pathogenic organisms. This alarming trend is mirrored in the standard American diet (‘SAD’), which now consists of 90% processed food and only 10% whole, natural foods. A similar and probably related ratio is the percentage of farmland – approximately 80% – devoted to ‘agribiz’ crops like soy and corn – crops from large-scale corporate farms (agribusiness). They produce grains and soy used both as livestock feed that is alien to the animals’ natural diet, much of it genetically modified, and as harmful GMO food for humans – primarily high-fructose corn syrup (HFCS), soy, and canola used in processed and fast foods (http://www.alternet.org/food/monsantos-gmo-feed-creates-horrific-physical-ailments-animals). Nor can grain-fed livestock provide health-promoting food for humans. This basic state of affairs is responsible, in large part, for the nation’s healthcare cost woes and individual misery. (http://www.healthyeatingresearch.org/images/stories/her_wingspread/6atpfarmbilloverview.pdf.)
What Can We Do About It?
For parents of young children and growing adolescents, the implications are clear. We control what we purchase, prepare, and feed ourselves and our families. We make conscious choices about the healthcare we seek and the form it takes. We are the ultimate arbiters of our children’s activities and lifestyle (though they may be resistant to change at first). A child’s interest in eating wholesome food will be enormously enhanced by having him or her help tend a backyard garden and prepare food from it. One of the wonderful qualities of children is that they can change so quickly, both in their habits and preferences, and in their ability to heal and overcome setbacks.
As adults, we too can change, becoming more conscious of where our food comes from and the life-giving elements it needs to provide for us. Eating foods that are naturally fermented, cultured, soured, or sprouted fosters that lively mix of bacteria inside. Complementing our meals with foods like sunflower sprouts, kombucha tea, crème fraiche, sprouted grains, naturally cured meats and naturally pickled beets, cultured buttermilk and kefir, fermented vegetables like sauerkraut and kimchee, unfiltered apple cider vinegar, green apples, soaked nuts, raw cheeses and butters, and bitter herbs and lettuces: all will support health and enable us to re-establish vibrant taste buds. Buying (or growing!) local organic produce, dairy from pasture-grazed lands, eggs from truly free-range (pastured) chickens, wild oil-rich fish, and meat from grass-fed animals, ensures the highest nutritional value and the most humane conditions for the animals who give their lives to feed us. It will also help bring about recovery of farmland and topsoil from the devastation of 75 years of toxic farming methods. Supporting local farmers’ markets brings us closer to the land and our connection to the earth. The food is sold within hours of being harvested, so its freshness offers more intensity of taste, vitality, and life force than supermarket produce. Convenience food may seem cheaper, but not in the toll it takes on our health, the animals, and the planet we all share.