Just over a year ago, I had the opportunity to meet Patrick Holden. He spoke about the interconnectivity of the health of our soils and our inner biome, the digestive tract. It was the first time I heard anyone articulate the thread between the two systems, but it instantly made sense to me. Healthy soils, healthy guts. Soils that are depleted are unable to grow plants resistant to pests or nutritionally rich- and digestive tracts that are overwhelmed by chemicals and antibiotics are unable to process nutrients properly from food.
Since that day, I have been increasingly seeing media coverage on this topic and now, on this Earth Day, it feels like it is everywhere. The New Yorker recently published an extensive article on the phenomena of fecal implants and how they help people who suffer from autoimmune diseases, and NPR just today wrote about a tribe in Ecuador that has never taken antibiotics and has 50% more flora in their guts than a typical American- and far less digestive sensitivities.
This answers, in part, a question that plagued me when I first returned from Paris. Why were so many more children in the US sensitive to gluten? It is barely a blip on the radar in France, but gluten free is everywhere in this country. Most likely this is due to a combination of factors. One is that the wheat planted in France is never GMO wheat (it’s illegal) and the soils, in general, are healthier due to less use of pesticides.
Could the quality of wheat used in France be a factor in its digestibility?
Secondly, antibiotics are prescribed less to both animals and young children.
Could the health of our intestinal flora be a factor? Are some of the gut microbes that are adapted to feed off gluten reduced by antibiotic use to such an extent that digesting it becomes difficult? Instead of cutting out gluten, should we be adding bacteria to our guts?
Lastly, I never saw hand sanitizer in France, and I observed a much higher tolerance in general for “dirt”. In this country, we steam, sanitize, and bleach the heck out of our houses and clothes. Some of the microbes that are beneficial in our gut come from contact with dirt. Are we letting our children play enough in the mud? Are we cleaning away good bacteria?
(I will be spending a month on a farm this summer, and I’m going to encourage my kids to get as dirty as possible!)
There are no easy answers, but certainly this is a movement that is going to change the way we think about the health of our planet and our bodies. The chemicals we use to kill things have their place (the tribe that was studied in Ecuador has a very high infant mortality rate, so not all dirt is good dirt) but there is a balance that is missing. Our soils are too stripped, our digestive tracts too clean, and we are paying the price in increased allergies, sensitivities, and autoimmune disorders.
If you want to shift your own biome, there are two things you can immediately try at home. The first is to buy organic whenever you can possibly afford to. I always say if you buy less food, and waste none of it, you can afford more organic food. Buying organic not only protects your inner biome by introducing less chemicals to it- it also protects the outer biome by supporting farmers who care more about soil conservation than traditional agribusiness does.
The second thing is even easier. Eat more fermented foods! It’s so simple to make a homemade fermented vegetable. My favorites are carrots, cauliflower, and cabbage. Below is a delicious recipe to try at home, as well as a link to Patrick Holden’s writing on this subject. His writing is far more eloquent and scientifically sound than my own; I highly recommend you read what he has to say.
Lacto-Fermented Mixed Pickles
3 tablespoons sea salt, pickling salt, or kosher salt (see Recipe Notes)
1 quart water (see Recipe Notes)
1 cup small cauliflower florets
1 cup carrot chunks or slices
1 cup red bell pepper chunks or slices
1 clove garlic, smashed and peeled
1 bay leaf
1/2 teaspoon coriander seeds
1/4 teaspoon black peppercorns
1-2 grape leaves (optional, to help keep pickles crisp)
Combine salt and water in a measuring cup and stir until the salt is dissolved. (You can heat the water first to make the salt easier to dissolve, but it’s not necessary. Let it come to room temperature before making the pickles.)
Place the remaining ingredients in a very clean, large jar (a half-gallon mason jar works well). Pour the salt water over the vegetables, leaving at least 1 inch of headspace at the top of the jar. If necessary, add more water to cover the vegetables. (Optionally, place a small bowl or jar on top of the vegetables to hold them under the brine.)
Cover the jar tightly and let it stand at room temperature. About once a day, open the jar to taste the pickles and release gases produced during fermentation. If any mold or scum has formed on the top, simply skim it off. (If using a jar fitted with an airlock, you don’t need to “burp” it; just open occasionally to taste.)
When pickles taste to your liking, transfer the jar to the refrigerator. They will continue to ferment very slowly, but cold storage will largely halt fermentation. As a fermented food, these pickles will last for quite some time, at least a month or longer.
Salt: Use salt that is free of iodine and/or anti-caking agents, which can inhibit fermentation.
Water: Chlorinated water can inhibit fermentation, so use spring, distilled, or filtered water if you can. It is also recommended to rinse the vegetables in un-chlorinated water rather than tap water.