Not long after we began this blog, I wrote a short article that outlined our philosophy here about health, titled The Progression of Health. In it I described how health starts with the health of the soil, which leads to the health of plants and thus to the healthfulness of produce, and ultimately to the health of humans. Instead of rehashing the whole article, I would encourage you to read it first, before I expand on it. I also wrote an article emphasizing the importance of the health of the soil,
In the first article, I made an analogy between plants' ability to access nutrients in the soil and our ability to access nutrients in our food. In either case, if nutrients are lacking I mentioned supplementation as an accepted aid, by adding organic fertilizers to the soil, and us taking vitamin and mineral supplements. To expand on that analogy, let's consider how nutrients are accessed in both instances.
Much of plant adsorption of nutrients from the soil is greatly assisted by beneficial microorganisms in the soil, especially fungi. Fungi break down large organic molecules into simpler forms. Fungal hyphae, the hair-like "roots" of the fungus, are much smaller than plant roots and are able to actually take minerals from the soil and put them on (ectomycorrhizae) or in (endomycorrhizae) plant roots. Plant roots also secrete sugars that feed the fungus, because fungi do not have chlorophyll (they aren't green) and can't make their own food. This symbiosis is called a mycorrhizal relationship, or mycorrhizae. In the opening sentence of Paul Stamets' monumental book Mycelium Running (A mycelium is merely a mass of hyphae), he notes that there are more species of microbes (bacteria, fungi, etc.) in a single scoop of soil than there are species of plants and vertebrate animals in all of North America. The quantity and variety of these organisms, and the work they do, are arguably one of the most vital pieces of the puzzle regarding the health of plants, and thus in the "progression of health." That's why organic gardening emphasizes the health of the soil so much. Obviously the mineral content, or fertility, of the soil (for nutrient availability to the plant) is important, as is its tilth, or looseness, (for ease of root penetration and root access to air/oxygen.) But perhaps even more important to the health of the soil is the amount of humus (decomposed organic matter) in the soil. That's a main reason why we add so much compost to the soil. It helps feed all those microorganisms in the soil. And the more beneficial microorganisms there are, the better the plants can adsorb nutrients to ultimately pass on to us. That's also the primary reason for adding biochar to the soil, because it provides the perfect environment for mycorrhizae to thrive.
Just like plants, much of the digestion that takes place in our guts is greatly assisted by beneficial microbes. Healthy adults carry around more microorganisms in their bodies than than they have of "human" cells. It's estimated that there are 40 trillion bacterial cells in the human digestive system and 30 trillion "human" cells in the human body. Not only do these microbes assist in breaking down complex molecules for our digestion, the majority of Vitamin K we have is synthesized by bacteria in our large intestine. (Vitamin K is important in blood clotting. Dietary sources include leafy greens.) We can add to the health of our microbiota by eating unprocessed fermented foods, such as: yogurt, kefir, sauerkraut, tempeh, kimchi, miso, kombucha, pickles, buttermilk, natto, beer and wine. Also, just as we may need to supplement our diet with vitamins and minerals, we can do so with probiotics also, which add healthy microbiota to our intestines.
Plants need microbes; humans need microbes. Both are vital in the progression of health. There are many fascinating parallels in structure and function between us and the rest of the natural world, but this one just jumps out so much, I felt it worth sharing.