Anna Pardoe of Wild Cornwall explores the unexpected links between foraging and the microbiome
We humans, 60% water and 99.999% empty space are not made of much.
We have about 30 trillion cells to call our own, and yet play host to 40 trillion microorganisms, or bacteria, mainly living in and around our guts.
Maintaining the right balance and keeping all these little creatures working harmoniously to deal with the complex process of taking the food you put in and transforming it into energy to survive, to stay warm, to heal, to reproduce and even to recreate, is of phenomenal importance.
We spend much of our day inputting to this, too much of our day, and when this assiduous, hard-pressed workforce is consistently subjected to abuse, deprived of the necessary means to survive and thrive through meagre rationing and deprivation of nutrition, we face what Marx warned us we would face: revolution.
The microbiome is happy to labour for you when its basic needs are met, but when it is systematically abused and deprived it will show you who really wields the power.
The dictatorship of the microbial proletariat is nigh.
Like the ant-devouring fungus transforming it’s host into the six legged undead these trillions of lifeforms vastly outnumber us, and have power over us in ways that science is only just begin to understand.
Not only does the microbiome control our digestion and rule our immune system, it also dictates our happiness.
Most people have heard of serotonin, and know it is responsible for stabilising our emotions, regulating our hormones, sleep patterns and feelings of wellbeing and joy.
What is less well known is that 95% of our serotonin is produced by the bacteria in the gut.
Communicating via the vagus nerve which runs from guts to brain, the microbiome controls our emotional state.
For years we have thought that conditions like anxiety and depression have a causal effect on physical conditions such as IBS, constipation, diarrhoea and bowel problems, but now amazingly it seems like this could be the other way around.
Given that 30-40% of the population will experience bowel problems at some stage in life it is hugely important to understand the magnitude of these findings.
What, for example, is the impact on the great many studies showing correlation between mental wellbeing and physical ailments, with the assumed direction being that the mind controls the body?
In a series of experiments listed in Servan-Schreiber’s Healing Without Frued or Prozac men who agreed with the statement “my wife doesn’t love me” developed three times more ulcers than those who disagreed.
Twice as many women with breast cancer who identify as “lacking in affection” die compared to those who describe themselves as content.
Colds, cystitis and intestinal problems are higher in women who feel “despised” by their husbands.
What if all these people weren’t made sicker by their emotional state, but are demonstrating a mind ravaged by sickness?
Our gut bacteria, which vasty outnumber us, have the power to control our response to the world around us, they dictate our very experience of life, and what joy we take from it. It needs care.
The happiest microbiome is one fuelled with varied, live and natural wholefoods with plenty of water and exposure to wild bacteria.
It is not always easy to make good food choices, and sometimes its hard to know where to start, but time spent outdoors, exposing yourself to a greater diversity of microbes is one easy way to show your gut some love.
Foraging, (as long as you know what you’re doing) is a brilliant way to reconnect with nature and boost the good bacteria in your guts.
Use wild fruits and herbs to broaden your microbial palate as well as your culinary one, and be happy in the knowledge that a handful of blackberries straight from the hedgerow will be fuelling and bolstering your immune system and feeding the microbiome what it so desperately needs in a sterile, much bleached world.
Armfuls of wild garlic from the forest floor may be ensuring not only a delicious meal that evening but also securing in some small way your future pleasure and joy.
Watercress for happiness! Sorrel for the soul!
January is a bleak month, and we all feel the blues at this time of year, but stepping outside and reconnecting with nature has got to be one of the most enjoyable ways of keeping your body functioning at its best.
Certainly better than biscuit dodging.
It may be misty and it may be cold, but there’s still edible gems to be found in the wilderness and if it seems like too much work to pull your boots on and get out there, remember that keeping gut bacteria well fed and balanced is crucial to preventing it from rising up and claiming your soul.