My senior year of college I was granted the opportunity to take a microbiome senior seminar. The class at first seemed a bit dry, but I soon learned to appreciate the class for what it was based on the new information being provided to me. Prior to taking the course, I knew almost nothing about the human microbiome besides that there were some good bacteria in our intestines that helped breakdown various foods and fight off infection(s).
It was through this class that I was introduced to various ideas and studies going on in regards to both human microbiomes and other species. There are various beneficial and biologically significant microbiomes with some studies suggesting that a lot of the health issues we have in modern times are actually the based around our microbiome. I will go on about this in the first paragraph before diving into the meat and potatoes of the article, but just wanted to give some preface.
It was during this same year that I was practicing what I called “ethical vegetarianism”. I defined this dietary choice as an effort to only eat meat I harvested/caught or that were raised locally/ethically, everything else was vegetables, fruit, eggs, dairy, and tubers. In the end of it all you can guess that a busy college student didn’t have much time to go out and hunt or fish so I ended up eating a mostly plant based diet.
I did notice that I had lost a little weight and felt like I was seeing some positive impacts from the diet change. I felt as though I was less bloated and that my asthma/allergies were almost gone. I stopped taking my allergy/asthma medicine for the entire year, though this could have been due the environment I was living in being cleaner than my prior living conditions.
I always wondered if the reason why my chronic allergies and asthma were not an issue was because of my diet/gut microbiome. With knowledge from my course that I obtained via lecture and the required reading titled, I Contain Multitudes: The Microbes Within Us and a Grander View of Life, by Ed Yong, I was beginning to feel my mind open to new ideas and hypothesis.
This course was the start of the rabbit hole from which I fell. It is what inspired me to become so infatuated with my diet and the things that I choose to ingest within my body. If you have taken a few rounds of antibiotics or lost your appendix, you may want to consider getting into gardening and moving toward incorporating a greater diversity of foods as to help make up for the loss of life within your intestines.
As a gardener and a former vegetarian I was interested to read about how gardeners had slightly higher diversity in gut bacteria when compared to non-gardeners, but I will go into this later. Here I will explain why gut health is important as well as the 3 reasons why gardeners have a better gut microbiome.
1. Why Gut Health is Important
First, I would like to explain why you should even care about your gut health. Despite what we as humans in the modern era like to think, we are not sterile creatures. Our bodies have coevolved with various species of bacteria for hundreds of thousands of years. Bacteria are present on our skin, in our hair, eyes, teeth, gut, and more. This is not something to fear though as a majority of these bacteria are either neutral (have no direct impact) or beneficial bacteria.
Many species of bacteria actually help us breakdown various types of foods that our bodies struggle with naturally, which release more nutrients for us to be absorbed in the intestines. A lot of these bacteria also help prevent infection from malicious bacteria species and fight to keep you (the host) alive. Our bodies are an ecosystem.
There is beginning to be some new information coming out about how the bacteria we are exposed to as children and how the types of food we eat may also impact the genes we express later in life. This is all new research, but it is compelling. Bacterial diversity or lack thereof could be the reason that we are seeing an increase in autoimmune diseases such as lupus, type 1 diabetes, rheumatoid arthritis, and multiple sclerosis. It is also seen to be linked to some chronic diseases such as asthma, eczema, and more.
Some studies are showing a significantly lower risk of asthma in Amish communities when compared to Hutterite communities despite similar ancestry and lifestyles. They associate this with the use of traditional farming methods (small scale, without machinery) and the exposure of a diverse array of microbes via their lifestyle and the food they consume (crops/livestock)
2. Higher Fiber Intake
As observed within the Amish communities, it seems that a traditional agricultural environment and traditional agriculture based diet is a common factor for a more diverse microbiome. It takes no rocket scientist to observe that gardeners also eat a lot of fresh produce from their garden. Gardening allows people to grow various varies of food that may not be available in high abundance or quality in local grocery stores or markets. Price could also be a variable as a lot of organic, fresh produce is expensive and often too expensive for various economic classes to afford in a weekly occurrence.
As a gardener I can say that I enjoyed my fair share of snow peas, carrots, radishes, and romaine lettuce from the garden last year. I also had an abundance of tomatoes, kale, and collard greens. It shocked me how easy it was to grow leafy greens and salad greens. Once they are established you should have no issues getting a summer worth of leafy greens from a plant or two, but it depends on how much you eat and how big your family is.
There are many other studies on the web showing a high correlation of plant based, natural/raw diets/lifestyles having a higher correlation for more diverse gut microbiomes due to the greater amount of fiber. This has been known for some time, but I do encourage you to look into it if you are curious.
While doing my own research on the subject for this blog I looked into this Nature paper titled, Fecal and soil microbiota composition of gardening and non-gardening families, by Marina D. Brown, et al. Within the paper they discuss how there is slim, but observable amount of evidence that shows gardeners do have a higher diversity of gut microbiome species when compared to the control group. They based this assessment on a few variables/factors with fiber intake being one of them.
3. Greater Exposure to the Dirt
Another variable mentioned in the study that I referenced in the last paragraph was soil exposure. Within the study the groups sent in fecal samples before the peak of gardening season (April) and during the peak of the gardening season (August). Along with the soil samples, participants were required to also send in some of the soil from their garden. The reasoning for this was so that the researchers could use DNA sequencing to analyze the various bacteria species found in the soil and pinpoint them to any bacteria that would be found in the participant’s feces.
It would be assumed that a gardener undoubtable eats a degree of dirt. Dirt gets splashed up on plants via watering, wind, and the rain, but we as gardeners also spend a considerable amount of time pulling weeds and moving dirt, which most likely leads to some form on either inhalation or consumption of soil matter. Obviously, if you eat any root vegetable such as carrots, beets, radishes, or any other form of tuberous starch like sweet potatoes, regular potatoes, or Jerusalem artichokes (sunchokes) then it is safe to assume that you have eaten a degree of dirt via the skin of these vegetables.
Despite common belief, dirt/soil actually holds a large amount of living organisms. This is why I always encourage gardeners and people who work with the land to view the soil as a living entity. The more diverse the bacteria in the soil, the higher the soil health, which in the end lead to you also having a more diverse microbiome.
4. Higher Sun Exposure
Aside from the more expected variables, I wanted to throw a more “outside the box” variable into this blog. As we all know gardeners spend a lot of time out in their garden weeding, planting seeds, watering, and more. During their time out in the garden they are exposed to a lot of various elements, especially the sun. Though it may seem farfetched at first glance, sun exposure and vitamin D natural vitamin D production plays a role in a healthy gut microbiome. Vitamin D helps upkeep our mucosal layer in good standing, which helps prevent infection.
The hyperlink above is a study written by Hai Pham, et al. (titled, The effect of vitamin D supplementation on the gut microbiome in older Australians – Results from analyses of the D-Health Trial) which writes on how supplementation of vitamin D can impact the gut microbiome as it was observed that mice with a deficiency in the vitamin had more unwanted populations/species of bacteria associated with them. It is an interesting research topic. There seems to be a lot of great information coming out in the field in regards to both the human microbiome and nutrition. I wish I had this information when I was a child and teen as I think it would have made me think again when eating excess hyper processed snacks and sweets.
With the new research being done in the field of human health and microbiology, I am excited to see what else we may discover as scientists dive into the more intricate research topics. I hope to continue to fortify my microbiome by continuing to spend a lot of my time outside in the grass and continue to garden and create a life centered on the environment/traditional living. I speculate that many of my own personal health issues may be caused by my own lack of bacteria diversity as a child.
I hope to take matters into my own hands and promote great literature/research information to those who may not know or have the tools to properly assess complex topics. Don’t get me wrong, modern medicine is great at isolating issues and cutting out the problem quick, but it is very human like in the sense that it is short sighted and comes with its share of consequences. Many doctors are unaware of updated protocols and don’t keep up with new research/literature unless they are required to. You, the patient must advocate for your own health and be proactive with your efforts even if it means changing doctors or going to a specialist in another city. Often many of our issues can be avoided or solved on our own with proper lifestyle change/improvement.
If I have children in the future, I hope that I am able to instill in them that the natural world requires us to be wild and connected to the umbilical cord of the Earth. Each time that we try to separate ourselves and remove all reflation we are quickly punished and reminded why things were created the way they were originally and that everything is connected.
Bender, Eric. “Could a Bacteria-Stuffed Pill Cure Autoimmune Diseases?” Nature News, Nature Publishing Group, 29 Jan. 2020, www.nature.com/articles/d41586-020-00197-z#:~:text=Scientists%20have%20now%20implicated%20the,rheumatoid%20arthritis%20and%20multiple%20sclerosis.
Brown, Marina D., et al. “Fecal and Soil Microbiota Composition of Gardening and Non-Gardening Families.” Nature News, Nature Publishing Group, 31 Jan. 2022, www.nature.com/articles/s41598-022-05387-5#citeas.
Pham, Hai, et al. “The Effect of Vitamin D Supplementation on the Gut Microbiome in Older Australians – Results from Analyses of the D-Health Trial.” The Effect of Vitamin D Supplementation on the Gut Microbiome in Older Australians – Results from Analyses of the D-Health Trial, U.S. National Library of Medicine, 7 June 2023, www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC10251798/#:~:text=Vitamin%20D%20also%20helps%20maintain,invasion%20of%20pathogenic%20bacterial%20species.
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