Wednesday, April 2, 2014

The soil of life

The secret is in the soil.

Soil health – comparing the soil of our planet with the “soil” in our body.

When I was lecturing at the University of Western Cape, I used the analogy of soil to show the importance of prebiotics and probiotics.  In the human body, we know how important bacteria are in keeping us healthy. (Actually our bacteria consist of many different types of micro-organism, collectively known as microbiota, not just bacteria.) What many of us don’t know is that bacteria in the soil are just as important, and this article is about your health as well as the health of the soil in your garden or on your farm.

Your digestive tract.

We are accustomed to being given probiotics every time the doctor prescribes an antibiotic. Antibiotics wipe out our bacteria, and the probiotics help replenish the good bacteria. They say that we have more bacteria in our bodies than there are stars in the universe or cells in our body. We need the balance of our bacteria to be a healthy, thriving colony of “good” bacteria keeping the “bad” bacteria in check. Probiotics are naturally available in some types of yoghurt, certain cheeses, sauerkraut, and other fermented  products like miso, tempeh, kim chi and kefir.

What we eat, feeds the bacteria. This is where prebiotics come into the picture. Prebiotics are insoluble fibre from certain foods like Jerusalem artichokes,garlic, onions, leeks, bananas etc. that feed the probiotics. The typical western diet is notoriously low in prebiotics. In my practice I see many people who never eat vegetables and fruit, so their diets will be deficient in prebiotics. If we treat our body like a dustbin, eating loads of “junk food”, we can expect malodorous (bad smelling) wind and stools. This is not a good sign, and I always tell my patients that our stool is a good barometer of our health. Healthy bacteria = healthy person.

This however, is not the whole story. One of the most important prerequisites of a healthy bacterial colony is the “soil” of the digestive tract. The trillions of gut bacteria have to have something to cling to. A natural diet of lots of vegetables and fruits, whole grains and legumes provides the fibre which bacteria cling to. This is what I refer to as the “soil” of our digestive tract.

In certain diseases where there is a lot of gut inflammation, gut flora have a hard time establishing a healthy colony on the weeping, raw surfaces. Where there is chronic constipation caused by a diet of refined food, gut flora have a hard time as the “soil” is dry, compacted and stagnant. (Fibre holds moisture and helps prevent constipation.) “Bad” bacteria can contribute to constipation, causing a vicious circle.

Fibre therefore, from a variety of sources (not just bran) is very important for gut health, and contributes towards a healthy inner ecosystem that has a profound effect on our overall health.

 Tips for a healthy digestive ecosystem:

  1. Eat plenty of vegetable especially onions, garlic, leeks, and asparagus.
  2. Some companies manufacture prebiotics and claim that it is difficult to get enough in your diet. A diet rich in vegetables, fruits, grains and legumes will have enough prebiotics.
  3. Make sure your gut bacteria are balanced by not mixing foods in weird combinations (steak with a sugary drink and ice cream) or having too much sugar which feeds “bad” bacteria.
  4. Have some plain yoghurt, kefir, miso, sauerkraut from time to time.
  5. Avoid unnecessary antibiotics (viral infections) and other medication which can upset the bacteria.

Prebiotics and probiotics for the soil.

When we look at the earth, the amount of arable soil is extremely small. So small in fact, that it is endangered .  Farming practices such as overgrazing, excessive use of chemical fertilizers and pesticides, ploughing  and natural events such as flooding, wind and drought make for an alarming reduction in arable soil. The soil of this planet is an ecosystem in itself, and needs to be nurtured as such. Bacteria form a vital part of this ecosystem, and influence the plants’ ability to absorb nutrients, just like our gut bacteria help us absorb vitamins.

Just like in our gut, soil bacteria come as “good” and “bad” bacteria. Healthy soil has mostly “good” bacteria, which suppress the “bad” bacteria, help detoxify the soil and provide a medium that is a good home for earthworms, insects and fungi – life forms essential to soil health. Healthy soil also facilitates the absorption of nutrients by the plants. One sign of healthy and balanced soil is the number of earthworms that can be seen when you dig, because healthy soil tends to hold moisture better, allowing them to move closer to the surface. They say you should see about 30 per spade of soil. I’m sure for most of us that is not the case, which shows how much work there is to do!

Each one of us can make an effort to improve the soil that we are guardians of, if we are fortunate enough to have a garden. One thing that farmers and gardeners can do to help the soil stay healthy is to use manure (probiotic) and humus (rotted vegetable matter) to provide fibre for soil bacteria to cling to. Healthy soil is a living substance, teaming with bacteria, just like our digestive tract. Fibre is the key element to ensure that bacteria can cling effectively. Sand and dense clay are not good growing mediums unless they have humus and compost added.

Make your own compost and mix in some manure to add to your soil. It’s more effort than buying fertilizer, but will keep the soil alive and help it to thrive. Every patch of healthy soil on this earth makes a difference. Soil which is alive with bacteria and earthworms is earth which will nourish plants and ultimately nourish us. Soil which is dead from the over use of chemicals and poisons is dirt and only serves to anchor plants.

Tips for a healthy soil ecosystem: 

  1. Avoid using artificial fertilizers and poisonous pesticides, as these adversely affect the bacterial and insect/earthworm content of the soil.
  2. Keep a layer of mulch on the soil to maintain some moisture and allow a natural rotting process. (Many gardeners think it looks untidy and remove all leaves etc. But it’s much better to leave them.)Humus is the prebiotic of the soil.
  3. Apply some manure, well rotted compost, and chicken pellets to the surface of the soil from time to time. Don’t dig it in, but allow the earthworms to do the work. Manure is the probiotic of the soil.
  4. Plant legumes such as lupins and dig them in when they are young and green. This is known as “green manure” and nourishes the soil.
  5. You can buy bacteria for your soil and for use in compost making.

There is a lot more that can be said about soil health, but that can wait for another time. It is very sad that conventional farming and even gardening practices, do a great deal of harm to the soil. Similarly modern medicine incorrectly prescribed and abused is harmful to human gut bacteria.