This is what I wrote. Not all of it made it into the talk. Enjoy.
You are not you. You are what your mother gave you. You are the food you eat. You are the dirt that stuck under your nails as a child. You are people and messages around you. You are part of and house an immeasurable family, and as it always seems to in my word: it starts in the soil.
You are composed of about 70% water, and “for every HUMAN gene in your body, there are 360 microbial genes.” 99.7% of the genetic diversity in your body does not carry “your” genetic code. “The person we see in the mirror is made up of more microbes than human,” Your body functions more like a culture than an independent organism, and for that symbiotic relationship to thrive: diversity and balance means everything.
Having healthy microbial balance has far-reaching benefits. To have a full understanding of how the whole gut-brain connection works, you need robust knowledge of endocrinology, immunology, pathology, and neurology, which, I’ll admit is a bit beyond the scope of this non-profit farmer’s TEDx talk. I want to focus primarily on the gut’s relationship to mental health. People suffering from anxiety, OCD, or ADHD MIGHT just need to eat more ‘healthy’ bacteria. Eating well and exercising are no longer just practices to help you keep physically healthy, then help you mind deal with stress and stay sharp.
“In 1896, physicians writing in Scientific American came to the conclusion, that “certain forms of insanity” could be caused by infectious agents “similar to typhoid, diphtheria and others.” But after Freudian psychoanalysis became popular in the first half of the 20th century, the microbial theory of mental illness was largely forgotten, and stayed that way for decades.” Now a growing number of psychiatrists and scientists see the evidence that these bacteria affect a dense network of neurons in your gut. In recent years, microbial imbalance in the gut has been associated with chronic fatigue, obesity, certain types of cancer, and other physical ailments. The brain is not walled off from the rest of the body.
These ideas are becoming increasingly accepted in the medical community. Stories about the Human Microbiome Project have been picked up by major media outlets. Much of the information I gleaned comes from Boston Globe, NY Times, NPR, and NCBI (National Center for BioTechnology Information. Though once considered “alternative” — maybe even a bit wacky — the field is becoming firmly entrenched in the medical establishment. The National Institutes of Health earmarked $115 million for the first phase of the Human Microbiome Project. Harvard Medical School hosted a symposium on the subject: it was so popular, there was a wait-list to get in.
Please, I feel obligated to tell you, if you are experiencing OCD, anxiety, depression or anything of the sort, do not assume you can scarf down a Go-Gurt every day and assume you’re cured. I’m sure that’ll actually make things worse. Obviously, talk to your physician: This is not medical advice:) Also, talk with a nutritionist or physician about finding quality probiotics and other microbe-rich foods into your diet. I encourage you to look into Walden Behavioral Care, and some of Dr. Greenblatt’s research. It’s enlightening, and a great launching point to equip you to have some of these conversations.
What came first? The gut or the brain: the gut. We are the soil. No matter what your worldview is, it seems as though we keep coming back to the same narrative. We are “starstuff” made into dirt. We are “Dust in the Wind.” Our brains grew as a result of our capacity to metabolize our food so well, and our ability to metabolize our food well came from our capacity to use our gut. When we eat, our food doesn’t go in us. It’s more appropriately described as being in between us. The microbes in our guts are responsible for allowing us to access the nutrients in our food. And, those microbes are communicating with our brain, but we don’t yet know how… the suspicion is that it is the vagus nerve facilitating that communication.
“The gut and brain have a steady ability to communicate via the nervous system, hormones, and the immune system. Some of the microbiome can release neurotransmitters, just like our own neurons do, speaking to the brain in its own language via the vagus nerve.” Something happens between your gut and your nervous system that science can’t quite yet explain. We can observe “how” our microbiome is influencing our mental health, but we cannot fully articulate “why.” “Scientists were shocked to learn that about 90 percent of the fibers in the primary visceral nerve, the vagus, carry information from the gut to the brain and not the other way around.”
My vagus is messing with my brain right now. I feel in knots. I feel nervous. “Your vagus nerve stimulates tiny facial muscles that better enable you to make eye contact and synchronize your facial expressions with another person. It even adjusts the miniscule muscles of your middle ear so you can better track her voice against any background noise.”
On a visceral, gut bacteria fueled level: this just makes sense to me. The way that we connect to one another in the most intimate and deep ways is fueled by out nasty guts: our biome. It’s always the soil. It’s always the moments with my hands in the dirt that I find what I’m really digging for. The greatest moments of revelation in my life have always been accompanied by dealing with shit.
Just as there is a revelation in human health, we are living during a another major paradigm shift based on an understanding of tiny organisms: inspired by the same technological advances. Lately, I’ve been in awe of the microbiota not only of the human gut but of the soil.
“In one handful of soil there are more organisms than there are humans on earth.” The microorganisms in the soil, the bacteria and fungi, serve as the “stomachs” of plants. They form symbiotic relationships with plant roots and “digest” nutrients, providing nitrogen, phosphorus, and many other nutrients in a form that plant cells can assimilate. But, they do much more than nourish plants. Just like microbes in the human body both aid digestion and maintain our immune system, soil microorganisms both digest nutrients and protect plants against pathogens and other threats.
Plants and fungi grow in a symbiotic relationship, creating mycorrhizae (my-cor-rhi-zee), or “fungus roots,” which exponentially multiply the absorption capacity of a plant’s roots, and connect plants to one another enabling them to communicate with one another and set up defense systems. The microbes in the soil respond like earth’s own immune system. Tomato plants can actually warn other tomatoes to activate their defences before being attacked, and broadleaf beans signal their neighboring bean buddies to attract predatory wasps to prey on the aphids. The living soil is the conduit for this communication.
“In order to grow food, humans have changed about 50 percent of the earth’s surface area from native forests and grasslands to crops, pasture and wood harvest.” Many of the world’s cultivated soils have lost 50% of their carbon stocks.
We’ve come to this place because we view food production primarily through the lense of commodity. If we are indeed to survive and thrive, we need to see it for what it really is. Food is life. We consume living things, and those living things come from living soil. They feed our living biome. Baptizing our farmland in herbicide and pesticides does not bring about a healthy, balanced, living soil: in fact, it slowly sterilizes it. We can’t always see what our agriculture is doing to our guts and minds, but we can see what it’s doing to our lake.
Fortunately, we can reclaim carbon and feed organisms in the soil by composting, using cover crops, increasing crop diversity, and rotational grazing. By putting atmospheric carbon back into the soils, we essentially create habitat for the microorganisms we need to facilitate the growth of the food we need.
We need more photosynthesis on our planet to create healthier soil. The solution to the all daunting environmental crisis in which we find ourselves is right beneath our feet. We need the microbes in the soil both to continue to facilitate the growth of plants, and to restore health gut bacteria in our bodies. Plus, life’s just better for everyone when we keep our dollars and our carbon local.
The importance of making wise decisions about the type of food we eat and the company we keep spreads into another aspect of our lives: our contagious moods. If we eliminate biodiversity in our environment and/or our gut is lacking the proper microbial balance: then, we may become anxious, stressed, and unhappy. Well, if that happens, then we may very well infect others with our unhappiness, as time and time again, research has demonstrated that we are absolutely prone to having our level of contentment dictated by others’ emotions.
The degree to which people become emotionally in sync with each other depends partly on the level of intimacy in their relationship. A 2014 study at the University of California-San Francisco found that mothers’ stressful experiences are contagious to their infants. And a 2012 study from Finland found that depression is highly contagious among teenagers within a certain social circle. “Over time, adolescents’ depressive symptoms increasingly converged toward the average levels of their peers, but this convergence was not primarily because of contagion effects. The findings suggest that socialization processes can lead to both increases and decreases in adolescent depression, depending on peers’ average level of depression.” “These findings suggest that mothers’ stressful experiences are contagious to their infants and that members of close pairs, like mothers and infants, can reciprocally influence each other’s dynamic physiological reactivity.”
“For happiness, clustering is what you expect from contagion rates. Whereas for sadness, the clusters were much larger than we’d expect. Something else is going on.’ Happiness proved less social than sadness. Each happy friend increased an individual’s chances of personal happiness by 11 percent, while just one sad friend was needed to double an individual’s chance of becoming unhappy.”
The contagious nature of emotions can become amplified when individuals are in frequent contact with one another. “People seem to be capable of mimicking other people’s facial, vocal, and postural expressions with stunning rapidity. As a consequence, they are able to feel themselves into other emotional lives to a surprising extent.”
Hurts don’t heal in isolation. Relationships are the conduit for healing, transformation, and evolution. Even as the monk seeks solitude to find clarity, it is the relationship to nature or to God that brings about enlightenment. While there are plenty of research papers and articles examining the correlation between human microbiome diversity and empathy, I’m going to share something personal instead of something academic.
Finally, all of you, be like-minded, be sympathetic, love one another, be compassionate and humble…by being of the same mind, maintaining the same love, united in spirit, intent on one purpose. “We are travelers on a cosmic journey,stardust,swirling and dancing in the eddies and whirlpools of infinity. Life is eternal. We have stopped for a moment to encounter each other, to meet, to love, to share.This is a precious moment. It is a little parenthesis in eternity.”
Human Microbiome Project http://commonfund.nih.gov/hmp/index
Gut Microbiota, Probiotics and Their Impact Throughout the Lifespan.
Keltner D. (2009) Born to Be Good: The Science of a Meaningful Life. 1st Ed, W. W. Norton & Company.
“Dacher Keltner in Conversation.” http://fora.tv/2009/02/05/Dacher_Keltner_in_Conversation.
WWF Commercial – “Threads” https://vimeo.com/19569018
De humani corporis fabrica: libri septem, Andreas Vesalius 1543
Born to Be Good: The Science of a Meaningful Life by Dr. Dacher Keltner
Foodopoly: The Battle Over the Future of Food and Farming in America March 4, 2014 Wenonah Hauter
Soil Solutions to Climate Problems: Narrated by Michael Pollan: https://vimeo.com/146177360
The Alchemist, Paulo Coelho