Updated: May 20, 2021
(Summary: Since the Industrial Revolution, our history, philosophy, medicine, and every social science emphasizes human individuality.As a consequence, every one of us makes decisions on a daily basis as if we were isolated entities with little direct contact with other organisms.By behaving this way, we are changing our context and that context is what keeps us healthy.The most significant aspect of our context is the quality of the food we eat.This quality has been declining for decades because of a belief that “food is food” and modern technology can make food better.This is a social system based on the concept of the humans as individuals who only interacts with the external environment in ways that are not biologically meaningful to our health. In fact, our interactions with the environment are needed to bring out the inner tomato in humans.)
As we know, there are known knowns; there are things we know we know. We also know there are known unknowns; that is to say we know there are some things we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns - the ones we don’t know we don’t know.
-Donald Rumsfeld, 2002
We are faced with a fundamental problem in the Modern World: What does it mean to be a healthy human? That question has so many different angles, but it is very possible the one angle that the vast majority of us ask about every waking day is: What am I supposed to eat?
Many of us have had a version of the following internal monologue:
“This is supposed to be the most advanced age in history and I don’t know what to eat. This 24/7 barrage of advertising is just confusing me. Can I drink my lunch or do I have to chew it? Should I take vitamins with breakfast? Should I skip breakfast? Is it the most important meal of the day? Is a mid-morning snack bad for me? Is bread worse than a candy bar? What is good for me to eat….every day? Why is this such a hard question? I just want to go to the grocery store or the restaurant and get food that will actually make me feel better. I thought food was supposed to make me feel good when I ate it, but most food doesn’t do that. Food should keep me healthy, pep me up, fuel the fire within, and help me live a long life. I don’t think most of the food I eat does that. I think the double cheeseburger I ate last night gave me nightmares. Does everyone feel this way or just me? Maybe I’m sick. Maybe it’s me and not the food.” And so on…..
You’re right. This is the most technologically advanced age ever. We have amazing and rapidly advancing genetic and pharmaceutical technology at our disposal. We can manipulate human genes in the embryo. We can make life-saving drugs, it seems, for every common ailment. We have vaccines for more viruses and antibiotics for more bacterial infections. We are feeding almost 8 billion people around the world. Food is plentiful and cheap. Information, energy, transportation, electronics galore, and food, food, food!
This is also the most confusing age ever. When in history did humans ever have to question the food they ate? Most of our history was focused on finding food and perhaps trying not to be food, but our history is not about having to decide if the glut of food in front of us is actually good to eat. And we certainly never had to worry that regular food could actually be bad for us except when it spoiled. While there have always been fads about the exact kinds of food that one should eat, we have always been convinced that those foods would make us healthier rather than that not eating a normal diet would lead to disease.
So, why are we in the midst of an era where it seems we have to tread very lightly with food or it will somehow and for some reason attack and kill us? Why? What has changed? Why does it seem like we’re overeating and starving at the same time?
To be honest, everything around us has changed, but at the same time we are still the people we always were. Truly, despite the ever-changing world around, we like to think we are a constant in that world of change. Aren’t we still the same? Yes, humans in the genetic sense have not changed, but on the other hand, yes, we have changed. The how and why of that change is the point of this blogpage although what almost everyone really wants to know is “what do I do about it?” That answer is complicated, unfortunately, but if we understand the how and the why, we should be able to get to “what to do”.
For starters, we keep using the word “food” to mean the meat and plants we put in our mouths to provide nutrition and benefits to our bodies. It’s food; it feeds us. A one-to-one relationship. Very linear. But today, “food” may not mean what we think it means. Inconceivable, I know.
First, our food is not what it used to be and we are the ones who did that. Unfortunately, a lot of the change to our food was rather unintentional on our part although some of it was an indirect result of the process of intentionally changing our food. And then there was the fast-food part where we very intentionally made our food almost bad for us. That whole thing was a like a snowball rolling down a very long hill. We got that ball rolling and it wasn’t until it was HUGE that we realized we may have made a mistake. A bit late. We now live in a world where food can be good, neutral, or bad for us and the worst part is we quite often can’t tell the difference. In fact, a food can be good for one person, but bad, even dangerous, for another. This is the stuff of nightmares.
Let’s step back for a moment to a more basic question related to food: What is a human? Humans are in the (perhaps unfortunate) position of being on the top of the food chain. Actually, we have surpassed the food chain, we’ve risen above it in a sense, we eat on any part of the food chain we want. We can manipulate the food chain to suit our gastronomic purposes, we are not limited by predators and competitors, we can convert the world to farmland, we are in charge of the food chain!
Unfortunately, we aren’t exactly sure what that should mean. For the past 50 years, it seems to have meant that we can eat burgers and fries or fried chicken at every meal if we so desire. And for the past 40 years, we can wash down that “meal” with corn-syrup-sweetened drinks. And then it got worse. It’s not that the salt, fat, sugar, and lack of anything resembling an actual plant isn’t bad for you (it is), but this food is like nothing our bodies ever encountered in any part of human history. It’s very unhuman food.
Our bodies have an expectation of the food we will eat. We have an expectation that the food we eat is what it should be (and what it is advertised to be). Unfortunately, the food we eat today is not the same as the food we ate 100 years ago, or 50 years ago, or even 10 years ago. Our food is changing faster than anyone is keeping up with and we, as consumers, are receiving very little, if any, information about that change. As a consequence, we are ignorant of food quality and our bodies are becoming more and more unhappy with us because in a very real sense we are starving ourselves by eating modern food. It is truly possible that the food we are producing to feed the world is endangering our future as a species.
Our bodies and our digestive systems are remarkably competent and flexible and able to handle incredible change. Human populations have shifted from hunting and gathering cultures to farming cultures to urban cultures to modern large city megalopolis cultures, and our bodies have handled the changes. If you understand that we invented agriculture only 10,000 years ago, but the shift to an ultra-urban culture occurred in only the past century, well, you should be both amazed and concerned. And yet, though our external environment changed dramatically, our internal environment seems to have handled the transitions pretty well. Yes, there were more and different diseases, but those were diseases related to viral and bacterial pathogens associated with high densities of humans and not to some radical change in the human body. Nonetheless, for the past 50 years or so, we have begun seeing diseases that might be a result of changes within us.
What has REALLY changed in the past 70 years is technology (as it relates to food) and how we interact with what technology has done to our food. We appear to have reached a tipping point where we have changed too many things and all of those changes are adding up. It isn’t environmental toxins, but in a way it is. It isn’t food quality, but in a way it is. It’s everything, but it’s really a shift in our entire environment that is putting stress on the human biological system.
Our food environment tends to have a lot of toxins. Those toxins are just the way organisms (mostly plants) protect themselves from other things that want to eat them. Humans are one of those “things” that want to eat plants, so the world of plants tends to be somewhat toxic to us too. Our bodies are very capable of handling an immense number of toxins, mostly from the plants we eat and much less so from the animals. Our liver is the center of detoxification for anything that makes it into our circulatory systems, but our digestive system handles a great deal of the load. However, in recent decades, the load of environmental toxins has greatly increased and that’s almost entirely our doing.
We now live in a chemical chaos. The chemicals include hundreds of insecticides, herbicides, household chemicals, fertilizers, antibiotics, plastics, pharmaceuticals, personal-care products, preservatives, trans-fats, vitamins, and so on. These chemicals surround us, they’re in us, we consume them, we can’t escape them, and they are changing both the external world and the internal human world. As far as our bodies are concerned, toxins are toxins, whether they come from our food or elsewhere. Toxins are something our bodies have to handle one way or another.
We can think of any chemical as a stress to our body because if the chemical changes our biochemistry in any way, then it is a stress the body must deal with. For the most part, our bodies are well-equipped to handle these and other stresses, but if the cumulative impact of the stresses overwhelms the body systems or changes them in any way that makes our systems less able to handle stress, them we are faced with possible chronic illnesses.
Modern Life is full of stresses. There probably isn’t any way around that. We have exercise, hobbies, distractions, eating, drinking, and forms of bingeing, and it’s all about handling the stresses of modern life. The reason that many of us have adopted aspects of Eastern cultures such as meditation and yoga is because we are attempting to manage stress. Admittedly, what we probably all need is just to eat better and sleep more, but stress has a way of interfering with good intentions. And unfortunately, some of the invisible stresses in our lives may be tampering with the machinery and making sleep and weight management and general good health all but impossible.
Stress is one of those variables that changes other variables in negative ways. If stress causes sleeplessness, it affects the body’s ability to recover from one day to the next. The body is then weaker and less able to handle additional stress. One of the variables that is greatly affected is our immune system. I’ve taught high school and university students for 25 years and I frequently find myself in conversations like this one:
“Professor, I’m sorry I missed class, but I got a cold from my friend last weekend.”
“From your friend? How did you do that?”
“We went to the beach last weekend and she had a cold, and now I have it.”
“What kinds of things were you doing at the beach?”
“Oh! It was a non-stop beach party for the whole weekend!”
“Just out of curiosity, how much sleep did you get last weekend?”
“Haha! MAYBE 4 hours the whole weekend!”
What my students rarely know is that the cold virus (a rhinovirus) lives in our nose and nasal cavity all the time. We carry it around with us 24/7/365 and each of us probably has our own strain of it. That doesn’t mean we get a cold every 10 days, but it does mean that if the conditions change and our immune system is weakened for any reason, the virus may begin to grow unchecked…..and we get a head cold.
What could have weakened my student’s immune system? Alcohol, food, lack of sleep, and her own microbiome (as well as other microbiomes) all intersected last weekend and her immune system was the victim. Her otherwise strong immune system usually keeps the resident cold virus at bay and she lives her life not knowing that she carries that virus and probably several others. We all do. It isn’t a problem for us although we, as carriers, can certainly cause problems for other people with compromised or naïve immune systems.
Our modern life of stresses is changing us in ways we don’t understand. Perhaps, we don’t need to fully understand. We intuitively know that being physiologically weakened in this world is not ever going to be a positive situation. We can intuitively know that if we are faced with an external world of toxins that is growing daily, then we must be physiologically strong. Our internal environment must be at its best. And the human body is a very strong system that has survived some pretty incredibly challenges in the past 10,000 years.
So, the big question is “How do we do this?” One, we have to do it together and, two, let’s talk about the microbiome now.
Basically, we’re home to thousands of other species of life, both on us and especially in us, and this arrangement is not an accident of nature. We are their house and home. Some are transient, some are permanent; some are necessary to us, some can’t live without us. The microbiome of the TV advertising world is the 10,000 (and counting) species of bacteria numbering in the trillions that live in the colon (large intestine) and feed on the undigested food material from our daily meals. It would appear that the microbiome is absolutely necessary for a healthy life although we know very little about who the players are, what they do, and how they interact. Later, I’ll describe that in greater detail but, honestly, we don’t know much. Here, I want to point out that the microbiome (somehow!) is very likely a major part of our stress-management system.
We are just beginning to understand what this means. It has become very apparent that the immune system is not only influenced by the microbiome, it may be a product of the microbiome. The microbiome may be the reason we have a healthy and strong immune system. That is, the healthy microbiome may be the reason because the disturbed, simplified, or unhealthy microbiome can also be the root of a number of diseases that are reaching epidemic proportions in the world. And if you find this just adds unpleasant complication to an already complicated daily life, you are not alone! As if the world and life weren’t complicated enough, now we have this world of bacteria in our colon that we don’t understand…. and its happiness is a key to our happiness?
Sorry about that, but yes. My goal here is to discuss this is in a way that allows us to proceed without having to get a PhD in microbiology or biochemistry. And anyway, I also believe we don’t have time for that, but we can make some informed decisions now and we just need to go over some basic ecology and general science.