French winemakers understand the microbial world. They understand inherent complexity, particularly in the interactions between the grape vines and the land on which they grow. The results of those interactions are the grapes. French winemakers have given us a word for how the environment shapes the qualities of the grapes: terrior (pronounced ter-war).
Terrior is the influence of the thousands of different elements in the local environment on the organisms growing in that environment. The grapes are the vine’s expression of its genotype living in that environment and the winemaker’s job is to make wines that express the potential of the grapes.
The quality of the wine cannot be manufactured. Winemaking is a slow process of coaxing the terrior out of the grapes and that terrior is expressed in the flavors and aromas of the countryside that became part of the grapes themselves. The grapevines live in that environment; they collaborate with and tolerate all of the plants and animals, they experience the seasons, they cycle with the soils, and the grapes produced each year reflect that life and that journey. With the environment, the grape is the expression of potential; without the environment, the grape is just a fruit.
Our health is also a product of our ecosystem and in much the same way. In a very real sense, our complex omnivore digestive system is our superpower. Because we are omnivores, we can sample nearly everything in the environment. In some ways, nothing is really off limits because the microbiome we carry with us provides the capacity for testing almost every plant for its potential as food. But we at risk of losing that superpower and we must work consciously and assiduously to maintain it. We must collaborate with our microbiome such that we allow it to express its potential relative to our human physiology. This mutualistic relationship is a slow dance, one that must be practiced and studied, and it does not happen overnight.
Terrior carries with it additional nuances. In vineyards, the terrior is derived from the soil type, the microbes in the soil, the slope and exposure of the hillside, and the seasonal changes affecting those factors. The plants, animals, and microbes interact with the soil and produce what ecologists call “legacy effects”. That is, lasting effects of the presence of those organisms even after they are gone. Thus, a soil that is damaged and depleted of microbes cannot provide the same complexity to the grapes as a stable, healthy, diverse soil. In other words, the quality of the grapes produced in a region depends on the health of the other organisms in that region and the vines are not at their best unless the surrounding environment is intact and healthy.
And so it is with the expression of human potential, our “tomato-ness”. Each of us relates to the environment in different ways. Each of us has our own particular microbiome, whether on the skin, in the mouth, or in the colon. Each of us has our personal history and that determines how we react to stress. As a consequence, each of us will react differently as we each experience the same environmental stress. This is important.
The ability to react and the intensity of the reaction is modified by our prior experience. Our makeup, our capacity, is a function of the quality of the environment we have been living in. The more diverse and challenging the environment we have lived in previously, the more capable we are of handling new stressors now. Our external environment has given us that capacity by eliciting it from us. Every challenge we faced and overcame in the past has helped to condition and develop our ability to handle future challenges.
If our environment is impoverished, we will be impoverished. We will be handicapped in our ability to respond or to resist or to bounce back. We will be like greenhouse tomatoes lacking the qualities and characteristics that are inherent in our genetic makeup or in the makeup of our healthy microbiome. We will be like germ-free mice lacking a defense system that is absolutely a natural condition in a healthy being. And it is important to recognize that we depend on the internal ecosystem for our daily health, but also on the external ecosystem for the stimuli that bring out our best and for the flow of information that maintains our internal ecosystem. Our microbiome is nested within us and we are nested within the ecosystem that surrounds us.
We know next to nothing about the details of the interactions between the human body and the microbiome and the infinite number of cascading effects those interactions likely influence. But claiming a lack of knowledge is not an excuse for a lack of action. Nobody has complete knowledge and in the case of the microbiome, nobody has much of anything (despite what they might advertise to the contrary). We don’t understand prebiotics, we don’t understand probiotics, we don’t understand how our chemical world is affecting us internally. And that won’t change much in the near future (despite what you might see in advertisements.). Our ignorance of the specifics matters, but it also doesn’t matter.
If we understand that 30 trillion bacteria with 5 million genes in our internal ecosystem are working on our behalf by helping to maintain a healthy host, and that we can help them by modifying our eating habits and by avoiding unnecessary anti-microbial dangers, then we have some degree of control over our own health.
If we recognize what a healthy external environment looks like, we have some measure of control over our own health. And we can take steps to improve one to improve the other.
Ultimately, given the road we are on with 8 billion people, mass-produced food, and life in megacities, we have little choice unless we are resigning ourselves to a shortened life of poor health. To me, the choice is easy and the changes we can make in our lives are pretty easy too. And it is no more of a chore than shopping with my eyes open and paying attention.
Buy organic, buy natural, buy from local growers, shop the farmer’s market, make food connections, create food co-ops, encourage local restaurants, read the labels, use your money to make change, and use your voice to find other voices. Those who claim that high-quality foods are niche, or too expensive to make, or can’t possibly feed the world, or aren’t better for you are actually the Pollyannas of the world. They truly believe that life is great and all is well. Food is cheap, food is flavorful, and food is good for you. Technology has and will continue to provide the answers. This is not about saying they’re wrong. It’s about recognizing that we are not alone and we have been ignoring our partners.