Over the past few years two seemingly unrelated issues have been eating away at me: How can we as a species do more to address climate change, and why is my digestive system feeling out of whack? At first I thought I was just stressing out over the fate of the planet. But the more I dug into these parallel phenomena the more I realized they might be linked in a different and more profound way.
We know the planet’s ecosystems perform services that are crucial for our survival – they help convert sunlight to energy, keep water cycling through our communities, clean our air, and a host of other life-affirming functions. By now we are also quite certain that our collective actions have been contributing to accelerated climate change – a phenomenon that is compromising the ability of the earth’s systems to perform these services.
Our bodies are a fractal of these larger systems, hosting our own personal microbiome consisting of trillions of microorganisms. By some estimates this system of bacteria and other organisms within and upon each human may contain as many as ten times the number of cells in a human body. These organisms occupy and animate our gut, respiratory system, skin and other bodily systems, ensuring that we take in energy, oxygen and other essential elements to support life and process wastes safely and efficiently.
Was there something I have been doing that has compromised my digestive system? Diagnosis of a gut imbalance affirmed that I have. My diet of whole grains, lots of carbs to fuel my bike commute, random dairy and other animal proteins, and occasional sugar-laden treats has apparently been contributing to my own personal climate change, within my digestive track.
A brief history of our digestive systems: At birth the human intestine is free of microbes but gradually, as a result of a healthy balanced diet, a microbial population develops. These microbes live in a state of balance, where the overgrowth of one species is inhibited by the activities of the others. So far so good. However, this state of intestinal utopia can be disrupted by several actions: the use of antacids, antibiotics, the aging process and a poorly balanced diet. If the equilibrium is disturbed, microbes migrate from there into the small intestine and stomach, hampering digestion, competing for nutrients and overloading the intestinal tract with their waste products.
It is this waste build-up that encourages the growth of microorganisms involved in intestinal disorders. If this sounds like a scenario for bad forest ecology, it is. This shift in gut ecology can exacerbate food allergies and a host of other maladies – a problem I experienced.
Fortunately, over the past year I discovered how to rebalance my internal biome and thus heal myself. It involved a change in diet driven mostly by behavior change. And the key was to discover the leverage point in the system: my brain.
On the continuum between our own microbiome and the local, regional, and planetary ecosystems lies a big switch, our brain, which controls decision-making about a host of things, including the food we reach for. Our decision-making is not purely rational – we succumb to emotion, cultural pressures and a host of other forces to make choices about the quality of the energy we consume to feed our microbiome. The human brain is both the strongest and weakest link in this continuum, for obvious reasons: a Twinkie made of chemicals synthesized in a far-away location could easily become breakfast as could locally-sourced organic eggs, vegetables and fruit. It’s up to us.
Studies show that our intuition governs most of our behavior, while strategic reasoning, which we like to think governs most of our decision-making, often rationalizes what our intuition already has decided. Thus, while you may know the Twinkie is bad for you, your intuition keeps telling you to go for it. So your strategic reasoning declares that it’s OK – “You’ll be good another day!”
So what do gut problems, the brain and climate change have to do with each other? A lot it turns out.
If you made the rational choice to nurture your microbiome to optimize your health and avoid diet-related maladies, you would probably be very concerned about the quality and type of fuel you put into your system. For me it all revolved around making a better choice about carbohydrates. To re-balance my biome I needed to consume single sugar based carbs like fruits and honey, eliminate two-sugar types like table sugar, and greatly reduce polysaccharides like starches in my diet. This meant no to pasta, whole grains, processed foods and dairy, and yes to fresh fruits and vegetables, nuts and seeds, and organic animal proteins. In other words, stick to “whole foods” unaltered by industrial agriculture.
My system is now rebalanced, but my behavior had to change. The rational has now (mostly) become the norm, at least for diet.
So here’s the connection: if you chose to eat all local, unprocessed food, you might become concerned about the quality of the products you consumed and thus become passionate about the quality of the local farmland, pastureland, woodland, rivers, streams and oceans from which they came. You might even want to know your growers, harvesters and fishermen so you could keep an eye on them, and your food.
The key in all this is to try to make the right decisions for you and your family’s own personal ecosystems, and to scale up the decision-making to include others in your community. The more people choosing healthy, whole foods, the more likely it will become an available and affordable option. This form of collective behavior change is something we’re not so good at as Americans, but it’s a crucial skill for the health of the planet and ourselves.
So just imagine if you and your neighbors could agree on a food system concept, you could create more opportunities for better food choices by making healthy, local food more abundant and accessible. If you could manage to do this, you would profoundly affect your health, your family’s health, your community’s health, healthcare, the environment and climate change.
If all of this sounds like the beginning of a strategy for saving the planet and ourselves, it is. And it starts in your own gut.