The microbiome: an animistic perspective

A few weeks ago I was lucky enough to catch an episode of Daniel Vitalis’ ‘Rewild Yourself’ podcast in which he interviewed Professor of Genetic Epidemiology Tim Spector, author of ‘The Diet Myth’ about the time he spent living and eating with the Hadza tribe in Africa. Professor Spector started his scientific journey as a geneticist, but gradually took more interest in the subject of nutrition after a serious illness. In this absolutely fascinating interview Spector describes how nutrition is an area of science especially ridden with dogma where advocates of one way of eating or another make highly selective choices when presenting their evidence. Spector, on the other hand, comes at the subject with a very broad mind and in fact experiments with a number of diets while at the same time carrying out his research.

But what was most striking and interesting to me about the interview was the way in which Professor Spector described the microbiome and its role in human health. The importance of this organ was underlined when he spent just a few days living a hunter-gatherer life with the Hadza people in Tanzania. While I do take a lot of care with what I eat these days, I generally don’t follow scientific research into diet and human health. It’s so easy now to fall into the habit of using the latest research to back up our own prejudices, whether it’s the notion that so-called ‘clean eating’ will lead directly to an early death for faddish Londoners or that drinking coffee will lengthen your life. Or shorten it. Instead, I generally trust my instincts and, for the most part, avoid reading any stories claiming that this food or that food will have a dramatic effect on my health.

I had been hazily aware that our bodies are filled with trillions of bacteria and that these play a really important role in our overall health, especially that of the gut. This knowledge dovetailed neatly into my own interest in fermentation, an interest based equally on the enjoyment of the tastes as well as a fascination for the hidden world of yeasts and bacteria. I instinctively felt that these foods and drinks were also good for me (and are, in fact, and important part of a macrobiotic diet). Foods such as miso, koji and natto are all good examples of this.

We love looking after our kombucha microbiomes

During the interview, Spector does an incredible job of describing the scale and importance of the microbiome, a community of something like 100 trillion fungi, yeasts, viruses and bacteria, together weighing about two kilograms. To put this into context, the microbiome contains more cells than the rest of the entire human body and, at two kilos, weighs more than our brain or indeed most of our other organs. This discovery has led many in the area to ask us to think of the microbiome as a human organ in its own right, alongside the kidneys, heart, liver and lungs. And, like these other major organs we know so well, we could not live for very long without the microbiome.

Professor Spector then describes in some detail his stay in Tanzania eating a very healthy foraged diet for a few days with the Hadza. Being an astute scientist, Spector carefully takes stool samples on his trip and later analysis reveals that in just three days of living a hunter and gatherer life the health and diversity of his microbiome increased by 20%. He primarily puts this down to the wide range of foods he ate, as well as the time spent outdoors and without modern sanitation.

Which is a very long way to bring me back to the title of this post: animism. As a child growing up in the 1970s, I read a lot of Dr. Seuss. Listening to this interview brought back memories of ‘Horton Hears a Who’, the story of an observant and kind-hearted elephant who suddenly becomes aware of tiny people living on a speck of dust. The Whos cannot be seen by Horton’s friends, and so Horton is ridiculed for trying to protect this tiny community. But, as Horton reminds us in the story, “a person’s a person, no matter how small”.

Indigenous beliefs are often centred around notions of animism, or, in other words, the perspective that everything in the world is alive and is interacting with us. Even though these forces maybe invisible to us, they are powerful and interact with us in important ways. Professor Spector makes it clear that the microbiome is affected and nourished by everything around us, down to the air we breathe, the landscape we live in and our direct and indirect contact with the other living beings around us. Let’s have the humility to accept that the tiny citizens of Whoville in our microbiome have the power to make us well or unwell and that we should all do what we can to nourish them.

Mitakuye Oyasin – We Are All Related




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