Tuesday, February 24, 2015


Do you ever have one of those months where ideas from disparate sources converge? For me it was all about symbiosis though maybe coevolution would be a better term. It really started a while ago. My dad sent me a book, An Epidemic of Absence. I had it on my desk for ages. It is all about the hygiene hypothesis. Our modern diseases are very distinct from the ones we used to have trouble with. We used to have infectious diseases that killed us. Now we have immune dysfunction diseases that weren't prevalent before. Like allergies, diabetes, heart disease, asthma, obesity, auto immune disorders, and possibly even autism. The hygiene hypothesis states that we have these trouble because our immune system needs the microbes/parasites/viruses that we coevolved with. Without them we attack ourselves or things we don't need to like allergens.

The book takes it even farther than I had heard before. It says that we have given up some of our regulatory control of our body especially our immune system to our flora and fauna. We no longer have the capacity to control it ourselves. People living on farms are healthier especially if they have more contact with animals. Our immune system is trained even in utero. Our mother's contact with a diverse micro biota controls our chances of getting such diseases. It was a really fascinating book to read. Some of it was a slog and slow, but most flowed pretty well. A bit too much of it was anecdotal, but hey it is a book not a science study. Most books like that are way too anecdotal. This one at least puts in the footnotes (in the back not as you go).

About the same time my daughter and I were discussing social evolution. My daughter is autistic and never talks about middle of the road things. For her it is always about how much she loves her dog, her struggles with life, or about really deep issues facing the world. But she wanted me to read an article that talked about differing thoughts on evolution and about how some people in the way north couldn't understand Darwinism because their thoughts on evolution were more symbiotic than a bloody battle between organisms for a niche in the environment. To them evolution was coevolution. You don't live alone. Life is harsh. You live in web where everything relies on one another for life.

I have a spring vegetable bed that needs to be filled with something (as I can't eat legumes anymore and fava beans won't be grown). So I'm thinking fermenting cabbage might be a good way to deal with it and make sure it gets preserved. I've not liked sauerkraut in the past. I've never learned how to ferment things even though my parents did it when I was a child. But I've taught myself to like things I've hated as a child before. And fermented food is supposed to be good for gut health. So I bought a book called "The Art of Fermentation". I haven't read much yet, but he is reiterating everything above. We coevolved with microorganisms. He puts even a greater twist on the evolution. He asks whether we have domesticated these bacteria or garden plant or animal, or whether they have domesticated us. I've heard that debate before with dogs, but never with plants or microorganisms.

Along with the fermented garden vegetables I was looking into another fermented food. Kefir - a fermented milk. As a child my parents would make kefir, but I never did. I wasn't a great fan. But my tastes have indeed changed. To my morning smoothies I've been adding bought goat milk kefir from the store for the last couple of months. It has a wider range of probiotics than yogurt does. Over the last week I've been reading up on it with a thought of making it myself (not in the above book yet which I just started, but on the internet). I found that kefir is a really interesting piece of coevolution. Kefir is not made like yogurt, but has "grains" which are a symbiotic community of bacteria and yeast that hold together in a mass.

Scientists have tried to reproduce kefir grains from the microbiota that are in it, but can't. The ones there have evolved to work together and need each other to reproduce itself. In addition this colony of biota are symbiotic to humans. Without humans it wouldn't exist as it needs milk to grow and milk outside a mammal didn't exist until humans came along and started milking animals. The kefir preserves milk without refrigeration. Though today we preserve it in the fridge after producing it, it will keep a long time just sitting on the counter.

Many people state on their pages that it kills E. coli and other pathogens, but a very quick look at the literature will show you that is only sort of true. There are some strains of E.coli and other organisms (Listeria monocytogenes, Salmonella, and Yersinia enterocolitica) that have evolved to tolerate the high lactic acid content of kefir. Most strains it will kill, but not all. That being said there have been no outbreaks of illness due to kefir so it is a very safe form of cultured milk even though it is brewed on our counter at room temperature. In addition I found out that what you get from the store really isn't true kefir, but just a bunch of bacteria cultured much like yogurt. Often 8 or 10 organisms where kefir has more like 30. So I may have to get some grains and make it myself.

Over the last couple of weeks I've also been looking at mycorrhizal fungi for my garden. I'm still not sure what I'm going to buy. But I'd like to experiment with it. Michelle has raved about it in her garden. It might be an easy way to make my plants more healthy. Diseases run rampant here for some reason. They are much more common than at my last house. For those that don't know what mycorrhizae are, they are symbiotic fungi in plants. They grow on the roots the plant helps feed the fungi and the fungi helps provide nutrients for the plant.

If you haven't figured this out yet, I'm a nerd. I love science. One of the feeds that I read is from Science Daily. It gives me about 80 articles every weekday gleaned from all the different science publications and summarizes them and makes them available. I glance through them every day and I usually find a few that interest me. They rarely have ones applicable to gardening/farming, but yesterday there were two (here and here). Both about symbiosis. One trying to understand the symbyotic nature of the myccorhizea. The other about how we are disrupting the rhizobia bacteria, a symbiotic bacteria of legumes, by feeding nitrogen to the plants.

So this must be my year of symbiosis since it keeps coming into my life. Years ago I wrote a blog post about why I garden. I garden to be connected to the natural world. To be close to the web of life. To see the miracle of a seed growing. That growth feeds me, but also drops the seeds for the next generation. The post I wrote said that gardening was artificial, but maybe I shouldn't see it that way. Maybe I should see it as a natural symbiosis. We need those plants to eat and live. But those plants use us too. They get an easy ride as we water and weed them. We plant their seeds a perfect spacing apart. Not all of them get to reproduce, but they will be reproduced. We will make sure of it. The better they feed us, the more we will grow them.


  1. Interestingly, I've been reading about this exact thing lately! I tried fermenting various veggies last year, but it all came out a bit too salty for my taste. But I have started drinking a lot of kombucha (which is pretty yummy) and am taking a probiotic that has a lot of good strains of bacteria. I'm not sure if I believe all of the advertised benefits of probiotics, but I am definitely feeling good these days. I'll have to read this book!

  2. This is a topic that I'm borderline obsessed with lately, at least so far as the soil food web goes. I've been reading up on it lately and trying to learn how to apply it to my own garden. I've seen really significant differences in my soil and my vegetables since I've been incorporating inoculants, and cover crops, and more compost into the garden. At some point I'm going to write a post about it, but I hesitate because it is such a complicated subject and I feel like there is so much that I don't know. I suppose I could at least share the resources that I've found and let readers go from there. It is such a fascinating subject!

  3. i've been thinking abt fermenting for gut health as well. i've actually never had sauerkraut but i'm hoping it is something we can learn to at least tolerate. :)

  4. The whole process of fermentation has only come onto my radar in the last year or so - I haven't tried it (yet) but am always fascinated when I read about others doing this - can't wait to hear how you find it - both the process & product.

    I've also been looking into mycorrhizal fungi but have a feeling that this is something I will have a hard time finding here in Canada (although to be fair I've never asked & sometimes you just don't see things unless you are specifically looking for them). BTW - just read your "why oh why" post & thoroughly enjoyed it.

  5. I hope you'll try the kefir. I love mine. I use my homemade jams and the kefir to make yogurt like snacks. I also use the kefir for a buttermilk substitute/sour cream substitute in all my baked recipes, mostly with great success. (sometimes when I substitute it for sour cream, it makes the food too watery.)

    I've been doing it for over a year, and find it very easy to keep up with.

  6. I make water kefir (I did make milk kefir for a few months but I didn't use enough of it and in the end I gave it up) and bought the grains on eBay. I love it.
    Would you make Kim chi, fermented radishes, cucumbers, carrots? There are so many possible ferments out there. I tried cucumbers in a brine earlier this year and they were great. Sandor Katz's book is awesome.
    The whole pre/pro biotic thing is really interesting. Who knows, in 5 or 10 years it may be a major part of medicine.

  7. What a thought provoking post! It is hard to ignore the ideas of the hygiene hypothesis, but I also think about the rampant use of processed ingredients as basic as white flour and white sugar. Either way, it all leads to growing your own healthy food and being close to the earth. My kind of living, for sure. On the subject of fermentation, I have some friends who make sauerkraut but many more make kimchi - if I manage to grow any cabbage this year, that's what I'll be trying.

  8. It makes me very happy to read this post. I have been following your health issues for a while now, and have had it in my mind that fermented foods might be of some benefit to you. I managed to 'cure' my rampant indigestion by introducing fermented foods to my diet and am now off all medication.
    To gain the benefits of kefir, you really do need the grains for exactly the reasons you have outlined. If you don't like the taste (which I don't) throw it in smoothies or milkshakes with fruit or frozen berries. I ebb and flow with kefir, sometimes finding it difficult to maintain, and I now have a Continuous Brew Kombucha set up which works better for me to get my daily dose of probiotics.
    Can I also recommend to you a great book called Fermented Vegetables by Kristen Shockey, which has recipes for fermenting almost every vegetable, so when you have a surplus you can find a recipe for it. And remember, if you don't like straight sauerkraut, mix in other vegetables like carrot to change the flavour up a bit.
    Good luck with it all.

  9. Interesting and timely reading here for me. Once I figured out dairy was giving me fits about two years ago, I gave up yogurt. Which took away one good source of probiotics (not to mention one of my favorite foods). So I started experimenting with fermenting, and I love most of the foods I've fermented. I've also been drinking kefir for about a year, though I haven't made my own yet. I may try making some eventually but so far I have been afraid of taking on one more 'living food' I haved to keep going. I use the cows milk kefir as a buttermilk sub, and I drink the goat milk kefir for the probiotics, though I have to say I love the taste too which remind me of the goat milk cheese I don't eat anymore.

    On the myccorhizal topic, I bought a bag of Mykos to experiment with in the garden this year. And I hope Michelle (and others) do write about their experiences working with the soil web even if the science is still evolving and complicated!

  10. What old is new, isn't it. Fermentation preserved food without refrigeration and how many of our grandparents and great-grandparents did that as part of their seasonal routine.

    I just returned from Clinical Nutrition Week 2015 (ASPEN) and the microbiome, microbes in health and disease were the focus of many sessions. I've watched the research emerge in these annual meetings over the last five years. Take home for me this year--ditch probiotic pills and focus on prebiotics in foods. Those doing the front-line research are reluctant to recommend general use of probiotics. Treatment of certain diseases such as C. Difficile will be aided by targeted and judicious use of specific probiotic strains. What's up next? Looking at the human virome--all the viruses that live in us.

    Keep it up science nerd. Love your reflections.

  11. Thoughtful post. I was struck by how much the soil had improved in my community garden plot just by the act of planting crops. I've been reading Jeff Lowenfels books, most recently "Teaming with Microbes", Plants work with soil microbes to create their own symbiotic environment, and we do the same thing with probiotics. I plan to experiment with both myccorhizae and rock dust supplements this summer. I also tried my hand at fermentation with kimchee last year and it turned out well. The attempt at hot sauce was not so successful.

  12. Thanks for a very interesting post. Also thank you for hosting the Monday harvests every week. If not intruding. Please share your favorite autism web sites. Thanks in advance for your help!

    1. Weirdly it isn't something I've looked up a lot on internet sites. When she was young they told me she had ADD (which she obviously didn't). Autism was much ignored when she would very young. When she was older she had her own thoughts about what she wanted or not. She has seen numerous therapists over the years, but she is very emphatic that she doesn't want to be "fixed" only helped. Though I do read studies that show up on Science Daily.

  13. Well, this post is a very different one, compared with your usual style! I'm not scientific myself (historian), but I get the general gist of what you have explained. As a recent victim of e.Coli, my wife Jane (who is a scientist) would have some words to say on the subject of kefir, I think!