May 21, 2020
“Let food be thy medicine and medicine be thy food.” — Hippocrates
After we just got used to living in our sweatpants and reading everything we ever wanted, the time has come to slowly return to our usual life. How long will this return take? — several weeks, months, a year, no one can say for certain. There is a huge number of theories put forward by the leading minds of science and economics about what to expect and how our lives will look in the next two years. Many of these calculations and their anticipation, such as the expectation of a second wave of the virus or the emergence of a possible mutation, can drive people into an even greater sense of depression and anxiety than the isolation itself. It’s true that the unknown and the overwhelming uncertainty scares people the most; the fear of what we don’t know can be debilitating. Throughout this crisis, COVID-19 has been described as an utterly unique event, a so-called “black swan”, an unpredictable misfortune which humanity had never confronted before. This is simply not true: people throughout the history of mankind have experienced far worse pandemics than COVID-19, resulting in much higher mortality rates and with less developed treatments and medicines. These types of diseases and epidemics came with a certain degree of regularity; if we were not ready for them when they reoccur, this does not mean that they did not happened before and with an equal intensity. It’s pointless to list all of these pandemics; it’s only necessary to emphasize the fact that mankind has the ability and faculties to cope with these terrible challenges and is strong enough to adapt to novel circumstances.
During those previous pandemics, it should be noted, there was no large-scale media that frightened people like they do now. Let’s not succumb to this fear. In times of ambiguity and uncertainty, we need to understand clearly what we must to do in these circumstance in order to protect ourselves and our loved ones. It is our own responsibility to be informed and to take the necessary actions in order to stay strong and healthy. The very first thing to do is to stop worrying since fear acts to weaken our immunity. While medicine addresses only the consequences of diseases, we should focus on supporting our immune system by strengthening its protective functions. We must act to improve our daily diet which directly helps our body fortify its immune system. It is necessary to see our food not solely as a source of pleasure, but as a tool or building block for our body. Since ancient times, people have identified one’s body with the quality of food one consumes—and they are absolutely correct. We must understand the importance of providing our body with the right balance of nutrients to support our physical, mental and emotional wellbeing.
The health of our digestive system is the key to the health of the whole organism. We are all familiar with such phrases as “going with your gut” or “having butterflies in your stomach,” but now research has shown these common expressions may actually have a scientific basis. It turns out we have a “second brain” residing in our gut.
The billions of neurons in the brain are constantly firing off signals that travel down the long vagus nerve sending messages to many of our inner organs, including our digestive tract. But our gut has its own army of neurons as well, the so-called Enteric Nervous System (ENS) embedded in the digestive tract lining. Around 85% of these neurons—and there are millions of them—are busy sending messages the other way, back up to our brain. Although this connection may hark back to the days when humans were hunter-gatherers and we literally had to rely on our “gut instincts” for survival, the link between our gut and our brain is no less significant today.
It’s the microorganisms colonizing our gut that play the key role here. The so-called “gut bacteria” or “gut flora” form part of a delicately balanced ecosystem in our digestive tract known as the microbiome. There are around 100 trillion microorganisms living in our large intestine alone and 300 to 500 species of bacteria. The composition of each person’s microbiome is as unique as our fingerprint. There are more bacteria cells than human cells in our body. You could even say that we are more bacteria or fungi than human. No matter how funny it sounds, it must be admitted that our body is a conglomeration of different forms of life for which it represents the universe. And as in any universe, there are a host of forces that perform various functions.
As well as aiding digestion and supplying essential nutrients, these microscopic living organisms also impact the rhythm and intensity of our ENS. So the trick is to encourage friendly bacteria that promote well-being both in the gut and beyond. Our good gut bacteria can help us build a strong protective system for the body, stabilizing and re-enforcing our immune system. Good gut bacteria do not like sweet and processed foods. Good gut bacteria prefer vegetables, fruits, grains, cereals rich in vitamins, minerals and fiber.
Illness, stress, fears, sugar, poor diet and antibiotics can impact negatively on our microbiome, reducing the number of good bacteria and allowing the bad ones to colonize the lining of our gut. This can lead to a range of chronic diseases, including irritated bowel syndrome, obesity and cancer. An unhappy gut can also affect our overall mood. A balanced gut-brain connection, therefore, works both ways.
A change in the microbiome triggers changes in our brain chemistry and that can have an impact on behavior, mood, memory and learning capacity. An unstable mood, anxiety and depression are all linked to the production of serotonin, the “feel-good hormone,” and we now know that the microorganisms living in our digestive tract are responsible for manufacturing most of the body’s serotonin, a key player in our mental well-being.
In conclusion, our bodies contain countless living organisms that rely on us to nourish them properly, just as we rely on them to keep us alive and healthy. We owe it to them, and to ourselves, to eliminate “empty” foods from our lives and develop the relationship with food that our ancestors instinctively embraced. It’s all about eating to live, not living to eat. We can also benefit from adding prebiotics and probiotics to our diet. Prebiotics are available in supplement form and/or you can enjoy them in prebiotic-rich foods like apples, bananas, asparagus, Jerusalem artichokes, garlic, onions and jicama root. Probiotics are available as well in supplement form and can also be found in foods such as yogurt, a fermented tea called kombucha, fresh sour dill pickles, kimchi (a Korean side dish traditionally made with fermented napa cabbage), sauerkraut and miso. In addition, one should make an effort to be in the sun in the morning or towards the early evening hours. Before the sun is at its zenith, its rays are very useful for our body. Sunbathing helps boost the body’s defenses. An active physical life is another mechanism for increasing body health. The good news is that we have summer ahead and it is this time of year which we are all waiting to spend as much time as possible in nature and outdoors. We can use these accessible tools to be the healthiest and strongest version of ourselves.
We must come to recognize that this virus will not disappear instantaneously; it will be around for months to come and most of us, sooner or later, will be exposed to it. How we respond to this encounter will depend on the health and resilience of our immune system. The prospects for the development of a vaccine are months, if not years, away, but in the meantime, we can strengthen the defense system of our body, so that when we are exposed to such threats, our immune system performs at its best, protecting us and ensuring our continued well-being.