A Magazine About Food, Art & Exchange In Midtown Kingston, Published By The Hudson Valley Current.

Happy Microbes, Happy Life: Let Food Replace Thy Medicine

There seems to be some doubt about whether Hippocrates ever actually said, “Let thy food be thy medicine, and medicine, thy food,” although he’s been credited with the insight for a long, long time. Considering what a challenge it can be to get people to agree on what happened last year or last month, it should surprise no one that there is debate over what, exactly, the Greek remembered as the Father of Modern Medicine said in the 5th century BC.

The first recorded use of the precise phrase was in a London periodical in 1921; it was first attributed to Hippocrates in 1927. Now that I have satisfied the nitpickers out there, it’s fair to point out that even in Hippocrates’ day, those concerned with health were very much aware that what we put into our bodies is key.

This awareness was suppressed during the 20th century, as allopathic (conventional) practitioners deployed newly discovered pills and potions, and grocery brands developed equally whiz-bang creations with an eye to profit, convenience, and lengthy shelf life. To say that the results have been counterproductive would be a massive understatement. Big Pharma and Big Ag resist drawing any direct line between the prevalence of preservatives, trans fats, processed sugar, and growth hormones and the prevalence of diabetes, immune system disorders, and obesity, but the common sense of millions—many of them medically educated—begs to differ.

My mom was a real-food person, what the establishment called a “health nut,” a huge fan of the mid-20th century nutritionist Adelle Davis, who was forever trying to figure out how to get us to love wheat germ and lecithin and kept a dog-eared copy of a book called Vermont Folk Medicine right beside Davis’ classic Let’s Eat Right to Keep Fit. She did thrive into her mid-90s, and this is only one of many things I wish I’d listened to her about from day one instead of going out there and learning the hard way. 

Davis got smacked around by reviewers in the 1950s and 60s, but her basics have stood the test of time: stay clear of excess sugar, hydrogenated or saturated fats, and chemically processed foods, take it easy on the red meat, and stay active. And as science evolves, it’s becoming ever clearer that whether or not every citation was scholarly perfection, the woman had a point, as do the countless souls misquoting Hippocrates: What we ingest is the single most important factor in our wellness.

Just about everyone knows that cardiovascular disease is enormously impacted by diet. Fruits, veggies, whole grains, and low-fat proteins are better for us than processed foods high in sugar, salt, and saturated fats, not to mention chemical preservatives, and it’s estimated that up to 80% of premature heart disease can be directly traced to poor nutrition and/or lack of exercise.

Cancer, too, is traceable to unhealthy eating. The National Institute of Health says that 30-40% of cancer cases can be prevented with a healthy diet and lifestyle, going on to make the distinction that the search for amazing superfoods that prevent cancer, with its ups and downs, should not be confused with the settled truth that real, fresh food with the right nutrients helps prevent cancer; a diet high in red meat and refined sugar, and low in fiber has the opposite effect.

This is hardly new information, the basics haven’t changed. Shop the outside aisles of the supermarket, stay clear of things with endless lists of polysyllabic ingredients, and you’ll reduce your odds of getting not just heart disease or cancer, but diabetes and a host of other woes. Beyond that, though, researchers have been finding out more and more about how good, real, fresh food is, in fact, better medicine than most “medicine”, which the ancient Greeks defined as that which alters the state of the body without becoming part of it as food does.

Some of the most exciting research has been inquiry into the gut-brain axis. Digestion is accomplished by helpful little enteric microbiota that live within our gastrointestinal tracts. Those little critters don’t just break food down into “building blocks” that “build strong bodies,” as we all learned in elementary school. It’s been determined that they actually pretty much control our minds. “The gut-brain axis (GBA) consists of bidirectional communication between the central and the enteric nervous system, linking emotional and cognitive centers of the brain with peripheral intestinal functions,” explain the good folks at the NIH.

This awareness unlocks vast new possibilities for understanding and treatment of some of medicine’s trickiest problems, from irritable bowel syndrome and immune disorders to mood and cognitive issues. Gut microbiota influence every aspect of brain function; in turn, stress on the brain influences the health of the gut. (You would think that centuries of human existence, including as it does “butterflies” in the stomach and being too upset to eat would have been a clue, and indeed they have been to generations of intuitive healers; modern science is confirming common sense by, among other things, studying induced colitis in mice.)

Each person’s microbiome is distinctive as a fingerprint, but healthy people have abundant microbiota distributed throughout their gastrointestinal tracts, in constant two-way communication with their brains. Our health and homeostasis is utterly dependent on untold millions of teeny, eeny, weenie life forms living happily within us.

Big Food and Big Pharma will still deny any connection between the rise of processed foods and medications with long, terrifying lists of side effects and the increase in a wide variety of extremely disturbing health problems, of course. But the more we push back, eat real, and keep our microbiota blissful, the closer we’ll get to a blissful existence both internally and interpersonally. 

Who’da thunk it? Well, exact phrasing aside, Hippocrates clearly did; he said so in lots of other ways. And so did Mom. Maybe it’s time I gave wheat germ another try.