In many ways, our guts are like a grassy meadow. In a healthy meadow, layers of protection prevent toxins from seeping into the valuable groundwater below. The uppermost level is composed largely of grasses and other species of plant life, all with their roots and foliage intermixed into a kind of carpet. Living among the foliage are numerous animal organisms, from rabbits and mice to butterflies and caterpillars. Hundreds if not thousands of species of plant, animal and insect life make up this outer layer.
Underneath this outer, grassy layer is the topsoil, also teeming with life; one tablespoon of soil comprises billions of micro-organisms. Moving about and through the topsoil are also larger life forms, such as slugs and earthworms, all of which have crucial roles to play.
Underneath and supporting the topsoil is the subsoil layer. The subsoil is less “alive,” having far fewer living organisms than either the topsoil or the grassy layer. It mostly serves as a layer of support, a physical foundation onto which the above layers can be built. Underneath the subsoil is the crucial groundwater layer, which can be seen as the supportive, nutritive structure for the living layers above it.
Our gut has similar layers. The top layer consists of thousands of different types of organisms, which form a kind of grassy “mat” covering the intestines below. This layer is now called our microbiome. The role our microbiome plays in our health is just beginning to be explored by medicine and science. What we have discovered thus far is that our microbiome goes a long way toward determining the state of our health. Disorders of the microbiome, usually caused by a compromise of the rich diversity of inherent species, are associated with obesity, autoimmune disease, allergies, heart disease, and many other increasingly common problems.
Underneath our microbiome is a layer of intestinal villi, little hair-like protrusions that function much like the topsoil of our meadow. These villi increase the surface area of our gut, allowing increased absorption of the nutrients from the food. They also secrete enzymes that help in the digestion of the food, and they interact with the microbiome to foster diversity within the microbiome. In addition, they are the first-line barrier in preventing toxins from breaching the intestinal wall and finding their way into our bloodstream.
Below the villi is the muscular layer of the intestinal wall. This layer is analogous to the subsoil in that it provides a supportive structure for the layers above. Also, like the subsoil, it blocks the leakage of toxins into the bloodstream. The bloodstream on the inner side of the muscular layer is the nutritive stream of our gut system, much like groundwater functions in our healthy meadow.
In both systems, the goal is to create a healthy ecosystem that prevents unwanted toxins from leaking into the fluid layer below. And in both systems, things can go wrong. In our guts, usually through the combination of poor diet, antibiotic use and toxic exposure, we can end up with a sickly, inadequate, low-diversity microbiome. As a result, we are unable to properly digest our food, we have poor immune function and, crucially, our microbiome is unable to protect the villi below. It is similar to the situation of overgrazing cattle on a meadow, leading to the depletion of the topsoil. The blunted and unhealthy villi then fail to protect the muscular layer below, and the whole system starts to leak. This condition is referred to as leaky-gut syndrome, and, as I pointed out, it is the root cause of many common health challenges.
Although repairing our inner ecology can be complex, in every case it must start with a healthy, diverse, completely organic diet along the lines of “Nourishing Traditions.” In addition, everyone needs to eat properly lacto-fermented foods, such as sauerkraut, kefir, beet kvass and many others. Finally, a good start is to consume daily a wide diversity of plant foods. One of these foods should be from the allium family, of which leeks should be included. Microbiome researchers say that leeks contain inulin, a type of fiber that feeds the all-important good bacteria in the gut.
Eating leeks daily — either fresh or in the form of our delicious Leek Powder — will not only provide your gut with important prebiotics, it will also supply other nutrients and co-factors for the maintenance of healthy villi. Eating organically grown leeks is a great start for all of us to support, strengthen and nourish our all-important inner meadow.
In health and gratitude,
Tom Cowan, M.D.