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The Symbiotic Relationship Between Plants And Microbes
Emerging research is suggesting that the microbes on each plant offer benefits to the plants in terms of growth, immunity and phytochemistry and, in turn, the plants offer many such benefits to the microbes in a symbiotic relationship. (13)
If 90% of the cells in the human body are made up of microbial cells, (14) and these microbes are essential to our health (7,15), mood, (8) and our very existence, then what intelligence are the microbes that are living on the plants we eat adding to the nutrient potency and biochemistry of plants, and then turning into us?
Every spring, which I like to call “nature’s new year,” a new stable of intestinal microbes are established in the gut. (1-3) Interestingly, while the growth rate of microbes is slower in the winter months (both in the ground and consequently, in our gut), the soil’s microbes still have the ability to grow in frozen soil. (4,5) The microbes, while underground, are far from dormant during the winter and actually their underground winter activity has a huge impact on the carbon balance of the ecosystem. (4) Maintaining proper carbon balance is important because it regulates the exchange of carbon between the biosphere, the earth, the air, and the water, and helps maintain a healthy planet for all life forms.
Come spring, the ground swells with emerging microbial activity. (2) These microbes are attracted to specific plants and when we eat those plants, they become our brand new microbiome.
Similar to when you buy a new car, much of the same features are still there, just a newer, flashier version – unless you made some dramatic shifts in moods, residence or diet. The new model of the spring microbiome is thought to support the needs for that season.
As described by botanist David George Haskell in his book The Forest Unseen, (6) seasonal microbes flourish on cue to digest the woody, branches and barks of winter, the greens of spring and the acorns of fall.
According to Ayurveda, the digestive shift in the spring also helps our body’s burn fat better and decongest the mucous membranes in a season where both the earth and body are holding onto more water. This shift is also greatly supported by the unique nature of the spring harvest. Roots, sprouts and spring greens not only offer the intestines a good scrubbing, but they prepare the intestines to be repopulated with new spring microbes.
While most of the studies on foods have focused on the biochemistry and phytochemicals in each plant, little has been done on the impact of the microbes that are hitching a ride from the soil to the plant to our bodies. We now know that once these soil and plant microbes become our microbiome, they do the heavy lifting for just about every physiological function in the body. (7-9)
We have given much attention to eating fermented foods and taking probiotics to reboot a healthy and diverse microbiome, but what about preserving the microbes in the soil and on the plants we eat? Conventional produce lacks the abundance of microbes due to pesticides and fertilizers compared to organic foods.
Perhaps we think we can wash off many of the insecticides, but we cannot replace the dead microbes (killed by pesticides) that supported these foods from seedlings. Perhaps the more important reason to eat organic is to preserve the intelligence of the plant microbes that are naturally offered. Though the roles these microbes play for the benefit of the plants is not yet fully understood, many symbiotic plant-microbe relationships have been established and their functions understood. (10)
These microbial changes in the soil and plants are linked to changes in the functions of the microbes as well. The key ingredient to initiate these microbial identity and functional changes is the seasons. (10-12)
Food For Thought
What are examples of how you eat with the seasons through your dietary choices? What are your favorite seasonal foods in spring?
- Haskell, David George. The Forest Unseen: A Year’s Watch in Nature. Penguin Books, 2012.