Soil as Medicine

During my diverse travels and research I am constantly seeking new tools to improve the lives and productivity of food producers. There is compelling research to suggest that soil is more than just the fragile layer that produces our food. It is also good for us in other ways.

Soil Life Boosts Your Life

I have always felt at peace with the world when surrounded by the sweet smell of healthy soil, with the sun on my shoulder and the sweat on my brow. I figured that my meditative gardening vibe related to communing with nature, but who would have thought that it could have a microbial link? It now seems that growers have yet another motivation to restore their soil life with Nutrition Farming® strategies. Healthy, living soils contain thousands of different species of bacteria and several of these are important for our own health and happiness. Look after your soil and it will look after you, in many unexpected ways.

London oncologist Dr Mary Marsden experimented with inoculating cancer patients with a beneficial bacterium found in healthy soils, called Mycobacterium vaccae. She soon realised that the treated lung cancer patients suffered less symptoms, but they also had more energy, they felt happier and their cognitive function improved.

Dr Chris Lowry from Bristol University in the UK decided to further explore this remarkable new finding. He hypothesised that the "feel good" hormone, serotonin, might be produced as a by-product of our immune response to this particular bacteria. In studies involving injected mice, he found increased cytokine levels (a precursor to serotonin) in the treated animals. He also found a marked stress reduction in those that had been injected.

Then, two US researchers, Dorothy Matthews and Susan Jenks, decided to directly feed the bacteria to the mice in their study, rather than injecting it. They subjected the treated mice and the untreated control group to a challenge involving difficult mazes. They found that the mice who had consumed Mycobacterium vaccae "navigated the maze twice as fast and exhibited half of the anxiety behaviours". Serotonin is thought to play a role in learning and concentration, along with its many other benefits.

Serotonin, or the lack of it, is very often the root cause of anxiety and depression. Antidepressant drugs are generally based upon boosting serotonin. There are other ways that we can help ensure adequate serotonin production. For example, it is important to sleep in complete darkness because that is a primary requirement for your pineal gland to manufacture serotonin and melatonin. I carry masking tape in my suitcase to silence the LED lights in the many hotel rooms I visit during my seminar tours. I need sleep to maintain my hectic schedule and, if melatonin production is slowed, it is a recipe for insomnia.

Tryptophan is the amino acid ‘building block’ for serotonin. Supplementation with this natural substance has outperformed antidepressant drugs in several published studies.

This new research suggests that farming or gardening in living, healthy soils may boost our wellbeing – particularly if we consume a little of that healthy soil from time to time. There are other beneficial organisms in soil that can effectively make healthy topsoil a probiotic-like input. It has served this purpose for centuries prior to our obsession with "germs". Root vegetables were once coated in a little of the soil that produced that crop. Now we scrub and wash them sparkling clean; although it is probably a good practice, considering the nematicides, pesticides and herbicides that are now used in industrial agriculture.

Bacillus subtilis is a wonderful example of the possible probiotic effect of soil. This creature protects from mould diseases on plants and helps to solubilise phosphorus in the soil, but it is also a powerful immune elicitor. Anything that boosts plant immunity also boosts yield.

Interestingly, Bacillus subtilis is also an important component of our personal protective biology. This organism is remarkably tough. It can survive the bile salts and hydrochloric acid and successfully colonise the digestive tract. Studies have shown that it can help counter Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS). It can also help neutralise a variety of unwanted pathogens, while supporting and enhancing the growth of protective Lactobacillus.

In Conclusion

The message is clear. Let your children play in chemical-free soil and eat organic, fresh vegetables. The words" humus" and "human" mean the same thing – "of and for the earth". We are increasingly recognising the wisdom in this ancient definition.

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