Or, How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Eat More Yogurt
For the past year or so, an idea has been brewing in my head. Or maybe it’s really been fermenting in my large intestine, and has finally bubbled up towards my brain. It has to do with the roots of who we are — why do we do what we do? What’s pulling the strings of humanity? Who’s really making the decisions around here?
Throughout history, there has been a dichotomy about decision-making — should you follow your head, or your heart? If you follow your head, you are aiming to make a rational decision — one thought out thoroughly, consequences and all. If you follow your heart, you are making an emotional one. There are those of us who tend to follow our heads and consider ourselves animals of logic, and those that follow our hearts, the animals of passion.
A third player has been involved this whole time, one whose importance and underlying power is becoming clearer every day: the stomach. Yes, it has been known for a while that what we consume is vital to our being: see e.g. Brillat-Savarin’s “Dis-moi ce que tu manges, je te dirai ce que tu es” or the common “the way to a man’s heart is through his stomach.” But I would argue that the power of the stomach is deeper than all that; it, in fact, is running the show.
(And I’m not talking here about W’s ‘gut,’ the decider at the White House for 8 years.)
In October 2012, a fascinating article was published in the New Yorker, entitled “Germs Are Us,” by Michael Specter. In it, Specter explores the new science of the microbiome, the cosmos of microorganisms that coexist with us. It’s something like 100 trillion bacteria, which weigh about a kilo. That’s right, in your large intestine, there are 100 trillion bugs that weigh more than 2 pounds. An initial reaction to that is likely disgust. After that, though, we need to start to understand who these bugs are, and what sort of relationship do they have with us. Is there a friendly symbiosis, as between the rhino and the oxpecker? Or is it malicious, as between uninvited lampreys and their hosts?
The answer, of course, is both. The “bad bug” Eschericia coli has killed hundreds of people in recent years, while the presence of Helicobacter pylori has been shown recently to correlate with a lower incidence of asthma in children. But it’s more complicated than that: E. coli is present but harmless in a majority of our guts, and the presence of H. pylori in people, especially as they age, can lead to peptic ulcers and stomach cancer. This complexity extends to the hundreds of bacterial species coexisting within us: in proper balance, they can keep us healthy, but when thrown off (by a dose of antibodies, for example), they can put our systems way out of whack.
The deep relationship between us and our microbiota affects everything in our lives. One dramatic finding has been about two stomach hormones, leptin and ghrelin, that interact with H. pylori to regulate the amount we eat. A lifetime of antibody doses alters this interaction, leading to incorrect signals — our stomachs may be full but our brains don’t get the message (this corroborates an observation from the meat industry, that giving animals preventative antibiotics plumps them up nicely, an unintended but lucrative consequence of such treatment).
The effect of this relationship with our microbiota extends to our moods as well. Superficially, the previous example can be extended to a logical conclusion about this connection: losing appetite regulatory triggers can lead to overeating can lead to image consciousness can lead to depression. More deeply, though, scientists have started to examine the connection between our brain and our gut more closely — research indicates that there is a circular relationship, that is, having a properly balanced gut can improve mental health, while mental illness — anxiety, depression — can negatively affect the makeup of one’s microbiome. Studies to examine correlation are underway, and projects like American Gut of the Human Food Project are attempting to map the microbiomes of people with various diets and mental dispositions.
So, what does this have to do with culinary diplomacy? Simple. If culinary diplomacy is the use of food as an instrument to create cross-cultural understanding in hopes of improving interactions and cooperation, we all need to take a step back to look at the food we are consuming and sharing — and what effect it has on ours and others’ guts. We need to keep in mind that our personal moods may be based on what we had for breakfast — or what we’ve been eating for breakfast for years — when we sit down with friends or enemies to negotiate a treaty or decide where to go for dinner. This is true gastrodiplomacy — what goes on in our gastrointestinal systems deeply effects our decisions and the lives of the people around us. The moody bus driver who snapped at you when you didn’t have exact change? Maybe he should have had some lacto-fermented pickles with dinner last night. The depressed waitress at the diner? Fewer fries, more kefir. A madman killing his own people and defying the world? Have some yogurt, please!
Of course it’s not as simple as all that, but it adds a new twist to the considerations of culinary diplomats. At state dinners, should chefs include a probiotic in order to improve the mood of the meal (beyond what the wine can do, of course)? When introducing a foreign cuisine to a new eater, should the experiment contain something probiotic to increase the chances of enjoyment (though stinky tofu and limburger cheese might not be great places to start)? Would a cultural exchange be more effective if it involves live cultures, like Lactobacillus delbrueckii bulgaricus and assorted bifidobacteria?
So now to conclude this lengthy diatribe on guts. As Stephen Colbert once said, “The gut’s infallible, it’s like the Pope of your torso.” Infallible may be overstating it, but the gut is very important, and understanding its microbial residents may help to explain why we act the way we do. While the research may be nascent, it’s safe to say that regulating our microbiomes is vital to health, and may even be vital for world peace. So go forth, eat more yogurt, and may your microbiota prosper.
More reading on this topic.
Dr. Siri Carpenter, “That Gut Feeling.” American Psychological Association, September 2012.
Sandor Ellix Katz, The Art of Fermentation.
Michael Pollan, “Some of My Best Friends Are Germs.” The New York Times, May 15, 2013.
Michael Pollan, Cooked.
Michael Specter, “Germs Are Us.” The New Yorker, October 22, 2012.