Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Chemistry of the Body... and the Land

I have an incessant need to rip and bite and pick apart my finger and toenails, the cuticles and the skin on knuckles. These are the parts of my body that enable me to act in this world- to reach out, step forward and carve my place in the world, and even when I've broken the habit a number of times of destroying my fingers, I can't seem to kick the toes. My feet are my foundation- my connection to the Earth. Perhaps this self-mutilation is a representation of my disconnection with my feet- my standing- that which supports me- the Earth, but I'm not the only one who has severed that relationship. And I'm not the only one trying to rebuild it.

Our agroindustrial-military complex stems from byproducts and excess raw materials of bombs from WWII that gave rise to chemical fertilizer and the government subsidies of the corn plant (not the farmer) and it wields the sword that has severed that connection between my feet and the Earth. We no longer walk on soil on farms, and the soil is no longer rich enough to supply the food it grows OR the vital nutrients that keep us healthy. Rather, monocultures, a mentality of "bigger, stronger, faster," and measuring the productivity of a farm (agribusiness) in yield-per-acre, along with the federal guarantee to protect corn from market pressures as well as environmental changes are the forces at work to strip value from the soil, diminish our health and break the connection between earth, plant, and human.

Gary Paul Nabhan, author of Why Some Like it Hot, discusses the role of place in our nutrition, and the relationship between our genes, culture and nutrition. These three factors influence the whole person in their development, mantainance, or destruction of health. Based on the evolution of our ancestors from hunter/gatherer societies to agricultural cultures with a settled sense of place and connection to local lands, plants and foodstuffs, the genes of our predecessors were shaped by the nutrient availablity in that place- be it Moldova, Italy, Greece, Peru, or the Americas. Where our families came from makes a difference in what we need, what we are susceptible to and what may be toxic for us.

For example, Nabhan looks in depth at the susceptibility of members of many Native American Indian tribes to alcoholism and diabetes. One major facet of the traditional Native diet includes a number of what are referred to as slow-starches, or complex carbohydrates that metabolize slowly and thus avoid creating a spike in blood-glucose levels typical of simple sugars (often processed, white sugars and flours, i.e. pastries, pasta etc.). Nabhan asserts that the regular consumption of these foods provided a kind of protection from the genetic predisposition of Native Peoples to insulin resistance (a pre-diabetic symptom) and alcohol sensitivity. When Native Peoples no longer had access to these traditional foods (being forced off of their own land and being made to rely on the US government for food and commodities on reservations), they were no longer protected from their genetic predispositions and thus experience highly processed sugars differently than do people whose ancestral genetic evolution did not include those sensitivities. Additionally, the advent of lactose TOLERANCE is a fairly new development in human genetics and nutrition and co-evolved with the domestication and use of animals as livestock. It became more efficient to contain the cows as livestock and harvest milk, butter and cheese from them than it did to follow the herds and hunt them for meat. This was simultaneous with the settling of groups of people in a single place and hence the development of a relationship with the place and the land. With milk available as a continuous source of fat and protein from the cows, gradually, some human genetics evolved to continue to produce lactase (the enzyme to break down the protein found in milk) into adulthood instead of slowly "turning off" that gene with aging. This coevolution of cow, place and human genetics, however, did not occur at the same time in all groups of people. Many Native American Indians were still engaging in hunter/gathering while other tribes and colonizers had already settled into place and habits of milk-drinking. This is an explanation for the many lactose-intolerant individuals, especially those of Native American Indian descent.

So there is this dialogue constantly happening between the places we've been (ancestrally speaking), the place in which we are, what our ancestors ate, and what we eat. That dialogue is written in our genes, and in the chemistry of our bodies- the constant flux and flow of biochemical interactions between our nutrition, our genes and our culture (which includes ways of thinking about food, bodies, history, and place- more on this in the next post!)

Long story short: There's a lot more involved in the health of our bodies and the health of the land- but it comes down to the relationship between those two.

No comments:

Post a Comment