The 'terroir' within

Maintaining digestive health is a lot like maintaining a healthy garden

"Terroir" is an identifiable word to deft wine drinkers and French speakers, but it should also be familiar to anyone interested in a healthy immune system, strong bones and good energy levels.

Athletes especially come to mind, though terroir, which translates to "soil" in English, is critical to those facing and recovering from health challenges, as well.

Terroir is the characteristic sense of place notable in a wine. Its earthy "nose," chalky minerality, breadth of character — all are deeply connected to the soil, topography and climate in which the grapes are grown.

When discussing digestive health, I often draw a parallel between the health of one's gut, our internal terroir, and that of the soil in which we grow food. A healthy gut and soil both ideally harbor countless acclimatized microorganisms, allowing for and ushering forth the transformation of one thing to another, providing the raw materials that support plants and, later, the health of animals, like us, who eat them.

Soil microbes, for example, "fix" nitrogen — a central element for plant growth — into the soil, with the help of legumes and other plants.

Human gut microbes, on the other hand, generate energy, help manufacture vitamins and are a pillar of the immune system. They help fix us, protecting their host from various diseases in multiple ways, even managing conditions such as allergies and asthma, which appear on the surface to have nothing to do with digestion.

"Probiotic" is the term used to describe the microorganisms, mostly bacteria, which populate the gut and generate energy through fermentation of dietary fiber. Possibly because this fermentation process results in the production of a form of vitamin K (K2), those with healthier, more prolific gut bacterial populations may be less susceptible to osteoporosis. In addition to regulating blood clotting, vitamin K is central to bone mineralization, working in tandem with calcium, vitamin D, magnesium and other nutrients.

Your intestinal terroir is best maintained through the intake of nutrients central to gut health, including the probiotic bacteria themselves. Good sources include fermented foods such as yogurt, kefir, unpasteurized sauerkraut and kimchi. Many pickled foods, such as ginger, olives and veggies are good sources of probiotics, along with foods like miso and tempeh, as long as they are unpasturized.

Maintaining digestive health is not much different from a farmer adding nutrients and organic matter back to the land. Both require commitment and work that yield lasting benefits.

Michael Altman is a nutritionist at Ventana Wellness and the Centre for Natural Healing. He teaches at Southern Oregon University and College of the Siskiyous. E-mail him at michael@ventanawellness.com


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