Medicine from our food

Presenting an image of a jar of vitamin C capsules and one of dandelion seeds, M.S. Kate Elmer Westdijk asked her captive audience what was wrong with the picture. On a first glance, nothing looked out of the ordinary. Just a couple of jars you can find in any pharmacy or supermarket. Of course, that wasn’t the point. of the image.

Vitamin C can be found in many of the foods that we eat, not only in a jar we find at the pharmacy. We know that kiwi is very rich in it and that eating an orange never hurt anyone. We also see dandelions everywhere, both in the North and in the South. In fact, many gardeners even consider them a weed. In various countries in Europe, though, this plant is used as a diuretic and to treat digestion problems.

So why, when we have vitamins and medicines in the food we eat, do we go to a pharmacy or supermarket to get a processed version of what we need? Those same benefits we can get from our community gardens or through fresh food bought at the farmer’s market or supermarket.

While we processed the idea, Kate went on with more important facts: how food can be preventive medicine for many health issues: diabetes, arteriosclerosis, etc.

Flavonoids, for example, have antioxidant effects and protect our blood vessels. They also increase the sensitivity of our cells to insulin, making it easier for the body to incorporate the sugar into the cells, instead of circulating in our blood. All this from foods that are easy to find in the grocery store or cultivated in our gardens, such as dark chocolate or red, blue, and purple berries.

The fact that eating whole foods and nutrient rich foods is good for us isn’t really news. Over the past decades many nutritionists and health professionals have talked about this topic, yet we still struggle with the notion.

Kate and many others are actively working to bring herbs and whole foods as medicine into our lives, so that we can start taking care of our bodies in a more ecologically sustainable way. By growing our own medicine, the costs of, for example, vitamin supplements in your household would go down, so would the plastic that comes with them. As you walk through your hometown, have you ever wondered how many of the plants you see could replace that jar of vitamins?

Probably many do. If in doubt, sites like Pubmed, although scary for those that don’t work in science, can help you find trustworthy, scientist-reviewed information about the health properties of the plants you find close to you. It just takes a curious and patient mind, and the desire to improve the quality of our lives, from our own backyard.

All this doesn’t mean that conventional medicine isn’t important. It saves millions of lives every day. The point here is that there are some medicines that can also be found in nature, and are also cheaper for the health of our planet. We would be growing more food, producing less plastic waste. We would be greener. In a way, by using more natural medicines when they can be found, we would be taking care not only of ourselves, but of our planet.

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What came first…?

What came first the chicken or the egg? Err… I mean, the earthworms or the high pH?

Dr. Josef Görres is a smart, funny and kind person that teaches in the Department of Plant and Soil Sciences of the University of Vermont and everyone in there knows he is the expert on worms. He is the kind of professor that if you need to talk about anything, he is the person to go talk to.

The previous week, in the seminar series of the department, he presented us with a paradox. The results he and his collaborators have gathered show that there is a correlation between the presence of earthworms and a high pH* in the soil.

Why do we care? Soil pH is very important for plant growth and nutrient availability for those plants. pH can influence, therefore, what plants can grow in certain soils. Also, the earthworms in the soils of Vermont are not native. All the original ones died in the last glaciation era and the ones we have now have been imported from Europe and Asia by mistakes and by companies that sell them for the use of vermicomposting (composting with worms).

Dr. Görres told us that the presence of earthworms stimulates bacteria (either in the soil or in their own guts) to metabolize ammonia (NH4+), turning it into nitrate (NO3) and, in the process, releasing a proton (H+) into the soil, which for all practical purposes should decrease the pH in the soil. 

Instead, his results show a high pH in those soils. Why?

One theory is that the soils were originally alkaline (high pH) and the earthworms were attracted to these soils for some reason. Another is that fungi or bacteria might use the protons that earthworms release. 

That is what Dr. Görres is trying to find out, but until he and his team give us an answer: who came first? Earthworms or high pH?

Any clues?


*For those needing a reminder on pH, it is the value from 1 to 14 assigned to describe the level of acidity or of alkalinity of a solution. This value is determined with the concentrations of protons (H+) in the solution. A pH of 7 is neutral, while a lower one shows a high contentration of H+ (acid pH). Concentrations of H+ that are very low give a pH number higher than 7 (alkaline pH).

Agroecology in Cuba before and after the revolution

Cuba (Image property of nbcnews.com)

Street of Cuba (Image property of nbcnews.com)

My journey as a writer begins with a departmental seminar given today at the University of Vermont in the US.  Armed with a pen and my notebook I crossed to the Davis Center, excited about the talk I was about to listen to.

As I went up the stairs to the fourth floor, I joined a big crowd that was lost amid the many conference rooms. They were all looking for room 203 without any luck. After a couple of minutes we were able to safely find the room, though there was another matter to resolve before the conference began: we were too many people trying to fit in a room that could hold at most 50 people.

After an apology and a bid for patience, the host proceeded to lead us to another (much bigger) room. Another few minutes passed before the last stragglers realized they had missed the coffee and donuts as they found their seats. There was such a turnout that some people even had to sit on the floor.

With a warm introduction of the speaker by both the host and the executive director of the Vermont Caribbean Institute, the talk began. With the mixture of charm and charisma that latin american people have, Dr. Fernando Funes Aguilar proudly introduced us to his country and reviewed the state in which agriculture was before and after the revolution in 1959.

When Christopher Columbus arrived in 1492, almost 95 % of the island that is known to us as Cuba had been covered with trees. As man colonized the island and the natives had been exterminated, the trees were cut down to make space for agriculture. Fast-forwarding to the years before 1959, only 14 % of the forested lands remained and the country’s natural resources were being over-exploited. At the time agriculture consisted in only one kind of crop: sugar cane.

After the social revolution, another revolution came: the green revolution. It consisted of a more aggressive form of agriculture were the input of chemical fertilizers is extremely high. By 1989, Cuba was adding the double amount of fertilizers to the ground than US or the rest of latin america. This green revolution was a revolution that was also implemented in India, with the same terrible results. To name a few: soil degradation which prevented crops from growing, more deforestation and low food self-sufficiency, among other effects. Most of the food of the country had to be imported.

In the 1990’s, things became worse. Cuba had joined the socialist block of countries and after their fall, support and materials from those countries stopped coming. Cuba had two options, to sit down and cry or to stand tall and work to become self-supporting. It chose the second option.

As Dr. Funes Aguilar told us, they now have reforested some of the land (24 % of forests), the have not only countryside farms, but also a new alternative: urban farms. Whole gardens and balconies of houses now grow fruits and vegetables. From 1994 to 2006 they now produce a 1000 times more food. Some of the methods in their program consist of teaching people and farmers to learn by doing and by talking among farmers. They use less fertilizers and have started using the soils own biodiversity to enrich their degraded soils. Vermicomposting (the use of earthworms along with compost) and the use of manure are now more common tools that farmers learn to use.

As I sat there listening to how proudly Dr. Funes Aguilar talked about his country’s effort in making Cuba a better place to live, I thought of all the countries that would benefit from introducing such practices. I thought of how much people go to sleep hungry because their governments are too busy getting rich to take care of their people. Perhaps some day they will learn and I can sit at another talk with someone proudly telling me how they are now better. Meanwhile, it is in each one of us to try to make the world better by taking care of the earth that is near us and by lending our hands to our neighbours.