Cooking Culture Health

The Ecosystem of the Gut

4427136496_9a031a2b46.jpgI’ll preface this with the fact that I’m no expert in diets, nutrition or the microscopic organisms that live in the human body.

What we put in our bodies is connected to our health and how we feel. It seems obvious, but it’s not something we think about every time we eat. Moving to another country makes you much more aware of what you eat, because it’s different in some way. In Bolivia they eat a lot of soup. Some people just eat soup for meals, but others have “segundo,” a second course of something like rice, meat and salad. Even things that seem familiar are not the same. Hamburgers and hot dogs are definitely Bolivian versions of their North American counterparts. So, there’s an adjustment to new flavors and foods.

Bolivia is currently in the midst of a severe drought. This obviously causes everything to be very dry. The result is that bacteria in the dirt and the streets is constantly stirred up into the air. Vendors in the street that don’t cover their food likely have some of this bacteria settling onto their food from the air. So, you’re breathing in air that’s different even if your avoiding street food that might be contaminated.

There’s also just a world of microflora wherever you go that is different from the microflora back home. (I’m sure our microflora are bigger in Texas.) So, just trying something new or eating at a different restaurant might expose you to a new microscopic world that could throw off your whole balance.

Since I come from a North American culture that tends to be germophobic, some people don’t realize that our bodies are full of bacteria and microorganisms. This ecosystem of microflora is actually necessary for us to coexist with our environment and the food we eat. We achieve a symbiosis with our native environment. When we pick up and fly to the other side of the world our current collection of bacteria and microorganisms don’t work quite as well. Suddenly we encounter microscope creatures in the air, water or our food that our body has never met before.


I’ve apparently met some of these strangers since we arrived in Bolivia. I had a random fever for a day. Then started feeling better, but with allergy symptoms. Then after visiting the Cristo de la Concordia and eating out for lunch and dinner I thought I was going to throw up for a whole day and never did. It was a blessing to have a visitor from MCC Bolivia tell me I wasn’t dying and that this was normal.

The ecosystem of our gut is a reminder that whether we like it or not we are creatures dependent and constantly interacting with the natural world, no matter how hard we try to change it or ignore it. On the flip side it should push us to think more about our relationship with those microorganisms. We ultra-pasteurize or milk to avoid bad bacteria, but kill off enzymes and bacteria that are good for us. Kombucha and kefir have complex cultures of yeasts and bacteria that might benefit us. How can we learn to live with our neighborhood friendly microflora instead of just trying to kill them off?

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