Growing up in a small town in Bulgaria where everyone had their vegetable gardens made me appreciate plants, their nutritional powers and the care and attention it takes to grow them from early childhood. I would help my parents and grandparents, tend to them and when the summer and autumn came, I would help harvest beautiful corn, tomatoes, cucumbers, quinces, watermelons….
I would look forward to that process, because, I finally can taste literally the fruit of mine, of our, labour. Back then, in the early 90s, my family ate seasonal, like most families. There were no strawberries in the middle of winter or leeks in the height of summer.
We would enjoy what is in season and then in late autumn preserve what we can – cabbages turned into pickles (sort of Bulgarian sauerkraut sometimes made in old wine barrels), sweet fruits such as cherries and strawberries turned into compotes, ripe tomatoes were made into homemade tomato sauces to use in cooking, peppers were roasted in enormous batched on the barbeque then peeled and frozen.
As a teenager I moved from the small town, from the garden, from eating with the seasons. With focus on studying and later career progression, nature became a weekend enjoyment. I still ate a lot of vegetables, bought from the supermarket. I didn’t appreciate them as much as I have not worked hard to grow them. I exploited to the maximum the possibility of eating mangoes on a cold winter day, just because I could!
Now, that I am an officially a grown up I have my own small garden where I, we, have been enjoying growing plants. I have slowly returned to my childhood memories and revived my gardening skills. With my nutrition knowledge and wholistic approach regarding health, I could not help but admire what growing plants has taught be about health and wellness.
And here is what I would like to share with you:
The importance of having the right terrain.
The soil plants are planted in determines how much they grow, flower and fruit. The soil terrain very much reminds me of our gut, which I very much liken to a garden, its own ecosystem. If our internal garden or microbiome is disrupted, which it often is because of overuse of antibiotics, toxic environments, preservatives in food or too much sugar, that might lead to imbalances linked to disease, or simply prevent us from reaching our optimal health!
Growing vegetables has taught be a lot about patience and delayed gratification. You have to saw the seed, water regularly, shield, fertilise, prune. No one has even sawn a seed expecting a fruit tomorrow. And yet when it comes to health and especially with chronic conditions, we are sometimes very impatient. Every new thing we try has to work immediately or we abandon it. Yes, some cases medication such as Ibuprofen works almost immediately, but you have to understand that such medications often work on a symptom by simply blocking a pain receptor. They are not addressing the main cause of the headache, which might be many things such as hormone imbalance, poor diet or having an underlying inflammation. As a nutritional therapist I work with clients to identify and then address these imbalances and sometimes that takes time, patience, and hard work – very much like growing a garden!
We all need sun and clean water
This one is very much self-explanatory, but isn’t it striking! Plants need the sun for a process call photosynthesis, where they create energy. We mostly derive our energy from food, which is derived from plants and animals. In addition, sun exposure in humans is essential for the production of vitamin D, which is one of the most important vitamins related to numerous immune system processes. Furthermore, our sleep wake cycles often called circadian rhythms are closely linked to daylight and sunlight. And water? Water helps transport important nutrients throughout the plant, very much the same as one of the main processes it does in the human body.
Symbiosis is any type of close, long-term, relationship between two organisms. Plants, fighting for survival and because of nutrients are often depleted in the soil form symbiotic relationships. In some cases, plants invite funguses to grow in their roots, plants such as Ivy fight for light by growing on trees and bees and pollinating represent a lovely symbiotic relationship between plants and insects. Now, you might be wondering how I might be linking symbiotic existence and health?
Well, being part of a network, having close relationships in one’s life has actually been shown to benefit one’s health immensely. We are all ‘heard animals’ and research has even shown that social rejection, an un-symbiotic or parasitic relationship in a way (and these exist in nature too), can induce negative changes at DNA level. Being lonely has been found to be as bad as smoking! As part of the nutritional therapy consultations, registered nutritionists and functional medicine practitioners assess not only diet, but also potential impact of wider social networks and lifestyle.
Hormesis is a term which refers to adaptive responses of biological systems to moderate environmental or self-imposed challenges. Did you know that organic fruits and vegetables have higher nutrient content because they have to protect themselves from stress of pests and disease without the help of pesticides? In response to stress they produce more antioxidants to combat these, which is turn make them more nutritionally superior.
Hormesis, or little stress is essential to health and wellbeing too. A little stress from exercise has been shown to be beneficial in increasing metabolism and immune system defenses. A little stress from intermittent fasting has also been shown to be very beneficial overall, for things such as apoptosis (programmed cell death) and blood sugar control. Even psychologically, dealing with stress and challenges sometimes makes us stronger. There are many benefits to going outside of our comfort zone once in a while!
Finally, don’t forget that we have so many similarities with plants and animals because we are one with nature. So, invite nature in your home by growing indoor and outdoor plants, walk exercise or rest in nature more, and finally don’t forget to also invite nature onto your plate – by eating plenty of colourful fruits and vegetables!