Herbivores have evolved to have two stomachs. The first one is called the rumen, where grasses, barks and impossible-to-digest-by-humans plant matter are digested by millions of plant-eating microbes. Rumens and the saliva of herbivores are either alkaline or neutral, allowing just about every kind of microbe to hit the rumen alive and well.
The rumen is such a finely tuned digestive machine that scientists in a lab have not yet been able to reproduce its digestive prowess to foster the extraordinary growth of healthy microbes. The sheer number and variety of these microbes make it possible for herbivores to fully break down just about any plant and plant cell into its essential nutrients.
In the rumen, after the vitamins, minerals, proteins and other nutrients are separated from the indigestible cellulose, these nutrients enter into the second stomach, which is much like our first stomach. Digestive acids further break down these nutrients, enabling them to be absorbed into the bloodstream to feed the cells of the body.
The Real Locavores
Interestingly the herbivores’ diet changes dramatically from season to season and, like a symphony, the microbes needed to digest each seasons’ harvest thrive with each seasonal queue. The woody branches and barks of winter are replaced with the greens of spring and the acorns of fall.
Bacteria suited to digest the soft leaves and bitter roots of spring populate the rumen in the spring and vanish by summer, while microbes that feed on the fruits and greens of summer are replaced by a new population of microbes that digest the tough wood fibers of winter.
What Happens Next Will Blow Your Mind!
The following is an excerpt from a book called, The Forest Unseen.
“Sudden changes in the diet can disrupt this elegant molding of the rumen community and its environment. If a deer is fed corn or leafy greens in the middle of winter, its rumen will be knocked off balance, acidity will rise uncontrollably, and gases will bloat the rumen. Indigestion of this kind can be lethal.”
In other words, when an herbivore eats foods that are not in season, it causes a drastic shift in the microbiology, leading to severe indigestion that can actually kill the herbivore. When cows are taken from pastures and suddenly fed grain instead of grasses, they have to be medicated to pacify the rumen.
As we realize that we are omnivores and not herbivores, but clearly this is food for thought! We are as connected to the cycles of nature as the herbivores, albeit in a different way. If eating foods that are not in season can kill a deer, this a message for us to begin to respect the diet that has been right in front of us all along – the diet that follows the harvests of nature!
There is no doubt that the microbes in our intestinal tract change according to diet and seasonal influences. Yes, perhaps we are more resilient to these changes – but are we immune to them?
The ancient principles of Ayurveda tell us that we are not immune to these changes and that, moreover, our survival depends on honoring them.
The Forest Unseen. David George Haskell. 2012. Penguin Books.
Courtesy: Dr. J. Douillard