5 Farm-to-Body Health Lessons
Wisdom from Dr. Daphne Miller’s new book, Farmacology
It sounds like the premise of a zany sitcom: A Berkeley-based doctor who admits she doesn’t know the difference between humus (the soil layer) and hummus (the pita topping) visits farms across the country and wackiness ensues! But there’s nothing simplistic or surfacey about Farmacology, the new book by Daphne Miller, MD, a professor of family medicine at University of California, San Francisco. Here, why drinking raw milk is a little like having unprotected sex, along with some other surprising lessons she learned along the way.
1. Chickens can teach us about good stress vs. bad stress
“We have this fantasy that pasture-raised hens are living in some kind of Club Med,” says Dr. Miller. “But they have their own kinds of stressors: They can get picked off by a hawk or a bobcat, or terrified by a thunderstorm.” Sometimes, those stressors kill (see hawk, above)—but most of the time, “it’s a healthy jolt to the system and then they go back to their healthy, playful lives.” Note to us all: Pasture-hen stress is the kind we should all be after. Factory-raised birds may never know the terror of going beak-to-fang with a bobcat—but the conditions of living in a crowded henhouse lead to chronic, low-grade stress. “That’s the kind most of us experience,” Dr. Miller says: “poor sleep and nutrition, bad relationships—being overcrowded on the subway.” It’s also the kind that most taxes our immune systems. (Calm your stressed self in a hurry with these 22 Ways To Chill Out.)
2. Drinking raw milk is a little like having unprotected sex
“I’d come to regard drinking unpasteurized dairy as tantamount to having unprotected sex; in both situations one should only consider doing it after a good deal of intimacy and trust have been established and preferably some testing has taken place,” writes Dr. Miller in a chapter devoted to visiting Rockin’ H cattle ranch in Missouri. Satisfied with the sustainable farm’s practices, she took a swig of unpasteurized milk and not only lived to tell but began delving into the controversial and intriguing world of raw dairy. Under the wrong conditions, raw milk can host potentially deadly pathogens, including salmonella and E. coli. But some studies, including one published in 2011 in the Journal of Clinical and Experimental Allergy, suggest that unprocessed farm-fresh cow’s milk may decrease the risk of developing asthma, hay fever, and other allergic responses, thanks to immune-system-buffering elements present in the milk. She’s not exactly ready to prescribe raw stuff, but Dr. Miller does suggest patients try non-homogenized milk, which may be less allergenic: Homogenization appears to bring allergy-causing proteins to the surface of the milk, where they’re more in contact with the gut, she says.
3. Farm-fresh food is good for our gut
A 2010 study by Italian researchers found that children living in a subsistence-farming community in Boulpon, Burkina Faso had a distinctively healthier set of gut bacteria than children living in Florence, Italy. Researchers suspect this was a result of the Burkanibé children’s diet (locally farmed, minimally processed vegetables, beans, and grains) versus the Italians (heavy on meat and refined carbs—not unlike the standard American diet). “Eating from a healthy farm, and eating healthy foods” can promote healthy gut flora, Dr. Miller says. “But eating food that’s been raised with lots of chemicals and antibiotics and pesticides will promote a less-healthy profile. There is a constant exchange going on with our environment.” (Need proof? See the latest crazy research on how the weed killer Roundup affects your gut health.)
4. Urban gardens yield more than just tomatoes
When she visited a series of community gardens in the Bronx, Dr. Miller had some assumptions: “I thought what I was going to learn is that they’re producing these vegetables the community has access to, and that’s why it’s healthy,” she says. “The truth is, that’s only a tiny piece of it. What the research shows is that community gardening not only increases vegetable intake, it has surprising side effects like decreasing alcoholism and crime rates. It creates that community connection that has all of these trickle-down benefits. Social scientists call it collective efficacy.” Also: “Just trying to put supermarkets in these food deserts doesn’t necessarily increase vegetable uptake or improve health. Community gardens may be able to do what supermarkets can’t.”
5. We forget the true meaning of holistic
“Holistic—we misuse that word in our culture to mean whatever you think is natural; the real meaning is something that’s whole,” Dr. Miller says. “I asked a [holistic] cattle rancher: ‘Why so few calf deaths on your farm?’ And he said, ‘I can’t teach you one thing. It’s the whole picture—it’s the whole way my farm is run, from the microbes in the soil, to the fact that I don’t force-wean [the calves], to the fact that the grass gets time to rejuvenate.’ Truly maintaining our health in a holistic way isn’t just following some diet guru’s laws or buying supplements. It’s thinking of all of the pieces: our relationships, our diet, the kinds of work we do, the environment we live in, the air we breathe. And that’s a much more complicated endeavor but that really is the key to health—finding a balance in all of those things.”
Published May 2013, Prevention