Microbiome Balance

Lessons From a Goat Rumen

The bag of vegetables scraps was weighty; my goats and chickens would be happy this evening. I poked among the contents, keeping an eye peeled for anything that could be toxic, like raw potato peels, or... eggplant peels? The glistening purple-black skins looked like a warning in themselves.

When people learn I have goats, they love to remind me that "goats eat EVERYTHING!" Don't believe it. Goats are incredibly picky. If their hay has touched the ground, for instance, it's deemed unfit for eating. Worse, they're not only selectively picky, but incredibly sensitive; just a few bites of the wrong thing can kill them within hours. Usually they're smart enough to know what's what -shunning the elders, side-stepping foxgloves and smartweed- but dump a bucket of mixed food scraps into a small herd of competitive goats and you might not be so lucky.

Easy, boy.

Easy, boy.

"OK GOOGLE," I enunciated clearly. "Are eggplants toxic to goats?" Google responded with her usual to goat questions: a long list of links to forums where numerous owners have debated the question I now have. If there's one thing I've learned about owning goats, it's that we're all -us goat owners- in it together with these finicky little animals.

It's toxic, it's non-toxic. The responses to my question read like a "loves me, loves me not" game. I rolled my eyes. Another thing about goats- there are no straight answers to your questions.

Finally, one answer written by a vet jumped out at me. Few plants are definitively toxic to goats, she explained, but the circumstances and amount make them so. For example, a few nibbles on a "toxin" on top of a belly full of healthy grass hay? No big deal. Those same small nibbles without the hay buffer? Potentially fatal. No exaggeration.

The reason for this lies in the same place that so many of our own health struggles do: the microbiome. In the goat's case, the bulk of the bacterial work happens in the first of four stomachs, the rumen. This stomach is a large fermentation vat, teeming with microbes that help digest leaves, twigs, pine needles, acorns, and -if you're unlucky- all of your hostas. It can handle loads of natural forage, resulting in goats looking svelte one moment and fully pregnant the next, as their rumen expands naturally with fermentation gasses. 

But add too much of the wrong type of food at the wrong time -say, a grain concentrate or too many apples- and the acid balance can shift in the wrong direction. Good microbes begin to die off and pathogenic microbes immediately take their place and populate. Within minutes, the rumen turns into a microscopic battlefield. Within hours, toxins released from the pathogenic bacteria can kill the goat, or an abundance of unnatural fermentation gasses may cause fatal bloat. If this sounds dramatic to you, it is. Goat owners live in fear of rumen distress.

This means war.

This means war.

But this talk of toxins only being toxins when they're out of balance got me thinking about our own microbial colonies we support in our large intestine. The stakes aren't as high for us if we don't maintain an optimal gut flora balance, but we do suffer the effects in the form of diarrhea, constipation, fatigue, acne, cravings, depression, autoimmune disease, and more.

What if we begin to consider our diet more from the lens of our gut bacteria and less from a traditional nutrition standpoint?

The biggest lesson is that ratio and balance are key. We know that the species of gut bacteria linked to our best health are those that thrive on fibers from vegetables, fruits, nuts and seeds. The worst bacteria -linked to inflammation, depression, and GI distress- love residual sugars from diets high in refined carbohydrates and sugar in general. Knowing that we likely have both types (and many, many others still relatively unknown) residing in our gut, how can we provide more nourishment to the good guys and less nourishment to the bad guys?

This simple question changes our food habits. Say we decide to "splurge" on a less healthy option like ice cream for lunch. Instead of trying to hold off on eating another single calorie until dinner (can't afford it!), this mindset would encourage us to eat more. Way more. But in the form of a large, mixed-vegetable salad. Or a small handful of nuts and seeds with an apple or some berries. Whatever. Now, instead of only feeding the pathogenic bacteria with a big dose of sugar and residual lactose, we've also sent the good guys an arsenal of fiber weapons to defend their turf with.

With this mindset, the whole culture of binging on weekends, or holidays, or at functions starts to fade. Foods are no longer off-limits, but must be kept in balance. If you're going to binge on two pieces of pie, you better be quadrupling your sliced veggies.

It also turns a curious lens on the various protein bars and powders, low calorie snacks, and other processed foods we deem "healthy" for their nutrient content. I don't doubt that some treat out gut bacteria just fine, but I'm willing to bet the majority do not. We focus so hard on how foods make us feel in the 20, 30, or 60 minutes after eating them, that we neglect the downstream effects that can take days or weeks to result as tiny microbial wars are won and lost.


So eat for balance. Eat whole foods. Eat for your gut bugs!