Depleted soil at the root of poor health

by Dr. Gifford Jones

We recently wrote about the gut microbiome – the remarkable digestive ecosystem that influences how nutrients and bacteria contribute to weight management, organ function, and even our mental health. But did you know there is a soil microbiome, and that this too affects your health? It turns out, we’ve not taken good care of it.

Perhaps you already worry about the air you breathe and the water you drink. You are, at least, choosing healthy foods that deliver the nutrition you need. You don’t buy processed products, don’t drink soda, and limit salt intake. Maybe you are even vegan, feeling good about both your health and your carbon footprint. But you may need to consult with a farmer, not a doctor, to learn about the risks facing your vegetables.

At its best, good soil is home to worms, beetles, bugs, and untold numbers of microscopic organisms that serve important functions. In life and death, they furnish the soil with nutrients. Their busy work helps the soil absorb and retain water. Some of them help control harmful pests. But farming practices have been unkind to these critters. Relentless tilling of fields and applications of fertilizers have lessened the quality of topsoil across North America. It is dry, unable to hold nutrients or water. It blows away. And the water run-off, polluted with nitrate, a common fertilizer, is a major concern.

Regulatory limits determine acceptable levels of nitrate in public drinking water supplies. But the degradation of groundwater from overapplication of nitrogen fertilizers is a major concern to researchers studying human health. A report in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health warns of a relationship between nitrate ingestion and colorectal cancer, thyroid disease, and neural tube defects, including at water nitrate levels below regulatory limits.

The United Nations considers soil degradation one of the central threats to human health in the coming decades.

For now, studies show that farmed vegetables still provide all the necessary nutrients for good health. Your practice should be a diet containing the recommended number of servings per day of vegetables, fruits and whole grains.

But there’s also something to be said for turning to natural supplements when you don’t regularly achieve the daily 2.5 to 3 cups of vegetables and 1.5 to 2 cups of fruit. Further, there are notable health benefits to natural supplements.

Take Healing Earth, for example, which offers relief for joint pain associated with osteoarthritis. These vegetable capsules contain humic acid, found in healthy soil as a result of microbial decomposition of plant matter, and MSM, another organic compound that contains sulfur. Sulfur is sometimes called “the forgotten nutrient”, although it is essential for a healthy liver, connective tissues and even stress response.

The earliest descriptions of medical uses for humic acid are found in Sanskrit, Roman, and Chinese texts. Its chemical nature was determined in the early 1800s. More recently, the World Journal of Gastroenterology published a study that tested the effects of humic acids on microbial communities of the colon. The results showed a 20-30% increase in concentrations of these healthy colonic inhabitants, suggesting an alternative to fecal transplants or probiotics for restore weakened health gut.

A report in the journal Nutrients notes MSM “may have clinical applications for arthritis and other inflammatory disorders such as interstitial cystitis, allergic rhinitis, and acute exercise-induced inflammation.”

It’s depressing what’s happening to our natural environment. But there is, at least, some hope that scientists are getting better at explaining the health benefits of mystically revered organic substances like humic acid and MSM, and that convenient and safe products are available on store shelves.

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Dr. Ken Walker (who writes under the pseudonym of Dr. W. Gifford-Jones, MD) is a graduate of the University of Toronto and the Harvard Medical School. He trained in general surgery at Strong Memorial Hospital, University of Rochester, Montreal General Hospital, McGill University and in Gynecology at Harvard. His storied medical career began as a general practitioner, ship’s surgeon, and hotel doctor. For more than 40 years, he specialized in gynecology, devoting his practice to the formative issues of women’s health. In 1975, he launched his weekly medical column that has been published by national and local Canadian and U.S. newspapers. Today, the readership remains over seven million. His advice contains a solid dose of common sense and he never sits on the fence with controversial issues. He is the author of nine books including, “The Healthy Barmaid”, his autobiography “You’re Going To Do What?”, “What I Learned as a Medical Journalist”, and “90+ How I Got There!” Many years ago, he was successful in a fight to legalize heroin to help ease the pain of terminal cancer patients. His foundation at that time donated $500,000 to establish the Gifford-Jones Professorship in Pain Control and Palliative Care at the University of Toronto Medical School. At 93 years of age he rappelled from the top of Toronto’s City Hall (30 stories) to raise funds for children with a life-threatening disease through the Make-a-Wish Foundation. His hobby is trap shooting. He is married to Susan and has four children and twelve grandchildren.Diana MacKay writes in collaboration with her father under the pen name, Diana Gifford-Jones. The daughter of W. Gifford-Jones, MD, Diana has extensive global experience in health and healthcare policy. Diana is Special Advisor with The Aga Khan University, which operates 2 quaternary care hospitals and numerous secondary hospitals, medical centres, pharmacies, and laboratories in South Asia and Africa. She worked for ten years in the Human Development sectors at the World Bank, including health policy and economics, nutrition, and population health. For over a decade at The Conference Board of Canada, she managed four health-related executive networks, including the Roundtable on Socio-Economic Determinants of Health, the Centre for Chronic Disease Prevention and Management, the Canadian Centre for Environmental Health, and the Centre for Health System Design and Management. Her master’s degree in public policy at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government included coursework at Harvard Medical School. She is also a graduate of Wellesley College. She has extensive experience with Canadian universities, including at Carleton University, where she was the Executive Director of the Global Academy. She lived and worked in Japan for four years and speaks Japanese fluently. Diana has the designation as a certified Chartered Director from The Directors College, a joint venture of The Conference Board of Canada and McMaster University. She has recently published a book on the natural health philosophy of W. Gifford-Jones, called No Nonsense Health – Naturally!The weekly column by W. Gifford-Jones, MD has been published without interruption for 45 years. The same no-nonsense tradition now continues in a father-daughter collaboration. Sign-up at to receive our weekly e-newsletter. For comments,