I’ve been thinking a lot about nitrogen. I find it very interesting.
To start, I study exercise physiology. When we do aerobic testing, we often collect expired gases to see how they differ from normal air. From that we can calculate how many calories were burned, the fuel source for those calories and all sorts of fun stuff. I won’t bore you with it. I know that 20% of air is oxygen and .03% of air is carbon dioxide. I use those numbers to calibrate machines and figure stuff out.
So, if the air is 20% oxygen and .03% carbon dioxide, what is the rest? Of course there is a little water vapor and some other gases, but 79% of the air is nitrogen. Who knew?
The air that we bring into our lungs with every breath is 79% nitrogen and the air that we exhale is 79% nitrogen. All the important stuff that happens in the lungs is with oxygen and carbon dioxide and those numbers change in the lungs.
Ok, I got a little geeked out there, I’ll move on. Sorry. Let’s talk about protein in foods. Our bodies need protein; it is the building block of cells and the primary component of the functional parts of muscle cells. Protein is incredibly important in the diet. While I think that lots of people try to overdo the dietary protein thing, I absolutely recognize that not consuming enough protein (rare in our society, but a problem in other parts of the world) can have terrible health ramifications.
Why is protein such a big deal? Because the amino acids build all the important stuff in our bodies (like muscles, connective tissues, enzymes, etc.). It can also be noted that protein isn’t in a lot of things. Protein is readily available in meat and animal products, and to a lesser extent, in beans, lentils, and nuts. Those select foods provide the amino acids that we need for the building blocks of our bodies. Here’s the big thing: The key component of amino acids is the amino group which contains nitrogen. The reason that our bodies can’t produce amino acids is because our bodies don’t have the enzymes to do that.
While nearly 80% of the air that we breath in and out every day is nitrogen, we can’t use it for anything because we don’t have the enzymes to put that nitrogen where it needs to be, so it is exhaled with every breath. So where do we get that nitrogen to make the building blocks of the cell?
I already answered that; primarily from meat, or some select plants. That’s kind of a circular answer because we primarily use the protein from meat to make meat for our own bones. So where does the cow get the protein to make meat? It all comes down to plants with high protein content.
If you have ever raised an animal for meat, you know the importance of protein in the feed. You get the protein from alfalfa, clovers and other legumes. Well, animals tend to get a lot of the protein from alfalfa, vetch and clover, while humans get it from beans, lentils, peas and other legumes that are palatable to humans (my kids have recently started trying to eat clover, but they don’t really like it).
Did you notice? The plants that are consumed for their protein content by both humans and animals are also the plants that are known for their nitrogen fixing capabilities. What is nitrogen fixing? It’s the ability to take nitrogen from the air, where it is EXTREMELY abundant and put it into the plant where it is needed. I think that there is a bacteria that helps the legume do this… or maybe the legume helps the bacteria do it, but whatever.
Why is nitrogen important? We already talked about this… because it is used in amino acids as the building block of cells. While some of the legumes are eaten and turned into meat, some legumes die and rot in the soil and the nitrogen becomes available for other plants to use. This nitrogen is like the available fertilizers that help gardens grow. Except when it comes from rotting legumes, it’s all natural rather than having been produced from petroleum products.
That is what I have been thinking about in my spare time. My studies of exercise physiology and farming have met and created a little understanding for me. It’s truly amazing how all of this works together. Now I just need to figure out how to make it all work right in our garden…