Working Alchemy: The Miracle of Miso

Anna Bond

Working Alchemy: The Miracle of Miso See related sidebar: Traditional Hand-crafted Miso

Miso belongs to the highest class of medicines, those which prevent disease and strengthen the body through continued usage.

— Dr. Shinichiro Akizuki,
St. Francis Hospital, Nagasaki

As the collective consciousness in the United States grows ever more agitated and fearful, we scurry to find magic bullets for bioterrorism: anthrax, smallpox and the black plague. Based on current statistics, the odds of being exposed to and dying from anthrax in the U.S. are one in 35 million. Before anthrax hit the headlines, we listened to the international threat of mad cow disease (bovine spongiform encephalopathy, or BSE, in cattle and Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, or CJD, in humans). The threat of chemical, bacteriological and radiological (CBR) warfare forms a constant undercurrent to our national hysteria—conscious and subconscious. After all, we have been preparing CBR weapons at Ft. Detrick ever since World War II.

Clearly, we face daunting challenges to our quality of life and indeed, to life itself. Today's threat calls for a miracle of transformative scope. We look up to the government and to pharmaceutical companies for a fix, knowing full well that their bag of tricks is limited to petrochemical drugs and antibiotics. We're in need of some alchemy capable of transmuting sickness into health, fear into wisdom, hysteria into harmony.

In our search for such an alchemical remedy, I'd like to shine a light inward toward our own biological terrain, and downward to the nurturing black earth. Seeing ourselves as co-creators of our terrain—that is, of our daily biological condition—and then understanding that terrain as the single most significant factor in whether we succumb or not, empowers us mightily.

Pondering which daily food grounds me most deeply and most thoroughly enlivens my terrain, I know the answer immediately. An earthy, aged, fermented food dating back at least 2500 years to ancient
China, miso (chiang in Chinese) originated from a culture whose world view revered food as medicine. Despite its Oriental origin, miso is now widely available in much of the world. It is a relatively inexpensive condiment—a food that gently and effectively restores dynamic digestion and assimilation. A morning bowl of miso soup—mild, gentle, unassuming—stimulates your appetite for the day's adventures and strengthens you from the inside.

Food for the Ages

Scientists now believe humanity's first cultivated plants were not grains and vegetables, but rather the microorganisms that cause food to ferment. They discovered—undoubtedly by accident at first—that adding the right amount of salt to food—cultivated friendly bacteria and enzymes not only prevented spoiling and deadly toxins, but also transformed the food's molecular structure, making it more healthful, digestible and delicious.

Fermentation, they realized, acted like an external digestive system that preserved the food and qualitatively transformed it. Compare sulfurous cabbage with sparkling sauerkraut, mild milk with tangy yogurt, bland soybeans with the deep, earthy flavor of miso.

Miso fermentation is alchemy working its miracle with microscopic bacteria, yeasts, molds and enzymes on our daily food: grains, beans and salt. It is very similar to the miracle that transpires within our intestines where, with the help of friendly intestinal flora, we transmute food into blood via the hair—like villi on our intestinal walls. And it is like the miracle that springs up from the earth where, thanks to myriad microorganisms and the warming sun, germinating seeds burst into green shoots.

Our life blood begins in our small intestine (called the cauldron by the Chinese), where we cook/transmute food into blood. The intestines are, in fact, our ancient brain; they actually make neurotransmitters just as our brain's neocortex does. Virtually all cases of learning disabilities and attention deficit challenges involve intestinal imbalances and inappropriate food choices. Miso's alchemical gift nourishes this ancient brain and cauldron of our life.

Alchemy (from the Arabic, meaning black earth) draws the parallel between the miracles of gardening, fermenting and digestion/assimilation, our own internal fermentation. Alchemy suggests that fermentation is actually a further cultivation of a food beyond what it draws from the garden soil. Miso epitomizes the brilliant diversity possible with that fermentation. Japanese mythology extols miso as a gift from the gods for health, happiness and longevity.

As a food, miso can be thought of as an all-purpose and delicious seasoning for flavoring soups and vegetable dishes, or for making salad dressings, sauces and spreads. It is used in many of the same ways that we in the West would use salt. It is a condiment in the sense that only a few spoonfuls are used per person on a daily basis due to its high salt content (4-12% by weight). At the same time, miso is such a concentrated source of high-quality protein and other nutrients that only a small amount enhances and dresses up grain, bean and vegetable dishes.

As the high level medicine that Dr. Akizuki refers to, miso creates a truly resilient terrain in those who consume small amounts of it daily in soups, sauces, condiments and salad dressings. There has been no specific work done with miso and anthrax that I know of, and my thrust here is to offer way-of-life foods that strengthen the body and mind rather than heroic remedies that fit into the this-for-that pharmaceutical approach. That said, one researcher introduced some miso into a petri dish containing a culture of the disease bacteria Streptococcus. The good bacteria in the miso overcame and completely destroyed the Streptococcus!

Cultures throughout the world developed fermented foods that enhanced the foods they consumed. Most of these fermented foods and drinks rely on the action of lacto-bacilli. Miso making originated among grain-eating farmers and gardeners, people whose lives and livelihood were rooted in the earth and whose diet centered around grains, beans and vegetables. Among nomadic people whose lifestyle did not permit staying in one place for years at a time, yogurt became a digestive aid. And among animal-herding, meat-eating cultures, people cultured grapes into wine. Wine helps break down the toxins in animal foods, whether it is used to marinade the meat or is drunk with the meat. Ancient people, more in tune with Nature and with their own nature, were sensitive to the energetics of the foods they ate. They were aware of the warming or cooling, drying or dampening, acid or alkaline qualities they experienced as they ate particular foods. They knew how to influence a food's energetic qualities by cooking with fire and through fermentation (cooking without fire).

Like modern food scientists, these ancient people recognized the great value of the soybean as a complement to grains. However, unlike modern food scientists, the ancients recognized how extremely difficult to digest, and how over-cooling raw and unfermented soybeans were to the body. Ingeniously, they devised—in concert with natural micro-organisms in their environment—an intricate fermentation process that transformed the problematic soybean into a rich, hearty, alchemical substance of high order.

An aged, fermented soybean paste with living enzymes and friendly bacteria, miso is made by mixing cooked legumes (usually soybeans, though chickpeas, black soybeans, aduki beans, even peanuts make delectable misos) with sea salt and a cultured grain called koji (usually rice or barley). This fermenting mixture is then aged in wooden vats, sometimes for as long as three years.

Like a fine wine, each miso has its own unique color, flavor and aroma. Miso colors range from rich chocolate browns to loamy blacks, from russets to deep ambers, clarets and cinnamon reds, from warm yellows to light tans. Flavors range from hearty and savory to sweet and delicate.

In selecting a miso, you would usually choose darker, longer-fermented misos for colder seasons; lighter, shorter-fermented ones for warmer seasons and climates; and red, moderately fermented ones year round. To balance your internal condition, you look also at the internal climate of your terrain. To strengthen a weak, deficient, over-acid cold condition, you would go to a dark, longer-fermented variety. And to balance an over-heating, excessive condition, a lighter, sweeter, less salty miso is preferred.

An excellent source of digestive enzymes, friendly bacteria, essential amino acids, vitamins (including vitamin B-12), easily assimilated protein (twice as much as meat or fish and 11 times more than milk) and minerals, miso is low in calories and fat. It breaks down and discharges cholesterol, neutralizes the effects of smoking and environmental pollution, alkalinizes the blood and prevents radiation sickness. Miso has been used to treat certain types of heart disease and cancer. It helps with bed wetting, tobacco poisoning, hangovers, burns and wounds. A fine food for traveling (dry it by roasting over a low flame in skillet), miso gives warmth and life and the wisdom of age to those who consume it daily.

Studies in Japan's Tohoku University have isolated chemicals from miso that cancel out the effects of some carcinogens. We are all inevitably exposed to carcinogens in our foods and our environment. We are also exposed to non-ionizing radiation (ELFs and EMFs) given off by power lines, transformers, electrical stations, computers, hair dryers, microwave ovens and air conditioners.

Miso and Radiation Sickness

Thanks to nuclear accidents and leakage worldwide, we may be exposed to ionizing radiation as well. In the decades since the first atomic bombings, scientists have confirmed that miso (as well as sea vegetables) help protect the body from radiation by binding and discharging radioactive elements. Two weeks after the Chernobyl nuclear accident, all miso and seaweed disappeared from European store shelves.

At the time of the world's first plutonium atomic bombing, on August 9, 1945, two hospitals were literally in the shadow of the blast, about one mile from the epicenter in Nagasaki. American scientists declared the area totally uninhabitable for 75 years. At University Hospital 3000 patients suffered greatly from leukemia and disfiguring radiation burns. This hospital served its patients a modern fare of sugar, white rice, and refined white flour products. Another hospital was St. Francis Hospital, under the direction of Shinichiro Akizuki, M.D. Although this hospital was located even closer to the blast's epicenter than the first, none of the workers or patients suffered from radiation sickness. Dr. Akizuki had been feeding his patients and workers brown rice, miso soup, vegetables and seaweed every day. The Roman Catholic Church—and the residents of Nagasaki—called this a modern day miracle. Meanwhile, Dr. Akizuki and his co-workers disregarded the American warning and continued going around the city of Nagasaki in straw sandals visiting the sick in their homes.

Since the 1950s, Soviet weapons factories had been dumping wastes into Karachar Lake in Chelyabinsk, an industrial city 900 miles east of Moscow. Many local residents began to suffer from radiation symptoms and cancer. In 1985, Lidia Yamchuk and Hanif Sharimardanov, medical doctors in Chelyabinsk, changed their approach with patients suffering from leukemia, lymphoma and other disorders associated with exposure to nuclear radiation. They began incorporating miso soup into their diet. They wrote: "Miso is helping some of our patients with terminal cancer to survive. Their blood improved as soon as they began to use miso daily."

Over a 25-year period, the Japanese Cancer Institute tested and tracked 260,000 subjects, dividing them into three groups. Group one ate miso soup daily, group two consumed miso two or three times a week, while group three ate no miso at all. The results were stark: those who had not eaten any miso showed a 50% higher incidence of cancer than those who had eaten miso.

Twelve years ago, Dr. Evelyn Waselus, a California surgeon suffering from breast cancer, underwent a double radical mastectomy. Reading how Dr. Akizuki had used miso as an external plaster to treat people with radiation burns, she applied a miso plaster on her own wounded breasts, and for the first time in months was relieved of the gnawing, burning pain she, like so many cancer patients, had been experiencing.

Later Dr. Waselus opened Universal Life Center in Weed, California, where she works with cancer and AIDS patients. Many of these people cannot maintain sufficient body weight because they have lost their natural powers of digestion and assimilation. Dr. Waselus premixes their food with three-year old barley miso, then allows it to sit for several hours. The miso predigests the food so patients can more easily assimilate nutrients needed to maintain body weight. Dr. Waselus prescribes miso soup, again with three-year barley miso, to her outpatients undergoing chemotherapy and/or radiation treatments at local hospitals. For such people, restoration of the beneficial microorganisms of the intestines is crucial. Her patients do not generally lose their hair, as usually happens with chemotherapy, Dr. Waselus reports. (There is a direct correlation between the intestinal villi and the hair on our heads.) For patients receiving radiation treatment, Dr. Waselus administers an external plaster of miso mixed with aloe vera extract on the area being irradiated, with excellent results.

Spiritual fulfillment and biological resilience in these troubled times comes, I believe, by looking inward and downward. What we find there is something as humble as miso, a simple, whole food alchemically transformed by the power of microorganisms, giving us the inner resources and intestinal force to transmute even the most terrible threats to our own health, happiness and longevity, as well as that of the earth.

For more information about miso, please call
Anna Bond at 802-387-2341 or email her at

A longtime student of yin/yang and the energetics of food, Anna Bond offers Way of Life consultations from her home in the Green Mountains of Vermont. She also works with herbs (Chinese, Western and Amazon), essential oils, and chi kung. Anna welcomes kindred spirited folks to her place where she teaches wild food foraging, biological gardening, and deep ecology. With her synthesizing, far-ranging insights and experiences, Anna excels in going straight to the heart of things, distilling complicated matters and enlightening murky ones.