100 Trillion Hitchhikers

It’s time to revisit one of the best and most informative articles that I have read since April 1, 2014. April 1 was the day we started in on our 21 Day Sugar Detox, and it was the day that I started this blog. Writing about food and health issues every day led me to begin scouring the papers and internet for interesting information to pass on. Nothing was more interesting than this article, by Michael Pollan.

It was probably 1968 when we conducted an experiment in my grade school. We had four white mice, two in one cage, two in another. Us students got to feed the mice every day, and one group got vegetables and fruits, the other group got corn chips and potato chips and soda, instead of water. After about three weeks, the difference was striking in their appearance. The fur of the junk food mice was greasy and the mice were definitely not doing as well as the vegetable mice. At the time our teacher told us the difference was due to vitamins and nutrients. I now believe it was due to the effects that real food had on the micro biome of those mice. Just the same as the effect those processed foods have on your own micro biome.

Your new best friends

Your new best friends

100 trillion is the number of microscopic entities that call you home. That is ten times more microbes than there are cells in your body. You are only ten percent you. Many of these microbes perform vital roles in maintaining your health and the normal function of your body. Science is slowly beginning to realize that maintaining your microbe health is probably the most important way to maintain your own health.

Our resident microbes also appear to play a critical role in training and modulating our immune system, helping it to accurately distinguish between friend and foe and not go nuts on, well, nuts and all sorts of other potential allergens. Some researchers believe that the alarming increase in autoimmune diseases in the West may owe to a disruption in the ancient relationship between our bodies and their “old friends” — the microbial symbionts with whom we coevolved.

The microbes in you have been carried by you since the weeks after your birth. When born, a baby has a sterile digestive tract, and it does not have the adult type of bacteria until the age of three. Your mother’s milk even contains a carbohydrate that is undigestible by the human gut, but is there to nourish a bacteria that, when well established, prevents less desirable bacteria from being established and promotes the health of the lining of the intestines. Nature obviously expects both the bacteria and the carbohydrate to be present in infancy. I don’t know if this carb is in baby formula, but one would hope that it is. If not, then the effect would be felt for the rest of a person’s life.

We can do lots of things during our lives to change the types of bacteria living in us for better or for worse:

Your microbial community seems to stabilize by age 3, by which time most of the various niches in the gut ecosystem are occupied. That doesn’t mean it can’t change after that; it can, but not as readily. A change of diet or a course of antibiotics, for example, may bring shifts in the relative population of the various resident species, helping some kinds of bacteria to thrive and others to languish. Can new species be introduced? Yes, but probably only when a niche is opened after a significant disturbance, like an antibiotic storm. Just like any other mature ecosystem, the one in our gut tends to resist invasion by newcomers.

Obviously, the storm does not have to come from antibiotics. Any thing you eat will pass through and over your bacteria. Just this last month researchers discovered that artificial sweeteners, while having no calories for you, have an effect on your blood chemistry through promoting certain microbes. Artificial sweeteners actually promote insulin resistance, and lead to type two diabetes. In my opinion all of the artificial ingredients that we eat in processed foods undoubtedly will have an effect on our micro biome.

Our gut bacteria also play a role in the manufacture of substances like neurotransmitters (including serotonin); enzymes and vitamins (notably Bs and K) and other essential nutrients (including important amino acid and short-chain fatty acids); and a suite of other signaling molecules that talk to, and influence, the immune and the metabolic systems. Some of these compounds may play a role in regulating our stress levels and even temperament: when gut microbes from easygoing, adventurous mice are transplanted into the guts of anxious and timid mice, they become more adventurous. The expression “thinking with your gut” may contain a larger kernel of truth than we thought.

I believe this, because I have different reactions to environmental stimulus when I am on sugar that when I have been off of it for a while. I am calmer, less jittery, less prone to anger. The difference between my sugar reaction and the similar effects that alcohol produces is that the sugar effect is long lasting, while the alcohol one goes away when the alcohol does.

If our microbes can create something that makes us feel satisfied, then that would explain why eating sugar would cause you to crave sugar. The microbe that wants it knows how to make you deliver it. The only way to get rid of the craving for sugar is to starve the microbe that lives on it. Perhaps the craving for alcohol comes from a similar mechanism.

The gut microbes are looking after their own interests, chief among them getting enough to eat and regulating the passage of food through their environment. The bacteria themselves appear to help manage these functions by producing signaling chemicals that regulate our appetite, satiety and digestion.

And then, there is the effect of antibiotics. Antibiotics are basically insecticide. It doesn’t take much insecticide to kill insects, it doesn’t take much antibiotic to harm some or all of our microbe helpers. We all know that when we take antibiotics this is going to happen, but these days all of our meats are routinely fed antibiotics in sub-therapeutic doses. These chemicals are then passed on to us when we eat the meat and fat of these animals. We are constantly exposing our friendly bacteria to unfriendly chemicals.

These days Blaser is most concerned about the damage that antibiotics, even in tiny doses, are doing to the microbiome — and particularly to our immune system and weight. “Farmers have been performing a great experiment for more than 60 years,” Blaser says, “by giving subtherapeutic doses of antibiotics to their animals to make them gain weight.” Scientists aren’t sure exactly why this practice works, but the drugs may favor bacteria that are more efficient at harvesting energy from the diet. “Are we doing the same thing to our kids?” he asks. Children in the West receive, on average, between 10 and 20 courses of antibiotics before they turn 18. And those prescribed drugs aren’t the only antimicrobials finding their way to the microbiota; scientists have found antibiotic residues in meat, milk and surface water as well. Blaser is also concerned about the use of antimicrobial compounds in our diet and everyday lives — everything from chlorine washes for lettuce to hand sanitizers. “We’re using these chemicals precisely because they’re antimicrobial,” Blaser says. “And of course they do us some good. But we need to ask, what are they doing to our microbiota?” No one is questioning the value of antibiotics to civilization — they have helped us to conquer a great many infectious diseases and increased our life expectancy. But, as in any war, the war on bacteria appears to have had some unintended consequences.

But as good as our biome is for us, can we enhance it with a pill that contains more of the good ones? There is already a marketplace for these ‘probiotics’. Can it be that easy? Chances are, no. However, the makeup of your gut bacteria can be changed by a new procedure called a fecal transplant, where a sample of good microbes are inserted into a new host in great enough numbers to establish them. Even this procedure must sometimes be repeated more than one time to actually have a beneficial effect. Currently it is done for debilitating cases of irritable bowel, and other debilitating digestive conditions. So chances of changing your microbiome with a tiny dose in a capsule is vanishingly small.

What do these researchers do for their own good? Knowing what they know about the importance of diet and the micro biome what they do would be a good indicator of what we could do that would have the best effect:

They were slower to take, or give their children, antibiotics. (I should emphasize that in no way is this an argument for the rejection of antibiotics when they are medically called for.) Some spoke of relaxing the sanitary regime in their homes, encouraging their children to play outside in the dirt and with animals — deliberately increasing their exposure to the great patina. Many researchers told me they had eliminated or cut back on processed foods, either because of its lack of fiber or out of concern about additives. In general they seemed to place less faith in probiotics (which few of them used) than in prebiotics — foods likely to encourage the growth of “good bacteria” already present. Several, including Justin Sonnenburg, said they had added fermented foods to their diet: yogurt, kimchi, sauerkraut.

Just as I have been saying for the past several months! No processed foods–meats that were raised by people you know–no sugar or artificial sweeteners–just eat real food and real fermented foods prepared by yourself. Just quitting sugar is the first huge step. Eating naturally raised vegetables and meat is the next big step. These two things done together will revolutionize your health and attitude. Your weight will gradually come down to where nature wants it, if you give nature half a chance.

Finally, from Pollan:

Viewed from this perspective, the foods in the markets appear in a new light, and I began to see how you might begin to shop and cook with the microbiome in mind, the better to feed the fermentation in our guts. The less a food is processed, the more of it that gets safely through the gastrointestinal tract and into the eager clutches of the microbiota. Al dente pasta, for example, feeds the bugs better than soft pasta does; steel-cut oats better than rolled; raw or lightly cooked vegetables offer the bugs more to chomp on than overcooked, etc. This is at once a very old and a very new way of thinking about food: it suggests that all calories are not created equal and that the structure of a food and how it is prepared may matter as much as its nutrient composition.

I would like to paraphrase and bring out EXACTLY  the point he makes here. A smoothie is very different to your digestive system than eating the individual fruits, vegetables and liquids that go into it. It matters to your body that your foods enter you in the state that nature delivered them for you. It makes sense. When we put coal into the power plant boiler, it is broken up into the tiniest possible pieces, so that the combustion is practically instant, releasing the energy all at once. If we shoveled the coal into it in the chunks that come off of the train, some of the coal would burn, but lots of it would pass down into the bottom of the boiler, delivering energy potential to the areas where right now we have no energy. Your gut operates much the same way, I am sure. Pulverized fruits and vegetables will be consumed very quickly in your body, leaving little energy for the microbes further down in the system, changing the effect that those fruits and vegetables are having on your health.

Eat Real Food, in as close to the natural state as is practical to your daily life. Obviously not raw meats, but definitely raw vegetables–definitely raw fruits. When stored, try to ferment them for storage, which increases the number and type of bacteria you are delivering to your digestive system. Sterile and dead foods do not promote life.

About dcarmack

I am an instrument technician at the electric utility servicing the Kansas City Missouri metropolitan area. I am in the IBEW, Local 412. I was trained to be a nuclear power plant operator in the USN and served on submarines. I am a Democrat, even more so than those serving in Congress or the White House.
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