Friday, June 28, 2013

Microbes Revisited

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The previous blog, Man’s Miraculous Microbes, has raised many questions. Before answering them, let me say that this information is based on very recent medical research, and scientists have barely scratched the surface.

It’s a fascinating new science—our body being host to trillions of living microbes, but also a most challenging one because these microbes interact in a highly complex fashion that affects our health and wellbeing, possibly even our mood. If this community of bacteria gets out of balance or if we lack the right ones, serious problems can arise.

Much of the data comes from Michael Pollan’s in-depth article in New York Times’ Magazine of May 15, 2013.

To answer your questions:

1.    How can I ensure the best possible mircrobiome (bacteria) for my children? Primarily by nursing a child. Mother’s milk contains nutrients that nourish not only the baby, but also the baby’s vital bacteria, which was unknown until recently. Caesarian delivery of a baby has disadvantages, because it deprives the baby of important gut bacteria that it acquires while traveling through the birth canal.

2.    Should I worry when my child gets covered with mud or hugs our dog? Not at all, unless your dog is sick or has worms. It enriches the child’s bacterial world that becomes more varied and robust to fight off diseases. Apparently, when we live in the city away from animals, plants and soil, we miss out on many beneficial bacteria and become prone to autoimmune diseases and allergies.

3.    Why can’t we live without microbes? Apparently we can’t. Microbes help us digest our meals, they tell us when we’re hungry, and when we are full. They prevent the intrusion of foreign bacteria and help us to adapt to our changing environment, such as pollution and new toxins in food. In effect, some scientists are sounding the alarm that due to industrialization, antibiotics and the sterility of processed foods several of our bacteria have become extinct and our microbiome is becoming increasingly impoverished, causing disorders, such as immune deficiency diseases, asthma, allergies and Diabetes 2.

4.    I keep gaining weight, what can I do? One important species of bacteria, the H. pylori, has practically disappeared. It neutralizes the bacteria that urge us to eat when we are hungry. When we have eaten enough, the H. pylori tell us that we are full. Without it, we tend to keep eating, which may be the cause for today’s widespread obesity.

5.    How can we optimize good health? Good bacteria thrive on a varied and fiber-rich diet, also on foods made with live cultures such as yogurt, and on fermented foods, such as sauerkraut and kimchi. It’s a good idea to keep our toothbrushes at least six feet away from the toilet. Whenever we flush, large amounts of bacteria are stirred up. “The world is covered with a fine patina of feces,” says Stanford Microbiologist Stanley Falkow; house dust is no exception.

6.    Are fiber supplements the answer? Probably not, because fiber is not a single nutrient, there are hundreds of different polysaccharides. It’s better to vary our diet and include different types of fiber—resistant starch fiber as in bananas, oats and beans, soluble fiber as in root vegetables such as onions, and insoluble fiber as in bran, whole grains and avocados. It also matters how they are prepared. Al dente pasta is preferable to overcooked one; steel-cut oats are better than rolled; raw and lightly cooked vegetables are better than well done.

7.    What determines our microbiome? We acquire our first microbes from our mother while traveling through the birth canal. Therefore, if possible, avoid having a Caesarian. Mother’s milk provides the next set of good bacteria. Others are picked up from our environment. A healthy community of microbes keeps foreign and hostile bacteria away. Depending on the robustness of our gut bacteria, for example, one food can make one person sick, but not an other.

8.    Why are gut bacteria so important? Gut bacteria are instrumental in creating serotonin, enzymes and vitamins, such as Bs and K. They not only influence our immune system, but they may also regulate our stress levels. Experiments have shown when gut microbes from an easy-going mouse were transplanted to an anxious and nervous mouse, it became more relaxed and enterprising.

Gut bacteria also regulate our appetite and digestion, and thus our metabolism. Malnourished children may require more than food; they need to have their gut’s microbial community rebalanced. (see 5.)

9.    Why do antibiotics cause problems? Antibiotics have saved many lives. Yet they should be used only if truly necessary, because they kill bad as well as good bacteria and thus cause havoc in our bacterial world. They may even be the cause for our gaining weight. Unfortunately, livestock is fed large quantities of antibiotics today; as a consequence antibiotic microbes have been found in meat, milk and surface water. Even hand sanitizers and chlorine washes for lettuce may be suspect.

Probiotics may be a good antidote when taking antibiotics, but it may not be prudent to take them as a constant supplement. Too little is known about them. The probiotic market is not regulated. When 14 products were tested, only one contained the exact species stated on the label.

Processed foods too are raising concern because of their sterility. Also, they contain detergent-like ingredients such as lecithin, CMC, polysorbate 80 and Datem that can lead to low-grade inflammations—a response of the immune system to a perceived threat. Some researchers suspect that a majority, if not most, of today’s chronic diseases are in fact inflammations originating in the gut. They may lead to metabolic syndrome, cardiovascular disease, Type 2 diabetes, obesity and possibly some cancers.

Patrice Cani at the University of Louvain in Brussels recently produced evidence of how this is possible. He fed a high-fat, junk-food diet to mice. This noticeably changed the microbiota in their gut—it also happens to humans when on a similar diet. On closer examination, Cani discovered that the lining of their gut had become permeable, allowing endotoxins to leak into the bloodstream. The result was a low-grade inflammation that eventually led to metabolic syndrome. Researchers suspect that the cause of most if not allchronic diseases may point to the microbiota of the gut.

Industrialization will continue to cause pollution, cities will cement over mother Earth, processing will deplete our food and high technology is likely to expose us to increasing levels of radiation. However, there’s no need to despair about the negative aspects of our modern world. While we cannot turn back the clock, we can make sensible choices; we can take good care our microbiome and nourish it well so it can do its job to protect us and help us adjust to unavoidable changes. Indeed, we have the choice of enjoying the best of both worlds.

Until next time,


Friday, June 21, 2013

Man's Miraculous Microbes

Appearances are often deceiving. It took many years to convince earthlings that they are not the center of the universe or that the earth is flat.
Yet most of us are still rather certain that the human race is the most advanced of all species, even though coyotes run faster, dogs can smell better, owls can see at night, bats hear what we can’t, and turtles live far longer than we do. And none of them own an alarm clock to rouse them from sacred slumber and face rush-hour traffic to get to work. Seagulls sit complacently and contemplate the waves, bluebirds soar into the sky and view the world from above, and mischievous monkeys play catch under a shady tree.
Life on Earth has existed for many years, but not so homo erectus. We are a recent arrival. If life on Earth were measured in twelve hours, men arrived just before the clock struck twelve. Mankind has only one species while other life forms have thousands of species, even beetles, fungi, viruses and bacteria. This poses a serious threat to our survival. Remember the Irish potato? When a disease struck that plant, the potatoes in the whole country were wiped out, causing the serious famine of 1740/41.
Scientists recently discovered that the human body has a surprising function—it is host to many thousand species of other life forms, namely bacteria. In fact, researchers estimate that each human being hosts over a hundred trillion of these one-celled organisms, a number reminiscent of the astronomical figure of our national debt. It means that we have ten times more bacterial cells living in our body than we have human cells. The total number of human beings living on this planet is about seven billion; yet the number of microbes living in each and every human being is 14,000 times that large!
Bacteria are tiny and amount to about five pounds of our bodyweight. Yet they seem to have an enormous impact on our life, affecting our health and wellbeing, possibly even our tendency to gain weight.
Thanks to recent research, bacteria are no longer seen as our enemy; they are regarded as our benevolent partners. Hundreds of different bacterial species live in our mouth, our ears, and our gut, for example. This internal world of bacteria of ours, also called microbiome, develops after we’re born and seems to be determined by our early environment, resembling often that of other persons in the household. It can slowly change over time, depending on diet, environment and lifestyle, as well as on the medications we take.
Antibiotics were once considered the Holy Grail for fighting infections. Today, researchers are having second thoughts. Antibiotics kill not only bad bacteria, they kill good bacteria as well, and therefore can upset the harmonious balance of our bacterial microbiome and our health.
One day, researchers hope to find ways to harness our innate bacteria to handle our diseases. They may even find ways to track down the microbes that cause us to gain weight and how to keep them in check.
Life is miraculous and a constant source of wonder and amazement.
Until next time,

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

The Self-Centered Person

Life is suffering, so warned Buddha some 2500 years ago. Not much has changed since then. Anguish and pain still prevail around the globe today.
Much of it is caused by external factors—war, genocide, big-city crime, unemployment, illness, accidents, and poverty. Yet much pain and suffering is inflected by our own ego.
Take a self-centered person, for example. Such a person is motivated by selfishness and easily falls prey to jealousy, anger and hate. Yet from experience we know that none of these negative traits have ever brought joy or happiness.
The ego of one person may pine for possessions, while that of another may crave attention or power—and the deeper we fall victim to these whims and vices, the more we cause suffering to others as well as to ourselves. Machiavelli’s famous book, The Prince, illustrates a power-seeking person as one who resorts to stirring up anger and discontent among his possible opponents in order to pave his own way. Yet this tactic, Machiavelli warns, can easily backfire.
An extreme example of power-seeking selfishness was Adolf Hitler, a person we hope never to see again; and yet, someone like him could reappear any day and sadly any place.  In his brazen desire to rule the world Hitler trained a group of thugs as his bodyguards, the early SS, and sent them out to stir up riots in the streets.* This gave him the desired pretext to take away the German people’s liberty—all in the name of national security.
After the June 1944 attempt on his life, Hitler mercilessly and most gleefully had some 500 of his best generals, who’d won him enormous victories at a huge price, executed for conspiracy; they and their conspiracy provided him with the urgently needed excuse for the many staggering defeats he and his “invincible” army had suffered that year.
Machiavelli was right, the idea of cooperation for the benefit of others is an unacceptable concept for the power-craving and suffering-causing ego. Have you ever tried to explain to a self-centered person that his way may not be the best approach? Your explanation probably fell on deaf ears. The unbalanced ego sees but one way, and that is its own way, because it needs to be right at all times.
It’s interesting to note that Hitler’s self-righteous, or more accurately, psychopathic actions, brought intense suffering not only upon the German people and the people of Europe and America, but also upon himself.*
It is no secret that a bad seed seldom produces good fruit. But how should one interact with such a potentially malicious person? Preferably as little as possible, and certainly not in kind. If someone is hitting us, we may be tempted to hit back; if someone shouts at us, we may want to raise our voices too. Yet to what avail?  It is better to summon our self-control, yet stand our ground.
The challenge is to rein in our own ego and not fall prey to feelings of retribution and revenge—that would only perpetuate the cycle of pain and suffering. As Buddha’s teachings tell us, our primary goal is to become a better person, which improves our chances for a happier life because the law of cause and effect tends to reward good actions and punishes bad ones. When we succeed in being compassionate and kind to others, we have a good chance that our efforts will bear good fruit in the long run.
Until next time,

* The Madman and His Mistress by Roswitha McIntosh, pgs. 29 and 155