March 24 2017
Health & Wellbeing

Turns Out, There is a Deep State… and it’s Your Microbiome

microbiomeHave you given your microbiome much thought lately? I’m going to guess that between work, cooking, homework and managing your PTSD from watching the news, that’s probably a not bloody likely.  After one of the most grueling work weeks in memory, I actually had the opportunity to learn a great deal about my microbiome.  I feel utterly enlightened.

Even as someone who keeps up on science and health-related advances, I have somehow missed the incredibly important news surrounding this fast-moving area of study that is so central to our health and well-being.

For a long time we have operated under the idea that our health is determined by our DNA.  But scientists are learning more every day about how our quiet, hidden, shrouded-in-mystery microbiome is the real process that is regulating everything.  It is literally the deep state of our bodily systems, pulling strings and affecting outcomes.

As some of you may know, I work in PR.

Most of my clients are women’s consumer brands.  I spend a lot of time trying to come up with synonyms for the word “hydrated.”  I don’t find it particularly exhilarating or meaningful.  But once in a while, I come across a person or product that I find legitimately dazzling.  I spent the past week introducing two new brands to the consumer media… three days of non-stop meetings and one press event. Stressful and exhausting. My house looks like a crime scene and I assume my husband has been taking care of our children – they appear fed.

One of the brands we launched is a new probiotic line.

I won’t say which, because, as you may have noticed, I try to stay on the down-low here at Bklyn Bread.  I wouldn’t want to piss off my employer by saying something ill-advised, like, for example, that I find my job not particularly exhilarating or meaningful.

The probiotic line was formulated by a brilliant microbiologist, who was on hand to shed light on the topic. He is world-renowned, widely published, a noted speaker, and has co-authored many studies, including several in progress, on our microbiome. Unlike some of the other, err, “experts” I have worked with, he is the real deal.  He said so many mind-blowing things that I couldn’t email myself notes fast enough.  The press was just as fascinated as I was, which is notable.  Normally, in press meetings, I watch as my client talks their heart out, while a bored, jaded editor “mmm hmms” and nods wearily.

But this time, the bored, weary editors perked up. They had a million questions and every meeting ran way over.  So I thought I’d share some of the things I learned first-hand from this incredibly knowledgeable scientist at the forefront of this discipline.

The vast majority of our bodily functions are regulated by the microbes in our gut.

Not your DNA, not your brain, not your nervous system.  Your gut.  Our very understanding about what it means to be human is changing as scientists learn about how much is directed by our gut bacteria.  This is profoundly exciting because while we cannot change our DNA, we can change our microbiome.  This is a fast moving area of study. Scientists have learned more about the microbiome in the last five years than they have in the last 100. The implications are potentially enormous for issues as varied as allergies, obesity, depression, diabetes, Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s and inflammation, in general, which we know is the building block of so many diseases.

Your microbes made you eat that chocolate.

Microbes are intimately connected to your relationship to food. I learned that researchers can tell whether you are obese or not by looking at the microbes in your poop.  This suggests that there may be another way we should be looking at this difficult, pervasive issue.

I also learned that a ratio of two particular microbes in our gut is completely responsible for the regulation of ghrelin, our hunger hormone.  The microbiologist is in the midst of several studies on bacterial strains that show promise in regulating our totally-out-of-whack hunger response here in the West.  His research is also showing an effect on insulin response, which could have real implications for diabetes research.

Here is an interesting example from Scientific American on how scientists found different microbes in the guts of people who preferred dark chocolate over milk chocolate.

We have about 1000 different microbes in our gut.

Our adult microbiome is established by the time we are two and a half. Most of our microbiome was seeded by our mother.  Some studies have shown that we miss out on many essential microbes when we miss out on a vaginal birth or breast feeding.  But it is not just our mother, we also get many microbes from the close contact we have with our fathers in our first years of life. Also, the more veggies we eat, the more microbial diversity we get – just one of the many reasons vegetables are so good for us.

98 percent of the bacteria we come into contact with are either beneficial or benign.

And the microbiologist told me that the best way to deal with the bad 2 percent, is with the good 98 percent.  So that spray that says “Kills 99.99% of Bacteria” is mostly killing bacteria that is good for you.

Microbial diversity is essential for homeostasis, the balance we need to be in good health. We have caused many problems by sanitizing our environments to the degree that we do.  Maybe don’t lick the subway pole as David from Raptitude jokingly suggested when I started pontificating about bacteria on Twitter.  But do get your kid into the dirt.  A lot.  And don’t freak out, as my husband and I often have, shouting “don’t touch your face!!!”

Probiotics are great, in theory.

We recently put my son on probiotics because he has been having gastro issues for months. We tested him for a gluten allergy, tested his stool for parasites, etc.  It is still not sorted out.  The pediatric GI recommended a probiotic, as many doctors do.  And many people take them.  But I learned that, unfortunately, the vast majority of probiotics do not make it though your digestive tract alive. They simply cannot survive the harsh environment.  People are just getting dead bacteria, which does have some small benefits in the gut as it releases its DNA.  But that is not what they were promised.

I learned about a study done in 2015 that examined 16 children’s probiotics.  Only one of them contained the strains listed on the label.  So good luck finding a probiotic that actually contains the strains listed on the label and that makes it to your gut alive.  (Email me if you would like a recommendation).  This is what happens when, as a society, we decide that “regulation” is a bad word. Just get your own lab, and test your own products to make sure you are actually getting what it says on the label.  Also, become a doctor and administer your own healthcare. Personal responsibility.

We are on the cusp of an antibiotic emergency.

I asked the scientist whether humanity was basically screwed because of the situation with antibiotic resistance.  He said, rather unreassuringly, “oh yes, it is a calamity that is coming.” I asked what he thought will happen, once it does. His response: “A lot of people will die, perhaps a large group of school children that develop an antibiotic resistant bug.  People will finally freak out.  Laws will be put into place, especially to stop the use of antibiotics in farming, which are used for the sole purpose of making animals grow larger.  But will researchers find a solution at that point?  I don’t know.”

He then said that this kind of antibiotic use on farms will persist as long as people buy $.99 burgers.  I reflected sheepishly on the McDonald’s cheeseburger I had the week before during a road trip.  I recalled thinking at the time how wrong it seemed that my seltzer cost more than my burger. Voting with your wallet ultimately is about choosing a less convenient option – something about which I clearly needed a reminder. A terrifying reminder.

And it goes without saying: do not take antibiotics unless you really need them.  They are literally like throwing an atom bomb into your microbiome, which, you now know, regulates just about every process in your body and protects you from disease when it functions properly. This goes tenfold for children.

I hope you agree this is a topic worth paying attention to.  It just may be that the research that is taking place on our microbiome will lead to advances that offer hope for heartbreaking diseases that have so far stymied every effort.  Diseases like Alzheimer’s, which has preyed upon more than one member of my family.

Also, just a reminder that science is there for us – let’s be there for science.

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  • The microbiome is soooo important, and, like you said, it is the cause of many modern diseases, that we tend to accept as part of ‘aging’, or something that can be fixed with a pill, that causes more problems. If you are familiar with systems thinking, what is going on is a positive feedback loop. We are proliferating the problem with the things you mentioned like the anti-bacterial soap, the antibiotics, and also, by eating veggies from a grocery store that have been industrially washed. We don’t need to lick a pole in the subway, and as you mentioned, the probiotics don’t work well… but we do need to eat dirt. We need to eat food from the ground that hasn’t been washed and our kids need to get dirty. We also need prebiotics by incorporating certain foods… just google resistant starch.

    I’ve actually been drafting a post for awhile now, that I have titled “The Next Great Extinction”, which is on this topic exactly…. we are destroying this very important and delicate system.

    • Something else I found that was so interesting was how our ancestors ate a much larger diversity of foods than we do. If you think about that grocery aisle with 16 trillion things, you would think we have a greater variety, but it is all made out of like the same three ingredients!

  • So much yes to this! I took a course in college that was solely about gut flora. It really is interesting how much of our health and even our brain function/personality comes from our gut flora. They even do “fecal transplants” (flora from a healthy person to an unhealthy person) as a way to manage weight and nutrition issues. It’s awesome. 🙂

    • Oh God yes, I recall hearing about fecal transplants! It’s funny how you can hear about something in the background, yet it eludes your notice until you take a deep dive. I learned so much and am googling every recent study I can find…

  • This is so informative Linda. The overuse of antibiotics is very concerning. I’m thankful we have a family doctor who considers them almost as a last resort, but I know that it’s tough to control what’s contained in the food we eat. Very interesting about the food diversity as well. You would think that with our ancestors relying more on locally grown food sources, they would not have the choices we do today. I guess economics has something to do with it, though. It’s so much cheaper to eat pasta and the other carbs found in the middle aisles of the grocery store, than fresh produce, chicken and fish, and that’s what so many families are forced to do.

    • It is an especially serious problem in urban areas where people live in food deserts. Not a supermarket or a grocer to be found. Nothing but convenience stores and fast food chains. What do we think these people are going to do? They do what everyone does – the realistic thing. The manageable thing. The affordable thing. I have am privileged to have the time, energy and wherewithal to worry about what my family eats, even if I don’t always get it right. But there are many people who have almost no chance of getting it right. And that just sucks.

  • Oh man, you’re hitting on one of my sore spots – antibiotics!

    For all the years we’ve talked about superbugs, its amazing how widespread the unnecessary use of antibiotics are. It’s never so cut an dry as to say that we should ban their use in farming outright (cows do get sick sometimes), but it’s so sad the long-term risk we’re putting ourselves in as a species with widespread overuse of antibiotics.

    I suspect as time goes on, we’ll figure out more and more that dirt and germs are actually good for us and how many problems have been created by our germaphobic tendencies.

    Thanks for putting this out there – we need more conversation on this topic and people definitely need to vote on this with their wallets!

    • I can’t tell you how many ear infections were prescribed antibiotics for my older son. And it always felt wrong, but what parent is going to second guess a doctor when you have a sick kid. I have many times turned down antibiotics for myself, but never once for my kid. This is where you need doctors to be the leader.

  • Thankfully, my kids have only used antibiotics a handful of times. But, as a child, it seems like I was on them constantly for one reason or another. Thankfully, I never worried about my kids playing in the dirt and they had ample opportunity to do so.

    You have me questioning how much money I’ve wasted on those probiotics! This is a topic I read about years ago, but haven’t lately. Thanks for bringing my attention to it again, Linda!

    • I’m glad it was informative! I certainly consider myself pretty savvy on stuff like this, but up against the world’s greatest marketers, anyone can get taken for a ride…

  • Sorry I’m late to the party…I was just reading today about resistant starch which is supposed to be good for your gut. It all started with me looking for info on eating sweet potatoes after refrigeration. Apparently potatoes cooked and then chilled are good for you. I also saw references to prebiotics as opposed to probiotics.

    • Very interesting. One thing I did learn about prebiotics is that they are basically like food for all the bacteria, good and bad. So on their own, they are not very helpful. But they are useful when paired with an effective probiotic that is going into the gut and seeding good bacteria and literally creating antibiotics for the bad bacteria, or the bacteria that is just not present in the proper ratio. It is all so fascinating. I wish I was better with science. I always hated science in school. Lots of memorizing long words that I didn’t understand. I never remember finding it interesting the way I do as an adult, in relation to so many important issues.

  • I read somewhere that the bad microbes in your gut feed on sugar. Thankfully the importance of “gut health” is making its way into mainstream society. Thanks for a very timely, important, and SCARY post, Linda. I got to start treating my microbiome much better.

    1. Mr. Groovy 10:07am 31 March - 2017 - Reply

      I read somewhere that the bad microbes in your gut feed on sugar. Thankfully the importance of “gut health” is making its way into mainstream society. Thanks for a very timely, important, and SCARY post, Linda. I got to start treating my microbiome much better.

      • Brooklyn Bread 04:17pm 31 March - 2017 - Reply

        Oh sugar is just the root of all evil. And I am addicted to it. : (

    2. Mrs. Groovy 10:54pm 30 March - 2017 - Reply

      Sorry I’m late to the party…I was just reading today about resistant starch which is supposed to be good for your gut. It all started with me looking for info on eating sweet potatoes after refrigeration. Apparently potatoes cooked and then chilled are good for you. I also saw references to prebiotics as opposed to probiotics.

      • Brooklyn Bread 04:22pm 31 March - 2017 - Reply

        Very interesting. One thing I did learn about prebiotics is that they are basically like food for all the bacteria, good and bad. So on their own, they are not very helpful. But they are useful when paired with an effective probiotic that is going into the gut and seeding good bacteria and literally creating antibiotics for the bad bacteria, or the bacteria that is just not present in the proper ratio. It is all so fascinating. I wish I was better with science. I always hated science in school. Lots of memorizing long words that I didn’t understand. I never remember finding it interesting the way I do as an adult, in relation to so many important issues.

    3. Amanda @ centsiblyrich 02:28pm 27 March - 2017 - Reply

      Thankfully, my kids have only used antibiotics a handful of times. But, as a child, it seems like I was on them constantly for one reason or another. Thankfully, I never worried about my kids playing in the dirt and they had ample opportunity to do so.

      You have me questioning how much money I’ve wasted on those probiotics! This is a topic I read about years ago, but haven’t lately. Thanks for bringing my attention to it again, Linda!

      • Brooklyn Bread 03:30pm 27 March - 2017 - Reply

        I’m glad it was informative! I certainly consider myself pretty savvy on stuff like this, but up against the world’s greatest marketers, anyone can get taken for a ride…

    4. Chris @ Keep Thrifty 03:48pm 26 March - 2017 - Reply

      Oh man, you’re hitting on one of my sore spots – antibiotics!

      For all the years we’ve talked about superbugs, its amazing how widespread the unnecessary use of antibiotics are. It’s never so cut an dry as to say that we should ban their use in farming outright (cows do get sick sometimes), but it’s so sad the long-term risk we’re putting ourselves in as a species with widespread overuse of antibiotics.

      I suspect as time goes on, we’ll figure out more and more that dirt and germs are actually good for us and how many problems have been created by our germaphobic tendencies.

      Thanks for putting this out there – we need more conversation on this topic and people definitely need to vote on this with their wallets!

      • Brooklyn Bread 11:05am 27 March - 2017 - Reply

        I can’t tell you how many ear infections were prescribed antibiotics for my older son. And it always felt wrong, but what parent is going to second guess a doctor when you have a sick kid. I have many times turned down antibiotics for myself, but never once for my kid. This is where you need doctors to be the leader.

    5. Mystery Money Man 02:10pm 26 March - 2017 - Reply

      This is so informative Linda. The overuse of antibiotics is very concerning. I’m thankful we have a family doctor who considers them almost as a last resort, but I know that it’s tough to control what’s contained in the food we eat. Very interesting about the food diversity as well. You would think that with our ancestors relying more on locally grown food sources, they would not have the choices we do today. I guess economics has something to do with it, though. It’s so much cheaper to eat pasta and the other carbs found in the middle aisles of the grocery store, than fresh produce, chicken and fish, and that’s what so many families are forced to do.

      • Brooklyn Bread 11:11am 27 March - 2017 - Reply

        It is an especially serious problem in urban areas where people live in food deserts. Not a supermarket or a grocer to be found. Nothing but convenience stores and fast food chains. What do we think these people are going to do? They do what everyone does – the realistic thing. The manageable thing. The affordable thing. I have am privileged to have the time, energy and wherewithal to worry about what my family eats, even if I don’t always get it right. But there are many people who have almost no chance of getting it right. And that just sucks.

    6. Mrs. Picky Pincher 08:43pm 24 March - 2017 - Reply

      So much yes to this! I took a course in college that was solely about gut flora. It really is interesting how much of our health and even our brain function/personality comes from our gut flora. They even do “fecal transplants” (flora from a healthy person to an unhealthy person) as a way to manage weight and nutrition issues. It’s awesome. 🙂

      • Brooklyn Bread 08:46pm 24 March - 2017 - Reply

        Oh God yes, I recall hearing about fecal transplants! It’s funny how you can hear about something in the background, yet it eludes your notice until you take a deep dive. I learned so much and am googling every recent study I can find…

    7. Melanie of Mindfully Spent 03:50pm 24 March - 2017 - Reply

      This subject is so interesting to me!!! It must’ve brightened up the work day to have had this expert come through. Thank you for another great read, Linda!

      • Brooklyn Bread 05:13pm 24 March - 2017 - Reply

        It was! There were so many things he said that I wish I could have included here. But I am always too verbose as it is!

    8. Primal Prosperity 02:07pm 24 March - 2017 - Reply

      The microbiome is soooo important, and, like you said, it is the cause of many modern diseases, that we tend to accept as part of ‘aging’, or something that can be fixed with a pill, that causes more problems. If you are familiar with systems thinking, what is going on is a positive feedback loop. We are proliferating the problem with the things you mentioned like the anti-bacterial soap, the antibiotics, and also, by eating veggies from a grocery store that have been industrially washed. We don’t need to lick a pole in the subway, and as you mentioned, the probiotics don’t work well… but we do need to eat dirt. We need to eat food from the ground that hasn’t been washed and our kids need to get dirty. We also need prebiotics by incorporating certain foods… just google resistant starch.

      I’ve actually been drafting a post for awhile now, that I have titled “The Next Great Extinction”, which is on this topic exactly…. we are destroying this very important and delicate system.

      • Brooklyn Bread 02:25pm 24 March - 2017 - Reply

        Something else I found that was so interesting was how our ancestors ate a much larger diversity of foods than we do. If you think about that grocery aisle with 16 trillion things, you would think we have a greater variety, but it is all made out of like the same three ingredients!

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