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