|This has nothing to do with health. It is simply a reflection on the devastating forest fires here in the Garden Route. So, if you’re pressed for time, please delete this email. I’m sending my marketing email tomorrow (fingers crossed), with the month’s specials, etc in it.|
The past twelve days, all of us living in the Garden Route were affected by the forest fires raging out of control on our beloved mountains. At this time of writing, an area about one third as big as Cape Town has been devastated and fires are still burning in a dozen areas. Monday, a week ago, the smoke over our house was thick and heavy. Ash drifted down like snow, blanketing everything in a thin layer of grey-white soot.
In a crisis, communication systems break down – no landline, cell phones or wireless. No one knows how close the fire is. So, for the second time in as many years, we packed a bag and got ready to evacuate. In the end, the wind turned and nothing bad happened. The fire wasn’t even close. And so, like last year, we left our bag standing for a few days before unpacking it. Not because we were expecting the fire to return, but because unpacking this bag is an embarrassing and humiliating affair.
Let’s see what went into the bag…
Clothing. Of course. Who wants to wear stinky old clothing when everybody’s nose is blocked by smoke? You have to look presentable while sleeping on the floor of some church hall. We mostly wear clothing to hide and to fake. Hiding our shame, or hiding from weather or faking our true identity. Without clothing, we are vulnerable. So we pack clothes. What is confidence?
Medicines, toothbrushes and tooth paste. Who wants to get toothache while on evacuation? Not me. And if my medication runs out while I’m far away from a pharmacy, who will care for me? What is health?
ID, passports, birth certificates: Unpacking these, you realise that flimsy papers do not hold your identity. How strange that we become faceless when we lose these papers. Two hundred years ago, everyone in the village knew who you were. Today, even parents don’t recognise their teens. We need papers to prove that we are who we claim to be. What is identity?
Cell phone, lap top, data drives: You cannot go anywhere nowadays without telling people about it. I need my tech to earn income. But when the networks are down or overloaded, not even Mom knows where I am. Everyone phoning everyone to find out if everyone is safe. What is safety?
Money and credit cards: More flimsy paper. What separates me from a beggar, a homeless man or a tramp are a few sheets of paper. When I lie on the hard floor amid the unwashed masses, I will feel these papers in my purse and they will remind me that I’m not really homeless. That I’m able to buy my way out of this mess. Just give me some time. What is ambition?
Charger: What do you call a cellphone without a charger? A brick. Our devices need power. So you pack your charger to keep your devices powered. You forget that the city hall only has one socket, right in front, below the stage. Oh, and a hundred other people have the same idea as you. Even if someone brought a lead, the load will trip the circuit. That is, if folks remembered to pack adaptors, too. In the end, we’re all power-less in the midst of our personal, individualised crises, as the attention shifts from losing our shome to losing our connections. What is power?
Blanket: A night on a wooden floor can get really cold. One blanket has to cover a number of bodies . That means, pulling and shoving while all sorts of interesting bits get the chill. What is friendship?
Toilet paper: Toilets are at a premium during evacuations. Toilet paper is the new white gold. You either have it, or you are reduced to a smelly, second-class citizen. What is social status?
I finish unpacking the bag. My life just flashed before me. It was embarrassingly empty of substance. The things I valued so highly – the only items selected to survive my house burning down – are pitiful and meagre. Who am I? Really? Honestly?
I pack the suitcase back into the cupboard. If the fires return next year, I will walk out as I am. The clutter of things I call “important” is the real fire burning me up. I’ve allowed smoke and mirrors to rule my life.
“Naked I came from my mother’s womb, and naked I shall leave this life.”
When I was a medical student, “going viral” was something really bad. If a patient “went viral”, you’d feed them pancakes (because that was the only thing you could slide underneath the door). You didn’t open the door until you sent in the SWAT team in plastic coveralls.
It was that bad.
Nowadays,, “going viral” is regarded as something good. As in “the video clip went viral.” The SA restaurant rage videos currently doing the rounds are one such example of “going viral”. Although they are probably as bad for our minds as the old “going viral” was for our bodies. I truly hope they don’t spur on any further instances of restaurant rage.
As everyone is pointing fingers and moralising about what is happening in the clips, I’d like to step back and look at rage from a biological angle. Few people realise that rage is largely the result of two molecules in a kind of see-saw balance:
Glucose and insulin
If glucose goes up (courtesy of what we eat), insulin follows some time later (courtesy of the pancreas). This nudges glucose out of the blood into the cells. Glucose then drops again. Some time later, insulin drops in response to the lower glucose levels.
Fair enough. But how are food and mood linked?
The brain runs mainly on glucose. If blood glucose drops too fast, or too much, the brain gets anxious. A low blood glucose level is a threat to survival. Therefore, all the “fight or flight” responses are activated by low blood glucoe. Anything that gets in the way is pushed out of the way. No explanations. No niceties.
“Hand over that chocolate cake and no one will get hurt.”
If one person behaves rudely, all those around also start behaving rudely in defence. It’s a kind of chain reaction. Not long afterward and it looks like a fight scene from Asterix.
When does blood glucose drop very fast or too much? I’m glad you asked.
From my description above, you may have noticed that there is a lag in insulin response, both when glucose rises, as well as when it drops. It is that lag which causes the problem in a modern society eating modern foods.
But before we get there, a little fact that will change the way you understand sugar.
If I took ALL the glucose from the blood of an adult and purified it, how much glucose would I get? The answer is … one level teaspoon. About 5 g. That’s it. All the fuss about glucose levels fits into one teaspoon.
So… If I add a teaspoon of sugar to my tea or coffee, I basically double my blood sugar in a matter of minutes. This is not good news for the body’s balance.
In the olden days, when food technology was mostly limited to a wood fire, sugars came with plenty of fibre attached. True, you could suck out nectar from flowers, but you’d have to do this for an hour before getting to a teaspoon of sugar. And your fellow cave dwellers would probably give you some strange stares. Honey? Yes, but at a price that stings.
The pancreas liked that mellow life. Up the insulin a little, drop it a little. The range of blood glucose levels was pretty stable most of the time. On the low side (compared to our modern ‘normal’ levels), but stable. And the brain was happy.
Fast forward 150 years. Or a bit more.
Nowadays, it is possible to ingest 8 teaspoons of sugar in less than 10 minutes. By eating a medium sized pizza, nogal. Or by drinking one of the many carbonated drinks on store shelves. Without fibre, the sugar superdose is absorbed in minutes to supercharge the brain. It feels good. You feel like the Top Primate all over again.
It’s a bit like taking our cave dwelling ancestor for a spin in a Ferrari. You’re gonna need some serious soap to clean his seat afterwards.
The pancreas, likewise, is in a flat spin. It does not have the reserves to cope with such a load. It starts up the factory and pushes out all the insulin it can. The smell of burning pancreatic rubber goes mostly unnoticed as we bask in the happiness of a brain stuffed full of glucose. We’re on the nutritional highway to glory. Who cares what is happening below the hood?
But while the glucose rabbit falls asleep at the wheel, the insulin tortoise crawls past secretly. It takes about two hours, give or take a nose hair. At this point, the glucose rabbit gets pipped at the post and has to retreat into the cells. Order is restored. But that pancreatic factory isn’t so easy to stop. It just keeps running at full tilt for some time to come.
What happens next is nicely depicted in Greek mythology. The newly-freed Icarus flies too close to the sun, his waxen wings melt and he plummets to the ground. In our case, insulin does the melting. After that glucose overshoot, there’s an insulin overshoot, followed by a rapid glucose-drop that will make your head spin.
It is at that tipping point when even a tiny irritation can set off a firestorm. Road rage incidents often happen around meal times, when glucose levels are low. Drunkards get abusive when all the sugar has left the building but the alcohol keeps on shouting. But the true triggers happened some hours previously, when too much sugar started the ticking time bomb.
For decades, we’ve been conditioned that sugar gives “energy”. It’s an easy sell. Our cells burn sugar for energy, sugar makes us feel good, so why not boost sugar levels whenever we need a lift? Athletes swear by sugar. Students swear by
beer caffeine sugar. So it must be good, right? Wrong!
Moral of the story? Avoid refined sugar like the plague it is. That way, you are much less likely to end up “going viral”.
To your health!
Let’s briefly recap:
1. Plants trap their valuable minerals and nutrients in a strong web of fibres.
2. To digest those fibres, animals need the help of microbes.
3. Fibre-eating microbes need help to stay happy and healthy.
4. A healthy gut microbiome needs a healthy skin microbiome. The two are linked at either end.
5. Skin microbes need shade / hair (to block harmful UV light) and water / sweat to thrive.
In other words, we’re in BIG trouble. Here’s my view of how we got there. I may be wrong, but it makes for a good story anyhow. And no, global warming has nothing to do with it.
About half a century ago, animal furs started going out of fashion. Try wearing a mink coat in public anywhere in the West and you’re likely to get hissed at or worse.
Human fur, however, has been under the cross-hairs much longer. About a century ago, something happened that turned body hair and sweat into fashion disasters. How?
A little more than a century ago, the world first glimpsed a new technology and a new profession. The technology was called “the movies” and the profession was “acting”. For the first time in human history, it was possible to earn fame and wealth without needing much skill or hard work (at least, this was the myth that became popular).
Unlike theatre actors, who had to slave away night after night, movie actors had to do it right only once.
Unlike theatre actors, who had to exaggerate in order to be visible, movie actors were “in” the camera – very close and intimate.
As a result, heroes and heroines on-screen were cool as cucumbers even in deserts and jungles. We entered an age where looks beat substance. Movie actors are people whose job it is to look like other people.
This triumph of looks over substance came at a high cost. For centuries, Western thought held manual labour in high regard. Just look at European art to see this theme crop up again and again. The outwardly visible nobility of (not so hard working) royalty and clergy is often contrasted to the inner nobility of “the little people” – the sweaty, dirty, hard-working masses.
Suddenly, looking noble was more important than actually being noble.
The cultural shift was both sudden and immense. The “new nobility” were “little people” who merely had to look beautiful to gain an escape from daily, hard, sweaty, manual labour. Suddenly, almost everyone wanted to be like the new nobility and look like them. People looking like other people looking like other people.
Actors often looked hard-working and vaguely noble in their jeans, but their skins were smooth as peaches. Most strikingly, these actors were nearly hairless. Baby-faced actors and marble-skinned actresses. Oh, and those hands… clean, without callouses and with trimly cut and painted fingernails.
The brave new movie world had no sweat or hair, no stink or climate. And everyone who could afford to, tried to copy this make-believe world. The result? Microbiome mayhem.
Human body hair was going out of fashion at a rate of knots.
Beards went out of fashion (or were associated with unwanted characters). Interestingly, though, when DiCaprio grew a beard, he earned an Oscar – coincidence? While The Beard made regular comebacks, these were mostly short-lived and in response AGAINST the culture, not in line with it. The most recent beard-o-plosion may, however, have been inspired by the ultra-hirsute “Lord of the Rings” and “The Hobbit” movies, that dominated screens with brave beardery (or is it the other way round?) for nearly a decade.
Underarm and leg hair went out the window, too. Europeans mostly ignored this one, however.
Nowadays, women all around the world feel great social pressure to have minimal body hair.
Let’s look at some of the ways we wreck our skin microbiome:
* Regular hand-washing and bathing is now the norm (except in England…).
* Regular washing and conditioning of hair.
* Anti-perspirants and deodorants kill or maim the armpit bugs on a daily basis.
* Cosmetics changed the skin’s natural microbe make-up.
* And I’m not even talking about all the fanny doctoring that has been going on.
Where does this leave us as a species?
No, no-one has died trying to look like Humphrey Bogart or Marlene Dietrich. Wiping your microbiome off your skin on a near-daily basis does not affect your health quickly.
The largest part of our microbiome (skin and gut) is established very, very early in life. So even if we fight it, at least the strongest bugs still find a way to stick with us. The problem comes when that reduced microbiome needs to be transferred to another human being – baby. Baby starts off with less, grows up wiping off the little bits of microbiome and, in turn, passes on an even further reduced microbiome to the next generation.
We are now seeing the fourth post-cleanliness generation grow up and the wheels are coming off. More of that in a future post, though.
Am I advocating a return to hirsute cave-dwelling lifestyles? Maybe and maybe not. I shave every day (to keep the peace in the house) and wash my hair often enough to avoid being called a Rasta. I use deodorants, etc. Yes, we as a family go easy on soap in general, but we’re not really bucking the trend radically.
Social norms are hard to break. We are all prisoners of our respective cultures. As such, counter-cultural moves can cost dearly. But some moves can be made to ensure the survival of a diverse microbiome.
Have a “dirty weekend” once in a while (for some reason, men love this idea). Go camping and don’t wash too much for two or three days.
Or stop shaving your body hair in places that don’t see sunlight that often.
Switch your personal care items to skin-friendly, or make your own (hundreds of DIY recipes are one Google search away – and it’s cheap, too).
Or get to a farm and spend some time working with the livestock.
Don’t wash your home-grown veggies with more than just water.
And – for heaven’s sake – stop trying to look like someone trying to look like someone else. Movies are only made about people who did not try to look like anyone else – except themselves. Who knows? Maybe, one day, a movie will be made about YOU!
Keep it shining!
Without the Sahara desert, the Amazon rain forest could not exist. Surprised? Apparently, it’s true.
The answer, my friend, is blowing in the wind.
Mighty desert winds sweep mineral-laden sand into the upper layers of the atmosphere. This dust gently settles over the Amazon basin, supplying important nutrients (especially phosphorous) to the poor soils of the Amazon.
The Sahara has the minerals, but lacks the microbes.
The Amazon has the microbes, but lacks the minerals.
And why, pray tell, does the Amazon have the microbes?
Microbes need water to survive and procreate. The Amazon has lots of it.
Let’s bring this much, much closer to home – your body.
Imagine the human body as a pipe. The hollow inside of the pipe represents the alimentary canal. The outside of the pipe represents the skin. The pipe itself is made up of muscles, bones and a couple of really useful organs.
The one end of the pipe represents the mouth. The other end is connected to that part of the anatomy your boss will kick when she catches you reading this email during work time.
Note that the inside and the outside of the pipe are connected via both ends. In other words, microbes can freely migrate from the gut to the skin and vice versa. In the middle of the gut, we find a pool of acid – the stomach. This is the most extreme defence we have against organisms entering the body via the mouth. Almost no microbes pass this barrier alive. The few that do, are mostly easily overcome by the Amazon rain forest of microbes waiting for them on the other side of the stomach.
But what about the skin?
Skin is more like the Sahara than the Amazon. Allow me to step back a bit. Biologists separate vertebrate life into five classes: Fish, Amphibian, Reptile, Bird and Mammal. Of these, the first three are covered in scales or naked skin, while birds and mammals have feathers and hair, respectively.
Fishes, amphibians and reptiles live close to water or soil, which are full of microbes – many of them unwelcome. This means the guts of these animals are far less welcoming to microbes. As we’ve seen, microbes are essential to digesting plants and absorbing minerals. Thus fishes, amphibians and reptiles either have to eat animals (since fats and proteins can be digested via enzymes, without microbes) or eat micro- plants (such as algae, which are digestible without microbe action).
Some reptiles escape this bondage to meat-eating by raising their heads high from the microbe-laden ground (think iguanas and tortoises). The rest have to “eat dirt” and meat.
Birds and mammals keep their heads in the microbe-poor air. This means selected microbes can be allowed to enter the gut to assist in the digestion of plants. Despite this advantage, most birds are still seed- or meat-eaters (assuming insects are “meat”, of course). Only once we look at mammals do we find large numbers of plant-eating species. Some, like humans, are omnivorous, which is a most remarkable feat of biological alchemy.
How come mammals manage this dietary switch?
They sweat and they have hair.
Hair traps moisture produced by sweat, which enables microbe cultures to survive on the harsh skin surface. Think of hair as an oasis in the desert.
What is more, certain important skin areas are extra moist, wrinkly and (dare I say it) hairy. Examples are the lips, armpits, areola and groin area. And don’t forget the parts men like to scratch absent-mindedly. Talking of men… By nature the human male is extra hairy at either end of that imaginary pipe we discussed earlier on. Now you know why. Think of men as microbe-rich reservoirs for the human species (but you already suspected that, didn’t you?).
Each of these special skin areas is a mini-rain forest in the middle of the Sahara. Here the right microbes are cultivated and kept in reserve.
All of this wrinkly stuff enables certain gut flora to survive – even flourish – on the skin. This allows microbes to spread between persons (let your imagination run wild), but also – more importantly – to spread from one generation to the next.
All of this to allow you (and your children) to digest SPINACH? CABBAGE? KALE (the four- letter word in superfoods)? You gotta be kidding me.
Here’s the thing: The ability to digest plants helps with food security and survival, especially in dry or cold times. Land cannot support many large carnivores, but it can support massive herds of herbivores. But they need to keep their microbe colonies healthy. One aspect of this is to use hair to “spread the love” within the herd.
But wait, it gets more hairy than this. Check out my next post …
Keep that fur shiny!
“She discovered with great delight that one does not love one’s children just because they are one’s children, but because of the friendship formed while raising them.”
– Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Love in the Time of Cholera
OK, so I lied. This email is not about Zika. Not too much, at any rate.
But it is about love. Sort of. You’ll see.
Let’s get Zika out of the way. Unless you’ve been listening to the SABC, you will know the world is all abuzz about the mosquito-borne Zika virus. Most people who get Zika, don’t even know they have it. Some women who had Zika in pregnancy bore children with below-average head sizes. This is blamed on the virus, though it could actually be due to a chemical the Brazilian government adds to the drinking water. It may take a while for the truth to emerge.
In the meantime, a couple in Texas managed to transfer the virus without the help of a mosquito. This method is infinitely more pleasant than being pricked by a mosquito, but it has health authorities worried that love could spread the Zika virus in non-tropical areas. So far, their fears seem unfounded – there’s not a lot of love going around these days.
So, is it safe to love? (Not that it is EVER safe to love, but let’s stick with biology for now.)
Well, to paraphrase the LPD*, “Caring is Sharing”.
In other words, when we love, we get closer. And when we touch, we share more than just a moment.
We share our microbes.
Romantic love often leads to parental love. We humans also practice friendship love and – for the die-hard pain-gluttons among us – selfless love. A while ago, my three-year old daughter told her elder brother, “I don’t like you but I love you.” A good summary of love, I thought.
We nowadays often confuse “like” with “love” (maybe it’s a Facebook thing?). Love is that which makes you go on long after the like is gone. Interestingly, the longer you love, the more likeable the other person becomes. The stuff fairy tales are spun of.
No matter what kind of loving you engage in, it won’t take long for you to share microbes. Microbes on droplets in the air, or on the skin, travel with remarkable ease to other galaxies waiting to be colonised. Our instinctive response is to prevent the spread. Indeed, there’s a definite Yuck! factor attached to the thought of sharing microbes. Barrier nursing in patients with low immune systems represents an extreme version of this avoidance.
Yet, for the vast majority of us (and the vast majority of infections), getting infected / colonised is mostly a good thing, not a bad thing.
Put down those antibiotics and no-one will get hurt.
Every time you meet a microbe, your body’s immune system is challenged. That keeps the immune system “battle-ready”. There is even some vague evidence that fevers protect against cancer, for example. An immune system that isn’t fighting infection gets “bored” and begins to attack the body itself. Thus people growing up in hyper-clean environments tend to get a whole new set of illnesses, such as allergies and auto-immune diseases.
One way or another, you’re gonna suffer, buddy.
The more infections your body battles, the easier it overcomes new attacks (and the less you will suffer from them). This is the premise behind vaccination, too (which I’m NOT going to discuss here – or elsewhere). The point I’m making is that “more is less”. Avoiding infection is not the answer for an otherwise healthy immune system.
Come closer, darling! The Doc says it’s OK.
Sharing viruses and bacteria is part of being social. It’s not always exactly pleasant (even though the sharing itself may be quite pleasant), but sharing microbes has definite survival value. At worst, only those with strong immune systems survive to pass on their genes. That’s a rather grim way of seeing it – but that’s what happened in the wake of the medieval Black Plague.
But most human-to-human infections don’t cause death or long-term disability. Remember, a microbe always needs a host, so those microbes who kill their hosts, slit their own throats. The really serious infective agents are mostly borne by vectors – other species that carry the microbe with little or no effect on the species.
There’s a much, much deeper effect that infections have on humans, however. I don’t think the biological “survival of the fittest” strategy is the last word in human immunity. Suure, survival is something we share with all animals. But humans have a trump card, something greater than survival.
Regular infection and disease among humans have encouraged a curious type of behaviour called “caring”. I’m not saying that animals can’t care, but in the case of humans, that care is dimensionally bigger than anywhere in the animal kingdom. And it has a powerful bonding effect on those communities that practice it.
At core, care is simply the tender supply of basic human needs during a time when a sick person is not able to look after him/herself. Care like this has no direct link with diagnosis or cure. When faced with illness in others, we have to answer the question, “How would I want to be treated in that situation?” And, when faced with our own illness, we can better understand the suffering of others, which deepens the tenderness of our care, in turn.
Tails, we win. Heads, we win.
We’ve come full circle. When we love each other, microbes jump ship and this sometimes causes harm. But when harm occurs, it presents a chance to strengthen the bonds of love in ways we never thought possible before. Once our immune systems cope with the new invader, the illness fades, but the love doesn’t. It grows. Sickness makes us less likeable, but more “love able”. The people you love most are most likely the people who still loved you when you were at your worst.
Suffering shared is suffering halved.
Joy shared is joy doubled.
Isn’t it great to be human?
*LPD = Large Purple Dinosaur
PS. We’ve come a long way from simply “caring for the sick”. Sadly, the better we get at dealing with the “sick”, the worse we get at the “caring”. Time for a reality check?
PPS. If you are going to a (sub-)tropical area and need some extra strength to cope with the new challenges, consider using my Zestura immune booster. It works really well against most of the worst infections. Keeps you vertical so you can better look after others!
Human bodies contain about 60% water. Sometimes, it’s noticeable, especially in the brain region, which contains about 75% water. Politicians may hold more water, possibly even hot air, but scientists have yet to confirm this.
What remains when we take away the water? The rest, as they say, is dust and ashes.
Close on 20% of total body weight (about half the body’s dry mass), is carbon.
That’s one half ashes.
The other half is shared by more than 60 elements – more than half the periodic table. Right there, inside of you.
Elements cannot be produced by biological (organic) processes. They have to be extracted from the surroundings, before being built into the body. Most of these elements can be classed as minerals – solid, inorganic substances found in the soil.
That’s one half dust.
In other words, our bodies are basically three parts water, one part ash and one part dust.
The more we study the body, the more surprises we find.
The minerals in our bodies are found throughout the soil in varying amounts. Typically, we identify 7 major and 9 minor (trace) elements. The rest? The amount we need of the rest is too low to measure easily, so they mostly get ignored. We still hardly know anything about their importance. You pick up a bit here, collect a bit there. It takes time – and some luck. And you need a gut that can detect as little as one atom of certain elements. Imagine that sort of sensitivity – packed into the tiny surface of a tiny cell deep inside your gut wall.
All these minerals were once deep inside giant stars exploding a long time ago. The dust found its way across aeons of time and oodles of space to a planet near you. Lucky you.
You know, you’re actually pretty amazing. But you knew that, right?
Where do our bodies find all these minerals in a way that is not random?
Plants to the rescue!
Firstly, plants concentrate minerals in their various parts – roots, stems, leaves, flowers, seeds. However, each plant has a different mineral profile, just as each plant part has a different mineral profile. Also, soil conditions determine the mineral make-up of the plant. In other words, to get your full complement of minerals, you need to eat a wide range of plants from a wide range of soils. You gotta move around.
Plants also have an important negative function. Like in any public space, there are certain “unwanted elements” in nature. Some of that wandering stardust is not good for life. Plants detect these in the soil and refuse to absorb them, or absorb them in low amounts only. Thus, by eating plants instead of soil, we get our minerals “pre-filtered”, free of charge, courtesy of the sun.
This is not a 100% perfect correlation. Plants and people have different life processes and purposes, after all. But it beats the alternative. Eating soil is even worse than eating broccoli (or Brussel sprouts or kale, come to think of it). Again, as long as the types of plants and regions of plant harvesting vary, we will (on average) get a full and healthy spectrum of essential minerals.
The absorption of minerals into the body is another matter. Many of the heavier minerals require a special “basket” to be transported into the body. Think of this as a cup made from molecules. It holds one mineral atom in the centre, carrying them across cell membranes into the body. Plants, ever hungry for minerals, have lots of these cups inside them. One example would be the group of chemicals we call polyphenols.
So, plants not only help us find the necessary elements, and avoid the unnecessary ones, they also help us to absorb them. But here’s a teeny problem: All that fantastic plant goodness is stuck inside a cell. And not just any prison cell, this is a Fort Knox of a cell.
Plant cells are surrounded by something called the “cell wall”. Cell walls are support structures designed to fiercely defend the cell contents. After all, plants have no legs to flee “predators”, so they need other ways to play “hard to get”. Collectively, we call these cell walls “fibre” or “cellulose”. Tough stuff.
Our bodies cannot digest the cell walls very well. A little bit, yes, but not enough for us to survive very long.
Microbes to the rescue!
There’s a whole constellation of microbes dedicated to “eating” cellulose. What is more, they make by-products that are important to our immune system. And they liberate the minerals we need for all processes of life.
Ain’t that sweet of them?
Now, if you’ve been eating a diet low in fibre for a long time, these microbes probably got hungry, then died off. Even if you switch to a fibre-rich diet, you still need to get the microbe colonies from somewhere to get the goodness out of the plants. After two generations of eating refined foods, most of the Western world has lost its colonies of fibre-eating microbes. Just changing your diet to be “rich in fibre” won’t solve the basic problem. You’d need to find a friendly herbivore and let some of it rub off on you. Or get it in a bottle.
But that’s a topic for another day.
Ponder those microbes,
Someone once told me, “99% of lawyers give the rest a bad name.”
To which I replied, “1% of doctors give the rest a good name.”
Come to think of it, though, I don’t know ANY evil lawyers personally, and only a handful of doctors so bad, I wouldn’t entrust them with my pet cockroach. So those stats seem somewhat fake.
However, I want to talk about … microbes. Again.
You could say that 1% of microbes give the rest a bad rap. Because of a few rogue bacteria, viruses, parasites, etc, we sterilise our entire environment.
Actually, the figure of rogue microbes is probably closer to 0.00001% of all microbes. And here’s the thing: even the rogue microbes mostly have important roles to play in the microbe ecosystem. They’re “bad” for us in the sense that they harm us if present in the wrong amounts or in the wrong places (or hanging out with the wrong crowd).
If you’re undergoing surgery, you want sterility. Bugs not welcome. That is perfectly rational.
But if you apply that same logic to life outside of the surgical theatre, you don’t get fewer rogue microbes, you get more.
Microbes are made to live in symbiosis with each other. In other words, “I help you and you help me” (for some or other reason, thoughts of Purple Dinosaurs occur to me). “Our” microbes are very much dependent on a symbiotic, happy co-existence with US. The diversity of microbe classes, families, genuses, species and subtypes is bewildering.
It keeps me humble to realise that there are a thousand times more microbes living in me than there are stars in our Milky Way. We are still struggling to classify them, never mind to understand the complex web of relations between them. All I know for certain is that this is no accident. We were made for each other.
In other words, if my microbiome is destabilised, I will suffer. Balance is critical.
This means there are rules.
Here are some of them:
1. Microbes are welcome on every human surface – skin, cavities, hair and alimentary canal.
2. Humans will provide adequate microbe clothing and housing.
3. Microbes are not welcome inside the body. Period.
4. Humans will ingest food that microbes need.
5. Microbes will produce substances that humans need.
Now, not all microbes play by the rules. This causes problems.
Humans also break the rules. This causes problems, too.
Here’s a further miracle of the microbiome: No two of us share the same balance of microbes, or even the same species. Your microbiome is as uniques as your fingerprint. Unlike your fingerprint, however, your microbiome changes day by day. It is extremely fluid (no pun intended) but still remains uniquely YOU. That’s almost magical, I believe.
Far, far more aspects of our health and wellness depend on our microbes than we ever thought. Even metabolic diseases like diabetes are now being traced back to microbial imbalances. It isn’t always easy to know how much is CAUSE and how much is EFFECT, but we are learning fast.
On the topic of uniqueness, this recent BBC article may tickle you. The author, a doctor herself, discovers some surprising facts about the gut and her diet. And how people do not respond to the same diet in the same way. The researchers are trying to find “diet groups” and I wish them well in their search. Personally, I think there are simpler ways to do this than to send stool samples halfway around the world. But each to his own and bless the lab assistants.
Have a great TINY day! And be grateful that the vast majority of microbes vote for us.
Chances are, your mother taught you to wash your hands (with soap and water!) before eating (and after visiting the loo).
Chances are, you still do (well, most of the time anyway).
But where does this practise come from?
We know from the Good Book that the Jews had hand-washing rituals for as long as anyone can remember – at least 2,500 years, possibly even double that. This is maybe why mothers also like to say, “Cleanliness is next to godliness.” It’s almost in the Bible. The Jews are not the only culture with a long tradition of handwashing. Most major religions have some form of ritual (hand) washing embedded somewhere.
The widespread acceptance of hand-washing before eating (and with soap) is actually very recent, however. It involves a remarkable doctor who dared to challenge his colleagues. Guess who won?
Ignaz Semmelweis, a Hungarian with a German background, lived in the first half of the nineteenth century. By that time, doctors had largely taken over the noble art of delivering babies from often poorly educated midwives. And babies were mostly delivered in hospitals, no longer in private homes.
Doctors are busy people, so the noble art of delivering babies got shoved into the middle of other hospital duties (like doing autopsies). Semmelweis published a book that gently pointed out how the mothers of babies delivered by doctors in hospitals had a three-fold higher risk of dying, than those attended to by the “uneducated” midwives.
His experiments had shown that washing hands with an antiseptic solution before practising the noble art of delivering babies resulted in a maternal death rate of less than 1% (down from a much as 33% amongst doctors in hospitals).
Here’s some good advice from a doc: NEVER tell a doctor that a humble, “undeducated” midwife has a better outcome than a highly-trained, super-intelligent doctor. You might as well suggest that chimney-sweeps design better buildings than architects. Even worse, NEVER tell doctors they are the cause of death and disease. Death and disease are caused by patients, not doctors. We all know that, don’t we?
So, the medical establishment turned on Semmelweis, demanding proof for his suggestion that delivering babies with clean hands led to lower maternal death rates. He could offer none (Pasteur only proposed his germ theory a few years before Semmelweis died).
Semmelweis was edged out of his obstetric work in Vienna and blocked from teaching obstetrics to students. Returning to his native Budapest was not much better. Hounded by constant rejection and the screams of dying mothers, Semmelweis was eventually committed to an insane asylum, where he died 14 days later of wounds sustained when guards beat him.
And that, ladies and gentlemen, was the end of Semmelweis. Or so the medical fraternity thought. Except… maternal death rates in Budapest jumped as soon as Semmelweis left the building. Doctors refused to report on this, so there was no public revolt. It took Pasteur and Lister (and about 20 years) to convince doctors that Semmelweis had been right all along.
Once doctors cottoned on, antiseptic hand-washing was enforced – not just for doctors delivering babies, but also (especially and importantly) for those disease-laden patients.
And so your grandmother was taught to wash her hands with soap and water before eating and after visiting the loo. And she taught her daughter. And your mother taught you. We are only the third generation of soap-washing people in the history of the world. No, it’s not in the Good Book.
But that is not what Semmelweis taught. He focused on obstetricians only. Trust his colleagues to take it to another extreme.
Imagine being reviled in life and misinterpreted in death. Spare a thought for poor Semmelweis.
Where is this leading to?
While spending a few free minutes with my semi-free chickens, I noticed them eating soil – lots of it. I also noticed how my dogs religiously ate chicken droppings whenever they could. Both chickens and dogs seemed to benefit from this yucky diet. This is not accidental animal behaviour, it is deliberate and daily.
Finally, the penny dropped. It’s all about minerals and germ transfer (we need germs to absorb minerals). Not the minerals you can measure easily (like calcium), or the ones that are present in trace amounts (like copper) but the ones that are present in even lesser amounts (parts per billion). We can hardly measure them (like microbes were hardly measurable before Pasteur came along), so we ignore them.
Who needs germs?
We, as it turns out.
In an excellent recent article (link below), researcher Justin Sonnenburg describes how people in the West managed to kill vast amounts of their gut flora over the past two generations. He bemoans the loss of entire microbe civilisations, many of which are possibly lost forever.
But reports of the death of the microbiome may have been wildly exaggerated. Looking at my chickens, I have some hope.
Looking at the commercial meat-production chain, animals lose almost all regular contact with the soil and all cross-species contact with poo. There, I said it: POO. Get used to that word. Furthermore, caged animals are fed on grains that contain almost no fibre. This means their gut microbiome adjusts to fermentation of starches, instead of the digestion of cellulose (fibre).
Breaking fibre down in the gut turns out to be important for a healthy immune system and a happy life in general.
We’re not even talking about the effects of antibiotics on the gut microbiome of caged animals.
With only accidental soil intake, the meat (espeically organ meat) from caged animals is also deficient in critical trace minerals. It looks like meat, it almost tastes like meat, but it’s not quite what it could (or should) have been.
So, what does this mean to you?
I now understand that the human microbiomes (gut and skin) need regular contact (“contamination”) with the microbiomes of healthy herbivores (cows, sheep, goats, poultry). You may not want to eat chicken poo (although you may know a few people you’d like to feed it to). But you don’t need to. Using cow, horse and chicken manure on your own veggie patch means that a few microbes will get into your food chain (especially if you don’t wash those spinach leaves in soapy water).
NOT washing your hands with soap and water before eating will help some microbes get into your gut, too. Water alone is fine, if you insist on washing.
Note: You will see the question mark in the title of this post. If I, as doctor, were to challenge, again, the new medical status quo, I’d be shuffled out of my medical degree and into an asylum faster than laxative passing through a skeleton.
What about parasites? This requires a much longer answer, but here’s the short answer: The infections you need to worry about are almost never transmitted by herbivore poo. The ones you need to worry about that are possibly transmitted by poo are destroyed by UV light (read: sunlight) and/or removed by simply washing with water (no soap needed). So, using healthy herbivore manure on a sunlit veggie patch is not going to harm anyone.
Whose microbiome is it anyway?
I’m not going against your mother’s advice. I’m just modifying it a bit for the sake of your health. It’s time to start loving THE microbiome back into our midst. It’s not YOURS. It’s not MINE. It is shared across generations, within generations, between species. It’s not glamorous or even visible (except when produced in large, stinky numbers). But it is far more important to the survival of humanity than doctors are willing to admit.
Improtant: This article does not constitute medical advice. I’m not promising any cures if you implement my observations. I’m just saying…
To your health!
Doc Frank (aka “The Dirty Doctor”)
NOVEMBER 12, 2015
Burgers and fries have nearly killed our ancestral microbiome.
What lies behind us and what lies before us are tiny matters compared to what lies within us.
– HS Haskins
(though also attributed to many other “soft philosophers”)
We’re at the beginning of a (slightly shop-soiled) new year. Somehow, that feels grand and important to most of us. Behind us lies a year of frustrations and triumphs, high hopes and low politics, big dreams and small realities. Ahead of us lies the promise of a new start, a second chance (or, in my case, a 48th chance). Will this be the year when I …? Plans are made, the backbone is stiffened a bit, the liver gets shaken up a lot. We’re ready! Bring it on!
But the past and the future are tiny matters compared to what lies within us. Deep, Deep, DEEP within us.
I dedicate this year to what lies within each one of us. Something so tiny, you can’t see it with the naked eye. Yet also so numerous, it matches the number of stars in a THOUSAND galaxies.
I’m talking about your MICROBIOME.
If you just said, “Huh?”, allow me to define “microbiome”:
“The collection of microorganisms living in and on us.”
Two other terms that basically mean the same as “microbiome” are “gut flora” and “microbiota” (although scientists and language purists will debate the finer differences ad nauseum).
That simple definition hides what is quite possibly the most complex interaction between living creatures anywhere on the planet – or in our galaxy, or the universe for that matter. And it is right there, inside of you and me.
Forget the stars. Gaze at your gut flora for a while.
And so, Ladies and Gentlemen, I hereby solemnly declare 2016 to be
The Year Of The Microbiome
(at least in my corner of the planet).
If you just said, “Huuuuh?”, you are not alone. Except for a few die-hard health nutters (like myself), few people take any interest in the microbiome.
In his famous sci-fi novel, “War of the Worlds”, HG Wells tells how the world is saved by humble bacteria, which infect and kill the otherwise unstoppable Martian invaders. As you will see, this is actually a good description of what our gut flora are doing inside of us every day. They humbly protect us against alien invasions – but they do LOTS more than that, too.
During 2016, I hope to enlighten your view of the microbiome. By the end of this year, I hope you will understand that “what lies inside of us” is immensely important to every aspect of wellness. I also hope you will understand how to nourish your microbiome to the point of abundant flourishing.
Have a gutsy year!
P.S. The microbiome even gets a small entry in Wikipedia.