Monthly Archives: September 2015

Australopithecus sediba, our vegetarian past? What does it take to grow a brain?

Very detailed and scientifically correct human skullcutaway, with all brain details, mid-sagittal side view, on white background. Anatomy image.

I’m watching a PBS special about some new fossils of our ancestors, specifically Australopithecus sediba, discovered in a cave in South Africa. I noted that the reconstruction of the ribcage appeared to be wide and consistent with an individual having a large abdomen, similar to a gorilla, providing room for a long enough digestive tract to digest a mostly vegetable diet. Just as horses and cattle need a relatively large abdomen to provide a “fermentation vessel”, so too the gorilla (and A. sediba) have a skeletal structure to accommodate this structure. Later in the show, it was revealed that dental calculi (plaque) provided evidence of a vegetarian high-fiber diet. This validates my observation of the ribcage dimension and clinches, in my mind, that this ancestor was a veggie eater. The braincase suggests that this ancestor had not yet evolved the larger brain, particularly frontal lobes, characteristic of modern humans.

Scientists have identified two requirements for the evolution of large brains (termed “encephalizaton”). The first requirement is sociality, as much of the brain enlargement is frontal lobe and this part of the brain is where much of our social dynamic originates from. Executive functions, self control, altruism are frontal lobe functions for the most part. Species with large frontal lobes have advanced social societies (dolphins, whales, elephants are prime examples). The second requirement is DHA, an essential fatty acid found mostly in seafood but also in fats of prey animals.

It is thought by many research authors (see Ben-Dor and Jandhayala below in references) that mankind’s encephalization involved a shortening of the digestive tract to support eating more energy-dense foods like meats and fats. The consumption of plant material for a diet requires that most of the waking time be spent foraging and eating, and the digestive process depends on a large gut. The development of tools and weapons was a necessary step to becoming an omnivore, as was the development of social structure necessary to successfully hunt larger prey animals.

It is for these reasons that a diverse and unique gut bacteria were a critical component of our development. The gut bacteria help produce BDNF (brain derived neurotrophic factor), required for the development of new brain cells and is essential for plasticity and learning. High levels of DHA in the diet also help with BDNF production. The human brain requires essential fats in the diet to support both its energy requirements and its health. There is evidence that during the phases where early man was developing the large brain characteristic of our species, diet shifted from plant based to include meat and fat. Those near the ocean likely obtained all the DHA fats needed from seafood, while those dwelling inland may have obtained it from…brains and marrow fat. Fossil remains show that prey animals consumed by early man have been found with cranial vault damage suggesting that the brain was removed for consumption. Obviously, those living near the ocean had a much easier time of things, as clams do not run fast nor pose much of a threat! Ancient settlements near water are often characterized by large piles of seashells.

What this boils down to is that we developed our big and (usually) useful brains due to a dietary shift away from vegetarian to eating meat and animal fats. Accompanying this shift, and codependent on it, was a behavioral shift toward toolmaking, weapon use, and increased social interaction. It should also be noted that as I explained in The Symbiont Factor, a higher functioning brain is codependent on a diverse microbiome. More brain activity helps the gut become healthy and encourages a healthy microbiome, and vice versa. The modern Western diet has high levels of omega-6 fats, which displace DHA and increase inflammation, leading to more disease and less brain development! That type of diet is also typically very unheathy for the microbiome, further hindering brain function. A vegetarian or vegan diet can still be brain-healthy, but apparently not without additional supplementation of DHA as even the presence of healthy fats in vegetable sources does not provide enough DHA due to a low conversion rate. That subject is discussed at length in some of the references provided, and may be fodder for many who have strong opinions one way or the other.

References:

The Symbiont Factor: http://tinyurl.com/ppyh9yr

Energetic and nutritional constraints on infant brain development: implications for brain expansion during human evolution:http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/24928072

Docosahexaenoic acid, the aquatic diet, and hominin encephalization: difficulties in establishing evolutionary links. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/17160979

Encephalization is not a universal macroevolutionary phenomenon in mammals but is associated with sociality. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/21098277

Evidence for the unique function of docosahexaenoic acid during the evolution of
the modern hominid brain. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/10419087

Man the Fat Hunter: The Demise of Homo erectus and the Emergence of a New Hominin Lineage in the Middle Pleistocene (ca.400 kyr) Levant http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3235142/

New Insights into the Evolution of the Human Diet from Faecal Biomarker Analysis in Wild Chimpanzee and Gorilla Faeces http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4465628/

Docosahexaenoic Acid (DHA): An Ancient Nutrient for the Modern Human Brain http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3257695/

Role of the normal gut microbiota: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4528021/

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Australopithecus_sediba

http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/nova/next/ancient/new-ancient-hominid-skeleton-found-in-south-africa/

 

Probiotics without Prebiotics or Dietary change?

After posting some replies to various tweets on probiotics, I just have to post a though here (ok, perhaps a bit of a rant but I’ll keep it short)…When a person goes through life, eating whatever it is they eat, the gut bacteria they accumulate are those that can survive on what has been eaten. Taking a probiotic, without changing diet, really doesn’t make any sense when you see it clearly. If the diet only supported x,y,z named organisms, and you take a,b organisms in a probiotic-what are they going to eat? If your diet supported a,b they would already be thriving there!

So many research studies evaluate probiotics for a given condition, without considering this fact. I just replied to some tweets about a study (article about it here: http://tinyurl.com/no3cnvt) evaluating whether probiotics can help reduce drug-resistant organisms. The intervention consisted of one capsule twice a day for two weeks, and nothing else. That is so weak! No prebiotic fibers, no dietary change. Only two weeks of intervention! In fact, the article states that some of the subjects were on feeding tubes, which means that the biggest variable of all, diet, was not controlled for! In other words, this study was accepted as valid, when it is anything but.

Another way to look at it? What if someone threw a half dozen tomato seeds into a bare parking lot, then watched for three days and pronounced that gardening really doesn’t work, because no tomatoes were found. And, they did this without first reading a gardening book or speaking with someone who has successfully grown tomatoes (that would be myself and others who have written books about working with symbiont bacteria, and the thousands who have healed by following probiotic protocols).

Next time you read about how probiotics don’t work for this or that, please consider these variables before believing the probiotic naysayers. And, don’t forget to eat your *fermented* vegetables 🙂

Practical use of fermented and anti-inflammatory foods during stressful times!

For the last month or so, I’ve been hauling boxes and driving a crazy number of miles. I still have another epic trip to make, getting my horse to bring him to Maine. The last trip involved pulling a very heavily loaded 30 foot trailer, and was super stressful and fatiguing. What have I been doing to maintain my brain health and energy level? Many things, actually!

Fermented oatmeal is really versatile stuff. I wrote about it in a previous post, and have been using it extensively. Adding some ground flax seed before fermentation, and walnuts/raisins/coconut milk and maple syrup afterward yields a simple and tasty treat. It’s easy to keep in a cooler while on the road and eat a bit from time to time.

I’ve also been keeping a jar of kimchee in the cooler, and often take a few bites of it during roadside stops (yes, I’ve been traveling alone mostly. On the last run, my two cats didn’t seem to mind the smell-perhaps knowing they had worse in store for me!)

Kefir and yogurt of course help to maintain a low anxiety level and good digestive function during stressful drives. As I follow a Paleo diet pretty closely, I opt for coconut kefir (make my own) and coconut yogurt usually. I’ve also made a point of deep breathing from time to time to keep my autonomic function balanced and prevent constipation or reduced circulation.

Smoked salmon is one of my favorite road foods. I love it on a gluten-free bagel, but will eat it straight out of the wrapper as well (more paleo, right? certainly feels primal eating fish with my fingers as I go down the road…) Get the kind that doesn’t have artificial color and additives if at all possible. I’ve also often eaten sardines at rest areas, as the high omega-3 content of both items should help reduce oxidative stress and inflammation secondary to pushing the brain and body this hard.

Of course, taking a good probiotic/prebiotic with a combination of Lactobacilli and Bifido organisms is a good choice, as both reduce inflammation and anxiety. Snacking on fruit, both fresh and dried, provides some good “road nibbles” while nourishing those beneficial organisms.

Doesn’t this sound like it would help maintain concentration and health while on the road? Compare that with the average person’s choice of fast food and soda while traveling and I think there is quite a contrast!

RoundUp, Glyphosate create Imbalanced Microbiome (or, Microbial Game of Thrones!)

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Having just completed most of a 1700 mile epic family move, I have spent a great deal of time on the road driving…and thinking. One of the things I thought about a great deal was how come so many people experience an imbalanced microbiome, with not enough of some good bacteria and way too many of some toxic species. You see, the human body is an ecosystem (somewhat like a region or territory), with warring factions of bacterial species or sub-colonies, each striving to rise to the top and suppress its enemies to achieve a dominant role. It really is a bit more like a microbial Game of Thrones episode than a benign fireside chat!

In this bacterial jousting we have a number of “white knights” such as some Enterococcus species and some “black knights” such as many members of the Clostridium family. Remember that Clostridium is the bacterial clan whose progeny include Clostridium difficile, responsible for hospital-borne bloody life-threatening diarrhea, and Clostridium botulinum that produces the neurotoxin responsible for Botulism. Definitely more of a “black knight clan.”

Researchers (Ackermann et al) have found that glyphosate, the active ingredient in RoundUp weedkiller, caused dysbiosis in the rumen of cows and resulted in increased production of Clostridium botulinum and botulin neurotoxin. This alone is significant, as these are meat animals for many non-vegan/vegetarian humans. Another study headed by Kruger suggests that glyphosate’s suppression of lactic acid and Enterococcus bacteria is probably responsible for the increase in botulin-related diseases in German cattle. This is because lactic acid bacteria and Enterococcus family bacteria are natural suppressors of the Clostridium family. When Clostridium loses its natural enemy, it is free to claim the throne of bacterial domination! Seriously though, you may be thinking this is only in cattle so why does it matter in humans?

Another research group described a case of glyphosate ingestion which resulted in a Clostridium overgrowth after suppression of Enterococcus family bacteria. While this case study was an attempted suicide and therefore a significant ingestion of the chemical, studies of low-level environmental intake have also show toxic effects to the liver and kidney (Mesnage) and a correlation between glyphosate use and hospital admissions for ADHD (Fluegge). These studies indicate that glyphosate’s biologic toxicity is maintained at very low concentrations. Normally, lactic acid bacteria (yes, part of the white knight microbial clan!) help prevent this liver and kidney damage (Bouhafs) but as glyphosate is toxic to this family of bacteria their guarding of the bacterial throne is hampered, allowing Clostridia to attain more power and toxicity.

What all this boils down to at the end of the melee and before the final credits is that RoundUp is toxic to many life forms including humans, but it is toxic in a back-handed, subversive manner that is not immediately obvious without much study. This ability to facilitate growth of toxic bacteria while suppressing protective ones and maintaining an appearance of feigned innocence is what reminded me of Game of Thrones. As this is real life, my hope is that more people will begin learning about the toxicity of RoundUp and the importance of a balanced microbiome. This knowledge can only help us to build a healthier life for ourselves and our planet despite those “dark forces” that would rob us of the “throne of power and health.”

Thanks for reading my attempts at fantasy medieval microbial humor! I hope the analogy and metaphor helps to make the subject just a bit clearer and perhaps even entertaining. For more on the subject of the microbiome and health, please check out my book The Symbiont Factor on Amazon, and stay tuned for the next book about how to apply these concepts to your everyday life so that you too can have a White Knight Microbiome!

References:

http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/26287934

http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/26282372

http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/25407376

http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/23396248

http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/25577783

http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/26302742

http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/26287729