Branched Chain Amino Acids, BCAA’s, are a common addition to the diet for bodybuilders and athletes. Here’s a new research study, published this month, that shows BCAA’s help change your gut bacteria. Specifically, the encourage more Bifidobacteria (which boosts immune function but lowers inflammation) and Akkermansia (which helps build lean muscle mass and reduce fat). As there is much research now connecting aging with inflammation, even calling it “inflammaging”, these are both great things. It’s also somewhat of a departure from the thought of using probiotics and prebiotics to modulate the gut bacteria, adding amino acids to our microbiome toolbox!
Most of us should be familiar with the disease known as Parkinson’s Disease, which ruins countless lives by creating a movement disorder characterized by shaking type of movements. It leads to difficulty moving at all, and in late stages the most common treatments lead to dyskinesthia which is a type of writhing uncontrolled movement. Without detailing the actual nerve pathways, part of the problem is neurodegeneration in a part of the brain called the basal ganglia, in an area known as the Substantia Nigra. When this area is overtaxed and inflamed, a process known as oxidative stress occurs, damaging neurons and created neurofibrous “tangles” known as α-synuclein aggregations.
There is a great deal of research that has been done to detail some natural ingredients that can be used to either prevent, or help treat Parkinson’s. These can sometimes reduce the amount of medication needed, and postpone the onset of dyskinesthia. In some cases successful treatment has occurred and symptoms are gone. The major “theme” of treatment with natural products is to reduce inflammation, block oxidative stress, and promote healthy metabolism in those neuronal cells.
Curcumin is an extract of turmeric, and contains 95% curcuminoids-the active ingredient. This makes it 19 times stronger than turmeric, which only contains 5%. Curcumin has been found to block inflammation, reduce oxidative stress, rescue nerve cells that have been affected, and even to reverse the accumulation of α-synuclein in the brain. I’ve attached a little over two dozen peer-reviewed studies about curcumin and Parkinson’s in the Bibliography. Curcumin is best taken before a meal, and with a tablespoon of coconut oil which boosts absorption and is good for the brain as well.
Another useful herb is Skullcap, Scuttelaria baikalensis, which contains the ingredient Baicalein. This has also been extensively studied for use in treating and reversing some of the effects of Parkinson’s, and is a very promising herb. Note that there aren’t any studies that look at what would happen if you use this AND curcumin, but you can imagine that it should work even better as they do not function through the same mechanisms.
The last strategy I’d like to mention is gut bacteria optimization. As I wrote an entire book about gut bacteria (The Symbiont Factor) I’ll try to be brief. Our gut bacteria wield a big influence on brain and immune function, helping to both tone and control immune function and regulate both the production of neurotransmitters and the sensitivity of neurotransmitter receptor sites in the brain. An imbalance of gut bacteria, which can be assessed with a uBiome.com gut bacteria census, can create functional changes that make the brain less efficient and more inflamed. This sets the stage for Parkinson’s, as neuroinflammation is a required building block of this disease.
Now, you might ask yourselves why this information is not more well known in the Parkinson’s world…it doesn’t actually even appear on the National Parkinson’s Foundation website although many less effective interventions are mentioned. This is because, simply, much of the research is done in search of new drugs to create by copying the action of useful herbs and natural processes. This is one way that companies explore for new drugs that can be patented. The real question is why we would wait for that, when the research shows these natural substances to be quite effective in lab and animal models. Of course, double-blind trials on humans will not be performed until drug candidates are created…so don’t look for the final proof of natural substances, because these trials are very expensive and are only carried out when a candidate drug ($$$) is being evaluated. In other words, follow the money!
The Symbiont Factor: http://tinyurl.com/z5568ct
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I have been recommending curcumin for years, because of the huge number of research studies demonstrating its power to reduce inflammation, block oxidative stress, and inhibit or kill cancer (and other great benefits!) Lately there has been an explosion of supplements labeled as “turmeric curcumin” or “curcumin complex”. This is about like trying to buy pure cranberry juice. If you see “cranberry juice cocktail” or “cranberry drink” or “cranberry juice beverage”, what does it tell you? Right-it’s mostly apple juice or some other inexpensive juice, with enough of the cranberry juice to flavor it!
The same thing applies to curcumin. I have recommended it to several patients recently, who then tell me a couple weeks later that it didn’t help them. When I ask about the brand and details, it’s one of those labeling bait-and-switch schemes all over. Often the label reads “turmeric curcumin” which really doesn’t mean much, as they are two separate products…which is it? or “turmeric curcumin complex”…
The active, desired ingredient is Curcumin. Turmeric, the spice, is quite inexpensive but only contains typically 5% curcumin. Pure curcumin is most often 95% curcumin, and costs much much more. So, when the label explains that the product contains 450 mg of Turmeric, and 50 mg of curcumin, you can easily see that you’re getting basically ripped off because they’re cutting the good stuff 9:1 with the inexpensive less effective stuff! Then, of course, it doesn’t work as well, because you can’t take enough. I often recommend 6 capsules per day for a very inflamed patient (someone with Lyme disease, for example). That’s 6, 500mg capsules at 95%, or 2850 mg of actual curcumin. If those capsules are 450/50 as in the above example, that’s only 70mg of curcumin in each 500 mg capsule. To get the same effect as 2850 mg of pure curcumin, you’d have to consume over 40 of those capsules, instead of 6 when it’s 95% curcumin!
So, make sure that you get what you’re paying for-real 95% curcumin. There isn’t a “bioavailability problem” as some manufacturers of blends state. It’s a fat soluble substance, so chase your capsules with a spoon of coconut oil. It’s also alcohol soluble…well, I won’t go there just yet!
In the course of researching patient cases and working on my next book, I read a lot of research studies. Sometimes, I come across information that wasn’t really what I was looking for, but is fascinating!
I have several patients who have chronic Lyme disease (yes, there is such a thing, but that’s a different subject…) and neurologic problems from depression/anxiety to failing memory, movement disorders, and even seizures are often commonplace in this type of patient. I was looking up more information about how oxidative stress, one of the underlying processes that drives neurologic problem progression, affects the brain. Along the way, I came across this study about N-acetyl cysteine and Aspartame.
N-acetyl cysteine, or NAC, is a precursor to glutathione (a powerful antioxidant) and as such it is a great tool to help reduce oxidative stress. Aspartame, more commonly known as NutraSweet, is a very common artificial sweetener.
This research study (see link below) was published in the journal Neurochemical Research in 2014, looked at NAC being used to protect the brain from the effects of Aspartame. Now mind you, if you ask 50 random people if they think NutraSweet is safe, most will claim it is and offer you a tinfoil hat if you mention anything about Monsanto and conspiracy to push the product to market. However, that is actually now an accepted fact, as Monsanto purchased G.D. Searle in 1985-the very company that held the patent to aspartame. In 1980 the FDA had banned aspartame, because the Board of Inquiry found that it might cause brain tumors. The Searle chairman at the time vowed he would get it approved. The chairman would later become famous as the Secretary of Defense, Donald Rumsfeld. A new FDA commissioner was appointed, who added people to the FDA board, and personally voted to break a tie and make aspartame legal. He later became employed by a public relations firm contracted by Monsanto and GD Searle. This product is now used in over 6,000 products, including over 500 different drugs.
The study in the Journal of Neurochemical Research matter-of-factly states that “Long-term intake of aspartame at the acceptable daily dose causes oxidative stress in rodent brain mainly due to the dysregulation of glutathione homeostasis”. It goes on to explain that aspartame reduced several antioxidant levels that are critical to brain health. They did find that NAC was able to exert a protective effect on the brain when it had been exposed to aspartame’s toxic effects.
One more tidbit is revealed in the study: “However, N-acetylcysteine was unable to reduce serum glucose levels, which were increased as a result of aspartame administration.” Another study evaluated the microbiome’s metabolism of aspartame and found that the end product is a short chain fatty acid, propionate, which raises blood sugar and reduces insulin sensitivity. In case that didn’t make sense to you, it makes blood sugar go up and insulin not work as well-building blocks of Type 2 diabetes. Isn’t the whole reason that people choose an artificial sweetener the idea that it won’t raise blood glucose like real carbohydrates would? Looks like it doesn’t really work that way! Now ask yourself why this isn’t more common knowledge…
In case you were wondering, that isn’t the only study that shows toxic effects of NutraSweet. Others have shown elevated cytokine levels (inflammation), as well as harmful/imbalancing effects on the gut microbiome.
Sometimes it is best to go back to what the body evolved and optimized to consume as food. The key word there is food, not chemistry! While many people are attempting to be on low-carb and Paleo diets to promote weight loss and health, the use of artificial sweeteners is definitely not a good addition to these diets. Some diets, such as South Beach, are actually recommending the full-fledged replacement of all simple carbs with artificial sweeteners. Many diabetics, the very people who need more insulin sensitivity and better glucose control, rely on very large doses of artificial sweeteners that are far above what is used in studies. For those pursuing a more traditional approach, the facts are even more clear. Consider that Paleo is supposed to mean Paleolithic; cave-dweller or hunter-gatherer. For 99+ percent of human existence, we’ve eaten meat, fish, vegetables, fruit, nuts-essentially whatever could be picked, dug up, gathered, or killed in the region and season being occupied. I’m pretty certain that didn’t include Monsanto’s chemical cocktails.
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Sometimes things happen that seem to come out of nowhere. It happens to all of us, usually when we least expect it because we are busy taking care of others or life in general. So here’s a scenario: Imagine that one day your blood sugar suddenly skyrockets and your Medical physician informs you that your liver and pancreas are not functioning properly. What could cause this? Well, many things could, but the one thing in common is inflammation. If the pancreas is inflamed, the Islets of Langerhans sometimes stop producing insulin and blood sugar doesn’t get stored, so it jumps up. If the inflammation is early in life, the immune system may go to the point of forming antibodies to the Islets, destroying them and causing Type 1 diabetes. If the body becomes inflamed later in life, cells may not respond to insulin anymore, causing Type 2 diabetes. But if the pancreas is inflamed, it doesn’t work properly. The liver can be implicated too, as it stores extra energy (glucose) reserves for when you need them. Liver inflammation can also cause diabetes. While these changes are all known to occur in people that are obese and have an unhealthy diet, how is it possible for it to happen this quickly, and in someone who isn’t obese? The answer lies in the fact that the immune system is mostly controlled by our gut bacteria and GALT, or gut-associated lymphoid tissue, dendritic nerve endings, and other points of information exchange between the microbiome and the host immune system.
Research has shown that exposure to short-term social/emotional stress causes alteration of the gut microbiome. This altered microbiome in turn does not control the immune system approriately, resulting in increased systemic inflammation (which can make the social stress worse, as both the inflammation and the altered microbiome affect brain function and mood). See the illustration above, which is from my book The Symbiont Factor.
Another factor that can alter the microbiome and trigger widespread inflammation is short term dietary change, to a less beneficial diet. In research terminology, a diet that causes microbiome demise, inflammation and disease is called a Western Diet. It is used to produce a sick lab animal to study, and mimics what the average American consumer eats every day.
Sleep is absolutely necessary for a healthy microbiome, and disruptions of our circadian rhythms and sleep cycles has been shown to disrupt our microbiome and cause inflammation.
Exposure to air affects our microbiome too! Air is actually replete will huge numbers of human skin cells and bacteria from other people in the vicinity. The longer we are in a space with other people, the more we inhale parts of their microbiome combined with the microbiome of the space. These organisms then influence our own microbiome, so if the exposure was to unhealthy microbiomes, the result can be…inflammation once more.
Sometimes the scenario can revive imbalances and infections we’ve had before, such as chronic viral infections (shingles, for example, or herpes) or chronic bacterial infections such as Lyme disease-where the organism was in a dormant state due to good immune function-waiting for an opportunity.
Ok, so…can we picture a scenario where all of the above are combined? Stress, bad food, interrupted sleep with no real dark/light cycles, and lots of sick people/bad bacteria? Bingo-it’s the place where we send people to get well: a hospital.
What should we do to recover from this systemic inflammation?
- Regular sleep, hitting the bed and waking same time every day, preferably in a multiple of 90 minutes. So, 6 hours, 7.5 hours, 9 hours so that we don’t interrupt a sleep cycle. No lights, no devices at night. No bright little blue “charging” LEDs.
- Healthy food, and preferably some of it fermented. There is a great fermented oatmeal recipe earlier on this blog, and many areas have private individuals making fantastic fermented vegetables. Here in coastal Maine, “A Stone’s Throw to Health” is one such business, with handcrafted ferments by Sheila Perloff-Eddison.
- Avoid deep fried food, hydrogenated fats, sweets, gluten. Even if you’re not gluten sensitive, eating it when you’re inflamed raises the odds of you becoming gluten sensitive. No fast food. Real meat, vegetable, greens, fruit.
- Probiotic Bifidobacteria, in double the normal doses. Add prebiotic inulin, pectin, FOS, GOS supplements to help feed the newly introduced organisms.
- Curcumin is hugely effective for reducing inflammation, improving insulin sensitivity, healing liver and pancreas. Not turmeric, which is 5% curcumin, but 95% curcumin-the real stuff. I take 6-8 capsules a day, minimum, if I’m injured or inflamed. It works better than drugs-check out the Ghosh study in the bibliography below.
- Some other products, such as jerusalem artichokes/sunchokes, jicama, artichokes, asparagus, pomegranate, rhubarb, ginger have been shown to have fantastic prebiotic and anti-inflammatory benefits.
- Make a point of, several times per day, praying or meditating on peaceful/optimistic and loving thoughts while breathing deeply. The physiologic effects improve autonomic tone and gut function, helping to recolonize healthy bacteria while healing gut membranes.
Fermented Vegetables: http://www.astonesthrowtohealth.com/
Fermented oatmeal recipe: https://thesymbiontfactorblog.com/2016/01/26/super-synbiotic-breakfast-improved/
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Our planet is becoming increasingly toxic, as we add more chemicals to its air, rivers, lakes and ocean every day. While laws designed to curb pollution have probably helped, they don’t prevent things like massive oil spills or the release of antibiotic or hormone residues from farm animals and humans. You see, all of those pharmaceutical products used to produce a steak from an overcrowded, stressed and diseased animal, almost all of those substances get passed by the animal, and run downstream-eventually to lakes and oceans. Toxic materials such as arsenic and mercury are common. The yellow water in the image above is from a mine leak in Colorado (image from The Durango Herald). The water debacle in Flint, Michigan is just one example of how toxins are present. With those admittedly grim thoughts in mind, what are the most adaptable organisms on the planet? Yes, bacteria. With the ability to share DNA in horizontal transfer and a gene pool replete with ways to break down poisons, bacteria have been at the toxin-vs-detoxify game for over a billion years. What if the bacteria that live inside our bodies could help us to detoxify? Perhaps a different way to ask the same question would be to ask why, given a somewhat consistent toxin exposure in a given neighborhood or community, do some people develop toxicity while others do not? As it turns out, some of our beneficial symbionts (Lactobacillus) can do exactly that. A study found that these bacteria can break down pesticides, and reduced the accumulation of arsenic and mercury in pregnant women and children. That should be pretty good news, right? It is if you make efforts to keep these organisms present. They are often reduced or absent due to antibiotic use/abuse and poor nutritional choices. Ironically, the poor people that are often exposed to these toxins also tend not to buy organic produce or have the educational background required to make the right choices. Instead, they are the victims of our capitalistic dark side, believing that it’s normal to eat McDonalds or Wendy’s on a regular basis and consume Pepsi or Coke instead of water. Elective C-section births are very common, and many new mothers are not taught the benefits or techniques of breastfeeding. The combination of c-section and bottle feeding robs a newborn of the microbiome needed for optimal brain and immune system development. Now we can also say it leaves this child more vulnerable to the effects of pesticides and toxins. This affects all of us in one way or another, and it is simply wrong on many levels to allow it to continue.
One long-term result of the intergenerational demise of the microbiome is that while our planet is accumulating toxins and poisons, our microbiome which could help us to detoxify those substances is on the way down. As the “modern” world infects virginal areas and their indigenous people, bringing them antibiotics and Coca-Cola, the core ancestral microbiome becomes an endangered entity.
It is vitally important that more people understand how the microbiome is necessary for so many aspects of life. It is also important to put in place limitations on drug and chemical releases into the environment, as the current system is not a bucket but a sieve, giving the illusion of containment from a distance but constantly leaking in many directions. Even our nuclear power plants in the USA have joined Fukushima in leaking radioactive waste into the ocean (Indian Point in NY has been leaking).
If mankind does not change the trajectory that our species has been on for some time, it is only a matter of time before our health is so fragile and our planet is so toxic that life will no longer be possible the way it is now. Even if that were to take 500 years, it is still the path we’re on. Perhaps, when the Bible stated that “the meek shall inherit the earth,” it was really a microbial prophecy, as bacteria were the first organisms here and will likely be the last. It’s probably a good time to make sure that your microbiome is fully operational, as it helps you cope with toxic exposures. Perhaps it’s time to coin the term “microbiome survivalist?”
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What happens if your microbiome becomes too excessive and colonizes parts of the body where it really shouldn’t set up camp? SIBO, or Small Intestinal Bacterial Overgrowth, is an example of just that! Since this comes up very frequently in discussions with patients, it’s time to share some information about it. This problem is much more common than most would realize, and like many such things can be looked at as a “spectrum” from mild to severe/debilitating. If you feel worse after eating, and feel like taking probiotics makes things worse instead of better, these are some of the symptoms of low stomach acidity.
In the normally functioning digestive tract, the stomach is (relatively) sterile, having a very low pH due to the production of HCl, hydrochloric acid along with enzymes. This means that the stomach is a filter of sorts, killing most bacteria and viruses that might be present on food or beverage you consume. This understanding is validated by the observation that an animal’s stomach acidity is directly related to its place in the food chain. Animals that are pure carrion eaters or predators have the most acidic stomach secretions, while those that eat plants have the least. This serves two purposes: the first is to disinfect food that may even be actively decomposing, while the second is to break the peptide bonds that hold amino acids together to build proteins in meat. Since the stomach is so acidic in meat-eaters, they can eat roadkill and not become ill. A healthy human’s stomach acid inhibits bacterial growth in the stomach and the first part of the small intestine, before it is neutralized by bile secretions. This limits the amount of bacteria that can exist in those areas. This is part of our evolutionary heritage that allowed early Humans to survive on anything from seafood to insects, hunted or trapped meat animals, or stealing the prey of other predators.
Modern lifestyles conspire to reduce this needed acidity. Lack of sleep, too much stimulation, poor breathing dynamics all cause an autonomic imbalance that promotes everything from high blood pressure to poor digestion from low stomach acid. If stomach acid stays abnormally low for too long though, some organisms such as Helicobacter pylori can colonize and take over. This organism will then inhibit stomach acid production, wrecking your health in the process. So, without high stomach acid levels the predator (or human) would get infections and become ill; he also wouldn’t be able to digest the meat he consumes. Humans do not produce quite the stomach acid levels of a cat or dog, but are much closer to that level than a goat or cow.
The first question that brings up is the old debate about whether we are evolved to be vegetarians or meat-eaters. The facts here point squarely toward our physiology being optimized for some of each; definitely a meat-eater but capable of digesting plants too.
It is important to note that in this way, our individual “optimum diet” may be tied to our gastric acid status. If you have low stomach acidity, you’re not likely to digest meat very well, and may find yourself gravitating toward a vegetarian diet. If this choice is made due to low stomach acidity, it’s really running from the problem and still leaving the door open to a dysfunctional disease state. On the other hand, if you’d really like to do well on a Paleo type diet, you should also make sure your autonomics are balanced enough that you can produce adequate stomach acid to break down meat.
The second question is about what would happen if our stomach were not acidic? The obvious answer is bacterial colonization of the stomach and small intestine, with overgrowth compared to the normal condition. This results in a variety of symptoms, from heartburn (think summer roadkill in your stomach…ick) to bloating, allergic sensitization, indigestion, etc. It most definitely results in disruption of the entire microbiome downstream from the stomach also, with many consequences!
Now it gets interesting: What do most people do when presented with those symptoms? Take antacids! I have seen many patients who have been prescribed PPI (protein pump inhibitor; acid-blocking) medications, despite having never undergone any tests to confirm their symptoms indicated excess stomach acid. Stomach acidity declines with age, which is probably because of autonomic imbalance. Our fight-or-flight system (sympathetic system) becomes the dominant system when we’re under stress, fatigued, or if our brain is slowing down. Sound familiar? The parasympathetic system is stimulated by relaxation, deep breathing, less stress, slow relaxed eating, better sleep. Are you getting these things in your life?
To really build a balanced and high-functioning microbiome, it is necessary to start with balanced stomach function, then work downstream from there. Better liver function, small intestine function, large intestine function. One of the reasons many people cannot balance their large intestinal microbiome is that they haven’t managed their stress, breathing, sleep, and eating habits and therefore still have low stomach acid and SIBO to one degree or another.
Lifestyle habits that can help re-balance your autonomic function include deep breathing, yoga, meditation, taking time for yourself to do those things you love, scheduling and planning sleep more effectively, and taking the time to relax and breathe when you eat. There are also very specific functional neurology rehab activities that can aid in this goal. It is also possible to take a supplement that includes HCl and enzymes, to help kill off excess bacteria/H. pylori and begin to heal from SIBO.
So, be nice to your stomach, and your symbionts will thank you!