After a year and a half of having a second job as a new author, my first book is finally available in print! A comprehensive, thoroughly referenced guide to how our gut bacteria influence physical and mental health: The Symbiont Factor is now available on Amazon as a paperback! If you ever wondered if and why probiotics are healthy you should read this book. Please share with your contacts 🙂 http://tinyurl.com/pe2g4xt
The last decade of research has advanced the understanding of life itself to such a degree that our definitions of “life” must now be adjusted. Until now, you may have regarded yourself as a singular entity; a “human being,” a “person” or just “me.” All of these terms indicate a belief system grounded in what is now an outdated concept. What if we were actually a cooperative group of organisms existing together for mutual benefit? Trillions of organisms, all sharing physical space and each contributing to the functioning of the whole. What if even our very consciousness were not a singular thing or the result of one personality, but more of a democratic/summative system or even a type of hive consciousness? All of these are functional realities to one extent or another. Oh, and one more thing…those human cells? They are in the minority and are outnumbered at least 10:1. Well, you might be thinking, a human being is defined by a specific genetic code, 23 pairs of chromosomes, a little over 21,000 genes that code for everything we are, right? Not so fast! Genes do encode for the protein molecules that carry out life functions, but if a person were to develop with only those 21,000 genes the brain, nervous system, immune system, endocrine and digestive systems would not develop or function normally at all. So where does all the other information come from?
“We” are an organism that includes several trillion symbiont organisms that all contribute genes. In fact, looking at a person from head to toe genetically reveals that the human genes are only 1/100th, or 1 percent, of the genes present. The majority of the remaining genome is bacterial in origin. We are only 1% or less human from a genetic standpoint! Scientists and researchers now know that the human body depends on this bacterial genetic reservoir of information for normal development and function. The human immune system, for example, is cultivated by the bacteria and “taught” how to function, what to kill and what to tolerate. Without this ancient genetic wisdom (bacteria have existed for an estimated 2 billion years) the human immune system does not function normally. Our brain is no different; without bacterial symbiont assistance the human brain is emotionally and functionally unstable. The result is an inflamed brain, anxiety and depression or schizophrenia, and an increased likelyhood of neurodegenerative diseases such as Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s, or neuroimmune conditions such as Multiple Sclerosis. The digestive tract would not function normally either! Even our mind, that last refuge of a singular “self,” is not the result of a singular organism’s activities. Dominant colonies of bacteria wield significant influence on our mood, decision making and basic personality. Our appetite for specific food items as well as our overall appetite is heavily influenced by gut bacteria. Neurotransmitters that determine mood are both produced and consumed by the gut bacteria, exerting influence over mood. Neurotransmitter receptor sites in various specific areas of the human brain are sensitized or desensitized by symbiont bacteria. The result is a distinctly different emotional profile and personality! It is truly the result of the interactions of many organisms.
Our human parts in turn “farm” these bacterial colonies to keep them viable and performing their needed tasks.
The terms that have been coined for these concepts refer to “us” as Holobionts-a host plus its symbionts form the organism we call “human.” The total gene pool within the holobiont is called the Hologenome. All other eukaryotic life is thought to exist on the same principle of cooperative function between host and symbionts. The bacterial symbionts are capable of influencing mate choice, reproductive success and driving speciation to create new species from existing ones (really.)
After re-reading the previous discussion, you might be incredulous that life itself has been essentially redefined, and yet it did not really result in significant changes in healthcare practices. This is perhaps the most promising yet overlooked, proven yet controversial new development in decades. Healthcare is replete with legions of “singular organism, flat-earth-society” members who are slow to accept this new concept despite its promise of more effective interventions. As examples of the conflicts in logic that result, consider the following questions-each of which may be the subject of another blog post and are written of in The Symbiont Factor.
-If the body is dependent on symbiont bacteria for normal function, what is the result of taking antibiotics?
-If antibiotics are added to our food, what is the effect on our own personal hologenome?
-If food is routinely disinfected, what is the effect on hologenomic diversity?
-What are the long-term consequences of bacteria sharing plasmids (DNA fragments) that code for antibiotic resistance?
-If symbiont bacteria maintain immune system function, why do we kill them in cases of infection or cancer, when the immune system is needed the most?
-If so much physical and mental function depend on gut bacteria, why do we not evaluate the gut bacteria when something seems physically or mentally dysfunctional?
-Where do all of these symbiont bacteria come from in the environment?
-What is the effect of chemical environmental pollution on the potential microbiome?
-How does nutrition affect their population demographics?
-If two people have differing microbiomes, would a given medication affect them differently?
-Do different birthing and childcare practices affect the hologenomic outcome?
-If the bacterial symbionts have such an influence on human emotion and personality, why is this not addressed in psychology and psychiatry practice?
-How does being a holobiont with such a diverse colony of bacteria provide an evolutionary or competitive advantage?
As we move forward into the 21st century, we must strive to add holobiont concepts to the practice of healthcare and teach individuals why “taking care of yourself” might need to become “taking care of each other.” Perhaps better pollution control, for example, would be more meaningful if people understood that it isn’t only to save some small toad that lives far away, but also to save the bacterial diversity that our future depends on. Perhaps parenting practices would mean more when the importance of imparting a beneficial microbiome/hologenome to our children is better understood. These concepts form the basis for The Symbiont Factor, referenced with more than 1300 peer-reviewed research papers and due to be published by 15 June 2014.
Having a healthy population of gut bacteria is one of the most important steps you can take to improve your health! Many people think that this is very complicated but in fact, as in many things, it begins with simple steps. With this in mind, I would like to share some simple steps and concepts that can easily be implemented in your daily life. This theme will be repeated from time to time in future blog posts as I cover other aspects of being a good host.
Today’s subject: stress reduction and symbiont health
Why it is important: The importance of managing stress levels cannot be overstated when looking at symbiont bacterial health. The largest colony of bacteria live in the intestines (“the gut”) and are responsible for developing and maintaining brain function, immune function, hormonal balance and emotional health. Your state of mind, or stress level, regulates the environment this vital colony lives in. The bacterial colony influences the mind as well! Human beings, like all other creatures, are not single organisms but a host + symbiont organisms, or a “holobiont.” Since the bacteria outnumber human cells 10:1 and their genetic count is 150-400 times our human genes, they can be looked at as an additional organ almost, and normal physical or mental function is impossible without symbionts. More about that in an upcoming post!
How it works: The intestinal tract is a variable environment and is controlled by your autonomic nervous system. When you are relaxed, kicked back and not stressed your autonomic nervous system becomes Parasympathetic dominant. This mode of function results in dilated blood vessels, lower blood pressure, improved gut movement and digestion. These changes make conditions optimal for beneficial gut bacteria! When you are stressed out, tense, shallow breathing and poorly rested your system become sympathetically dominant. This is the “fight or flight” mode, and results in blood vessel constriction, reduced circulation, higher blood pressure, and reduced intestinal activity. This set of conditions is very bad for the good gut bacteria, and instead favors the growth of non-beneficial populations that cause disease and dysfunction.
What to do:
1. Autonomic imbalance has become a widespread issue in our society as electronics invade every moment of our life that previously provided a moment of mental refuge. Choosing some period of each day to be “electronic free” can be very relaxing. Perhaps at meal time, while in the bathroom, walking the dog or some other daily task or time-leave the mobile phone turned completely off and learn to be “in the moment” and not constantly redirected by the brain prosthesis known as the cell phone!
2. Choose an activity such as yoga that can be instrumental in learning to control your autonomic nervous system. Yes, traditionally it is taught that we do not control the autonomics, but in reality that isn’t true. All doctors would agree that being stressed raises blood pressure, right? It does so because the stressed state of mind activates the fight-or-flight sympathetic system. If a person thinks angry thoughts for a few minutes, blood pressure goes up, he may become red in the face and heart rate will elevate. This is the mind controlling the autonomics. If it works that way, it must also work the other way-relaxing activates the parasympathetic! Most communities offer at least one yoga program and it is not an expensive activity. Breathing exercises, meditation and stress reduction are central to Yoga practice and this provides a way to learn.
3. Begin to re-evaluate your outlook on daily events and life in general. It could be said that the only difference between an ordeal and an adventure is attitude or outlook. It is very easy to let the things that went “wrong” color our emotional responses to events that are neutral or even good! This is a result of re-living, mentally replaying, events in the past that are perceived to have had a negative outcome. In reality, this is destructive as it prevents us from having present time consciousness, enjoying good things currently happening, or focusing on “what’s next.” We cannot change the past-the only things we can change are how it affects us and what we do in the present. Mentally re-living past stresses also continues to keep the sympathetic system dominant, further altering gut bacterial populations. This alteration to a less beneficial population of symbionts can also affect brain function and make us more stressed, anxious or depressed! And so the cycle of stress can be perpetuated if permitted to do so.
4. Breathing exercises can be very helpful in learning to improve autonomic balance, gut function and symbiont health. This can be yoga breathing exercises or playing wind instruments. My favorite for breathing exercises is the didgeridoo, in part because of the extreme breathing exercises used to play it and also due to its rhythmic, hypnotic and relaxing sound. It can be used as a meditational tool in itself. They are very inexpensive and learning a basic technique is easy!
5. Sometimes there is nothing better than a good soak in a hot bath or hot tub! The bubbles are soothing, the jets massage tight muscles, and the heat helps to stimulate the parasympathetics. It is an old-time stress remedy that still works well!
Learning to undo the effects of stress and to balance your autonomic function can help you improve your gut function, digestion and symbiont health. This can be a life-altering addition to your preventive healthcare!