What are the causes of dysbiosis and resultant dysfunction/disease? One cause that seems to be greatly underestimated may be simply our mood! Human beings, having been gifted with large frontal lobes, are capable of experiencing and expressing a variety of moods. Our bodies respond to these moods with different functional states, some of which have been categorized. These are “fight or flight (or sometimes, fight/flee/fortify)” or “wine and dine”. There are many more physiological functional arousal states that we could elaborate on, but many of them could make this blog post NSFW. We’ll just assume that your imagination can fill in the blanks with how the body responds to the mind! With the brain-gut connection in mind, and being also cognizant that it’s a two-way street since the gut influences the brain, what would be the influence of stress? One that comes to mind right away is a reduction in gut motility. This changes the environment in which the microbiome exists, and will change the demographics of the microorganisms. What about the effects of peristalsis on the small intestine? If there is less peristalsis, wouldn’t it make it easier for colonic organisms to migrate to the small intestine? If transit times increase, different stages of food digestion could release different nutrients, feeding different organisms. When do we cross from fermentative to putrefactive dominance? Using one of the concepts in The Symbiont Factor, this two-way function of gut/brain/gut axis can cause a positive feedback loop. If gut organisms that flourish during emotional stress can also alter neurotransmitter function at the brain, wouldn’t that predispose the brain to perceive stress following stressful events? What if that is why sometimes after a stressful day we just have more stress, no matter what happens? It is as if our very perception of our environment is vulnerable to plasticity. If this is allowed to happen without our conscious intervention (things like deciding to meditate or do some yoga even though you’re angry) the combination of evoked brain plasticity with gut symbiont evolution could be what makes it hard to shake off stress! Ironically, this same plasticity is probably an evolutionary advantage, allowing genetic selection of the microbiome on an ongoing real-time basis to adapt to circumstances. The problem is that our modern circumstances provide constant chemical and emotional pressure to this system, resulting in “learned dysfunction” of both the gut and the brain! This highlights the importance of “mental housekeeping” and lifestyle choices in determining our “perceptual future”. If you don’t want the world to seem as stressful, start taking care of mind, body, and symbiont health!
Today is the day I finally got to click on the “submit” button and make my book available on Amazon. After a year of hard work writing and making edit corrections, it’s done! A print copy will be available soon-for now only the e-book version is available.
Here is the link to the book on Amazon: http://amzn.to/1jz3kPt
Kefir is a fermented milk product with at least a two millenium history of human use. Native people such as the Maasai have used fermentation to preserve their milk products. Kefir is the most popular fermented dairy product in Russia and is thought to have originated in the Caucasus mountain region. Milk that is fermented into kefir has been found to last at least six weeks in refrigeration with no spoilage or loss of probiotic organisms! This is significantly longer than pasteurized and unfermented milk, and works the same way whether with camel, cow, goat or sheep’s milk. Kefir has been found to have many health benefits, among them:
-Kills drug-resistant myeloid leukemia cells
-Slows the progression of kidney disease
-Improves fatty liver disease
-Reduces obesity/body fat content
So, how do you make your own? It’s really simple, actually! All you need is milk, a starter culture, and a jar. Starter cultures can be obtained from someone else who is making kefir, or started from commercially available packets:
The culture that ferments kefir is known as a SCOBY, or symbiotic culture of bacteria and yeast. Over time, this culture will grow until it looks a bit like soggy cauliflower:
If making kefir for the first time using a package mix, it is best to follow the directions provided with the kefir grains. When you strain out the grains as shown above, they will grow over time and form a bigger SCOBY. This SCOBY is fairly advanced-it’s a good time to share with someone else! This one can ferment a quart of milk into kefir in 24 hours.
The first step to making kefir from a SCOBY is to add the SCOBY to the fermenting vessel (fancy word for quart mason jar in this case!)
The next step is to add the milk:
Then cover the top with a coffee filter or paper towel, to keep dust and insects from contaminating your kefir culture.
and use either a rubber band or one of the threaded rings (since this is a canning jar) to keep the filter attached tightly:
At this point, I place the jar on top of my refrigerator.
It works best if you take it down and stir it lightly 2-3x/day, or at least give it a good swirling-about, to distribute the bacteria more evenly in the milk. If you prefer a lighter fermentation, 24 hours may be sufficient. I prefer a thicker, stronger fermentation, and often leave it 48 hours or place it in the refrigerator the last 24 hours before removing the SCOBY. The next step is to strain out the SCOBY:
The SCOBY culture can then be put into a smaller glass jar with some fresh milk and stored in the refrigerator, or the process can be repeated to start the next batch of kefir. Using this information, you can create your own healthy kefir at home! We use goat milk obtained from a local farm, but it will work with other types of milk or store-bought goat milk also. Fermentation of milk in this manner preserves the milk, as the bacterial culture will actively inhibit or kill any invading bacteria that might cause spoilage or disease. It has been shown to last at least six weeks, as mentioned above. Will pasteurized milk last six weeks if not fermented? Hardly-it would be a horrid stinking mess! In the same manner, unfermented milk that is fermented is safer for consumption than pasteurized milk that is unfermented. Once finished, kefir can be enjoyed as-is, blended with fruit to make smoothies, or added to other drinks and dishes. So get started and enjoy this healthy probiotic beverage!
Breakfast at the Matthews household, aka “Symbiont Central,” is often a rushed affair. The reality of several dogs, cats and two horses to feed, plus getting five people prepared for their day, makes it challenging at times to follow our own advice. This is when the right power tool comes in hand…enter the NutriBullet. No, this isn’t an ad and we don’t sell them. But, they work really well! So, what was in my breakfast this morning?
-3/4 cup of raw fresh baby kale and mixed organic greens
-3/4 cup of homemade goat milk kefir
-3/4 cup of frozen mango chunks
1 tsp glutamine powder
1 tsp creatine powder
1 tsp Multidophilus probiotic powder
2 opened capsules N-Acetylcysteine or NAC
1 tbsp maple syrup
2 tbsp Tahini (sesame seed butter)
Organic Almond milk, probably 1/2 cup or so, to bring the fluid level up in the cup
This odd-sounding combination, when blended and liquified in the NutriBullet, is actually quite tasty and extremely nutritious! It will carry me through most of the morning till lunchtime. Poured into a cup, with a lid and straw, it is breakfast-to-go, Symbiont style! It is also a good example of a Probiotic and Prebiotic combination, also referred to as a Synbiotic
What do all the ingredients do for the body? The kefir is chock full of beneficial bacteria and yeasts, and has much research evidence showing its benefit to the human body and mind. The greens also provide fiber for the gut bacteria, and the way the NutriBullet cuts up the fiber to tiny fragments dramatically enhances its surface area, permitting more bacterial digestion of the fiber. Sesame is metabolized by beneficial gut bacteria to produce byproducts that inhibit cancer growth and stimulate the immune system. The probiotic powder and kefir both improve immune system function and brain function. Creatine is good for muscle energy (I swam about a kilometer last night and plan to again today). Glutamine helps muscles too, and also helps to heal and maintain the integrity of the intestinal lining-preventing excess inflammation. Immune control is important to preventing inflammation, and excess inflammation limits how hard we can exercise as well as destroying health. NAC has a whole host of benefits, including being neuroprotective so that I don’t fry my brain cells trying to finish editing The Symbiont Factor! NAC also has been shown in multiple studies to promote mental and emotional stability-it has even been shown to help with many psychiatric conditions. Mango provides vitamins and fiber, plus it tastes really good! Maple syrup makes the whole combination taste better and provides some short-term carbohydrates to compliment the fats and protein in the combination. Sometimes I add soft tofu to the drink mix instead to supplement the protein content. It also tends to make it thicker and creamier!
The overall effect is a breakfast that takes about 5-6 minutes to create and is an incredibly healthy boost to the day. It also adds some time to relax and not rush, since it is easy to consume and fast to prepare! Almost every ingredient listed is available at WalMart, though I would rather get them from Whole Foods if it were close enough!
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.
Autism is a rapidly growing problem, affecting 1 in 68 people today. It affects some people more than others, hence the use of the term “autism spectrum.” Autism and ASD have a “cousin” called Asperger’s syndrome. All of these conditions have several features in common, resulting in problems with social situations, communication, perseveration on thoughts or tasks, issues with expressive or receptive communication verbally or with body language, anxiety or becoming overstimulated/overwhelmed and sometimes self-harming. These are viewed as developmental neurologic problems with some genetic/inherited component. It has been found that the human microbiome plays a critical role in assisting the developing brain. Yes, that’s right, no typographic error!-symbiotic bacteria help build the human brain. If they are not present in sufficient numbers and correct species, functional imbalances can result-problems such as autism. The symbiotic bacteria not only help build the brain, but also to run it properly and keep it tuned up for optimum function. The details, pulled from several research studies, are quite specific. The study of the microbiome has progressed so exponentially in the last few years that some of these conclusions can seem very surprising at times. During the first five years of life, the human brain is a firestorm of remodeling activity, with neurons being pared off if not needed and others branching out to form new synapses. This is the time of the most dramatic plasticity, where the brain learns how to control the body and form intelligence, personality and emotional response. Early damage to the resident microbiome, that population of a trillion-member bacterial colony that runs things from behind the scenes, results in a loss of proper brain development. Some of this damage also results from by-products produced by the non-beneficial bacteria that take up residence in the gut if beneficial bacteria are not present (Propionate, for example, that is in much higher concentrations in autistic individuals and has been implicated in autistic dysfunctions at higher levels). Damage is also caused by loss of immune system control (one of the other systems partly governed by bacteria). Without the symbiont bacteria monitoring and programming the immune system, it can cause an inflammatory response that damages the brain, or even an autoimmune response that targets the brain. This immune dysfunction and resultant neuroinflammation is thought to be one of the causative mechanisms behind autism. Another factor causing autism/asd is a problem with forming serotonin (normally the pleasant/feelgood/happy reward neurotransmitter). Serotonin is made from tryptophan, through conversion to 5-HTP and DHEA-s. In an autistic person, the conversion takes a “left turn at Albequerque” and produces cortisol. This is a bad outcome, as cortisol is toxic to brain cells in this scenario and contributes to the damage from neuroinflammation. Part of why the conversion fails turns out to be microbiome related, as research shows that an absent microbiome causes accumulation of tryptophan and 5-htp and lowered levels of serotonin. Another way the microbiome is implicated is the neurotransmitter GABA. This neurotransmitter is inhibitory and is used in the brain to block out/filter stimulations. When it fails, a normal environment is overwhelmingly stimulating to an ASD sufferer, resulting in stress/anxiety or a behavior such as self-harm (cutting, for example) that helps to block out some of the overstimulation with a simpler stimulation such as pain. In this mechanism, pain brings relief! The microbiome modulates GABA receptor activation in a site-specific manner, such that GABA receptors work more in some parts of the brain and less in others. This permits a type of partial gating of activity through control of receptor activation! The net result is reduced stress and anxiety-two of the very things that autism sufferers experience the most when placed in social situations. Researchers have found that genetics play a role in autism, with some children having a genetic predisposition to the condition. The catch is that genetics are variable; gene sequences can be activated or suppressed through a process called epigenetics. The tremendous genetic resources of the microbiome (estimates are from 100-1000 times the number of genes as there are human genes) indicate that the microbiome is an epigenetic entity itself. Certainly the microbiome plays a role in human epigenetics, with the ability to “turn on” certain gene sequences and cause their expression. It is probable that not every child who is genetically prone to autism will actually express the disease due to this process. If the microbiome is imbalanced and damaged, the genes can more easily be expressed. The mechanisms described show that an imbalanced microbiome early in life is a major risk factor for autism, and furthermore that microbiome imbalances later in life perpetuate the symptoms of the condition. Our modern society has inadvertently created a multi-front assault on the human microbiome through the use of antibiotics, herbicides such as RoundUp, pollution, Caesarian childbirth, interrupted or absent breastfeeding, chlorinated drinking water, sugar-laden foods, and a myriad of harmful chemicals in our food. The demise of the microbiome opens a Pandora’s box of disease possibilities as the body’s immune, endocrine, and digestive systems function in an uncoordinated and destructive manner.
One of the key concepts that I have written about in The Symbiont Factor is the influence of the bacterial microbiome on the brain. There exists two-way communication between the gut and the brain-and the bacteria in the gut use this communication to influence the brain. In particular, the type of bacteria (how many of what species, beneficial or harmful) determines many aspects of how an infant’s brain develops. This means that if there are insufficient beneficial bacteria, the baby’s brain will not develop to its full potential, potentially resulting in behavioral disease, mental illness or other problems. The question is then what determines the bacteria that populate a baby’s intestines? That is where it gets interesting! The “starter culture” comes from the mother, during vaginal (and not c-section) birth. Breastfeeding is the second probiotic delivery system. What the mother eats during pregnancy, how stressed she is, and many other factors before and during breastfeeding will determine the bacterial symbionts that are available for the baby. Any interventions such as drugs during childbirth, antibiotics in the first five years of life, imbalanced diet that includes high levels of gluten and sugars-all of these are very harmful to the bacterial microbiome. The significance is not that a child might get a cold or similar issue, but that not cultivating a vibrant beneficial symbiont population will fundamentally change who that child is and what they become as an adult! Personality, mood, drive, ambition, intelligence, emotional balance-all are a result of the brain development that occurs during the first five years. What happens when an infant is born via c-section? The baby begins life with a microbiome characteristic of skin, which means far fewer species of beneficial bacteria. If the child is not breastfed, this imbalance is worsened. If the baby is given sweet and sugary drinks, it gets worse. If there is frequent emotional stress along with typically poor nutrition, the microbiome will not develop fully and neither will the bain. This can continue to reproductive age, resulting in an inter-generational worsening of the microbiome. It is important to realize the implication here: “We” are Holobionts; an organism that consists of a host plus all of its symbiont organisms. When the symbionts are imbalanced, so is the host. When the symbionts are not present, part of the Holobiont “whole” is also missing and this results in mental and physical decline. The Symbiont Factor is about how symbionts help us, and what goes wrong without them-and what to do about it! Our lack of proper care for our symbionts could threaten the future of Humanity as subsequent generations do not develop sufficient symbionts to attain their potential. “Think Global, Act Local” in this case means taking care of your health and your symbiont health!