This Article appears in the May 2020 issue of the North Columbia Monthly.
We all feel like we are in command of our actions. And sometimes that command includes input from “gut feelings”, “intestinal fortitude” and “having the stomach for it”. Seldom do we consider that our digestive system is in charge of our actions. And it is even more rare to admit that our digestive systems are under siege. But that is exactly the gist of a presentation that John Ellis, naturopath and owner of Meyers Falls Market, intended to give on March 24th, before the Corona Virus triggered a cascade of cancelled gatherings. A talk with him later revealed the dynamics of this conflict.
Looking to count how many cells are in our bodies and how many of them are actually from our own DNA can be tricky as Ed Yong for Science Alert magazine writes: “More recent estimates, put the total number of human cells at anywhere from 15 trillion to 724 trillion, and the number of gut microbes at anywhere between 30 trillion and 400 trillion. Which gives a ratio that can best be expressed as ¯\_(ツ)_/¯.” Some put the human percentage at 43%. “The remaining 57 percent are bacteria, fungi and single-celled eukaryotes that live in our guts, in our mouths, on our skins, and in the female reproductive tract,” says Sarkis Mazmanian, a microbiology researcher at Caltech. So really we are each a living army of microbes. The bacteria in our systems weigh more than our brain and affect how we think.
These microbes have a remarkably higher turnover rate than the cells from our own DNA which can be good or bad news. Ellis points out that 80% of our immune system is in the large intestine. The microbes in our guts are actually the first line of defense against most of the material entering our bodies. They can change completely in 24 hours so we can start reinforcing those defenses immediately by eating well. Napoleon Bonaparte is said to have proclaimed “An army marches on its stomach.” The microbe army in your stomach marches on the foods you eat. So those supply lines are critical and often that is where the battle begins.
Ellis notes that it would take eating 30 of the commercial apples in stores today to equal the nutrition of 1 apple from 50 years ago. So even the foods we eat are not getting the foods they themselves need to become nutritious. The soil itself is becoming a hydroponic soup of agrichemicals. As one farmer put it at a recent Soil Conservation District meeting in Colville “There’s not a worm left in the Palouse.”
Refined sugars and processed foods have most of their nutritive value stripped out of them. Animal-based protein can be even worse. For instance, animals raised in feed lots don’t get to move around much and it turns out that moving around is what kills toxins in their bodies (and in ours as well).
To make up for the natural foods and activities that would keep animals healthy, they are given antibiotics. Ellis says that of the 35 tons of antibiotics consumed in the United States every year 32 of those tons are fed to feedlot animals which pass them on to us. So the microbial army in our guts is not getting what it needs to march. To make matters worse, it harbors antibiotics and our biome suffers heavy losses from those.
Ellis gives the herbicide, Atrazine as an example. It causes endocrine disruption of the human hormone system that is effectively chemical castration particularly in males. The American male sperm count has decreased from 50% to 80% in the last 10 years depending on what reports you study. (Pesticide Action Network ) Compounding the effect of agrichemicals are prescription drugs, alcohol, smoking, air and water quality.
These forces are aided behind the lines, so to speak, by detrimental bacteria, fungi and yeasts. “Detrimental” might be over-simplifying what goes on in our guts. With trillions of microbes playing different roles health is more a matter of balance than elimination. We have only been able to sequence the DNA in microbes for the last 10 years. Labs can only grow less than 1% of them outside of a living digestive system. So nutrionists are basically working with a black box, changing inputs and watching effects without identifying the whole process.
“A spoonful of sugar may make the medicine go down in a most delightful way” but it is sure to be consumed by fungi which will include candida. Too much candida can bloom when antibiotics take out the bacteria that keep it in check. Then it contributes to itching, bloating, vaginal infections and trouble sleeping. Furthermore it can act behind the lines of your guts defenses to promote unhealthy behavior.
There are indications that yeasts, parasites and some other microbes promote their own favorite foods by causing cravings for things that are not really good for the rest of the system. Jazmine Polk relates how her cravings for pancakes loaded with sweets drove a bad case of Candidiasis. But the good news is that she was able to cure that by changing her diet. She eliminated sugars, grains and alcohol and switched to eating green vegetables, meat, fish, eggs, salad, almonds, walnuts, herbal tea, green juice, and unsweetened coconut water. (health.com)
This is basically the kind of diet that Ellis recommends along with bone broth, aloe juice, probiotics and prebiotics. “Prebiotics are a type of fiber that the human body cannot digest. They serve as food for probiotics, which are tiny living microorganisms, including bacteria and yeast.” (medicalnewstoday.com) Probiotics are the reinforcements our systems need to balance out our gut biome.
The transition may not be entirely easy. Not only might you have cravings for unhealthy food, you might not have the right biota to digest healthy foods. Ellis points out that there are 2500 species of microbes in our guts but we are probably missing 500 species that have gone extinct. The missing microbes have a ripple effect where other organisms depend on them for their own nutrition and so are also in short supply. These microbes might still be found in aboriginal populations and recovered through fecal transplants.
Another impediment to getting the benefits of fresh leafy greens might lie within the greens themselves. Endocrinologist, Dr. Zach Bush, had recommended a green vegetable rich diet to his clients in rural Virginia. He was surprised to see that they were still getting sick. Looking into it he found that glyphosate (Roundup) had been taken up by vegetables after it got into the water and air. It acts as an antibiotic. Besides destroying bacteria in your gut, it opens up holes in your gut membrane. “Your gut membrane is the largest barrier to the outside world: it covers two tennis courts in surface area and is the thickness of half of the width of a human hair.” The injury that Roundup does to your guts “starts to activate the immune system, and we become reactive to our foods. So, we develop allergies of all sorts, pollen allergies and environmental allergies, but also all the food allergies that have become so prevalent in our children today.” (Dr. Zach Bush on Salon.com) This membrane is the real front line of the gut war.
Luckily the battle is not necessarily lost. Nature has a way of balancing the biome if you are only exposed to more of it. Dr. Bush says “The microbiome we breathe will ultimately populate our gut through different mechanisms. Touch it. Consume it through fermented foods.” He advocates getting out in nature as much as possible, walking barefoot, going to the mountains and the ocean.
John Ellis realizes that people who have not been eating celery, cabbage, broccoli, kale and asparagus regularly don’t digest it well. These foods just seem to cause flatulence for them. To build up the microbes that will help digest these greens he suggests overcooking them at first, like you would cook baby food. Over time cook them less and the bacteria and other microbes in your gut will adapt.
That part of John’s recommendations reminded me of some advice Randy Greenland gave to the workers at a log mill where I once worked while we sat around a fire in the yard eating lunch. He talked about a really healthy horse he had. After a ride when its saddle was taken off it would roll on its back, jump up to its feet and fart loudly. The adage he related was “A fartin’ horse will never tire. A fartin’ man’s the man to hire.”