[Please do read and integrate this, but here's a thinking update, April of 2015: Gut Bugs, Probiotics, Prebiotics…And how our microbes make us who we are. This is a process.}
In the obesity debate, you generally have:
- You eat too much, don't move enough. Lack of discipline. Can't resist reward.
- You eat too much fat.
- You eat too much carbohydrate.
- You eat animal-derived foods.
- It's the toxins and/or anti-nutrients of various sorts. "Neolithic Agents of Disease," in Paleospeak.
- It's processed food in general.
- It's all genetic and there's little you can do about it...EXCEPT...one of the foregoing approaches might work for you, and it's to you to find which one or something else, if any at all.
I've actually come to be most intrigued by number 7 and I'll tell you why: I absolutely think, now, that the genetic component is the chief factor driving obesity, but I can almost assure you that most people, before reading on, would not guess what I have in mind.
I'll quote from a book in draft, to be published.
There’s about 40 million bacterial cells in a gram of soil and about a million bacterial cells in a millilitre of fresh water. In total, there’s estimated to be about five million trillion trillion, or 5 × 1030 (5 nonillion) bacteria on Earth with a total biomass equaling that of plants. Some researchers believe that the total biomass of bacteria exceeds that of all plants and animals.
Inside of every human organism are armies of microorganisms with entirely different DNA from our human cells. That microbiome not only outnumbers our human cells by a factor of ten to one but in total, outnumbers every individual human that has ever lived on the face of the Earth. Your intestinal microflora numbers 100 trillion! Compare that with the total estimated 110 billion humans who have ever been born. You’ve got 900 times as many microorganisms. Your internal civilization of microbiota is comprised of up to 1,000 different species with 3 million non-human genes, compared to your own 24,000.
See where I'm going with this?
Do the math, and the genes that make up your gut flora outnumber your human genes by a factor of more than 100. And when you begin digging into it very deeply—such as drafting a book, perhaps —the discoveries mount by the hour in terms of all they do: from manufacturing species-specific antibiotics, to adjusting pH in the gut, to kamikaze warfare, to intra and inter-species bi-lingual communication, to enzymatic action to digest things—even anti-nutrients like phytate—to hormonal regulation, and many other functions...many heavily related to the brain-gut connection and by consequence, behavior.
Think what you will about human genetics, but how about integrate an entirely new set of non-human genes 100 times greater? Factor in enormous variation—not only in numbers of species (500-1,000 per individual, on average), but population numbers of species per individual—and then, that any individual's gut shifts in species populations seasonally, with different food intake, and you have a complexity that's likely no match for all the supercomputers on earth operating in parallel. And that's just for one of 7 billion individuals.
I love complexity. Whilst virtually everyone is out trying to come up with plans and more plans; pat answers, sets of 10 rules, Bibles and manifestos, I have no plan! Rather, I enjoy best complicating the hell out of everything and showing how all such plans are just silly.
Let's consider just two animal examples.
- By now, most people have heard of how if you take an obese rodent and a skinny rodent, swap out their gut biomes, the obese one becomes lean and the lean one becomes obese. The rodent genes didn't change, but genes did change: they were the far greater number of genes in the rodent microbiome exchanged from one to the other.
- How about the obese, heart diseased gorillas living in zoos, subsisting on gorilla chow? Turns out that if you double their calories, but give them their appropriate diet of tons of vegetable matter, they shed pounds and regain health. Did their genes change? Absolutely, but not in their own cells. "Their" genes changed dramatically by virtue of a radical shift in gut flora.
Now let's consider the human animal, vis-a-vis genetic obesity.
Everyone has seen picture examples from decades past, when everyone wasn't fat. What was a common sight (not uniform by any means, but most common...exceptions exist)? Lean male, plumpish to fat female. And when offspring were in the picture, it was more common that the sons were twigs and the daughters showed signs of following in mom's footsteps. Juxtapose that with "the perfect family," where everyone is lean.
Gotta be their genes, right? That simple? Pat answer? Or, is it the food they eat? It is both genes and the food they eat, all packaged with a cause & effect puzzle?
Let me advance an alternate hypothesis, though you're free to call it wild-ass speculation if you like: What if it's genetic AND the food they eat, BECAUSE of "their" genetic makeup (take particular note of those scare quotes)?
- Consider where dad works. Interestingly, the further you go back, the more you find traditional roles where dad works outside the home—often enough, getting his hands, hair, face and clothes dirty. He's exposed and ingests, daily, an endless supply of soil based organisms; a probiotic, and unlike common dairy-based probiotics, are spore forming; so, they can lie dormant for years or thousands of years, only to come alive again when conditions are ripe. Moreover, the spore actually survives the harsh environment of gastric juices that kill lots of live bacteria in your favorite yogurt or kefir—or even fermented foods.
- Where does mom work? Traditionally, at home, where cleanliness is next to godliness. The only good bacteria is a dead bacteria and nobody likes cleansers and disinfectants more than mom. Of course, she's doing it out of an abundance of care for her family flock; and though she's not to be faulted for her ignorance (her husband is too, but he's getting them anyway, also through ignorance), ignorance is ignorance.
- Offspring are offspring. Traditionally, the boys follow in dads steps and the girls learn every conceivable thing about products upon products, piled on products—the vast majority designed to either kill or sweep away any hint of a bug.
- Wouldn't it be interesting to compare the genetic sequencing of the gut bacteria for a traditional household with a lean dad who works in the dirt, a mom who keeps a clean house between baking cookies and pies, and the kids who, more or less, model their parental-gender examples?
Worthy of consideration, though very loosely outlined (I trust you to connect requisite dots)? So what's the underlying mechanism, in my view? Let's take it from the point where people are not getting the daily supply of bacteria: or—and this is super important—after a round of human antibiotic carpet bombing. Remember, the beneficial bacteria in the gut tend to be able to target pathogens through species-specific antibiotics, or creating a pH that's inhospitable to them. Phages also play a role in keeping pathogens in check.
Damaged Biome --> Malabsorption --> Toxic Overload --> Damaged Tight Junctions --> Immune Response --> Auto-Immune Disease --> Allergies To Everything --> Obesity and Other Health Problems.
Time to come clean. Tim and I—already having read tons of studies on resistant starch that go back 30 years—were very damn confident that they improve the gut generally in a very special way, a "panacea," as Dr. Art Ayers puts it. Moreover, we'd both seen a lot of recent stuff all over about prebiotics (feed what's there) being more important than probiotics (get new stuff).
Enter my longtime friend, Dr. BG (Grace), PharmD. She writes a blog in little tiny font—so you pay close attention—at AnimalPharm (link removed). In comments here, and emails you'll never see, she got quite perturbed at us—especially after we downplayed probiotics on Angelo Coppola's Latest in Paleo Podcast. I won't tell you what she told us privately, but there may have been vulgarity involved. Then, serendipitously, Ameer Rosic published a podcast with me, where I think both my thinking had evolved and I explained myself better. Grace liked it.
Long story short, she became science editor for the book Tim & I are co-authoring—now almost halfway through 16 chapters nearing 400 pages—and I ordered three SBO (soil-based organism) probiotics to try. I didn't want to futz with "which is best" and was perfectly willing to confound variables and make the picture too complex to figure out, because it already is to begin with.
The reason I went and did it was actually not because of Grace's insistence per se, but because she'd been in comments for months already admonishing people: "you're feeding empty cages!" In other words, if the organisms you need aren't there, no amount of resistant starch or any other prebiotic is going to create them. RS is not Dog, after all. But I was torn. I had already experienced lots of benefits as I've outlined many times in my RS posts. But then I observed several people in comments having had problems with the potato starch seemingly clear them up after taking one or more of those probiotic recommendations.
While I wasn't having problems beyond the occasionally wayward fart, it made me wonder whether I was missing out on something. Indeed I was. Alright, quick list for me, all experienced by day 4 of one of each, twice per day, typically on an empty stomach.
- Awareness, calm. Nothing bothers me much unless I pretend it does (which I have to do for show & schtick, sometimes). It's a kind of perspective I haven't enjoyed having in a long time. Above the fray—with a little spicy sprinkle of hubris and pity. Mushroom cloud on the horizon? "Wow, glad it's not closer."
- 1/3 reduced need for sleep. I always wondered whether the Paleo obsession with lots of sleep in very, very, very, very dark rooms with blackout shades for 8-9 hours wan't sign of a bad condition. I can remember often bragging about 8-10 hours myself. Really? Are we really meant to spend half of our lives asleep? Potato starch actually exacerbated that a bit because the dreams (brain-gut connection, remember?) were so vivid and intense, it was like kinda going to bed to watch a show. Haven't slept more than 6 hours in a couple of weeks. I'm now usually up and awake, rarin' to go, typing away before Bea gets up at 5:30am. Used to be, I'd drag out at 6:45 or so, just to see her off.
- Not very hungry for much of anything, usually. This results in not eating much until really no-shit hungry. The potato starch did that too, but now even more pronounced.
- Best for last: all my life I've had sinus problems. Allergies, itchy nose, runny nose, itchy eyes. I once did the subcutaneous injections for a couple of years (French Navy). I once considered buying stock in paper towel manufacturers. Kleenex doesn't cut it. I need Bounty! I was on prescriptions since college. Paleo helped a lot with that, but I now suspect it was removing those things that most created auto-immune responses (grains, most likely), but not dealing with the underlying cause. Why?* Because after a few years, the problems crept back, such that even a slight indulgence over a burger or a beer would get me sneezing, running of nose, and chronic congestion necessitating habitual squirts of Afrin every night before bed, just so I could get to sleep and not mouth breathe all night. I noticed it immediately, like day 2. About 3 weeks in, I'm 80% plus. Rather than 100 nose blows per day, maybe a few. Don't need Afrin 90% of the time. Don't wake up in the middle of the night with desert mouth.
So wow. Number 4, above, is a relief I can't even begin to express the value of for me personally. Makes me wonder how much of my rather vitriolic demeanor is really me, or simply an underlying pissed-offedness at my lot in life that manifests in ways I've simply learned to cope with by taking pride in it. ...I'd have rather had a small penis.
Seriously, I literally walk around in disbelief, shutting my mouth and taking deep breaths through my nose that was only possible drugged up, before, except for my Paleo Honeymoon of a couple of years.
I've evolved into a morning smoothie concoction that's different about every day, and that I split with Beatrice before she heads off to the classroom. I'd advise pounding those 3 probiotics for a couple of weeks (1 of each, twice per day), then perhaps, to make them last longer, something like this. The gist of my morning smoothie recipe, split between 2 people, about 10-12 oz each (this is how I now get pretty much 100% of my Probiotic and RS supplementation—my dose being about 1/2 to 2/3 of this recipe):
- 1 raw egg
- 1 piece of fresh fruit (apple with skin, banana, handful of berries, orange, etc., or whatever you like)
- 2 TBS Potato Starch
- 1 TBS Green Banana Flour
- 1 TBS Plantain Flour
- 1/4 tsp Inulin / FructoOligoSaccharides
- 1 Scoop Amazing Grass High ORAC
- 4 oz Odwalla-esq fruit/veggie smoothie blend of choice
- 4 oz Kefir (plain or any flavor of choice)
- 1 each of the aforementioned SBO probiotics, caps pulled apart and dumped in
- Handfull of ice cubes
- Water as needed for desired consistency in a good blender.
I tried to get Beatrice to take the probiotics about 4-5 days after I began taking them. No dice. That's when I concocted the "evil smoothie" plan, and all she knew was that it was a fruit smoothie, and she loved the taste. Yesterday—this is a week or so of morning ritual, now—she comes to me saying "I feel fantastic and I think it's that morning drink. Keep doing it."
So, I suppose that in the large scheme of things, if you've ever lived a sheltered life and/or taken a round of antibiotics ever, it's entirely possible that your gut biome was damaged permanently, and much of what you experience is merely downstream effects too complex to fully understand (see the beginning section of the post). Or, perhaps you were a C-Section baby who didn't get the benefit of the billions of bacteria you get in the process of a natural birth. And/or, you were not breastfed, and so didn't get both the billions of bacteria with every feeding in mammalian milk, nor the probiotics that come right along with it in a nice & tidy package.
Whatever the singular or multiple case, I'm here to say that I've bought a number of the dairy-based probiotics over the years and felt nothing I ever noticed. This has been way different than anything.
I don't see how it can hurt. It might help a lot.
* I further speculate that the Paleo LC approach, that removed the antagonists that gave me relief, also starved and perhaps extinguished gut microbes such that I became sensitize to far greater things in smaller doses, ultimately.
Update: I had really intended to spend some space tying this back to #1 in the list of obesity, but things were getting long, so let's explore that in comments if you like. In a nutshell: I think a bad gut = bad decisions on many levels via the brain-gut connection and hormone regulation, including food choices brought on by insatiable cravings. Perhaps the palatability/reward hypotheses would be better refined by finding out how food engineering is both exploiting and exacerbating the problem.