I don’t usually like to blog one single article, but I sometimes make an exception because there are some keen insights here. And I especially like them because all of them have been in my book draft for some time.
This is an article by Dr. Raphael Kellman, author of The Microbiome Diet and the founder of the Kellman Center for Integrative and Functional Medicine. I was actually sent the book back when it came out but have done nothing more than leaf through it and no nothing of the proposed diet. At any rate, this article is worth a read.
For the past several years, the biggest buzzword in diet has been Paleo. This approach to food supposedly re-creates the way our ancestors ate during the Paleolithic period, before the invention of agriculture. Although there are many different incarnations of Paleo, they all agree on one thing: Human genes evolved when our ancestors were still hunters and gatherers. Therefore, according to the Paleo perspective, our genes have simply not had time to catch up to a diet of grains and legumes.
But our bodies are far more flexible than the Paleo people would lead you to believe. That’s because Paleo leaves out a crucial factor in the equation: the microbiome.
Now, here’s key insight #1:
It’s Your Bacteria’s Genes That Matter
That’s right. While everyone has heard over and over that in terms of cell number, the bacteria in our guts outnumber our own cells by a factor of 10 (estimates vary, actually), it’s really the massive disparity in genome that’s the biggie.
Not only do our bacteria outnumber us, their genes outnumber our genes — by a factor of 150 to 1. In many ways, their genes have more of an influence over our day-to-day life than our own genes do.
When your microbiome is balanced, you have a terrific ally that keeps your body healthy, promoting good digestion, clear thinking, balanced mood, and glowing overall health. When your microbiome goes out of balance, however, you risk such symptoms as brain fog, depression, anxiety, bad skin and insomnia — and, down the road, obesity, diabetes, and cancer.
I personally have experienced a pretty profound gradual “chill factor” over many months that’s ongoing, actually. Sure, I still go off in rants and rages now & then, but I get over them quickly and I sure do pass up a lot more opportunities than I used to. Not perfect, but better
Key insight #2:
Now, what does this have to do with Paleo? Well, the Paleo view is that human genes evolve with glacial slowness, and that humans haven’t yet caught up to the dietary changes brought on by the invention of agriculture.
Maybe human genes do change that slowly (although they have changed more since the Paleolithic era than Paleo orthodoxy would suggest). The population of the microbiome, however, changes extremely rapidly — often, within a single day.
After all, the average lifespan of a microbe is only 20 minutes. That’s long enough for your entire microbiome to change its composition.
And when your microbiome changes, its genes change too. You literally could wake up with one set of microbial genes on Monday and a whole other set of microbial genes on Tuesday.
Yes, and then integrate horizontal gene transfer and you’ve got a real whopper of a very complex picture on your hands.
Key insight #3:
You Are What Your Bacteria Eat
It’s arguably as important or even more important than the nutrients going toward your own cellular nourishment. The makeup of your microbiota can change very rapidly.
A breakthrough study from Harvard’s Peter J. Turnbaugh and Duke’s Lawrence David reveals some of the ways in which our diet shapes our microbiome — and thereby affects our ability to digest various types of food. In 2011, the researchers fed volunteers two very different diets. One group was given a high-protein diet consisting of bacon and eggs, spareribs, brisket, salami, cheese, and pork rinds. The other was fed a very high-fiber diet of fruits, vegetables, grains, and beans. Bacterial analysis of fecal samples collected before, during, and after the experiment showed that what each group ate had a huge — and almost immediate — effect on their gut bacteria. […]
The microbiome’s dynamic ability to respond to our diet is why our bodies can adapt to so many different ways of eating — regardless of how long it might take for our genes themselves to change. Our genes aren’t what matter — our microbiome’s genes are the key. We don’t have to move at the millennial pace of genetic evolution. We come equipped with a mechanism that is exquisitely responsive to a number of different types of foods, which is why humans all over the world can survive on a remarkably wide range of diets.
Key insight #4:
We Can Eat Almost Anything — But Should We?
The Paleo diet varies depending on which expert you listen to, but they all agree on one thing: We humans can’t digest grain. They say that our genes just haven’t evolved enough to metabolize it properly, and that therefore grain is responsible for all sorts of serious disorders.
Not only is that bad genetics, it’s bad nutrition. […]
…Nor do you want to consume a typical Western diet — refined flour, sugar, unhealthy fats, additives, preservatives, and artificial sweeteners — because those ingredients also feed exactly the wrong kind of bacteria.
So, it’s a bit nuanced. Your microbiota can handle a lot of grains. Eliminating of greatly curtailing gluten may be important for some or a lot. But at the end of the day, grains (and legumes) are likely one whole lot less of a problem than is all the crap that comes in boxes and bags of highly processed modern industrially produced food.
I’ll close with a short section from Chapter 1 of my own book in draft (without formatting or references—just a quick copy/paste).
BACTERIA ARE AWESOME
Bacteria are living creatures made up of exactly one cell. They’re amongst the simplest forms of life—probably one of the earliest forms of life on Earth. Our personal microbes are mainly either spherical (called cocci) or rod-shaped (bacilli). They all have cell walls that protect them from the surrounding environment. Bacteria require nourishment, but have no mouth. Its skin (cell wall) is rigid, but it can allow molecules to travel in and out. They have no nose, ears, eyes, arms, or legs; but they’re mobile, and they communicate. Many of the bacilli have tails, used to navigate the fluids in which they inhabit. As with the lizard, their tails are detachable. Some have special tubes, known as pili—used to transfer material to other microbes. But what could a single-celled organism have that it needs to share? Information! For instance, when an antibiotic (a poison to the organism) is detected, this information is shared with its fellows. Over many lifecycle generations, bacteria evolve to resist antibiotics and become what the medical profession calls superbugs—bacteria that can’t be eradicated by the antibiotics du jour.
Even though we know bacteria to be single cells, they’re anything but simple. Within the cellular membrane of each is contained mostly water. Within this water resides the material of DNA. DNA carries genetic information that’s literally billions of years old, and all cellular functions are controlled by it. That’s right: our microbiome is operating, in part, on basic instructions billions of years older than primate life itself! If that’s not impressive enough—recalling that our gut microbes possess a combined 3 million genes to the 24,000 for our human cells—also present in this watery interior are ribosomes. These free-floating structures attach themselves to DNA to carry out instructions to manufacture proteins, antibiotics, vitamins, hormones, poisons…a veritable complete line of synthesized chemicals. Our microbes, each of some 100 trillion, are only single cells that are, nonetheless, microscopic chemical plants, the likes of which ought to make Eleuthère Irénée du Pont, Herbert Henry Dow, and Friedrich Engelhorn all blush.
Microbes are astoundingly complex, versatile, and resilient, even though a single complete microbial life might be measured in mere minutes. Various strains have obtained the ability to live in a wider array of environments than any other life form. They can be equally at home in boiling water, and polar ice caps. They can live and thrive in oil spills, hot sulfur, salt water, the air, dirt, and everywhere in between. Some have evolved ballasts to control buoyancy in liquids. Some microbes are magnetic, navigating by means of the Earth’s magnetic field. In terms of our gut microbiota, they all have one thing in common: whatever it takes to get inside your gut, as that’s where its kind took up residence millions of years ago in the first primates.
Since they’re quite effective getting where they belong, in a protected environment with a constant supply of nourishment, our bodies are teeming with them. The vast majority are mutualistic. But a few can be deadly—meningitis, tetanus, cholera, pneumonia, and anthrax are all common bacteria that thrive in, on, or outside the human body, potentially infecting and killing millions. The lengths to which bacteria have evolved to do good or harm in all facets of life is staggering. …Corkscrew shaped microbes called spirochetes cause syphilis and Lyme disease. …Rickettsia is a pathogen that can only live inside of other living cells, causing typhus and Rocky Mountain spotted fever. Other bacteria, such as the much maligned e. coli, the culprit behind many food-poisoning outbreaks, are only harmful when found in large numbers or where they don’t belong, but when living happily in your gut are crucial to keeping other pathogens at bay. And conversely, there are gut bugs that appear to do nothing but good things for us…bifidobacteria is one type of microbe with no downside—their presence is linked with excellent immune function and vigorous health.
Hans Christian Gram was a Danish bacteriologist who, in 1884, invented a way to classify bacteria into two large categories. He found that he could stain bacteria with special dyes and if they turned purple, they were considered ‘positive’; but, if they turned red, ‘negative’. Later, these classifications became Gram positive and Gram negative. To this day, Gram staining is one of the most important tests done on bacteria.
Gram staining allows medical professionals and lab technicians to differentiate between two distinct bacterial groups—critical in a medical emergency where minutes count. Gram positive bacteria respond well to certain types of antibiotics, like penicillin, while Gram negative bacteria are very hard to kill and require harsher drugs. Without this knowledge, it would take much guesswork to treat patients, with lives lost to time wasted.
There are dozens of other ways in which bacteria have been classified over the past 50 years, with new methods being developed all the time. Later on, we’ll introduce classifications such as domain, kingdom, phylum, class, order, family, genus, and species.