Why Epigenetics is the Most Exciting and Promising Science in the World

“We don’t just inherit our biology, we impact our biology.”
~ David Shenk

I’ve got some bad news and I’ve got some good news: your body’s superstructure is constantly under revision, based on how you live your life.

In the field of epigenetics this is known as gene expression. The brain, mind, genome and microbiome (or second genome), can all act as a single system, influencing our level of well-being at any given moment.

Epigenetics is a seriously hot topic in the scientific community right now, possibly poised on the edge of breakthroughs we can only dream of at the moment. Dr. Bruce Lipton calls it the science of human empowerment.

Epigenetics is the study of changes in organisms caused by modification of gene expression rather than alteration of the genetic code itself. Our genetic blueprint is fixed for life (hardwired), but how our blueprint manifests is not.

Although the recent scientific breakthrough of CRISPR could change that…

Our genes are physical blueprints to make proteins, the primal element of life, and there are around 150,000 proteins in the human body. ‘Protein’ hails from the Latin for ‘primary particle’.

Behind the scenes of your interesting genes

Epi comes from the Greek for ‘upon’, the study of what is on top of genetics. We may have inherited ‘hardwired’ genes from our parents, but the science of epigenetics shows us that it’s environmental signals that control biology.

In physical terms, epi refers to the sheath of proteins and chemicals  that cushion and modify each strand of DNA. The entire amount of epigenetic modification of the DNA in the body is known as the epigenome.

“Our genes are a predisposition, but they are not our fate. The biological mechanisms that affect our health and well-being are often extraordinarily dynamic – for better and for worse. When we eat well, move more, stress less, and love more, our bodies often have a remarkable ability to transform and heal.”
~ Dean Ornish M.D.  (founder and president, Preventative Medicine Research Institute, and Clinical professor of medicine, University of California, San Francisco).

Earth’s 3 billion year old genetic legacy is present inside everyone. Human DNA is an unbroken evolutionary genetic chain containing eons of cellular memory that each of us shares, and it is responsive to everything that happens in our lives.

The DNA that’s present inside our cells is magnificent – a complex combination of chemicals and proteins that holds the entire past, present, and future of all life on our planet.

“If DNA is the storehouse for billions of years of evolution, the epigenome is the storehouse of short-term genetic activities, both very recent and extending back one, two or several generations.
Epigenetics is the study of whether the memory of personal experience – yours, your father’s, your great-grandmother’s may be immediately passed on.”
~ Deepak Chopra & Rudolph Tanzi (Super Genes).

An environmental toxin can trigger epigenetic changes, but so can a strong emotion like fear, as seen in studies on mice.

A basic overview with Dr. Carlos Guerrero-Bosagna :

How we react to our daily life, physically and psychologically can be passed on through ‘soft’ inheritance.

Epigenetics and pregnancy

Sadly, through my pregnancy and at the time my eldest son was born, I was under severe emotional and mental stress, and I’m sure this affected him in utero. I also had gestational diabetes.

I was let down by the health system when he was a young child. It took until his teens to get a diagnosis (high functioning) on the the autism spectrum, and he has battled debilitating bouts of depression, anxiety and insomnia.

In Super Genes I read about a Dutch study which concluded that if new mothers are stressed, their stress actually changes the microbiome of their infants. Disturbances, or dysbiosis of the microbiome is now thought to be a major factor in developing autism.

Photo courtesy of Heather Mount via Unsplash

But there is positive new science about this. This interesting article talks about how the consequences of trauma can be reversed.

Hindsight and education is a wonderful thing…

I have myself experienced a ‘softwired’ memory and love of classical music from my mother, who used to play Chopin and Beethoven piano sonatas when she was pregnant with me.  Music has always played a positive, defining role in my life.

The Hongerwinter

Chopra and Tanzi expand on what they see as the most far-reaching epigentic human study done to date, which was on the effects of the Dutch famine, the Hongerwinter (“hunger winter”).

The Nazis, who were in the early stages of facing defeat, enforced a food and supplies embargo during the harsh winter of 1944-45. Food stocks in Western Holland soon dwindled and daily adult rations in Amsterdam dropped to below 1,000 calories by the end of November 1944, and then to 580 calories by the end of February 1945 – only one quarter of the daily calorific intake required for health and survival in an adult.

The starving population subsisted on mostly hard bread, small potatoes, sugar, and very little protein. Humanity’s evolutionary inheritance has given us the ability to survive long periods of malnutrition; but not without consequences. The body slows down to conserve energy and resources. It’s estimated that 18,000 people perished through starvation and issues relating to malnutrition.

Much of this ability to adapt is from epigenetic changes in the activities of our genes. The Hongerwinter study went on to discover that DNA changes brought on in adult life can be inherited by the next generations. The children born to Dutch famine survivors revealed just this.

Investigators from Harvard University obtained detailed health and birth records from this era, and as expected, babies born during the famine often had severe health issues. Those babies in the womb between the third and ninth month of the famine were born underweight. Surprisingly, babies growing in the mother during the first trimester towards the end of the Hongerwinter, on the cusp before food supplies returned – were actually born larger than average.

There were more surprises in store as these offspring were again studied after they reached adulthood. It was found that those born during the famine were highly prone to obesity compared to those who were born outside the famine. The study found  a doubling of obese individuals among those in the womb in the second and third trimester during the famine.

They concluded that some kind of epigenetic memory was involved.

The Dutch study highlighted the life-long effects of prenatal experiences that cause changes in the genome.

I remember seeing a very moving documentary a few years ago about the beautiful and much loved actress Audrey Hepburn, about when she was a child growing up in the Netherlands during the famine. As an adult she suffered from anemia and bouts of clinical depression.

“No self is of itself alone…the ‘I’ is chained to ancestry by many factors.” ~ Erwin Schrodinger

When we are born in normal circumstances our metabolic systems are in perfect balance, but diet, lifestyle and environment affect our genes on a daily basis. Dr. Bruce Lipton asserts that our genes do not control our biology, but that WE control our genes with consciousness and life experiences.

This implies that we can affect what signals reach our genes by our mindset and lifestyle.

This is good news, as it means that we are not victims! Rather like a river, our genes are fluid, dynamic and responsive to everything we think and do.

What we eat, drink, how we exercise and the stress we endure are all things within our control to a large degree.

Your genes are not your destiny

I explained about the Human Genome Project (HGP) and the Human Microbiome Project (HMP) in a previous post: What You Need to Know about the Most Influential Organ in Your Body.

The Human Epigenome Project (HEP) follows on from the HGP and the HMP, and is all about learning how to make our genes help us, (including our microbial genes which massively outnumber our human genes), assuming the Supergenome is a willing servant waiting for our instructions.

If the genome is the architect’s blueprint of life, the epigenome is the engineer, construction crew, and facilities manager all in one. Mastering the controls is our individual responsibility.

Each of us is incredibly fortunate that our bodies can run automatically with almost total perfection for decades at a time. But unless we participate in our own well-being, sending conscious messages to our own genes, by our intentions and actions, running on automatic isn’t enough.

Radical well-being requires conscious choices. When you make the right choices your genes will co-operate with whatever you want. On the other side of the coin genetic changes can be quite drastic when no one is in control.

The wisdom of cells

Another light bulb moment for me from the book, Super Genes is the observation that cells don’t push themselves beyond their limits. That is a trait of consciousness. A cell heeds the slightest sign of damage  and rushes to repair it. A cell obeys the natural cycle of rest and activity, it embodies the deep understanding of life embedded in its DNA.

When human consciousness and environmental factors are added to the equation we can become disconnected from our body’s innate intelligence.

Microbiomics

“All evolution is co-evolution.” ~ Stuart Kaufmann

As scientists discovered in the HMP, bacteria, (which outnumbers human cells 10 to 1), is fundamental to gene expression. There are more micro-organisms living in the G.I. tract than there are cells in our bodies. Collectively these symbiotic microbial communities, living inside us and on our skin, are termed the Microbiome.

The inner eco-system that constitutes the gut microbiome makes digestion possible.

Your birth is the start of your life and your microbiome

Our microbiome is seeded when we are born. Our gut is sterile in utero and gets its first exposure to bacteria from the birth canal and then through breastfeeding, (as milk contains important prebiotics to feed these essential microbes and build up the gut microbiome). The microbiome becomes stable around age 2-3 and is unique to each individual, like a genetic microbial fingerprint.

There are ramifications to lifelong health for babies that don’t benefit from either natural birth or breastfeeding, which potentially makes them more vulnerable to allergies, food intolerances, autoimmune diseases and childhood obesity, all of which are on the rise.

“In effect, a baby born by C-section is likely to miss out on receiving the special payload of the mother’s vaginal and intestinal microbes. These microbes are supposed to be the first arrivals of the gut microbiome ‘colonisation party’. As we’ll see in the next chapter, a lack of exposure to them could impact the optimal training of the infant immune system.”
~ Toni Harman & Alex Wakeford (The Microbiome Effect).

The authors made an insightful documentary about how the human microbiome is seeded called: Microbirth.

In their brilliant book, SuperGenes, Deepak Chopra and Rudolph Tanzi paint a compelling picture of how everything we are affects everything we are and do. It is fascinating that every person is a biological encyclopedia, and every new generation writes a new chapter in human evolution.

They assert that evolution’s greatest triumph is not the complexity that has risen out of the primordial soup, but ‘memory’. Memory is what made life possible. Chopra and Tanzi go as far to say that the antibodies in our immune system contain the memory of all diseases confronted by the human race.

“Genetics tells us that any past experience, good or bad, is sticky, because it has taken place, using chemical bonds deep inside the cell, in the nucelus where DNA resides. In a molecule of salt, atoms of sodium and chlorine are tightly bound together. A lot depends on their remaining stuck, because if you poured out some salt and it separated into its components, the release of chlorine gas would be poisonous. Life is about the persistence of memory.”
~ Deepak Chopra & Rudolph Tanzi

Identical twins – one on Earth, one in space

NASA used Captain Scott Kelly’s year in space to conduct tests between him and his identical twin brother, Captain Mark Kelly, who remained on Earth. They compared their identical DNA to ascertain the impact of physiological changes on the human body in a zero gravity environment for a prolonged period of time.

The Twins Study did indeed reveal that Scott’s 340 days in space effected epigenetic changes, as preliminary findings showed that 7% of his altered gene expression was yet to return to normal.

Threats to well-being

Let’s face it, ultimately none of us are getting out of here alive, but the goal is to live as old and young as possible. It’s about quality of life. The major constant threats to well-being are illness and aging, a predisposition to certain diseases and genetic mutations.

“But DNA isn’t really like that. It’s more like a script. Think of Romeo and Juliet, for example. In 1936 George Cukor directed Leslie Howard and Norma Shearer in a film version. Sixty years later Baz Luhrmann directed Leonardo DiCaprio and Claire Danes in another movie version of this play. Both productions used Shakespeare’s script, yet the two movies are entirely different. Identical starting points, different outcomes.”
~ Nessa Carey, The Epigenetics Revolution

The science of human empowerment

The top six categories to focus on for optimising your genetic destiny all involve the epigenome, microbiome and brain:

  1. Diet
  2. Stress
  3. Exercise
  4. Meditation
  5. Sleep
  6. Emotions

How epigenetics, our gut microbiome and the environment interact to change our lives.

Optimal Health (a state in which all the boy’s systems are operating properly), can be achieved by being proactive in our attitude and habits relating to our well-being. As an elite health coach, my aim is to help people reach their optimal health, what I call elite health – which is the pinnacle of wellness – where age does not dictate ability.

The three main reasons we don’t have optimal health are diet, lifestyle and the environment

Almost a thousand years before DNA revealed its first secret, the mystic Persian poet Rumi took the same journey. He looked over his shoulder to tell us where the road leads:

Motes of dust dancing in the light
That’s our dance too.
We don’t listen inside to hear the music-
No matter.
The dance of life goes on,
And in the joy of the sun
Is hiding a God.

~ Deepak Chopra & Rudolph Tanzi (Super Genes)

In my next post I’ll be covering nutrition, supplementation, lifestyle and environmental factors (especially toxicity), all a major influence on our body’s genetic switching centre.

We should collectively be asking ourselves, how much more vibrant and healthy can we be when we nurture and nourish the 90% of us that is microbial?

Before my life changing experience with a 21 day gut health programme I came to accept that feeling under par was my new normal. I came to accept that my weight gain was an inescapable part of having had four children. But now, in middle age, I am in the best shape of my life since my mid twenties in every respect. I now know what it feels like to have my inner eco-system working for me rather than against me.

This is why I am passionate about helping people re-balance and reset the powerhouse of their health – their gut microbiome. In fact I have turned into something of a gut geek!

If you have made it a goal to achieve better health and energy in 2019, then the gut is the best place to start.

“If there’s one thing to know about the human body; it’s this: the human body has a ringmaster. This ringmaster controls your digestion, your immunity, your brain, your weight, your health and even your happiness. This ringmaster is the gut.” ~ Nancy Mure

The Way Gut Bacteria Affects Anxiety and Depression Will Blow Your Mind

 “Every molecule in your brain starts at the end of your fork.” ~ Dr. Drew Ramsay (Nutritional psychiatrist).

Have you ever had a gut feeling about a person or a situation, or perhaps had butterflies in your stomach? Has hunger ever changed your mood? It certainly brings on grumpiness in my children!

Our digestive system and brain are physically and biochemically connected in a number of ways, meaning the state of our gut microbiome can alter the way our brains work and behave, giving a whole new meaning to ‘food for thought’!

In my first post, What You Need to Know About the Most Influential Organ in Your Body I covered some pretty startling facts about the microbiome, but today I’m focussing on how the second brain in our gut microbiome can literally ‘speak’ to the brain in our heads, controlling mood as well as impacting on our mental health.

#MicrobiomeMorsel: There are more microbes in the gut alone than there are cells in our bodies.

Lifestyle and the Microbiome

Hippocrates was telling everyone back in 400 BC that all disease begins in the gut, and that food is your medicine.

Life in the 21st century has strayed a long way from this ethos. Global populations live mostly in urban areas and are exposed to Persistent Organic Pollutants (POPs,) such as Glyphosate which is prevalent in the western food chain. We lead busy, stressful lives, with many relying on shelf-stable, processed food that is high in sugar and salt, with no nutritional content, which have been designed and marketed for taste buds and not for health.

Simple carbohydrates such as pasta and white bread are another nail in the coffin. Whilst we all resort to pizzas and fast-food once in a while, it’s worth remembering that on a regular basis, convenience kills. And it kills us with a raft of modern plagues because it is damaging our microbiota.

If we don’t feed our microbiota with the food to make them flourish then we are self-harming at a fundamental level.

Western medicine, it seems, has a pill for every ill. Drugs are adding to the problem rather than solving it – what has been termed rather aptly as ‘Pharmaggedon’.

There are 50 million prescriptions for anti-depressants every year in the UK alone.

Poor gut health is the root cause of the global health crisis we see today: obesity, diabetes, allergies, auto-immune and disgestive disorders, and believe it or not, mental health challenges like depression, anxiety, OCD and autism.

Obesity and diabetes alone threaten to bankrupt the NHS in the next 10 years unless as a society we take a more proactive attitude to our wellbeing.

I’ve said it before, but it’s worth repeating: If you fix the gut, you fix the problem!

The genes contained in the microbiome outnumber our human genes by 100 to 1 – and by that reckoning we are only 1% human! We are literally walking bacterial colonies. Humans have evolved over millennia alongside these micro-organisms in a symbiotic relationship.

The Invisible Universe of the Human Microbiome:

The friendly, essential bacteria helps us to synthesise and absorb nutrients, control appetite, manage weight, make short chain fatty acids (SCFA’s such as Butyratethe primary source of fuel for the cells of the colon), activate our genes, regulate metabolism, signal the immune system (of which 75% resides in the gut), and affect our mood and skin.

Harmful pathogens can upset the balance and if not rectified, a toxic gut microbiome will evolve, known as dysbiosis– a dangerous state indeed.

Causes of Dysbiosis

In addition to a poor diet, a toxic environment caused by traffic pollution, pesticides/heavy metals in food, personal and household products; emotional stress is also a big factor. Because the microbiome is so sensitive, even two hours of severe upset and worry can have a negative impact.

When we are under emotional stress our bodies are gearing up for an emergency response, and need extra fuel, therefore using more of the amino acid L-Glutamine, which is stored in the gut lining.

The mucous membranes are the primary interface between the external environment and the internal environment of the body. Most absorption of nutrients and toxins occurs across the mucous membrane. Most pathogens enter the body by binding to and penetrating the mucous membranes.

If this becomes ravaged over time the damage to the gut lining causes leaky gut, where pathogens escape through the now permeable gut wall, and can travel all over the body, igniting many potential health challenges.

Inflammation starts in the gut but generally ends up manifesting in any number of symptoms:

  • Constipation/diarrhea – many people who suffer with depression also suffer with constipation or dysfunction of the gut.
  • Gas and bloating
  • IBS
  • Joint and muscle aches and pains
  • Anemia
  • Increase in allergies
  • Chronic fatigue
  • Immune dysfunction

Inflammation Assesment Quiz

The Second Brain

Our gut microbiome is part of the Enteric Nervous System and weighs about the same as our brain. Even though our brain only makes up 2% of our body weight it uses up to 20% of our energy resources. Inflammation in the Gastrointestinal tract also directly impacts the levels of the feel good chemicals of serotonin and dopamine in the brain.

Through evolution our species has had 4 billion years of optimising inter-cellular communication. Our second brains have 100 million nerve cells sandwiched in between layers of the gut which regulate digestive processes. These nerve pathways go both ways, but predominantly travel from the gut to the brain via the Vagus Nerve.

These powerful neurotransmitters and sensors communicate with our brain which then processes the information and acts accordingly. The second brain can survive being cut off from the brain via the Vagus Nerve but cannot generate conscious thought.

A fascinating TED talk about how our bellies control our brains by Ruairi Robertson:

Moody Microbes!

A whopping 95% of the serotonin used by our bodies is stored and produced in the gut in special cells; by far the largest store of that molecule that plays such a crucial role in modulating our mood and wellbeing, appetite, pain, sleep and sensitivity.

Serotonin is synthesized in the gut from precursors that come from the food we ingest, because the microbes that live in our gut microbiome produce powerful mood regulating neurotransmitters.

It is estimated that 60% of chemical production in the body is due to signals that come from our gut bacteria.

Food for thought…

The food you eat determines the bacteria you grow in your ‘gut garden’.  Bacteria turn on different genes, and genes either prevent or activate disease. Bacteria follow the diet not the other way around…

Ladies, be aware that the contraceptive pill depletes vitamin B12, folate, zinc levels and kills off beneficial bacteria. When certain beneficial bacteria are missing from the microbiome, so is their protection from disease.

Cravings – the devil in your gut!

In my best Bridget Jones moments I used to regularly sit and consume a whole bar of Galaxy after my evening meal. I felt powerless to resist these cravings.

If bad bacteria and fungi such as Candida Albicans get out of control they communicate via the information highway from the gut to the brain that you must consume sugar, which they thrive on. It’s almost impossible to resist.

The more they get fed the more they crowd out the good guys and the more acidic our bodies become, creating a cycle of cravings for carbs, sugar and chocolate, continually feeding our harmful bacteria, creating a vicious cycle of dysbiosis and ultimately disease.

In my next installment I’ll cover the best foods and nutrients that promote a well balanced gut microbiome, as well as a holistic supplementary 21-day programme that turned my gut health around.

When you reset the gut and alter your body chemistry these cravings disappear – they did for me. Since last October chocolate has had absolutely no control over me whatsoever. Seven months and counting!

Helping people to improve their energy levels and overall health and wellness is a passion for me, so I will soon be setting up an Elite Health Page on the main menu, with links to my health articles (and others), as well as the Holy Grail of supplements I personally use to achieve elite health.

Until the next time, be well.

What You Need to Know About the Most Influential Organ in Your Body

You could be forgiven for thinking that the most influential organ in your body is your brain or your heart, but I’m going to suggest otherwise. All our organs are important, however the most influential organ that directly affects our brain, our heart, our digestion, our mood, our weight, our immunity and our overall health, is in fact not actually human…

It’s the microbiome.

microbiome_sm

Our own cells though much bigger in volume and weight, are outnumbered ten to one by the cells of the microbes that live in and on us, our trillions of bacteria known as microbiota, the total sum of which constitutes the human microbiome.

#MicrobiomeMorsels

Right now, your body is hosting 100 trillion micro-organisms, a thriving megapolis of living, hardworking microbes. These colonies of microbiota that make us their ‘home’ live in environments as diverse as the geography of Earth. They may be small, but they are essential. Your inner ‘eco-system’ consists of over ten thousand identified species in strains and numbers unique to each of us, and when our inner eco-system flourishes so do we.

  • Did you know that only 10% of your cells contain your human DNA?
  • The other 90% consists of bacteria, fungi and microflora – termed by science as your microbiome; and it’s crucial to perform life sustaining functions.
  • The human microbiome could be considered an additional organ.
  • We all carry approximately 1-2 kg of microbes in our gut.
  • Astonishingly, up to 75 – 80% of your immune system is located in your gut.
  • Our microbiome is constantly evolving and is sensitive to food, air, toxins, antibiotics and cosmetics.

microbiome-10-percent-human

A healthy gut flora benefits us in a myriad of ways, by performing life enhancing functions such as synthesising essential vitamins, phytonutrients and breaking down tough plant fibres.

Scientists are now discovering that inflammation starts in the gut, something that Hippocrates, the erudite father of medicine postulated thousands of years ago  when he said, “All disease begins in the gut”.

“This perception of the microbial side of ourselves is giving us a new view of our individuality. A new sense of our connection to the microbial world. A sense of the legacy of our personal interactions with our family and environment early in life. It’s causing us to pause and consider that there might be another dimension to our human evolution.”  ~ Professor Jeffrey Gordon

Think of the gut as the centre (or hub) of a wheel, with spokes leading to the neurological system, the vascular system, digestive system, lymphatic system, skin, hormonal system and saliva, (the oesophagus).

The glorious gut

If the environment of our gut is well balanced – meaning ‘good’ bacteria outweigh harmful bacteria, it allows our immune system to operate effectively and judge friend from foe in our bodies. It is the first, second and third line of defence: skin, mucous membrane and the gut.

microbiome-hmp-ibd-image

A healthy digestive system is crucial for the breakdown of food and optimal absorption of nutrients. If disease causing pathogens get out of control and start to rule the roost, ill health will follow. The scientific community believe that a toxic microbiome is the initiator of metabolic illness such as obesity and Cardiometabolic Syndrome.

A direct correlation can be seen between the consumption of simple carbohydrates, processed, shelf-stable foods, a more toxic environment and the rise in obesity over the last 60 years. Whether we like it or not, we are part of the largest nutrition experiment in the history of mankind. It doesn’t seem to be going too well for us collectively at the moment…

Scientific American: How Gut Bacteria Help Make Us Fat and Thin

Despite our advancements in medicine, there is a global health pandemic that is costing the NHS and health care providers in America almost 3 trillion dollars a year.

Does the Gut Microbiome Play a Role in Autoimmune Disease?

Allergies, digestive disorders, obesity, autoimmune conditions such as diabetes, MS, rheumatoid arthritis, crohn’s disease and lupus are a result of our bodies being in ‘metabolic dysfunction’.

This is how cardio metabolic health issues develop:

Inflammation > Metabolic Dysfunction > Insulin Resistance > Fat Deposition > Cardio Metabolic Syndrome.

Modern plagues: Cardiometabolic Syndrome

It seems we have eradicated infectious diseases that were rife in the 19th Century, such as smallpox, measles and polio; but in their place modern plagues have risen from the wastelands of our increasingly toxic microbiomes.

microbiome

You may know children, family or friends who suffer from asthma, hay fever, diabetes, nut allergies and eczema. Allergies affect around half the population in developed countries. I can’t be the only one who thinks this is not normal…

Innocuous and harmless substances such as pollen, dust, pet hair, milk, eggs and nuts are being treated by the body as harmful pathogens, so the immune system dutifully attacks what is perceived as germs that need to be removed from the body. And when the body’s immune system goes really rogue, it attacks the body’s own cells.

Type 1 Diabetes

In 1898 hospital records from Massachusetts General Hospital which were kept over 75 years for 500,000 patients indicated that there were only 21 cases of childhood type 1 Diabetes. By the time official records were created just before the Second World War the prevalence of type 1 diabetes could be tracked. Around 1 or 2 children in every 5,000 were affected in the US, UK and Scandinavia.

By 1973 type 1 diabetes was occurring 6 to 7 times more frequently than it had in the Thirties. In the Eighties the rise leveled off to 1 in 250 children. The rise in diabetes has been matched by an equivalent rise in obesity and autoimmune diseases.

Should we accept the increase in illness as a fact of life in the 21st century, when we have more knowledge and scientific advancement at our fingertips?

microbiome-ehp-infographic

Could it be that we have overlooked the fundamental role our colonies of bacteria and basic nutrition play in our well-being? Over the past decade emerging research and cutting-edge science into the human microbiome is answering that question with a resounding YES.

The Human Genome Project (HGP):

Scientists have turned to our genes, the blueprint of life, for answers to 21st century illnesses. The Human Genome Project unearthed genes that when mutated result in disease. But to blame our DNA entirely for the modern epidemic is unwise. The gene variant that might make someone more likely to become obese is not likely to become dramatically more common in the population as a whole inside a single century.

Evolution does not progress that quickly! Gene variants only grow more common though natural selection if they are beneficial to the species, or their detrimental effects are mitigated.

Science is left with two areas that are common to modern diseases: the immune system and the gut.

microbiome-hgp

When the Human Genome was decoded and mapped fully in 2003 and we could sequence our DNA, scientists were shocked to learn that human body has just shy of 21,000 genes, less than the water flea with 31,000 and half the number of the rice plant. Humans have a similar amount of genes as that of The Worm.  Holy cow, how could something as complex as a human being only have the same number of genes as a worm?!

The language of how God created life and the supposed key to our humanity did not live up to its hoped for power to heal diseases as President Clinton declared it would at the time.

The Human Microbiome Project (HMP)

The DNA sequencing technology invented during the HGP enabled another major genome-sequencing programme: The Human Microbiome Project.

The micro-organisms living in and on the human body contain a staggering 4.4 million genes.

microbiome-the-economist-cover

Now molecular biology has the tools to investigate how and why the microbiome is so fundamental to our well-being.

We have evolved over millennia by outsourcing our digestion to vast communities of bacteria. Our own 21,000 genes together with the 4.4 million genes of our collective microbiota collaborate in a mutually beneficially arrangement to run our bodies.

The HMP has revealed far more about what it means to be human than our own genome ever has.

Microbes matter

Another discovery was that the human appendix is far from a defunct organ as originally thought by Charles Darwin in his Descent of Man, (the follow up to The Origin of Species). For the hundred years that followed it earned a reputation as something of useless organ, exacerbated by its tendency to sometimes cause life threatening eruptions. By the 1950’s removal of the appendix was one of the most commonly performed operations in the developed world.

microbiome-joke

But natural selection did not eliminate the appendix, and scientists now know that the appendix serves as a safe haven for life sustaining microbes; a microbial stockpile that comes in handy when food poisoning or gastrointestinal infection strikes, enabling the gut to be repopulated with its friendly inhabitants that were lurking in the appendix.

Public sanitation systems in the developed world are relatively recent inventions in the history of our species. To some degree they have masked the fact that we utterly depend on our microbiota for health and happiness.

Antibiotics – the nemesis of our gut-flora

Doctors are only just waking up to the damage that widespread over prescribing broad spectrum antibiotics is doing, not just solely because pathogens are developing resistance to them, but more so now in how they wage chemical warfare on our colonies of friendly bacteria, adversely altering our microbiome and body chemistry.

It’s devastating when a wild fire rips through forests and woodlands, destroying all plant life. This is what happens to the diverse, friendly bacteria when you take a 7 day course of antibiotics. Scientists have found that just one round of antibiotics can disrupt your gut flora for up to two years. Multiple rounds of antibiotics are wreaking havoc on the very microbes we depend on for our health in new generations.

Studies have shown that only 6% of American children have the microbe H. Pylori in their microbiome by the time they reach age fifteen. H. Pylori communicate directly with the brain about Ghrelin levels. Grhelin tells your brain you are hungry. If Ghrelin is unregulated you never feel full.

microbiome-images

After reading about the microbiome and the relevant scientific evidence I almost started to view myself not so much as an individual, as more a vessel for my microbiota!

But as Alanna Collen, author of 10% Human puts it:

“I see us – myself and my microbes as a team. But, as in any relationship I will only get what I give. I am their provider and protector, and in return they sustain and nourish me. I find myself thinking about my meal choices in terms of what my microbes would be grateful or, and my mental and physical health as markers of my worthiness as a host to them. They are my own personal colony, and their preservation is worth as much to me as the well-being of the cells of my own body.”

I’ll be getting inside our guts in more detail in future posts, covering the link between the gut and the brain, why we get cravings, the microbiome in infancy, the nutrients and diet we need to heal, and a detoxification, cleansing and re-balancing solution.

Tackling the root cause of illness means focusing on the microbiome and the gut. Fix the gut and you fix the problem!

But for now, just remember: whatever you eat also feeds your microbiota, both the good and bad – you never dine alone!