For the forests

Today an interesting thing came up in my Facebook feed: it’s the International Day of Forests. No kidding.

What a coincidence, I think to myself. Here I am, mulling over the idea of writing a blog post on something, anything, as long as it’s not depressing or political in nature, and my latest obsession comes and knocks at the door. Me! Write about Me!

Three things led me down this path (irony intended):

  1. We moved to British Columbia, home of the world’s most amazing temperate rainforests. The forests here are epic. I have never seen anything like it. Words like Majestic, Awesome, and Humbling come to mind.
  2. I read Eating Dirt, a non-fiction book by Charlotte Gill about a person who has a summer job planting seedlings in the wake of clear cuts. It’s full of information about forests, like the fact that the crowns of those massive douglas firs don’t ever touch each other.
  3. We hiked through huge aspen forests in Colorado, and I investigated aspens while writing about the hike, and we hiked through Oregon, which is mile upon mile of lodgepole pine forest. My intuition meter was buzzing. These forests are not just a bunch of trees standing around. They are entities. I felt it.

In honor of International Day of Forests, I watched Suzanne Simard’s Ted Talk today – bonus fact: she’s a UBC professor – in which she explains how trees and the underground microrhizome community form a network. Using this underground superhighway, trees communicate with each other, share nutrients, warn each other about insect attacks, and nurture their young. Forests are communities.

“Forests aren’t simply collections of trees; they’re complex systems with hubs and networks that overlap and connect trees and allow them to communicate and provide avenues for feedbacks and adaptation.”

I’m right in the middle of reading The Hidden Life of Trees, written by a German forester named Peter Wohlleben. He started out like every good European forester, managing the crap out of his forest, thinking he knew what it needed in order to be healthy. But the years went on and he started paying attention, managing less and listening more. He learned how trees communicate, how they share with and protect one another, how they are born, grow old and die. It’s a fascinating book. I was going to wait and write this blog post when I had finished reading it. But this isn’t a book report. This is an ode to forests.

Incredibly, his book is a best seller in Europe. I say incredibly, because Europeans have for centuries have done everything in their power to manhandle nature to the point where there is very little of it left (just read my diatribe on the great Swiss lynx debate or my thoughts on wolves if you want my not-so-humble opinion on this). I’m surprised – and heartened – that they still apparently care so much.

See, our Western Judeo-Christian heritage is based on a book that says that the world was created for us. For us to use, kill, exploit, whatever. We’re the pinnacle of the pyramid, the apex species, everything else is just there so we can have a good time of it. From that perspective, a forest is nothing more than a resource. It’s not a single organism. It’s just a bunch of trees that happen to have other things living in and around them, and these trees, in turn, can conveniently and simply be classified as board-feet of lumber.

In fact, forest exploitation was the major driving force behind the European colonization of America. From the Golden Spruce, by John Vaillant:

“Logging is an industry that, while unseen by most of us, has altered this continent – indeed, all inhabited continents – even more completely than agriculture. This has been the case […] for millennia. Logging is the prerequisite for life as we know it: first and foremost, the trees must go.”

[…] Even at this late date (nb 1894), with much of the East and Midwest “slicked off”, the forest was still perceived as “an enemy to be overcome by any means, fair or foul.” The push to open the West, coupled with the sweeping changes effected by the industrial revolution and urbanization led to the woods being viewed – and treated – with a kind of aggressive contempt. The noun “lumber” was itself derogatory, meaning anything useless or cumbersome. North American immigrants were a restive people who tended to view land less as a “place” than as a cheap commodity. They cut the forest as they breathed the air – as if it was free and infinite.”

The news in British Columbia today is still full of references to “softwood lumber” and threatened US-Canada trade deals. Clear-cutting still occurs on a massive scale around here. “Experts” in the forestry sector still somehow think that single-species tree plantations are a good replacement for a forest.

News flash, guys! They aren’t. They are tree jails, in which the inmates can’t communicate with or protect each other. They can’t benefit from the presence of wildlife or other tree species. They’ve lost the wisdom of their elders. It’s a bleak, barren substitute for tree existence. It’s exactly like factory farming, where animals are raised in crowded pens, in abject misery, for one purpose only: our stomachs. The thought infuriates and depresses me. And I promised this wasn’t going to be depressing! Sorry.

Many of today’s articles celebrating forests devote an inordinate number of words to the ways in which forests benefit us. Sure, the Japanese love their forest bathing. It’s good for your stress levels to go for a walk in a forest. That’s a no-brainer. Just try to find a real forest these days. Good luck with that.

And sure, we’re finally starting to understand, probably because we have destroyed so many of them and suffered the consequences, that intact forests play a critical role in the health of our planet.  They safeguard water supplies by preventing erosion, they capture rainwater in their branches and filter it through the soil as it flows into creeks and rivers. They are a major component in global climate control as they transpire moisture back up into the air and capture carbon in their tissues.

All this is great and wonderful and we should be grateful and stop all the slashing and burning, if only for our own survival. Right.

I firmly believe, though, that aside from how great they are for us, forests should be celebrated just for being forests. For being entities. We don’t appreciate polar bears because they’re useful to us. We think they’re cool because they’re polar bears. We feel they have a right to exist. Why should a forest be any different?

I’d also argue, as I have before, that we are definitely not the apex species on this planet. Not everything has been put here for us to use. In fact, nothing has been put here just for us to use. Eventually, it will all come back around and bite us in the butt and we’ll die like flies on a hot day. (That’s more of an Eastern concept, by the way, otherwise known as Karma.) In the end, long after we’re food for the worms that till their soil, the bacteria and the fungi will still be here. And, in all likelihood, a forest or two that nurtures them, and that they nurture in turn. Take that, you pestilential bipeds!

If you can find a forest, go for a bath. Hear the sound of the wind in the branches. Listen to the way the birds warn each other that you’re there. If you can find a remnant near a clear-cut, like I did in Oregon, be conscious of its pain. If you can find an aspen grove, some of which are tens of thousands of years old, entrust the ashes of your loved ones to it, like we did, so that they may be cradled in the arms of a being of extraordinary resilience and wisdom whose roots run as deep as the planet itself.

Reading list for the intrepid tree-hugger that you know you want to be:

Eat sh*t and … thrive!

IMG_1040Everybody’s talking about the microbiome these days. If you’re not taking probiotics, you’re probably eating sauerkraut and swilling kombucha. I know I am.

What’s the Microbiome? I’m glad you asked. See, the human body is made up of about 10 trillion human cells. And that same body is also home to 100 trillion bacteria. Your mouth, nose, armpits, bellybutton, skin and especially your gut are teeming with thousands of different species of bacteria. Collectively, they’re called the microbiome. If you took them all out, they’d weigh about 2 kilos.

And then you’d die, because they play a crucial role in keeping you alive. Continue reading

The One-body Problem

Da Vinci Vitruve Luc Viatour2Hello, December. What happened to November? All of October I was busy with the Yoga Project, happily scribing away my impressions, downward-dogging my way into a new yoga comfort zone. And then it seemed that November just floated right on by.  And then yesterday, December 1, I opened the New York Times (oh joy) and I realized that I had been subconsciously working on a blog post for the entire month. It’s long, but I hope you still read it.

I’ll call it the One Body Problem. Which is this: We only get one body. This is it. You get the body you were born with, like it or not. And then you die. Continue reading

You want fries with that?

Gydle has been silent the entire month of November. No excuses, I just didn’t have anything to say. Then I woke up this morning and my brain was teeming with ideas. Was it something I ate?

First, I have a great gift idea.

I got an e-mail the other day from “American Gut.” Imagine my excitement! The Human Food Project is live on IndieGoGo. For only $99 and a stool sample, you can get a list of the microbes colonizing your gut. Upscaling is a bargain – it’s $180 for two samples, $260 for three and a mere $320 for a family of four! Continue reading

More microbe than mammal

I know I’m supposed to be in hibernation, but something came up that was so good I just had to share it with you.

You know by now that I am totally fascinated by the human microbiome, those trillions of microbes that make up most of the human organism. I’ve written here on Gydle about how microbes in our guts may implicated in a variety of ailments, from diabetes to Parkinson’s to obesity and irritable bowel disease.

I also wrote recently that the massive NIH-finded Human Microbiome Project has had a number of publications like this one in Nature Magazine that outline thier discoveries about the makeup and function of a “healthy” human microbiome.  I have a feeling that what we find out about the microbiome may well revolutionize our approach to health and medicine.

You might also remember from last year that I’m also fascinated by the concept of crowdsourcing, a kind of data gathering approach that takes information freely and painlessly from tons of people who are just going about their ordinary lives. They’re mined for data while driving, surfing the internet, ordering things online, logging into websites, reading wikipedia pages, looking at the stars, pooping… Continue reading

More microbiome madness

All kinds of exciting things have been happening, and I haven’t written about any of them. Some of them involve running, and they will appear in the next post. This one is about my other current favorite topic, the human microbiome.

Last week The New York Times had two very interesting articles, one about eating the weeds in your backyard, and another about the human microbiome. The first one speaks for itself. Apparently eradication can be dropped in favor of ingestion. Maybe I’ll give it a try. In any case it eases my weed aversion just that much more. The second article covers research being done in association with the Human Microbiome Project. Here’s my favorite quote:

Dr. Barnett Kramer, director of the division of cancer prevention at the National Cancer Institute, who was not involved with the research project, had another image. Humans, he said, in some sense are made mostly of microbes. From the standpoint of our microbiome, he added, “we may just serve as packaging.” Continue reading

Adventures in fermentation

I’m making friends with my microbiome.

Seems the prudent thing to do. I don’t want it to decide that this body is badly managed and thus a waste of time, and chuck it for a healthier version. No, not just yet. I have some stuff to write still. So I’m treating my gut flora to a microbial playdate. I want the symbiotic ecosystem that is my body to function optimally.

Not long ago in one of my internet ramblings I stumbled upon kefir, a fermented milk product originating long, long ago in the Caucasus. The word kefir (pronounced keh-fear) is related to the Turkish word keif, which means “feel good.” Kefir is a drinkable probiotic made with either water or milk using a gelatinous matrix of yeast and bacteria that are curiously called “grains.” (They have no relation whatsover to real grains like wheat or oats.)

Continue reading

Weather bugs

I mentioned in an earlier post that I have a sneaking suspicion that we’re being crowdsourced by bacteria. Remember? The human body has 10 trillion cells in it. We also each harbor about 100 trillion microbes. There is more microbial DNA in the human body than human DNA. That post.

We know relatively little about this huge population, but one thing we do know is that it’s not random. I claimed, back in May 2011, that perhaps humans are not so much organisms as we are ecosystems.

We thought we were the top guns on this planet! We thought it was all about us! We thought our bodies were vehicles for our splendiferous brains! No, silly. We are being maintained. We exist simply as biomes for colonies of established bacteria. Our brains probably just evolved as the best way for our bacteria to ensure that they will continue to have thriving hosts, generation after generation.

You might have laughed that one off, and I can understand your reaction. It’s a little unsettling to think that humans aren’t the center of the universe. Galileo encountered a little resistance, too. I can be patient.

But why?  You might ask. Why would they want us to do their bidding? And what is their bidding?

Would it help you see my point of view if I told you that bacteria are controlling the weather, too?

Continue reading

What’s the poop?

One of my favorite topics at the moment is the human microbiome. That’s the part of us that’s not human. Back in May, I wrote a post about it:

A human body has about 10 trillion cells in it. And that very same human body (yours, for example), is also home to 100 trillion bacteria. Your mouth, your nose, your armpits, your navel, your skin and especially your gut are teeming with thousands of different species of bacteria. If you could separate out all those bacteria from the rest of you, they’d weigh 2 kilos.”

I was suggesting (only partially in jest) that we’re actually being crowdsourced by a superior form of collective intelligence. Just last month, I wrote another post about how the gut microbiome plays an important role in mental health.

I was wrong on one count. I mentioned a study that had found that excessive use of antibiotics can permanently damage your gut flora. It turns out there’s hope after all. Here’s the story:

Antibiotic overuse can allow a particularly nasty (and appropriately named) microbe, Clostridium difficile, to set up shop in the gut. This critter makes you really miserable – recurrent bouts of  severe diarrhea, abdominal pain, nausea and vomiting. It stubbornly resists treatment – well, most treatments. There is one that works.

A fecal transplant.

It turns out that the gut flora from a healthy human donor can outcompete C. difficile, restoring gut health in no time flat. (Ce n’est pas si difficile…)

And where can this gut flora be found? Right. Someone else’s poop. Wait. Don’t go away. Bear with me for a minute, this is really interesting stuff (this is a picture of some E. coli, magnified 10,000 times, originally from the USDA).


gut bacteria

Dave brought it up this morning in our regular chat.

Dave: Apparently it works.

Me: works for what?

Dave: (sends a link) It cures gut infections caused by antibiotic therapy.  Gives new life to the phrase “eat shit”

Me: I see. repopulating the gut microbiome. I can write about that.

Dave: That’s why I instantly thought of you when I read about it. (That’s my story and I’m sticking to it)

Yes, indeed. The article he sent me describes the case of 75-year-old Pat Shoop, who had a nasty C. difficile  infection. Her husband valiantly offered to provide a batch of bacteria from his own, healthy gut.

… Bob was under pressure to produce a usable stool sample within 15 minutes of her scheduled appointment. […] He complied and the pair rushed to the clinic, where Dr. Rubin snaked a tube through Shoop’s nose and into her stomach. “It was 20 minutes,” she said. “He told me, ‘You’re not going to taste it, you’re not going to smell it.’”

Apart from the obvious question of what constitutes “usable” – consistency? size? – one wonders why Bob had to be under so much pressure. Couldn’t he just refrigerate his offering? Another thing not mentioned in the article was exactly how the sample was prepared. I had to go elsewhere to find that information:

An article in the Scientist describes how Australian gastroenterologist Thomas Borody did his first transplant (in the mid-1980s) :

…He collected stool from the woman’s brother, and after screening it for known pathogens, he stuck it in a blender, added some brine, and filtered it to get rid of any undigested material. The stool, now turned into slush, was administered to the patient — who had her gastrointestinal tract previously flushed — via two enemas over the course of two days.

In only days, the patient was cured. Her colitis never returned.

In fact, a recent study shows that fecal transplants (which often go under the more palatable monikers of fecal bacteriotherapy, intestinal microbiota transplantation or human probiotic infusion) successfully cure more than 90% of intractable C. difficile cases and many other cases of irritable bowel disease (IBD) and ulcerative colitis. The transplant is administered either via enema, or, as in Pat Shoop’s case, via a nasogastric tube.

Borody oversees 5-6 fecal transplants a week, mostly for patients with IBD. It’s catching on in the US, as well:

Currently, while most fecal transplants in the U.S. are performed exclusively to treat C. difficile, a growing list of doctors, […] are beginning to expand to other gut disorders such as inflammatory bowel diseases. Because stool is not yet a marketable biologic product, the procedure is not federally regulated.”

Note the use of the word “yet” in that last sentence. I sense an entrepreneurial opportunity here. If I weren’t so damn busy translating…

It’s considered a treatment of “last resort,” which is also a bit odd, seeing as it has been used in veterinary practice for ages to calm the bellies of ruminants. In fact, come to think of it, don’t animals regularly partake? Could it be they know something we don’t?

Lest you be tempted to get out the blender and take matters into your own hands, be aware that this is a job for professionals only. The wikipedia page on fecal bacteriotherapy says that “The best choice for donor is a close relative who has been tested for a wide array of bacterial and parasitic agents.The enemas are prepared and administered in a hospital environment to ensure all necessary precautions.” 

The page goes on to describe a new “safer, more effective, and easier to administer” form of fecal bacteriotherapy that’s being developed, which requires the patient to keep a refrigerated sample on hand. In the event that he/she develops a C difficile infection, the sample is extracted with saline, filtered, freeze dried and put into capsules. The patient can then repopulate her gut with her own microbiome just by popping a pill! Now that’s a win-win.

One obvious question arises, however: How many of us are paranoid enough to prepare ahead for a C. difficile infection?  

And another, given the current lack of federal regulation:  What’s the refrigerator shelf-life of a shit sample? 

You might be wondering what all this has to do with mental health.

In January 2011, an article appeared in NewScientist magazine, which you can’t read unless you have a subscription 🙁 , telling the story of an elderly Parkinson’s patient who came to her doctor with a horrible case of constipation and an infected colon. I think the doctor treated her with a fecal transplant from her son, but I don’t know for sure, since I’m not a subscriber. Anyhow, rumor has it her Parkinson’s symptoms miraculously disappeared along with her gut infection.

What I do know is that Borody is currently doing a clinical trial on 18 Parkinson’s patients using C. difficile antibiotics. It will be very interesting to see what happens. Could it really be as straightforward as swapping out our shit? Like I said in my earlier post, maybe it’s time we paid more attention to all those freeloaders in our bellies.

About that gut feeling

More news on the microbiome. As I explained in my post about bacterial crowdsourcing, each and every one of us hosts about 100 trillion microbes in and on our bodies. This population is known as the “human microbiome.” They’re everywhere – armpits, butt cracks, skin, nostrils… and guts. Our guts alone harbor more than 1000 different kinds of bacteria.

The microbiome is a very hot area of research right now, and rightly so, in my opinion. The US National Institutes of Health is pouring money into the Human Microbiome Project in much the same way they funded the Human Genome Project starting in 1990. Understanding our own cells isn’t enough, see, cuz guess what? All those critters probably aren’t just sitting there doing nothing.

Recent research bears this out. A team from University College Cork recently reported on research in which they fed mice probiotic bacteria for six weeks and then observed their behavior.  The mice receiving the probiotics exhibited fewer signs of stress and anxiety. They spent more time exploring nerve-wracking places like elevated walkways and had a smaller spike in their stress hormones when placed in water, another really scary mouse experience. Lead researcher John Cryan was psyched:

“This was really exciting because it tells us the animals are more chilled out and don’t mount the same stress response.”

Even more interesting is that when the researchers cut the vagus nerve (which connects the nerve cells in the gut with the brain), all these beneficial effects vanished. The probiotics aren’t affecting the brain chemistry directly, they’re affecting the gut chemistry, which then gets transmitted somehow to the brain.

Jonah Lehrer wrote about the research in the WSJ, “The Yogurt Made Me Do It.” He proved once again why he’s my all-time favorite science writer by focusing on the study’s philosophical implications. Most of us “feel” like our minds are different than our bodies. But if we extrapolate from that mouse study and assume the premise might also hold true with humans, then what we’ve got in our guts affects how we feel, and how we experience the world. You should really read the whole article, but here are a couple juicy snippets if you don’t have time:

There’s nothing metaphorical about “gut feelings,” for what happens in the gut really does influence what we feel.

This research shows that the immateriality of mind is a deep illusion. Although we feel like a disembodied soul, many feelings and choices are actually shaped by the microbes in our gut and the palpitations of our heart. Nietzsche was right: “There is more reason in your body than in your best wisdom.”

In another piece of recent research, scientists show that antibiotics can permanently destroy some species of our gut flora. Maryn McKenna writes about it in her Wired blog Superbug. We’ve evolved along with our microbiome in a lovely symbiotic adaptation that’s gone on over countless millenia. Are we eradicating all that hard work in just two generations by flagrantly overtreating common, non-life-threatening infections?   Connect these two pieces of research and see what you get. Good gut bacteria = good mental health. Antibiotics kill gut bacteria permanently. Depressed, anyone? Stressed? My question: can yogurt offset this? Are my children going to spend years in therapy or pop Prozac for the rest of their lives because of all that pink antibiotic they swallowed when they were babies? Is the whole thing just a Big Pharma Plot?

As I dug through these fascinating bits of evidence of the microbiome’s importance in human health, I ran across yet another connection. Last June, NewScientist magazine reported on research that found that autistic children had a different “gut bacteria signature” in their urine than normal children.

“It adds another link to the gut bacterial involvement in the onset of disorder,” says Glenn Gibson of the University of Reading, UK, who has previously identified abnormally high levels of clostridium bacteria in children with autism.

One possibility is that the gut bacteria in children with autism are producing toxins that might interfere with brain development. One of the compounds identified in the urine of autistic children was N-methyl-nicotinamide (NMND), which has also been implicated in Parkinson’s disease.

They were hopeful that this could be used as a sort of diagnostic tool, in the hope that addressing the problem earlier, even before behavioral traits showed up, would be beneficial. I hope they go further than this, and try and figure out a way to restore the health or these kids’ gut microbiomes, rather than just help them cope with the effects of toxic ones.

All this research illustrates that the gut microbiome plays a critical role in far more than just our gastrointestinal health.  I already wrote about the possibility that the microbiome very likely plays a role in cancer. It’s a good thing that we’re broadening scientific inquiry beyond the limited scope of the human genome. There’s a whole lot more in our navels (and our breakfasts) that merits a good, long gaze.