Eat sh*t and … thrive!

IMG_1040It has been a while since I’ve used this space to educate you about the incredibleness of the microbiome and the looming bacterial takeover of the planet. But the mainstream media is fully on board with this, so there has been plenty out there for you to chew on.

Everyone is talking about the microbiome these days. If you’re not taking probiotics, you’re probably eating sauerkraut and swilling kombucha. I know I am. In fact, I have a huge vat of kombucha brewing on my kitchen counter at this very moment.  Did you know the slimy opaque thing growing on top of your kombucha is called a SCOBY, which is an acronym for Symbiotic Culture Of Bacteria and Yeast? Since when does a little non-word like “of” get its very own letter in an acronym? But I digress. Continue reading

The underpinnings

inspirationI’ve been doing some mindfulness meditation lately. It’s about the simplest “activity” you can imagine – you just sit on the floor, on a cushion, close your eyes, and breathe.  And I’m not just doing this because I’ve moved to Vancouver and gone all yoga. Okay, it’s partly that. But it’s also been scientifically proven to build you a better brain.

Studies have shown that you can improve blood pressure and anxiety levels, increase cognitive capacity, and stave off aging just by sitting and doing nothing at all. A Harvard prof has done research that shows that it only takes 8 weeks of a meditation practice to rewire your brain. The brains of the meditators actually got thicker in areas involved in attention and sensory processing. It’s like doing pushups for your brain! (And here I thought it was a bad thing to have a thick head…) Continue reading

The function of funks

I was a little worried that after my last post, someone would stage an intervention. Take away all my running shoes, maybe, or set up a booby trap in front of the door so I would trip and sprain an ankle. Remember, way back this spring I asked you to remind me to be moderate when I started going off the deep end. Thanks for nothing, people!

As it happens, I intervened all by myself and took two consecutive days off. Then I went into a funk. And that has really slowed me down. 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

Celebrating health

7676579466_42b4fd82d1_mOnce a year Lausanne hosts a big natural/holistic medicine fair called “Mednat.”  I went a couple of years ago and picked up some essential oils that smelled like the pine forests back in New Mexico. This year, the headline promised an “Agrobiorama Expo” which, to me, sounded like organic farm type stuff. (“Bio” is French for organic.)

Maybe the woman with heavy green eye shadow and ivy growing in her hair on the expo’s homepage should have clued me in …

Thanks to my friend Matt, who gave me a copy of “Eating Animals” by Jonathan Safran Foer, I can no longer eat factory farmed meat (even in Switzerland, where rules and regulations are at least 300% stricter than in the US). So, thinking I would find some sources of organic produce, chickens, eggs and beef, I paid the 17-franc entry fee.

Continue reading

Cancer and coincidences

Sometimes coincidences just jump out and tackle you. Yesterday, as I was perusing the New York Times, I came across an article entitled “Cancer’s secrets come into sharper focus” and I was hit with no less than five (5) amazing coincidences.

The first coincidence is that I was thinking about cancer, because two years ago, my dad died after a 15-month bout with pancreatic cancer. Ever optimistic, he tried every treatment he could in the hopes that if he could hang on a little while longer, a better treatment would come out. He was a firm believer in the possibilities of science, being a scientist himself. In the two years that have gone by since then, I have not read about a single promising new treatment for metastatic pancreatic cancer. And I keep my eye out.

The article agrees with me. We have based a large part of our cancer research on looking into the human genome for the explanation of what goes haywire in cancer cells, it says. And maybe that’s not the right approach, or at the very least, not the whole story.

This brings me to coincidence #2 – the article mentions a “landmark paper” entitled “The Hallmarks of Cancer” (published in 2000) by Douglas Hanahan and Robert Weinberg. It is the single most cited paper of all time in the scientific journal Cell. The coincidence is that Hanahan is now director of EPFL’s cancer center and I had Thanksgiving dinner with him and his family and some other biology types last year. I didn’t know he was, like, the Albert Einstein of cancer research. He seemed perfectly normal.

I read the paper (you can too, it’s not one of those pay-per-view scientific articles and it’s actually quite readable, for biology). It sums up six characteristics of all the various types of human cancers.

Briefly, in a cancer cell, a whole host of genetic things go wrong, which screws up the biochemical communications both inside and outside the cell. It’s like having a Republican Congress and President. The checks and balances don’t work any more. And like the bad kid in the class, cancer cells also co-opt normal cells and get them to do stuff they wouldn’t normally do, like create blood vessels and scaffolding for the tumor. Cancer cells also break cell rules and go AWOL, setting up outposts in other organs. All the different kinds of cancers act out like this. Very bad behavior.

Near the end, the authors write:

Two decades from now, having fully charted the wiring diagrams of every cellular signaling pathway, it will be possible to lay out the complete “integrated circuit of the cell” upon its current outline. We will then be able to apply the tools of mathematical modeling to explain how specific genetic lesions serve to reprogram this integrated circuit in each of the constituent cell types so as to manifest cancer.

Okay, so we sort all these signaling pathways out, we should be able to take a logical, physics-like approach to fixing the problem. Got it. Go get ’em!

Except that eleven years later (today), it’s still pretty much a mess. We know a lot more than we did about cellular signaling pathways and the “oncogenes” that encode the rogue proteins that screw them up. Problem is, there are just so many of them. It seems like every time I open Newswise there’s another press release about a new discovery of a gene or a signaling pathway and how it will lead to a “promising avenue for cancer treatment.” It’s like LA – around every corner, there’s another gang member. Can you neutralize them all? Not likely. If you take out Osama Bin Laden, does Al Quaeda die? Not likely. Same with cancer.

Now back to the NYT article. Coincidence #3: the author is George Johnson, who also happens to have written a book entitled Fire in the Mind in which he mentions my dad and the Santa Fe Institute (dad was President at the time). I once attended a science writing workshop in Santa Fe taught by George. He’s a really smart guy and I like him a lot. So I know the article is going to be good.

George went to the annual meeting of the American Association for Cancer Research in Orlando this spring, and sat in on a bunch of talks and interviewed some researchers. He found out that there are a few things they’re realizing we haven’t taken into account when looking at cancer. As usual, we humans have been pathetically self-centered. Remember the microbiome? Well, this is coincidence #4. I wrote about it back in this May 3 post. Ninety percent of the protein-encoding cells in our bodies are not our own cells. They’re microbes. You’d think we’d pay attention to what they might be doing.

I think I was quite prescient in my blog post when I said: “We thought disease was about us, about our genes. It could very well involve a batch of rogue bacteria.”  You heard it here first, folks.

Scientists are finally getting around to thinking that all those microbes might have an effect on our cells’ biochemical surroundings and, hence, cancer.

“We are massively outnumbered,” said Jeremy K. Nicholson, chairman of biological chemistry and head of the department of surgery and cancer at Imperial College London. Altogether, he said, 99 percent of the functional genes in the body are microbial.

Problem is that we know squat about the microbiome. Add another decade to that estimate, Hanahan. This is gonna take some time.

Another thing George mentions is that we’ve handily ignored the large portion of our DNA that doesn’t code proteins, the “junk” DNA. Turns out that most of the genome is junk. Hey! Coincidence #5! I wrote about junk DNA back in April in my blog post about Craig Venter and the James Joyce estate.

These days “junk” DNA is referred to more respectfully as “noncoding” DNA, and researchers are finding clues that “pseudogenes” lurking within this dark region may play a role in cancer. “We’ve been obsessively focusing our attention on 2 percent of the genome,” said Dr. Pier Paolo Pandolfi, a professor of medicine and pathology at Harvard Medical School.

Have a little respect. The non-coding parts of our DNA may very well have a purpose other than providing space for clever quotations. In fact, I never bought the “junk” hypothesis. It doesn’t make any sense at all that 98% of our DNA would sit around just twiddling its thumbs. It’s like saying that unless you have a salaried job you are extraneous. What about changing diapers and paying bills and buying groceries? There’s a lot more to DNA than just bringing home the bacon (protein).

Problem is that we know squat about what the “noncoding” DNA does. Another decade, maybe?

The last thing he mentions isn’t a coincidence because I haven’t written about it on the blog yet. But George explains how little mini-strands of RNA roaming around the cell could interfere with messenger RNA’s delivery task. We don’t understand this too well, either.

I’d like to encourage you to watch this 5-minute video from the NYT, which sums it all up really well.

So, in short, not only does cancer suck, but it’s horrifically complicated and involves all kinds of stuff we know next to nothing about. We will probably never be able to cure it. But it would be really nice to figure out a way to live with it, like we live with the virus that causes warts.

One more thing I’ll throw out there — did you know that people who have Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s Diseases have a lower risk for developing cancer? As if the body can only take so much insult. Why would that be?

Strawberry love


More food love: I came across this strawberry in my basket the other day. Right after taking the photo I popped the berry in my mouth and savored the love, eyes shut, taste buds tingling.

Inspired by my photo and fresh out of strawberries, I headed out for a nearby auto-cueillette (that’s French for U-Pick) this afternoon. I found several mutant strawberries, but no hearts. One has to take these things when they present themselves, and not ask too many questions.

On another note, in an odd fit of consistency, I followed my own advice today and checked last month’s credit card statement. It appears that someone named Enzo Arnaldo Pittau borrowed my visa card to book himself a Ryanair flight from Milan to Valencia. Enzo, Enzo… nope, I don’t know any Enzos. Whoever he is, I hope he had a good time – I’m pretty confident this one will be on UBS, since I caught it in time. Still, it doesn’t seem to me the brightest thing to pilfer someone’s credit card number and then book a flight in which your name shows up on the statement…

Big news over the weekend: on Thursday, the food pyramid is going to be replaced with a new graphic. That icon of our youth, its solid base of grains and cereals sloping upward to the ideal, itty-bitty jelly bean and olive-oil summit, has seen the back of its last box of froot loops. Obama has prevailed, and the new image will be a plate divided into wedges (say not “pie chart” because “pie” is not nutritionally correct), more than half occupied by fruits and vegetables. One person who has seen it said “it called to mind a painting by the artist Mark Rothko.” I hope that doesn’t lead people to think the guidelines are abstract, too. My plate is currently three-quarters covered with strawberries…


3161095736_042f71a9d7_mLast day of April. MAYDAY! just about captures my mood, too.

While Kate and William were tying the knot, I was sitting in a doctor’s office getting sucker-punched.

Sucker punch: a blow made without warning, allowing no time for preparation or defense on the part of the recipient. It is usually delivered from close range or from behind.

It wasn’t the doctor who delivered the blow, but the blood pressure cuff attached to my left arm. Very close range, indeed.

Oh, that’s high, the nurse says, shaking her head.

That’s strange, I say. I can’t think of anything more to add.

The doctor comes in and asks me about my foot, which had been hurting since mid-October, when I had made a Cardinal Mistake: I changed brands of running shoes. That was why I was here. For my foot! He asks me to stand, relaxed. How can I stand, relaxed, when number one, I am in my underwear and number two, I have just learned that my blood pressure is abnormally high? I do my best. He looks at my feet and smiles.

Why are you smiling? I ask.

Your right foot is bending outwards. C’est remarquable.

I look down. Sure enough, I’m standing on the outside of my right foot, to avoid the pain in the heel. Glad he finds it amusing.

He doesn’t say anything about my blood pressure. I got the x-rays, got fitted for special insoles, signed up for six sessions of physical therapy. My foot is in good hands. My mental state, however, is not.

On the way home I stop by a pharmacy and test the blood pressure a second time. Same numbers.

I don’t understand, I say. I run 4-5 times a week. I’m not overweight.

Maybe you’re stressed? asks the pharmacist.  It can change depending on what you’ve eaten. Did you drink coffee recently?

Who, Me? Stressed? STRESSED? I only have about a million translations piled up that are all due in about five minutes! It’s spring break and I haven’t done yoga in two weeks! My teenage son has gone off to Geneva with a bunch of kids I don’t know! The weeds are taking over my garden at a record rate! Why would I be stressed?

Breathe in. Breathe out. Ommmmm.

At home, instead of writing the riveting blog post about ___  that I’d been planning, I spend the next four hours scouring the net for information on hypertension and entering a mild existential crisis. I call my mom for reassurance.

Dad had high blood pressure, and I do too. It’s genetic. But mine was never that high. That’s not good! You’d better see a doctor! I did. He looked at my foot. My anxiety goes up a notch.

I’ve lived my whole life under the assumption that I’m the walking embodiment of health. My mantra: everything in moderation. But I’ve been sucker punched! My body is something other than I thought it was. There’s stuff going on in there that I didn’t know about. Genetic stuff! I’ll get a handle on it, this is not that serious, but my bubble is burst in a big way. I’m not invincible. I’m not 25 anymore. We’re not in Kansas, Toto!

My advice for the royal couple? Live life to the limit. Piffle protocol. Be young and invincible. Be beautiful and strong. It goes by so fast, and you only get this one shot. Oh, and get a checkup once every couple of years. You might avoid getting sucker-punched in the orthopedist’s office.

Photo Credit: Amy McTigue via Compfight cc


“They can conquer who believe they can…” – Virgil (70 BC – 19 BC)

I started to write a long complicated post about placebos yesterday, because 1) I was worrying that this blog was in need of some Legitimate Content, 2) I am really interested in the placebo effect and 3) my brother Dave chose it when I gave him a choice between placebos, a juicy local murder mystery and a post about attention span. (I’m not entirely sure he paid attention long enough to get past the first choice…)

I wanted to show you the evidence that placebos are getting more effective all the time and that the drug companies are having a harder time finding new drugs that outperform them. This is a big problem for Big Pharma because they can only continue raking in the cash if they find new drugs. If nothing they develop does any better than a sugar pill, then either they’ve got to come up with more ways to convince us that we’re sick (and believe me, they work hard on that) or they’re going to get into the business of repackaging and selling us inactive substances (as arguably the homeopathic remedy and vitamin industry are doing already).

But then I realized that Steve Silberman already wrote about this in Wired Magazine in August 2009. Go read his article. It’s really good.

What I’d rather do is write a long, complicated post about why I think the placebo effect is so interesting.

In case you’ve been hiding under a log, a placebo is a substance – a pill, injection, cream or other treatment (it can even be surgery) without any “active ingredients.” When a person takes a placebo instead of a substance with active ingredients, and the placebo produces the desired effects, this is known as the placebo effect. The key thing here is that the person taking the placebo doesn’t know whether it is a real treatment or a placebo. Here are some interesting facts:

The more you pay for a placebo, the better it works.

If the placebo has a brand name on it, it works better than a generic.

Homeopathic medicine, which is very popular in Europe and becoming more popular in the US, is considered by many in the medical establishment to be a thinly disguised form of placebo treatment. The little granules a person swallows, they argue, cannot contain enough of anything to have an effect on a 150-pound human body. A recent study has revealed that over 50% of doctors in Germany regularly prescribe placebos to their patients. But some doctors feel it’s unethical to tell their patients to take something that they know is a sham.

Nurse to doctor:  “You know that patient you prescribed a placebo to? He paid with Monopoly money.”

Last December, some researchers at the Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center (that’s one of Harvard Medical School’s teaching hospitals) did a study that addressed this inherent deception involved in prescribing placebos. The assumption is that in order for a placebo to work, the patient has to believe it is a real medication. Could you get the same effect but be honest with your patients, telling them that you were only prescribing a sugar pill?

In their study, 80 patients suffering from irritable bowel syndrome were separated into 2 groups: They all met with a doctor, but the first group was given placebo pills that they were told were “made of an inert substance, like sugar pills, that have been shown in clinical studies to produce significant improvement in symptoms through mind-body self-healing processes” and the second group wasn’t given anything. Incredibly, sixty percent of the pill-popping patients reported improvement in their symptoms over the course of the trial, as opposed to 35% in the second group.

One of the women taking the placebo was reportedly disappointed when the trial was over, because her symptoms returned. She tried self-medicating with TicTacs but they didn’t have the same effect. (She should have used Jelly Bellies. They have documented medicinal properties. note to self: future post on documented medicinal properties of jelly bellies.)

It’s clear that what’s really at issue here is belief. These, and in fact all the studies involving placebos, are resounding evidence that what’s going on in your brain can and does affect what happens in the rest of your body. This shouldn’t really surprise us. The brain is a physical thing, after all. It’s connected to the rest of the body. The problem is that we don’t understand how. We can’t pick it apart, find the chemicals involved, reconstitute them in pill form, and bypass the brain and its nebulous belief systems altogether.

We don’t understand the physics of belief. And until we do, we won’t believe it. Now there’s a conundrum for you.

My own personal take on this is that a lot of us Westerners are still stubbornly stuck in the Cartesian duality of mind and body. We’ve been brought up to treat everything below our necks like we treat our cars. Every so often, you get a tune up. When something wears out, you get a new part. Keep it clean, in good form. Read the manual. We have expectations – if something is not functioning correctly, there must be a logical cause, and a logical, findable solution. A chemical. A gene. A missing vitamin. Too much salt. If something major goes wrong – well, you were given a lemon. Life’s unfair.

From the neck up, though, it’s more of a crapshoot. We give our hyperactive children stimulants to calm down and focus, without a clue as to why. The mentally ill go through drug after drug on a trial-and-error basis until one is found (if one is found) that works. No one has found a way to loosen the tenacious and debilitating grip of substance addiction. Our brains are the black box whose code we haven’t been able to crack.

It’s like there’s an unwritten rule between brain and body: never the twain shall meet. In the one, the logic of cause and effect is king. In the other, we keep trying, but it’s hit or miss at best.
Placebos hint that insisting on mind-body duality might just be a big fat mistake. The reductionist, mechanical, one-gene-at-a-time, one symptom-at-a-time, one-vitamin-at-a-time approach to medicine and our bodies might fix problems that pop up, but it often introduces other problems (aka “side effects”) in the process. And so far it hasn’t worked all that well when applied above the neck.

I have nothing against traditional medicine. I’m not one of those people who won’t immunize her kids or take them to the doctor. If I have a headache, I pop an Advil. But I also think my mental state affects my overall health. And in this respect I find the placebo effect really, really intriguing. It’s like a major clue from the black box of our brains. Thoughts can translate into physical processes. Belief begets embodiment. I think, therefore I heal.