A Gutsy Call
by Michael Braunstein
When I was a kid, whatever mom made for dinner was what we were eating. There was never any groupthink or discussion of “What do you kids want for dinner?” We ate whatever mom decided. Eventually I discovered the idea of appetite, deciding what I felt like eating.
Left to my choice, sometimes I would feel like a triple-decker sandwich with ham and cheese and salami and onions. Other times leftover mashed potatoes and meatloaf sounded good or maybe just banana and cold cereal. Pondering this variety of appetite, I decided that these varying food preferences were just my body’s way of telling me what kind of nutrients it needed at any particular time. And when it’s the body talking, that is true.
Human cells or freeloaders? Well, fellow humans, it turns out that what makes up this physical construct that we utilize and call our human body is not exactly, well, human. Not all the cells in the body are the body.
Most people know through trendy news items that non-human cells in the body outnumber human cells. Actual human cells — you know, muscle cells, nerve cells, skin cells, liver cells and so on — in the human body number around 30 trillion. But non-human cells like bacteria, parasites, amoebas and the like number more than 100 trillion. This means human cells are significantly outnumbered. Recent estimates take issue with the exact number of that initial scientific paper but still acknowledge that non-human cells outnumber the human ones. What are we to make of that?
Gut instinct. Most of those non-human bacteria cells have set up camp in our intestine. They live by the trillions there and that’s not entirely a bad thing. They actually contribute to our health; that is when their community is healthy. That’s the rub. What happens when the communal health of that microbiome is disrupted, gets out of balance, filled with malnourished, non-productive creatures? Think a mini-, microbial San Francisco.
Those trillions of bacteria are alive. Living creatures must eat and those gut bacteria are no different. Of course, their needs are on a much simpler level than leftover meatloaf and broccoli rabe. Bacteria, at least the ones that live in our gut, eat mostly sugars and starches. (Some exotic bacteria out in the wild can make do on nothing more than electrical current. But that’s a far different Heartland Healing column.)
Our crowded gut-city of 100 trillion is pretty cunning. Like humans who colonize near water and food sources in our world, the microbiome lives in the gut where food is plentiful. So as we eat and digest our meals, the microbiome actually helps with that and as its reward, skims some sugar and starches off the top. Everything we humans eat, even meatloaf and onions, eventually is broken down into sugars and starches. And this is important: Some foods break down into bacteria-friendly sugars and starches quicker and more easily than others. When we put one of those kinds of items in our body, the microbiome remembers it and make no mistake about it, it will demand more.
Jelly beans. Everyone has experienced something like what I’m going to describe. Whether alert enough to notice or not is the only question. One day long ago, I sat in my parents’ house, idly watching TV. My mom loved jelly beans and kept a candy dish on the coffee table in the living room. Somehow the colorful little globs of sugar caught my eye. I rose, crossed the room, grabbed a half-dozen and savored the faux flavors one by one. Not a minute passed and I was on my feet again. “Just a couple more would taste good,” I told myself. This repeated time and again until I actually was feeling nauseous from the sugar but something drove me to “just a couple more.” I felt like a zombie, a puppet on strings controlled by some alien intelligence. Seriously! I felt like I was watching myself helplessly gobbling more than I wanted but something inside me had not had its fill.
I knew what it was. It was that majority population living in my gut that outvoted my sensible, rational self and was somehow controlling my cravings. “More sugar. Must have more sugar,” the micro-mob was raging. 100 trillion beings can’t be wrong, can they? (Of course they can, but that, too, is yet another column about the Constitution and the Electoral College.)
Feeding the gaping maw. Addiction is nothing more than the raging mob in a body taking control and demanding its desire. We are complicit when we bend to our own vices. What may begin as a pleasant indulgence of the palate in the form of a postprandial sweet, can also be the first exposure to the refined, high-octane fuel of pure sugar for that teeming mass of microbes down below. And each time we repeat the indulgence, the clamor grows. That horde knows what it wants and its survival depends on it. Now we’ve given it a taste of the much more accessible version of its end desire. No longer does the microbiome have to wade through broccoli, meat loaf, kale or corn to extract the precious sugar. We hand it to them clean and pure on a silver platter. And thusly trained, the microbiome will have it no other way. If it were an old war movie, you could hear them say, “Ve haff vays to make you [eat sugar].”
Sugary sweets aren’t the only specific item the microbiome can demand. Pretty much anything we can put in our mouth that gives the micro-mob immediate gratification of its primary directive (survival) can be subject to addictive directives. Guess who’s coming to dinner?
We’ll have more on the nature of the microbiome and what is commonly called addiction.
Heartland Healing is a metaphysically based polemic describing alternatives to conventional methods of healing the body, mind and planet. It is provided as information and entertainment, certainly not medical advice. Important to remember and pass on to others: for a weekly dose of Heartland Healing, visit HeartlandHealing.com.