my bacteria and me

We are not alone. . .  

As long-time friends know, I was for a time quite smitten with the TV show "The X-Files."  Smitten enough to videotape every episode off of network TV, in the process amassing a large collection of VHS tapes.  (Which are now in storage.  Can't seem to throw them away, even though we no longer own a VCR.)  In the show's opening sequence, text flashes across a gray-blue dusky sky, reading: "The Truth Is Out There", an allusion to Agent Fox Mulder's quest to prove the existence of extraterrestrials.  Well, I can't say whether there are aliens out there, but I do know that we are not alone in the universe within.

We are populated by bacteria--100 trillion bacteria by current estimates.  These bacteria are the main actors in our digestion, affecting not only the breakdown of our food and how much nutrition we gain, but are also implicated in the workings of our brains, including feelings of anxiety and depression. I've spent much of the past couple of years being fascinated by the outside world, the life in the soil, the cycles of the seasons, the impossible grandeur of the Universe.  What a joy to discover that there's a whole other, equally complex and beautiful ecosystem inside, what scientists call the "microbiome."  Wired magazine has a succinct breakdown of the different bacterial communities of our bodies--check it out here.  And if you're interested in reading more, I highly recommend the book The Wild Life of Our Bodies, by Rob Dunn.

So how did I get interested in bacteria, anyway?  Last summer, I started feeling like there was something wrong with me.  I woke every day exhausted, no matter how many hours of sleep I got.  My joints were stiff, arthritic.  I ached all over. 

I didn't want to talk about it to anyone, because I was embarrassed . . . and worried.  Here I was, a new farmer, and I was afraid that my body was not up to the task.  I should have felt healthier than ever--I'd been eating healthy, organic, home-grown food for more than two years, eschewing processed food altogether.  I'd been regularly working outside doing strenous manual labor, and I had improved my strength and endurance.  I'd given up cigarettes and alcohol years ago.  Yet I felt worse than ever.

At the end of July, I read a book review on about Gary Taubes's book Why We Get Fat.  Taubes is a reputable science journalist, and had reviewed thousands of medical studies in writing his 600-page book Good Calories/Bad Calories.  Why We Get Fat is the layperson's version of that larger, more scientifically written book.  His basic argument is that a diet high in carbohydrates means the constant release of insulin in the body, which leads to more and larger fat cells.  Cut out the carbs, stop the insulin flood, and the body will automatically begin to lose the fat.  (This is similar to the Atkins diet, but Taubes calls for a more well-rounded approach.) 

Feeling as awful as I did, this seemed worth a try.  I figured if I could lose some of the excess weight that has been my despised companion for many years, maybe I would feel better.  So I cut out all grains (wheat, rice, corn, oats, etc.) and all sugars, including almost all fruit.  Instead, I ate pastured meat and eggs, raw milk cheeses, and vegetables.  With lots of good saturated fats, like butter, cream, lard, and coconut oil.  After about 10 days of intermittent discomfort, as my body adjusted, and I suddenly began feeling better.  The near-constant hunger I had become accustomed to disappeared.  I became satisfied with much less food.

The discomfort felt in the beginning of reducing carbs and sugar is a result of "die-off", in which the bad bacteria in your gut that thrive on those substances begin to starve, and then die.  This results in headaches, fatigue, and sometimes allergy-like symptoms and irritability.  But getting these bad bacteria under control, and nurturing the growth of good bacteria, was worth it.  Within just a few weeks, the weight began just disappearing--no additional exercise, no grueling cardio.  And I wasn't ever hungry, because I was eating good fats that satisfy.  I felt so much better that I didn't even miss my old comfort foods: pasta, bread, rice, potatoes.

In the last few years, I've come to read a great deal of unconventional arguments about diet, ideas that go completely against the grain of most nutritional thinking.  Most conventional wisdom about weight loss says that you just have to eat less and exercise more, and eat low fat foods and more whole grains.  That's all.  But it turns out that that's not true, at least for some of us.  Over the years, I've dieted and joined gyms and paid for personal trainers.  And I always felt terrible.  Reading blogs such as Cheeseslave, Food Renegade, and The Healthy Home Economist have gotten me used to thinking about food in new ways, such as the healthiness of saturated fats, the presence of "anti-nutrients" such as phytates in grains, and the powerfully destructive effects of sugar.  Slowly these ideas seem to be gaining acceptance in more mainstream circles, perhaps as part of the rise in popularity of "Paleo" and "Primal" eating programs.  The best book I've found that explains the science behind "primal" or "paleo" eating--eating meats, fruits and vegetables, nuts and seeds, like humans have for most of our 150,000 year history, and eschewing grains, which only appeared on our dietary scene 10,000 years ago--is Primal Body, Primal Mind, by Nora Gedgaudas.  In addition to discussing insulin, leptin and other hormones that affect weight, this book describes how our psychological health is affected by the foods we eat.

There's a lot more to this story, which I'll write in bits and pieces in the coming weeks, including learning that I have a thyroid condition and an autoimmune disease called Hashimoto's Thyroiditis.  And, happily, that after 6 months of intense research, dietary changes, and new medicines and supplements, my most recent bloodwork shows that my Hashimoto's disease is almost under control.  It's been an intense bunch of months, since I first read Taubes's book in late July.  In that time, I've spent countless hours reading and researching, and experimenting.  I was lucky to find a good doctor on my second try, which has made a huge difference.

I'm also lucky that my life right now has allowed me to focus on healing from this disease and improving my health. It's been like a part-time job, sifting through all the information out there.  Our medical system too often creates situations in which the patient feels powerless and uninformed, and dependent on experts for healing.  Perhaps it's just in my makeup, or perhaps it's because I've been reading the things I have for the last few years, or perhaps it's because my disease is poorly understood by conventional medicine, but for whatever reason, I've been able to be empowered around my health.  Maybe my bacteria are naturally inquisitive too . . .

At any rate, I'm working hard to care for my microbiome, to think about how I'm nurturing those trillions of critters inside.  I'm eating homemade yogurt and sauerkraut, filled with good probiotics.  I'm taking a powerful probiotic supplement called Bio-Kult.  I'm avoiding all sugars.  I'm cooking with lard, and drinking lots of bone broths.  It takes some discipline, but I feel better than I have in years, and the weight keeps coming off.  As the Wired infographic shows, lean people have more than 200 additional species of bacteria in their gut than obese people.  More diverse and better bacteria . . . less excess baggage.

My bacteria and me--we are going to conquer this thing . . .