Sunday, March 14, 2021

Nutrition to Cure the Human Holobiont: the Right Path to Health?


Dr. Natasha Campbell-McBride explains her theory about nutrition as the origin of most maladies. It is a long video, but somehow I managed to hear it all.


In my life, I never was the kind of guy who looks for trouble. But, occasionally, I found myself in situations where I thought that a (very) rapid retreat was the best strategy (1). My genetic set-up seems to be geared on "run" rather than on "fight," and who am I to criticize my ancestors?  

But I can tell you that some members of a certain category of people seriously tried to kill me: medical doctors. I won't go into the  details, it is not the purpose of this post to smear medical doctors, even though I would have a few horror stories to tell you about myself and people I know. 

Apart from my personal case, if you want a truly blood-chilling example of medical malpractice, you can find it in Siddhartha Mukerjee's book "The Emperor of All Maladies." In it, you can read, for instance, how the standard treatment for breast cancer up to less than a century ago was to mutilate women in the most gruesome ways. And it was totally useless. There are other cases, for instance the idea of strict bedrest following a heart attack may have killed millions, worldwide, as reported by Dr. Bernard Lown (2). 

So, doctors can be very dangerous, at least some of them. But there is a category of medical doctors who stand apart from the rest because they are much less dangerous than the average: nutritionists.

The advantage of the nutritionist's approach to health is that it is difficult to kill someone by telling him or her to eat (or not to eat) some specific kind of food. True, some diets that have been proposed in the past are so terribly unbalanced that they can kill in the long run. You may wish to read Lierre Keith's book The Vegetarian Myth (2009) for an in-depth criticism of some extreme kinds of diets. But, overall, it is difficult to propose a diet, no matter how quixotic, that does worse than the current "standard" diet based on hamburgers and soft drinks. 

The nutritional approach stands in stark contrast with the standard medical approach. As I said, I am not here to smear medical doctors, but my experience with them is that their approach is to match your symptoms with a specific pill, and there you go. Next patient, please. Always busy, stressed, and overworked, that's about the most you can expect. 

The problem with this approach is that, as you get older, you tend to accumulate pills just like you accumulate fat in your love handles. And nobody can say to know exactly what's the cumulative effect of all those pills together. On this point I can tell you about my mother in law, Liliana, who turned 100 last year. At some moment, this winter, she seemed to be very sick and we were thinking she was going to leave us. When the doctor came, he agreed with us that the good thing to do was not to give Liliana more pills during what might have been the last days of her life, but to have her stop taking most of those she had been taking for years. 

The result was remarkable: in a few weeks, Liliana improved a lot and she returned alert and in reasonably good shape for a centenarian. That doesn't mean she will live to 110, but this little miracle was impressive. Liliana's case is not unique. I am told that it is a typical that when someone very old is taken off their usual medicines, they often dramatically improve. 

Now, please understand that I am no medical doctor, I am not recommending anything or anyone, and I am not telling you to take or not to take any medicine. I just wanted to propose that in the future medicine may well become something different than the current one. I started with the clip by Dr. Campbell-McBride not because I think she says something better than other nutritionists do. In fact, if you look at books written by nutritionists, you'll find a wide variety of approaches and I have the impression (just an impression!) that some nutritionists strongly disagree with each other. But this is typical of science in a phase of rapid progress. 

What impressed me in Dr Campbell-McBride is how deep and wide is the scientific basis of what she says. And her approach to try first to understand the natural mechanisms that lead to a sickness and the attempt to avoid approaches that may lead to worst side effects. Another good thing about her is that she was smeared in an article in the Daily Mail, where they even cast doubts on whether she was really a medical doctor. That is, of course, a badge of honor for her! Probably, she received this treatment because she is Russian, and Russians have to be evil by definition.

Dr Campbell-McBride never mentions holobionts in her book or in her book but, clearly what she is discussing about is the human holobiont taken as the unit to be cured: including the microbiota that makes the human organism function. Will that be the medicine of the future? I can't say that, but for sure the concept of holobiont is leading us to many new concepts and new ideas


(1). An occasion when I saw myself at the risk of physical violence was when I found myself surrounded by a group of screaming men in a Roma (Gypsy) camp, seemingly intending to beat the hell out of me. When I realized what was happening, the most angry one was too close to me to give me a chance to turn and run away safely -- the Roma are almost never armed, but you never know. So I could only stand and face him, as calmly as I could. But the situation quickly de-escalated. It turned out that he was angry at me just because I was the closest Gadjo he could find. His wife had left him and the social workers had taken his daughter away from him. Add to that a little alcohol, and he had gone bonkers for good and he was angry at all the Gadji, not without reasons, poor fellow. The other Roma were puzzled just like me, but it was soon clear that they had collected around me to protect me, not to harm me. Eventually, we even became friends. You may think I was lucky but, really, I knew what I was doing when I entered that Gypsy camp. I didn't expect troubles and I had none. In fact, a Gypsy camp is normally one of the safest places of the world. 

2.Dr. Bernard Lown died less than one month ago. A great man by all means: Physician, cardiologist, professor at Harvard University and a physician at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston. He was the inventor of the defribrillator, proposer of many successful ways to help people suffering of heart failure. He was also the recipient of the Nobel prize for peace. You can read his thoughts at his blog that he kept until 2012. Lown died at 99 after a life full of activities and, I imagine, of great satisfactions. Gaia was gentle with this son of hers who did so much for his many brothers. May he rest in peace. 





Friday, February 19, 2021

This Planet Needs us, Just as we Need this Planet


The baroque music of Jean-Philippe Rameau coupled with modern street dance. The result is nearly mind-boggling. Gaia appears to us in her vital, strong, exuberant form.

To be sure, it would be difficult to say that Rameau was an ecologist. This opera, "Les Indes Galantes" was composed in 1736 and the views of the time were very different from ours and the story is weak, a sugary pastiche of exotic loves, not truly very interesting. But Rameau was first and foremost a composer, a great innovator in his times. And, here, the music he proposes to us sounds very modern in how it catches the strong armonies of the natural world. What's most remarkable is how some people in the early 18th century already saw forests as a source of life and peace.  The main words say,

Pleasant Forests, pleasant forests
Heaven, heaven, you made them
For innocence and for peace
After that Luisella Chiavenuto sent me a link to this piece, I have seen it, I think, 20 times, maybe more. And every time I watch it, it seems to me mind-boggling that in 1736 someone could compose a music that would match so well and so perfectly with our modern street dancing. The intensity of the whole scene... it is indescribable. Look at the faces of the dancers, look at the singer, Sabine Dievilhe, look at how intensely she sings, she acts, she moves. You have to feel in your guts, you cannot perceive it with your brain. 
Perhaps the most surprising thing is that this moment of incredible intensity comes from a opera that's little more than a sugary story that reflect plenty of prejudice against the "savages" that Europeans encountered in their saga of domination of the lands beyond the oceans.
Yet, Rameau manages to convey the feeling they must have had at that time, the discovery that the world was so much larger than it had been thought to be not long before. A world that, in our times, has shrunk to nearly nothing, encroached by the human expansion that has destroyed nearly everything that at the time of Rameau could be called "savage."
So, today, like at the time of Rameau, we lounge for something that maybe exists/existed only in our dreams. But dreams are not a matter of little importance. They have a remarkable tendency to tell us much more than we can perceive when awake. And the dream of the "pleasant forests" that Rameau thought and that Sabine Dievilhe sings so well remains with us.
Humans are not just wood-cutting animals. When they are at their best, they can do this and even more beautiful things, all part of the infinite variety of Gaia. 

Thursday, February 11, 2021

A Diet for the Human Holobiont.


A picture taken at an open-air market near Florence in 2015. As you see, overall, people are not fat in Italy. But that doesn't mean we don't have our share of obesity problems. 

The human holobiont is a wonderful machine that can do many things in many different ways. It has a "dual fuel" system that allows it to subsist on two main kinds of foods: one his carbohydrates, the other is fat. You probably know something about how switching to the fat-based metabolism can improve your health and reduce your weight. That's called the ketogenic, or "keto" diet

I won't go into the details. I just wanted to tell you that I am experimenting now with a relatively new version of the ketogenic diet, called sometimes the "pseudo-fasting" or "Fast-Mimicking Diet," developed by prof. Valter Longo presently at the USC university but, incidentally, born in Italy. 

The story of this and other similar diets is long, but the basic concept is always the same: you tend to mimic the way the human holobiont machine would work in its natural environment. There, it wouldn't normally have a 100% daily supply of high-energy content carbohydrates, from Corn Pops to ice cream. And, clearly, this kind of diet is not good for us for many reasons. Not only it makes us obese, but it also generates diseases such as diabetes, high blood pressure, high blood cholesterol, all that. It is called the "Metabolic Syndrome"

Recognizing the problem, led to several proposals to solve it: diets, mainly. One is the "paleo diet," others involve intermittent fasting. In all cases, you try to reduce the amount of carbohydrates you eat. The idea is to exploit the capability of your body to switch to use fat as an energy source. It is a different concept than that of the "standard" diets, which often consist of reducing calories without worrying too much about what kind.

At the basis of the ketogenic diets, there is the idea that you mimic a condition that your ancestors would normally encounter in their lives: that of running out of food. We store energy in the form of fat just as a precaution against that event. When we don't have enough carbohydrates, we can switch to fat and that makes us leaner and fitter. Our body "understands" that there is a problem and it moves to remedy it. Under the ketogenic regime, you are on the prowl. You are searching for food. 

So, how is the pseudo-fasting working? I can tell you about my personal experience. I am not obese, just moderately overweight. The main reason I am trying this diet is to reduce my blood pressure without using pills -- and all the typical problems you have as you age (I am 68): gastro-esophageal reflux syndrome, sleep apnea, pre-diabetes, if you are over 50 you know about that.  

The version of diet that I am following involves a reduced food intake: 40 grams of nuts and about 400 grams of vegetables per day -- plus a little olive oil (a must for Italians!). As I am writing this post, I am on the 4rth day of a 5-day cycle. It seems to work: I can see that I am in the ketogenic mode using "keto sticks." I've lost about two kgs, so far. Not much, but it is something, and I am still halfway through the cycle. And my blood pressure is going down, nothing dramatic, but a little, yes. 

What I think is interesting is how the pseudo-fasting diet is a relatively easy diet to follow. In the past, I had tried the alternate fasting diet, you fast one day and you eat normally the other. It is fine, but I found it a little harsh. At least for me, pseudo-fasting was much easier: a little hungry the second day, but no problems the other days. The beauty of the idea is that you don't separate yourself from the rest of your family at mealtimes. You eat with them, although, of course, you eat very little and food of low nutritional value. 

I also think it is important that this diet is not made to punish you by making you hungry. We tend to think that our ancestors were primitive brutes and would go hungry all the time. No, not at all. As Chuck Pezeshki explains, humans are social animals and tend to share food. There must have been times harder than others, but hunger must have been rare, just as over-abundance. Hunger and obesity are maladies of what we call "civilization." So, I think the pseudo-fasting diet does mimic something that our ancestors would experience: periods of scarcity where they had to cope by being smart and efficient and make the best use of their (our) dual-fuel metabolic system.

Then, of course, I am experiencing the same sensations that I had with the more conventional fasting. All sensations that are part of the evolutionary tools you have inherited from your ancestors: you feel more tired, but also more alert. You tend to conserve energy, but you are ready to go into running mode if you see a potential steak in your hunting range. Or, more likely, edible berries not so far away. A peculiar sensation is the different range of vision. Somehow, I tend to detect things at a larger distance, noting details that I don't normally note. I don't know if this is common, but it makes sense: if you are on the prowl, then you have to be alert for any possible food source, even a distant one. 

Then, of course, when you are on a diet, you tend to dream of eating good things! But I figure that it is normal. I woke up this morning while dreaming of caviar and champagne. Yes, like James Bond and Vesper Lynd in "Casino Royale." A diet that gives you this kind of dreams must have something good in it!

So, how does that relate to the concept of holobionts? Well, it is because you shouldn't forget that what keeps you alive is a large number of little creatures inside your cells: the mitochondria. They are the source of energy for everything we do, but, remarkably, they don't share your genetic code. Their DNA is just theirs, you inherit them from your mother and not from your father. For some reason, when the female ovum is fecundated, the mitochondria carried by the male spermatozoa are destroyed and disappear forever. So, mitochondria are creatures living inside the human organism. They are a perfect example of symbiosis: they couldn't live without you and you couldn't live without them! That's how holobionts function. 

And we keep going. Who knows? One day we could find a way to stop the obesity epidemic that's making so many people sick and unhappy in the world. Onward, fellow holobionts!

To go more in-depth, do read this wonderful post by Chuck Pezeshki. And thanks to Dr. Alberto Santini for having placed me on the pseudo-fasting track!

Tuesday, January 26, 2021

The Holobiont Explained. What it is, how it functions, how it came to exist



In this clip, I do my best to explain the concept of "Holobiont," popularized first by Lynn Margulis in 1999 with her book "Symbiotic Planet." It is a powerful concept to explain how we relate with our surroundings: the whole ecosystem and our fellow human beings. If we ever arrive to assimilate this idea into the general way of thinking, we have hope to stop the aggression on everything not human (or considered not human enough) and live in peace on this planet.

Saturday, January 16, 2021

Your Skin Microbiome Loves you. Don't Kill it!


Good news for us, holobionts! Nature has made available for free an entire issue dedicated to the microbiome of the human skin. Plenty of interesting data about all the members of the human holobiont: the mammal and the bacteria together. 
There are over 1000 species of bacteria for every single mammal, and these bacteria are doing a lot of good things for the whole biont, including protecting us from external infections. One thing they say is:
"researchers have uncovered evidence of extensive communication between bacteria, skin cells and immune cells. These interactions help to reinforce and repair the barrier formed by the skin, bolster the body’s defences against infection and tamp down excess inflammation."
So, wash your hands only when it is really necessary and don't use aggressive chemicals: otherwise you'll weaken your resistance to bad microbes. Your skin microbiome loves you, don't kill it!
Here is the link to the issue and, as always, onward, fellow holobionts!

Monday, January 11, 2021

Holobiont Science: Sometimes a Little Vague, but Always Interesting


Holobiont science is sometimes a little vague, but always interesting. Here is an example.In this paper,, Rozsa and Apari argue that head lice in humans is a useful symbiont because it generates an immune response that helps protect humans from body lice, which can be dangerous as vector for harmful bacteria. (the photo above is from the paper)
It is an interesting story where you learn that there are at least two types of lice living with humans. And you learn that apes have only one kind, probably because they are uniformly hairy. Rozsa and Apari go on suggesting that the "touching heads" human habit has the specific purpose of diffusing health lice in such a way to spread the immunity to body lice. Apes, they say, don't touch each other's heads because they don't have such a need. 
Which is, as I said, very interesting, but is it true? Honestly, it gives you the idea that the authors are piling up one hypothesis after the other, none of them being really supported by data. For instance, in the places where I live, there is no habit of touching heads as a form of salutation or an expression of friendship. Then, are we sure that apes touch heads less frequently than humans do? I don't think we have solid statistics on that point. Besides, why are body lice dangerous, but not head lice? One more mystery of holobionts! 
But it is nevertheless a nice idea that adds a little more to the complexity of the idea of holobionts. And the picture that illustrates the paper (in lieu of non-existing data) is truly charming. Two distinguished professors exchanging lice. Wonderful!

Saturday, January 2, 2021

The Chimera and the Holobiont


This is a rather ambitious project of mine where I examine a subject I have been working on for a long time, the Chimera myth, from several viewpoints: myths, lore, history, symbolism, and more. But I also try to take a look at the Chimera from the view point of a beloved concept of mine, that of the "Holobiont."

You probably already know that the term "chimera" has a specific meaning in biology: an organism having more than a single set of genes. But these creatures are normally considered some kind of freaks, the result of the work of some mad scientists or the like. But chimeras (in the biological sense) are just a special case of "holobionts" -- with holobionts defined as creatures composed of organisms of different species. And that's clearly the case of the Chimera. 

In this clip I try to outline how the concept of a multiple organism, a holobiont, is a general concept in ecology, but also in fields such as memetics, where "memes" act indeed as holobionts, having "sex" with each other and exchanging information to create new memes. Or new myths, it is the same thing. Or the whole ecosystem. In the end, we are all chimeras!

I hope you may find the clip interesting. It was not easy to make it: I am not a professional and I have to apologize if it is a little rough at some moments. But I did my best. I have also to thank the Frilli Gallery in Florence and Ms. Clara Marinelli for having allowed me to film their full-size replica of the Chimera of Arezzo.


Ugo Bardi is a member of the Club of Rome, faculty member of the University of Florence, and the author of "Extracted" (Chelsea Green 2014), "The Seneca Effect" (Springer 2017), and Before the Collapse (Springer 2019)