Author: Daniel Cadzow
Pretext: Team Cadzow Research Station (TCRS) isn’t a thing, at least in the traditional sense. We are a family of academics that have chosen to homeschool in the self-directed learning tradition. So we decided to brand our personal Sudbury style school in the tradition of Life Aquatic (i.e., Team Zissou -intentionally hokey). We’re just a family being a family to the best of our abilities. As a stay-at-homeschooling dad, I consider myself on permanent sabbatical, taking on projects and pursuing research on topics based on curiosity or improving our lives. We branded our school to make fun of branding things -it shouldn’t make you any more assured of the quality of products, be they basketball shoes or college degrees. But also, we did it to make family life just a little more fun and colorful. We are educated enough to see the folly of our system of compulsory education and active enough to connect real-life dots with academic-abstraction dots and this is the story of a few of those connections.
Side note: you don’t need a master’s degree or PhD to homeschool your kids in the way that fits your family best, you just need to commit. You can learn and grow with you kids and staffed libraries are more than enough resources to tackle the state mandated curriculum. I submitted a proposal to the Buffalo and Erie County Public Library that they provide staff trained in assisting homeschooling parents with meeting curriculum needs and submitting required paperwork… fingers crossed.
Cider: A recent TCRS foray into brewing apple cider resulted in insights into the obesity epidemic that we think might be very important. In beginning our research on cider making, the first thing we discovered is you need apple cider with no preservatives in it (e.g., Potassium Sorbate, Sodium Benzoate, etc.). Ascorbic acid is ok -that’s just a natural, water-soluble form of vitamin C. That was the first clue, but bells weren’t ringing yet. Though in retrospect, it is noteworthy how hard it was to find cider without those preservatives. That’s why most people brew only in the fall, when they can get it direct from the cider mills.
The next step is to add yeast to sweet, preservative-free apple cider in an oxygen-free environment. The yeast consumes/metabolizes the sugars and produces alcohol and other beneficial substances like antioxidants.
When the process is complete you have a dry (i.e. no sugar), alcoholic (about 4.5%) drink. Some people add more sugar to get more alcohol, but we didn’t like that as much as plain apple cider fermented with Champaign yeast. An Amish friend told me you don’t even need to add yeast – enough is there naturally so that it will ferment by itself given enough time. Amish people don’t typically drink alcohol, but another Amish friend told me “We have our rules and we know how to break them!” The other details of brewing cider are not related to the dots we connected but they are readily available on the world wide web for anyone who is curious.
I discovered from a person selling carboys through Facebook Marketplace that people who have a sweet tooth will “back-sweeten” the drink. That means once the fermentation process is complete, they add more sugar or apple juice concentrate to appease their sweet tooth. The problem with that is the yeast is not all gone, and it will ferment those sugars too. The result is an increased alcohol content and carbonation that, if not released, can lead to “bottle bomb” explosions. So to fix that, cider makers add food preservatives (e.g., Potassium Sorbate, Sodium Benzoate, etc.), because they stop the fermentation process. For me, that’s when the Bells Started Ringing!
That’s because through previous TCRS research on arthritis, we learned a lot (though, tip of the iceberg) about a vast subject: our microbiomes. Some fun facts: we are covered inside and out by microbes (i.e., organisms that are so small, you need a microscope to see them). In terms of individual cells in our bodies, microbes outnumber ours 10 to 1. They are even inside our cells: the mitochondria powerhouses in each of our cells are actually separate organisms with their own DNA. The formation of that “chimera” is what made the evolution of large, complex organisms like yourself possible. In terms of genes, our personal bacteria genes outnumber our genes by something like 1,000,000 to 1. That’s because they are very small and very ancient. If you could somehow extract them from your body as one mass, it would be about the size of your brain. Our microbes are interwoven with every one of our life functions from digestion to immune functions to our endocrine system. That is to say: a healthy microbiome is the foundation of a healthy person. Compared to us mammals, they are an ancient form of life. I tend to think we are just the latest thing they are driving around.
Our microbes are interwoven with every one of our life functions from digestion to immune functions to our endocrine system.
Another fascinating thing is that the concept of species just doesn’t work at this scale of life. Bacteria that are very different from each other can swap genes without reproducing through a process called “lateral gene transfer.” So, evolution works very different at that scale. When microbiologists study microbiomes they seem to use a combination of species and population genetics. I’m thinking microbiologists and doctors treating microbiological health issues would benefit from some cross disciplinary training in ecology, and specifically Resilience Theory.
My introduction to the microbiome came first from an NPR episode of On Point called Your Inner Ecosystem. That was followed by a Pacific Standard article called Bacteria ‘R’ Us. I listened to and read those sources many times, letting the new information slowly soak into my evolving understanding of how life works. A Science Magazine article called (tongue in cheek) The Promise of Poop demonstrated the efficacy of microbe-based medicine. Hospital patients dying of c-difficile infections, that didn’t respond to traditional antibiotic treatments, were saved through “fecal transplants” from healthy family members. From family if possible, because like genes and lifestyles, microbiomes run in the family. Though still poorly understood, this form of last-resort medicine has shockingly high success rates. Especially compared to molecular-based medicine coming out of Big Pharma that consistently struggles to outperform the placebo effect while not generating side effects as bad as the disease they are treating.
Those sources gave me a basic understanding of the microbiome as well as language (jargon) to conduct my own research. As a recovering academic, I have lost access to many academic journals, but luckily my wife is still practicing so she helps with the research.
When I was diagnosed with psoriatic arthritis, I was initially excited. That’s because, before that I thought I had just worn my body out through too much hard labor. I grew up blue collar, working jobs like landscaping and roofing, and later as an archeologist, I dug a lot of holes, screened a lot of dirt, and filled in a lot of holes too -kind of like that scene from Cool Hand Luke, but stretched out over a decade. I saw a future characterized by rapid physical ageing, pain, and lost mobility. But suddenly, my pain had a name and I assumed it also had a treatment if not a cure. Turns out I was wrong. The treatments I found out about threatened my liver, which I am fond of, and had a host of other side effects as in those fast-talking shills in big pharma adds. It was luckily around that time I came across the above-mentioned and easily digestible sources of information on the microbiome.
Suddenly, my pain had a name and I assumed it also had a treatment if not a cure.
After months of research, I was able to connect these dots as they pertain to arthritis (though I suspect they could pertain to many autoimmune disorders):
- Fermenting bacteria in our guts consume (metabolize in the absence of oxygen) fiber and complex carbs to produce, among other things, short-chain-fatty-acids.
- Short-chain-fatty-acids it turns out are food for our T-reg cells.
- T-reg cells are the part of our auto immune system (understood in simple terms divorced from our microbiome, diet, and environment) that tell the avenging white blood cells to “cool it” after they are done fighting an infection.
I was the only member of TCRS suffering from arthritis (psoriatic), so I conducted an experiment where I increased efforts to consume whole foods and fiber rich foods, along with small quantities of fermented Chinese yam, fermented bitter melon, and a rhizome called Huang Lian (discussed below). And of course, as much exercise as I can take. I find gyms boring, so I get my exercise through things like playing with the kids, hiking, landscaping, and home improvement. Those ingredients, fermented Chinese yam, etc., were thought to help the fermentation (digestion) process as described in this brief report in Science Magazine, which along with all academic journals, should be made available free to the general public.
I find gyms boring, so I get my exercise through things like playing with the kids, hiking, landscaping, and home improvement.
The microbiologist in that report, Zhao Liping, had become sick with success. Having landed a good job and marrying a good cook, he became a little overweight and his numbers (e.g., cholesterol, triglycerides, blood pressure, etc.) suffered. He saw himself as sick, not as a bad person making bad decisions. Traditional Western solutions, diet and exercise, didn’t make sense to him as food restrictions and hard labor seems like odd prescriptions for a sick person. So, he consulted the ancient Chinese materia medica for ideas. He knew that the ancient Chinese knew nothing about microbes, but they saw cause and effect and created a logically consistent way of describing it. I can’t make heads or tails of the original sources and the humoral logic behind them, but I do get cause and effect in my life.
After seeking out places that sold these exotic food stuffs, I had to learn how to ferment food. Luckily, there’s a lot on the web regarding fermenting vegetables: search “lacto-fermentation” to find out more about this healthy and nutritious way of preserving vegetables. It’s scary at first: eating veggies that have sat on the counter, room temperature, in a salty brine for a week or more. But I soon discovered, it’s really easy to tell if it’s gone bad, and that rarely ever happens. The flavor usually just gets less and less appealing in the months of refrigeration after the fermentation process. That’s what signals the time to start a fresh batch.
After seeking out places that sold these exotic food stuffs, I had to learn how to ferment food.
After several months of eating the fermented Chinese yam, fermented bitter melon, and Huang Lian, the pain associated with the psoriatic arthritis lessened but it was so gradual that the I just didn’t notice. I think it’s because the diet did not treat the pain, it only stopped the white blood cells from attacking the connective tissue. It was as if the T-reg cells that should have been stopping the assault were deprived of their food, short-chain-fatty acids, and were unable to do their job. So, the food/medicine just did away with the assault by feeding the T-reg cells. The pain didn’t go away until the connective tissue slowly regenerated on its own. A doctor once told me that connective tissue never grows back. That makes me think that maybe that’s because we typically don’t treat the disease (the assault on the connective tissues), just the symptoms (pain).
Anyway, not noticing the gradual reduction of pain led me to conclude the experiment was a failure. Besides, arthritis wasn’t even what Liping was treating, I just hoped the underlying mechanisms/processes that lead to inflammation would also pertain to arthritis. When you are suffering, you are more willing to take risks, and as these things are essentially food, the risk was mostly just wasting time. Stopping the experiment was also made easy because fermented Chinese yam, fermented biter melon, and the rhizome Huang lian all taste AWFUL!
Not noticing the gradual reduction of pain led me to conclude the experiment was a failure.
I did discover that adding pepper corns, chili peppers, onion, garlic and other herbs to the fermenting biter melon improved the taste. Onion and garlic contain oligosaccharides, which are supposedly food for “good” bacteria. Adding anything to the Chinese yams made it taste worse. After trying many folk methods of consuming Huang lian (e.g., with tea and honey, frying in a pan with grain alcohol, etc.), I decided grinding it in an old coffee grinder and making capsules was the only way I could take it regularly.
Surprise: In the two or so weeks after the diet supplements were discontinued, I was rudely made aware that I just had not noticed the experiment’s success as the pain quickly returned to my joints: predominantly hands, feet, knees, and back (which, incidentally had also suffered two partially ruptured disks in my late teens). Also, my knees used to kind of pop out of their sockets, causing a lot of pain and near falls -that never happens now. I apparently had been focusing on what little pain and stiffness remained and forgotten how much it used to hurt and how long it took to get out of bed and shake the burning pain out of my limbs and back. Resumption of the fermented Chinese yam, fermented bitter melon, and Huang Lian1 again led to the reduction in inflammation and the treatment has been successful for several years now.
Oral bacteria increasingly seem to be a key factor in our microbial health.
Oral bacteria increasingly seem to be a key factor in our microbial health. For example, they used to think fetuses in the uterus were sterile/bacteria-free and we received our first microbial colonization when passing through the birth canal. That, sadly, made some friends who had to have c-sections quite nervous. However, with newer techniques, they have been able to sample in utero amniotic fluid and discovered it is not sterile at all. What’s more is the microbial composition there is much more like the microbes in mom’s mouth than her birth canal. Perhaps that’s why poor dental hygiene is associated with suboptimal birth outcomes including low birth weight and preterm births.
All together this suggests some food preservatives could be major players in numerous autoimmune diseases by preventing the metabolism of fiber and complex carbs into short-chain-fatty-acids and who knows what else. It could also be behind the obesity epidemic by preventing the metabolism of sugars that make pies and doughnuts so sweet, not to mention countless other nutrients. While we are increasingly aware of how bad sugar is for us, it has been in our diets for much longer than the obesity epidemic. Those plastic-wrapped sugary treats with seemingly endless shelf life, due to food preservatives, could be particularly bad: dirty bombs of unhealthy “foods” combined with chemicals that stop our microbes from metabolizing them. As such, we propose it is likely some or many of the chemical food preservatives that prevent our microbiome from metabolizing sugars and other foods into less harmful, if not beneficial, substances (e.g., the antioxidants in hard cider). That would make these food preservatives important factors behind the obesity epidemic and many autoimmune diseases. Sadly, it seems as a society we’ve traded a healthy life for shelf life.
While we are increasingly aware of how bad sugar is for us, it has been in our diets for much longer than the obesity epidemic.
Side note: language is important. What we call antibiotics are actually produced by microbes (ie., biotics) when fighting other microbes. From a different perspective, we could call them probiotics or more accurately microbiological weapons. In truth, the name antibiotics should be the term we used for synthetic chemicals we use to preserve food.
A preliminary review of food additives over time does find a correlation between food additives and the onset of the obesity epidemic. For example, the list of food additives (e.g., saccharine) is relatively small and slow growing until the late 1970’s. Then BAM: “1977 – FDA compiles data and evaluates the scientific literature over several years on approximately 600 food ingredient substances in the GRAS (Generally Recognized as Safe) review program. By its own estimates, FDA completes approximately 40 percent of this chore. It had hoped to do a complete review of 2,100. FDA estimates in 1977 that there are about 10,000 food packaging materials and 400 functional food additives in addition to those already under review that remain to be re-evaluated.”
A preliminary review of food additives over time does find a correlation between food additives and the onset of the obesity epidemic.
Yes, correlation is not causation, but we also present an argument on why some food preservatives could be blocking fermentation in our digestive systems, leading to obesity and autoimmune diseases.
As TCRS is not accredited by Middle States Commission on Higher Education and our research budget is largely limited to the privileges extended to us by our library cards, we present this research here only with the same hope that goes with every seed in our gardens. That’s to say please run with this UB researchers. Start your mouse trials with some mice consuming sugary food containing things like sodium benzoate and some without. Compare the health outcomes, microbial compositions, etc. And be sure to share your findings with the public, not just academic journals. No need to cite this Buffalo Rising article, it’s a gift. My outdated literature review follows below.
Conclusions: as always, you make your own, pay attention to the results, and be willing to change your mind. We have chosen as much as possible to eat fresh foods and foods preserved with traditional methods including fermentation, canning, dehydration, freezing, smoking, and salt. It has taken a long time to make large changes, but small changes can be made each day or every meal. Over time, we have discovered, we crave foods (e.g., chips and soda) that used to be such regular parts of our diets less and less. It’s as if the more you feed the “good” microbes and starve the “bad” microbes, the more the “good” microbes have a say in what we crave. And as I enter my late 40’s I have strength and health returning that I had not known for many years.
It’s as if the more you feed the ‘good’ microbes and starve the ‘bad’ microbes, the more the ‘good’ microbes have a say in what we crave.
The large number of additives and preservatives makes it difficult to know which ones are likely screwing up our digestion, so we simply avoid foods with long lists of ingredients. It needn’t be expensive: we have discovered many of the generic/store brand foods have the simplest of ingredient lists.
And as always stay as active as is safe and enjoyable because stress kills too. Though exactly how is not fully understood by TCRS researchers, exercise does appear to have substantial benefits to microbiome related health outcomes.
To your health!
1Huang Lian, Fermenting bitter melon and Chinese yams
Microbiome Literature Review:
(Bäckhed et al., 2012; Balter, 2012; Blainey, Milla, Cornfield, & Quake, 2012; Carlisle & Morowitz, 2011; Chervonsky, 2011; Clemente, Ursell, Parfrey, & Knight, 2012; Costello, Stagaman, Dethlefsen, Bohannan, & Relman, 2012; Couzin-Frankel, 2010; Cryan & Dinan, 2012; Fahlén, Engstrand, Baker, Powles, & Fry, 2012; Flint, Scott, Louis, & Duncan, 2012; Gordon, 2012; Grice & Segre, 2011; Gulitz, Stadie, Wenning, Ehrmann, & Vogel, 2011; Gupta, Rudramma, Rati, & Joseph, 1998; Haiser & Turnbaugh, 2012; Hooper, Littman, & Macpherson, 2012; Hvistendahl, 2012; Kobori et al., 2008; Kong et al., 2009; Lupp & Finlay, 2005; Maneesh, Higgins, Middha, & Rioux, 2012; Maurice, Haiser, & Turnbaugh, 2013; Morris, 2012; Motta et al., 2012; Mueller, 2013; Nicholson et al., 2012; Pennisi, 2011, 2012; Ramírez-Puebla et al., 2013; Shujun, Jinglin, Hongyan, & Weiping, 2008; Stiehm, 2006; Tilg, Moschen, & Kaser, 2009; “Tolerance of commensal microbiota,” 2011; Triggle, 2012; Wang et al., 2012; Zhao, 2010)
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Lead image: Photo by Sanaz Zehtabi