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Meet Your Health Puppetmaster

February 28, 202415 min read

Meet Your Health Puppetmaster

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Psychobiotics

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Who Controls You?

We tend to believe that we’re all here as free agents out here living our lives and making our choices and dealing with the results of those choices.  We do things because we decided we wanted to do them.  We want things because we consciously chose that our life would be better if we had them.  We eat because we’re hungry.  We crave certain types of food because our bodies need those nutrients or because our brain has been programmed by big food advertising.  Our emotions come from the thoughts we choose to think. Our hormones are controlled by our endocrine glands. Our nutrients (or lack thereof) come from the food we choose to eat.  

But what if there were a grand puppetmaster controlling our behavior, our moods, our cravings, our nourishment, bodyweight and homeostatic body systems?  Something non-self that determines our experience of life without us even knowing about it?  Kinda sounds like “The Matrix” or “PanAm” or an “Erudite Simulation”  Have you read the “Divergent” books?  Some of my all-time favorites.  We don’t have a “choosing ceremony” or a “reaping.”  No outward declaration of the faction we’re destined to be in.  But we are controlled at a cellular level by non-self influences.  Pretty wild, right?

There’s a lot more going on behind the curtain of our awareness than most of us realize.  Researchers are just starting to scratch the surface of understanding how much we are controlled by the bacteria that live in and on us.  To a large degree, we eat for them (not for us) and they control what we do.  Like, for real.

What We Need to Thrive

I know I’ve said this before, but I think it’s useful to think of yourself as a plant.  What plant would you be?  I haven’t thought of this before, but I love hydrangeas and orchids, so maybe one of those.  But I might just like to be a nice Swedish birch tree.  In any case, you need water and sunshine, but your overall health is mostly determined by the quality of your soil.  This ecosystem determines whether you’ll thrive or whither away and die.  If your soil doesn’t have enough nitrogen, you’ll struggle.  If your soil has too much nitrogen, you’ll struggle.  Plants need a balanced diversity of nutrients.  Likewise, we need a strategic and well-balanced diversity of bacteria in order to thrive.

But it’s not just that we need a good diversity, which we do.  Or more “good guys” than “bad guys,” which we do.  Diversity and balance are important, but certain bacteria perform certain functions, and if we have a lower population of some specific strains, we lose functionality.  Like, our body is literally disadvantaged when our populations of those strains decrease.

Worse than just being at a disadvantage by being in butyrate poverty, for example, when our MVP strain populations decline, it leaves vacancies for less helpful strains to start taking over.  So not only are we not reaping the benefits of a well-functioning ecosystem, we’re also getting victimized by bullies who don’t have our best interests at heart.  I’m not sure if that’s the best way to put it, because the “good guys” don’t really empathize with us, they’re not there altruistically,  their selfish motives just happen to line up with what’s most beneficial to us, and the other guys’ selfish motives do not.  But, anyway.

One thing to remember is that bacteria replicate really quickly, like in minutes or hours, so populations can get imbalanced very quickly.  Like, radically different in a single day, potentially.  We’re just starting to understand how foundational the microbiome is to all areas of health.  This is probably why you hear people talking about it alot.  It’s huge, but nowhere near fully understood yet.  

What Does Our Microbiome Control?

Your immune response, predilection toward autoimmune diseases and allergies, your digestion, metabolic health, body weight, inflammation levels, rate of aging and more are all influenced by who exactly has taken up residence in and on your body.  Once we can understand it better, it can transform the way we think about disease and health and ways to change both.  Right now it’s tricky because the loss of a couple of kinds of species might show up as a skin rash in one person and joint pain in someone else.  

We talked more about this in episode 39 “What You Might Not Know About Your Holobiome.”  Your microbiome (or holobiome as I called it in that episode) is composed of all of the bacteria, viruses and fungi that live on and inside of us.  We don’t know a whole lot about it in general, but we know even less about the viruses and fungi.  We know more about the bacteria, especially the ones that live in our GI tract.  Your mouth has a lot of bacteria, but your stomach and small intestines do not.  Or should not.  The vast, vast majority of bacteria live in your large intestines and do all kinds of wonderful things for us.

We think there are around 10,000 species of bacteria that inhabit our bodies and that our body is made up of about 30 trillion human cells and 38 trillion bacteria.  So cell-for-cell we are more bacteria than we are human.  The amount of bacteria in and on our bodies adds up to about 3 lb of mass.  The same weight as our brain.  I don’t think this is a coincidence.  A lot of people call the gut the “second brain” and in some ways it’s more of a first brain than a second one, and a lot of that has to do with the bacteria that we’ve cultivated there.

microbiome

Do you garden?  I like to think I do, but I often neglect mine for weeks at a time when it’s hot outside, so I’m not the greatest for sure.  But I do know that it’s all about cultivating the plants you want and feeding them what they need.  Having a diversity of plants that can grow in harmony together adds to the strength of your plants and eliminating weeds is key.  If you don’t, those weeds will grow faster and stronger and choke out the plants you’re trying to grow, completely taking over.  I know this very well, we always get that bind weed stuff, kind of like morning glory vines but with no flowers.  I hate that crap!

There are a lot of parallels here with our bacteria in our large intestine, but with our garden it’s pretty easy to know that I want my strawberry plant and jalapeno plant to thrive, but not the bind weed or spurge or thistles.  Although, now that I think about it, it’s really hard when your seeds are first sprouting to know whether what’s growing is your seed or some grass or something else that you don’t want.  Hmm.  Anyway, with our microbiome bacteria, we’re only now starting to understand which exact strains we want more of and which exact strains we want less of and how to make that happen.

What Do Bacteria Do For Us? (Or to us?)

I think this area will continue to explode and our lives will get better and better as we’re able to purposefully manipulate the populations of different bacteria in our bodies to create the outcomes we want.  Certain bacteria produce short chain fatty acids like acetate, propionate and butyrate that are very good for us.  These are postbiotics.  Our gut bacteria have a big influence on how healthy our immune system is.  Some manufacture vitamins like B vitamins and vitamin K2, which we talked about in episode 21.  You need to know about K2 if you want to avoid heart disease or osteoporosis.  Some bacteria produce signals that regulate appetite and cravings and some can significantly moderate our brain chemistry.

You’ve probably heard before that 90% of our serotonin is produced in the gut.  The bacteria there are a huge part of this.  There’s a whole new field of research into what are called psychobiotics.  Living organisms that produce a benefit for mental health, behavior and or appetite.  Yes.  Your thoughts, mood, disposition, behavior and cravings are largely governed not by you, but by your bacteria.  You are programmed to crave, think, and act by your bacteria.

The peptide byproducts of bacteria breaking down food can mimic hunger hormones like ghrelin and fullness hormones like leptin and peptide yy.  So your appetite is not just affected by whether you’ve actually consumed enough energy to thrive.  It can be hijacked.  Chocoholics have been shown to have different bacteria than people who don’t crave chocolate.  Their cravings are not just their own, it’s the bacteria who are getting them to eat more chocolate!  FYI small amounts of very dark chocolate feed gut bacteria that produce antiinflammatory metabolites that are good for you.  But it’s like 6 ounces a week of very dark chocolate that does the trick there.

Food preferences and cravings have also been found to be contagious.  Weird, right?  It’s not too surprising to me that people who live within the same household tend to eat and crave similar foods, but a lot of the reason for that is not because they’re related or in proximity to certain foods more often, but because they share similar microbiomes.  You can “catch” cravings from them like you can catch a cold.  Or “catch feelings” if they’re Justin Beiber.  

Or even if they’re not.  Bacteria have been proven to significantly influence our moods and behaviors.  So as your microbiome starts to mimic the people’s around you, if they have high populations of bacteria that cause sadness and lethargy and lack of motivation, you can start to have some of those feelings, too.  Plus, ofcourse, the way people talk and behave influences us psychologically, too.

But just know that a lot of what you crave and how you feel and what you’re motivated to do (or not do) is influenced by your bacteria.  Another reason to befriend people with good eating habits.  While you’re somewhat at the mercy of your bacteria, you can absolutely control your bacterial populations first, so that you’re controlled by the ones you want in charge.  It’s a little bit meta.  Pick your puppetmaster and then you don’t have to resist its pulling your strings all the time.

Specific Strains of Bacteria Have Specific Goals

Feeding yourself healthy food feeds the bacteria who love healthy food and make you vitamins and short chain fatty acids and feel good neurotransmitters and starves the ones who don’t.  And vice versa, eating processed foods and foods high in starches and sugars and low in fiber feeds the ones who manipulate you into craving more of those foods.  They want to stage a coup and take over as the dominant species in there, and they have a lot of weapons to coerce you into helping them do that.  They can even manufacture toxins that make you feel bad so you don’t eat well.  Rude.

I don’t know that it’s practically useful to you to get into a long list of names of species of bacteria, so I’m trying to avoid that, but let me just really briefly mention a few.  Some clostridium species produce propionic acid, which hinders the production of dopamine and serotonin, which makes you feel sad and unmotivated.  Not having enough Akkermansia Muciniphila degrades your mucin layer and starts letting stuff that shouldn’t get through the intestinal wall through.  This is leaky gut.  We talked about it in episode 43, “Is Leaky Gut Real?” 

Bifidobacteria Infantis, clostridium butyricum and beijerinckii and anaerobutyricum hallii make butyrate (which you want as much of as you can get) as it’s antiinflammatory and also prevents the absorption of toxins into your body.  Pretty great.  They also improve your metabolism and most of them stimulate your own production of glp-1.  If you’ve heard all the rage going on around wegovy/ozempic/mounjaro/zepbound, those are glp-1 agonists.  Well 2 of them are also gip agonists, but we won’t get into that.  I’m sick of hearing about them.  The point is that you make your own glp-1 and make more of it when you have certain bacteria around.  Pendulum labs has a pretty cool probiotic product that has the bifidobacteria infantis, clostridium buyricum and beijerinckii and anaerobutyricum hallii along with akkermancia mucinophila that has been proven to work better than some diabetes drugs for improving metabolism and blood sugar measured by hemoglobin a1c.

probiotics

One study showed similar depression relief from a certain probiotic as to citalopram, which is Celexa, an antidepressant.  A different study showed the same clinical response to certain probiotics as to diazepam, which is valium, for anxiety.  That’s pretty huge.  There is an anxiety-specific probiotic called Omnibiotic, but it has 9 strains of bifidobacteria and lactobacillus, so I won’t make you listen to me read those off.  A 2019 study on the fecal samples of people with and without schizophrenia showed that the differences in bacterial populations were so different that the researchers could easily tell whether the person had schizophrenia or not just based on the bacterial populations.  Obese people tend to have more firmicutes than bacteroidetes and thin people tend to have more bacteroidetes than firmicutes.  People with autoimmune diseases and gastrointestinal diseases likewise have different gut populations than those who don’t.

A strain called lactobacillus brevis has been shown to boost BDNF (brain derived neurotrophic factor), which helps your brain function and grow.  BDNF helps with neuroplasticity - learning new things and becoming a new version of yourself.  If you want to be able to continue to learn and remember, you want enough BDNF.  Loss of BDNF is a huge part of age-related cognitive decline. The more BDNF you can keep around, the more likely you are to be able to continue to think clearly, learn and remember.   It also helps you sleep deeply and dream.  And it’s one of the strains that reduces anxiety and depression.

What Can We Do to Grow Certain Strains of Bacteria?

It’s alot.  I just keep it simple in my mind by remembering that I want to increase my populations of akkermansia muciniphila, bifidobacteria infantis, and lactobacillus reuteri.  Most probiotics aren’t that good, they have bacterial strains that aren’t researched or aren’t even alive, but some of these good ones, like the omibioitc and metabolic daily, are pretty cool.  But your best bet for creating long term good health is to purposefully feed the kind of bacteria that you want to thrive.  Akkermansia is a tricky one, but I add a little bit of organic apple peel powder to my life to try to feed it.  I also add a little HMO powder to try to feed bifidobacteria infantis.  I also like a little bit of Inner Fuel by bulletproof now and then.

You can find all kinds of lists of prebiotic foods online.  I think it’s better to focus there than to take probiotic supplements all the time for general maintenance.  If you’ve got a gi problem or are trying to treat anxiety or prediabetes, then that might change things.  Just know that gut microbes compete for space and nutrients.  They can play well as a team and you benefit when they do.  When the population becomes unbalanced or some of the less helpful strains start to take over, your puppet strings start getting pulled in ways that are more likely to undermine your healthy aspirations.  Your microbiome also influences seasonal allergies and food sensitivities.  Many people are able to eat things again that they couldn’t in the past or stop taking their hayfever medicine once they get their microbiome population just right.

Healthy bacteria love fiber, resistant starches and polyphenols.  Eating lots of vegetables, especially ones not coated in herbicides and pesticides, helps your positive puppet masters thrive, which gives you more energy and motivation and less inflammation.  Eating a lot of sugar, starch and processed food feeds junky bacteria that will grow and more forcefully try to get you to eat more junk.  They start steering you to more and more junk against your will.  They can cause cravings and even tinker with your taste receptors to make some foods taste more compelling.  Giving in to the cravings they cause feeds them even more so they can replicate and make your next craving even stronger.  This is why when you stop eating crap, after a few days your cravings for it usually diminish.  Those  bad guys are slowly dying out.  Which is a good thing.

Bacteria are even able to communicate with each other and with their ancient relatives, mitochondria.  The bacteria have something known as quorum sensing.  They know exactly how many and what kind of bacteria are in their environment and can send signals to one another.  Mitochondria are able to get signals from them, too.  Pretty wild.  They really do have a lot of control over the functioning of our body.  Bacteria control how much energy we extract from our food and how well we can metabolize sugar.  Those are a big deal for your metabolic health and your metabolic health is a big deal for your longevity.

Your microbiome affects how you think, feel and act

If you’re looking to feel better in some way, you could use your bacteria as allies to help you get there.  Whether that’s reducing food cravings, controlling your appetite, improving the way you process sugar and your sensitivity to insulin, feeling less anxious or depressed, reducing inflammation or autoimmunity, reducing body fat, or increasing your ability to learn and remember, your gut bacteria control so much of that.

Don’t eat for your human self.  Eat for the bacteria that will make your human experience easier and more effective.  Invest in good food.  Real food with fiber and polyphenols.  Unprocessed food that isn’t coated in pesticides or herbicides.  We didn’t even go down the rabbit hole of artificial sweeteners, but most of them mess up your microbiome.  So do food colorings and GMO foods.  In the future, I believe we’ll be able to solve a lot of specific problems with specific bacteria.  Until then, there are a few bacteria we know we want to cultivate and there is a ton we can do by eating the foods that feed the bacteria who help us feel and act better.  

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Christina Hackett, Pharm.D.

Healthspan Coach and founder of The Health Courage Collective

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