Why You Should 'Rewild' Your Diet to Help Your Microbiome
The community of microorganisms that live inside of your stomach is one of the most important markers of health, physically and psychologically.
Tim Spector probably never expected to measure his poop, but so life goes. The professor of Genetic Epidemiology at King’s College London was invited by his colleague, visiting research fellow Jeff Leach, to travel to one of the last remaining hunter-gatherer tribes in Africa. The purpose: to track his gut microbiome.
In a time of fractured nutritional advice with snake oil salesmen and saleswomen proffering wildly speculative claims, your bacteria and fungi don’t lie. Your microbiome is the community of microorganisms that live inside of your stomach. Research is showing that this is one of the most important markers of your health, physically and psychologically. So Spector measured his levels, hopped on a plane to Tanzania, and ate porcupine.
Not only that prickly creature. For three days Spector lived as the Hadza do: baobab porridge, Kongorobi berries, hyrax, honeycomb, and yes, porcupine (tastes like suckling pig!). As it turned out, a long weekend on this diet had spectacular consequences.
"The results showed clear differences between my starting sample and after three days of my forager diet. The good news was my gut microbal diversity increased a stunning 20%, including some totally novel African microbes, such as those of the phylum Synergistetes," writes Tim Spector.
The bad news is that the microbes fled shortly after his return to London. That’s okay, Emeran Mayer, a Professor in the Departments of Medicine, Physiology and Psychiatry at the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA, tells me. Author of the cutting edge book in this field, The Mind-Gut Connection, he’s devoted his career to studying the link between the gut and brain.
While Spector’s journey makes for solid journalism and great passport stamps, Mayer says we don’t need to return to hunter-gather diets like the Hadza or Amazonian Yanomami to make a difference.
"A review of worldwide dietary habits has made it pretty clear that largely plant-based diets rich in indigestible fiber have the greatest health benefits, and that this benefit is in large part explained by the beneficial effects of such diets on the gut microbiome," says Mayer.
Mayer points to traditional Mediterranean, Asian, and European diets as being sufficient in increasing good bacteria. These diets are high in polyphenols, antioxidants, and anti-inflammatory molecules. Numerous problems, he continues, are evident with the “Western” diet that has created startling obesity and GI problems in America: a low ratio of plant and animal components, high animal fat and sugar, excess calories, additives like emulsifiers and artificial sweeteners, an abusive relationship with antibiotics, and pesticides.
The standard Western microbiome is so bad that Jeff Leach calls our guts “ecological disaster zones.” Leach has lived and worked with the Hadza for years and has written a book of his own, Rewild, which offers advice on how to create good habits for better guts. The process of rewilding your diet is possible anywhere, though cues taken from hunter-gatherer tribes can work wonders. While Westerners douse themselves in antibacterial soaps and celebrate “clean” diets, it turns out that a little—or a lot—of dirt is best.
"It is their persistent exposure to this rich pool of microorganisms that has endowed the Hadza with an extraordinary diversity of microbes; much greater than we see among people in the so-called developed world," writes Jeff Leach.
While Mayer admits that we’re only at the beginning of research in this field, he predicts that textbooks across the academic spectrum will have to be updated: medical, psychiatry, neurology, metabolism, and cardiology first to mind. Gut bacteria and fungi, which if isolated as a separate organ would weigh between two and six pounds, is revolutionizing our understanding of our nervous systems. This information far exceeds what we put on our plate; it could shift how we treat depression, anxiety, and behavioral disorders, even diseases like Parkinson’s. (Indeed, earlier this year I wrote about my dietary shift curing me of longstanding anxiety disorder.)
There may soon be another cup next to the urine station in your doctor’s office as Mayer foresees microbiome levels integrated into your annual exam in the near future. There’s even ways to measure in the comfort of home: Leach is part of the team behind Map My Gut, a 23andMe for your feces. The information is designed to help consumers understand how their diet affects their lifestyle and may play a role in certain diseases.
With this wealth of data on nutrients and bacteria surfacing, Leach also writes about an ancient aspect of eating often overlooked today: the ritual of the meal. In Los Angeles I constantly watch people shove food into their mouths while driving—unconscious gorging over shared ritual. In Spector’s article there’s a photo of the tribe surrounding the campfire as the author details the porcupine meal: spines, skin, and organs dissected; organs immediately cooked and consumed; meat shared communally later that evening.
Mayer relates the ritual of eating with positive emotions, which runs counter to the stress of comfort foods and busy eating performed while running from task to task. He points to the grape and olive harvests in Italy as examples of communities uniting to celebrate sustenance. No television, no social media, just conversation and enjoyment. This isn’t only socially healthy, but it has a reverberating effect inside of your body.
"The reason that rituals are so important is because mental states are directly translated into the activity of the gut and modulate the behavior of gut microbes. We know that negative emotions affect these functions in a negative way. Being mindful of what we eat and in which context we eat is an essential part of healthy eating," says Mayer.
In The Mind-Gut Connection, Mayer writes that unfortunately there's no one-size-fits-all recommendation for specific dietary recommendations. There are too many individual and environmental elements at play. But he does admit that maximizing your gut's microbial diversity is key—increase your intake of multiple prebiotics in the form of plant fibers, as well as consume fermented foods and probiotics. And, of course, avoid mass-produced and processed foodstuffs with tons, or any really, preservatives. If you can't recognize the name as food neither can your digestive system.
Derek's latest book, Whole Motion: Training Your Brain and Body For Optimal Health, is out now. He is based in Los Angeles. Stay in touch on Facebook and Twitter.
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Best case: redrawing borders leads to peace, prosperity and EU membership. But there's also a worst case
- The Yugoslav Wars started in 1991, but never really ended
- Kosovo and Serbia are still enemies, and they're getting worse
- A proposed land swap could create peace - or reignite the conflict
The death of Old Yugoslavia
Image: public domain
United Yugoslavia on a CIA map from 1990.
Wars are harder to finish than to start. Take for instance the Yugoslav Wars, which raged through most of the 1990s.
The first shot was fired at 2.30 pm on June 27th, 1991, when an officer in the Yugoslav People's Army took aim at Slovenian separatists. When the YPA retreated on July 7th, Slovenia was the first of Yugoslavia's republics to have won its independence.
After the wars
Image: Ijanderson977, CC BY-SA 3.0 / Wikimedia Commons
Map of former Yugoslavia in 2008, when Kosovo declared its independence. The geopolitical situation remains the same today.
The Ten-Day War cost less than 100 casualties. The other wars – in Croatia, Bosnia and Kosovo (1) – lasted much longer and were a lot bloodier. By early 1999, when NATO had forced Serbia to concede defeat in Kosovo, close to 140,000 people had been killed and four million civilians displaced.
So when was the last shot fired? Perhaps it wasn't: it's debatable whether the Yugoslav Wars are actually over. That's because Kosovo is a special case. Although inhabited by an overwhelming ethnic-Albanian majority, Serbians are historically very attached to it. More importantly, from a legalistic point of view: Kosovo was never a separate republic within Yugoslavia but rather a (nominally) autonomous province within Serbia.
Kosovo divides the world
Image: public domain
In red: states that recognise the independence of Kosovo (most EU member states – with the notable exceptions of Spain, Greece, Romania and Slovakia; and the U.S., Japan, Turkey and Egypt, among many others). In blue: states that recognise Serbia's sovereignty over Kosovo (most notably Russia and China, but also other major countries such as India, Brazil, Mexico, South Africa and Iran).
The government of Serbia has made its peace and established diplomatic relations with all other former Yugoslav countries, but not with Kosovo. In Serbian eyes, Kosovo's declaration of independence in 2008 was a unilateral and therefore legally invalid change of state borders. Belgrade officially still considers Kosovo a 'renegade province', and it actually has a lot of international support for that position (2).
The irony is that on the longer term, both Kosovo and Serbia want the same thing: EU membership. Ironically, that wish could lead to Yugoslav reunification some years down the road – within the EU. Slovenia and Croatia have already joined, and all other ex-Yugoslav states would like to follow their example. Macedonia, Montenegro and Serbia have already submitted an official application. The EU considers Bosnia and Kosovo 'potential candidates'.
Kosovo is the main stumbling block on Serbia's road to EU membership. Even after the end of hostilities, skirmishes continued, between the ethnically Albanian majority and the ethnically Serbian minority within Kosovo, and vice versa in Serbian territories directly adjacent. Tensions are dormant at best. A renewed outbreak of armed conflict is not unthinkable.
Land for peace?
Mitrovica isn't the only area majority-Serb area in Kosovo, but the others are enclaved and fear being abandoned in a land swap.
In fact, relations between Kosovo and Serbia have deteriorated spectacularly in the past few months. At the end of November, Kosovo was refused membership of Interpol, mainly on the insistence of Serbia. In retaliation, Kosovo imposed a 100% tariff on all imports from Serbia. After which Serbia's prime minister Ana Brnabic refused to exclude her country's "option" to intervene militarily in Kosovo. Upon which Kosovo's government decided to start setting up its own army – despite its prohibition to do so as one of the conditions of its continued NATO-protected independence.
The protracted death of Yugoslavia will be over only when this conflict is finally resolved. The best way to do that, politicians on both sides have suggested, is for the borders reflect the ethnic makeup of the frontier between Kosovo and Serbia.
The biggest and most obvious pieces of the puzzle are the Serbian-majority district of Mitrovica in northern Kosovo, and the Albanian-majority Presevo Valley, in southwestern Serbia. That land swap was suggested previous summer by Hashim Thaci and Aleksandar Vucic, presidents of Kosovo and Serbia respectively. Best-case scenario: that would eliminate the main obstacle to mutual recognition, joint EU membership and future prosperity.
If others can do it...
Image: Ruland Kolen
Belgium and the Netherlands recently adjusted out their common border to conform to the straightened Meuse River.
Sceptics and not a few locals warn that there also is a worst-case scenario: the swap could rekindle animosities and restart the war. A deal along those lines would almost certainly exclude six Serbian-majority municipalities enclaved deep within Kosovo. While Serbian Mitrovica, which borders Serbia proper, is home to some 40,000 inhabitants, those enclaves represent a further 80,000 ethnic Serbs – who fear being totally abandoned in a land swap, and eventually forced out of their homes.
Western powers, which sponsored Kosovar independence, are divided over the plan. U.S. officials back the idea, as do some within the EU. But the Germans are against – they are concerned about the plan's potential to fire up regional tensions rather than eliminate them.
In principle, countries consider their borders inviolate and unchanging, but land swaps are not unheard of. Quite recently, Belgium and the Netherlands exchanged territories so their joint border would again match up with the straightened course of the Meuse river (3). But those bits of land were tiny, and uninhabited. And as the past has amply shown, borders carry a lot more weight in the Balkans.
The controversy around the Torah codes gets a new life.
- Mathematicians claim to see a predictive pattern in the ancient Torah texts.
- The code is revealed by a method found with special computer software.
- Some events described by reading the code took place after the code was written.
- Facebook and Google began as companies with supposedly noble purposes.
- Creating a more connected world and indexing the world's information: what could be better than that?
- But pressure to return value to shareholders came at the expense of their own users.
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