The Zombie Diet!

Zombies can’t believe the energy we waste on nonfood pursuits.
― Patton Oswalt.

Zombie

Me before coffee.

When I lurch out of bed in the morning, I’m a zombie for at least an hour. To keep from finding the wall with my face, I stretch my arms out, limply, in front of me. I shuffle slowly to the kitchen, moaning “beeeeans… beeeeans…”, pulled along by the scent of brewing coffee. Until that magic fluid kicks in, I’m not sure who is in charge of my body. After that, of course, the coffee takes over, and I spend some time as a bathroom zombie. As the day wears on, I start to think that I’ve gained a certain amount of autonomy over my own body and I’m ready to hit the keyboard and write the great American blog, when suddenly it occurs to me that it’s lunch time. And so goes my day.

When I think about all the drivers of my behavior, it seems like I’m a zombie something like 90% of the time! My friends, bless their hearts, agree. Pretty soon, I’m sure we’ll discover what’s really behind that last 10%, and I may as well be the walking dead.

The margin for free will is vanishingly slim here.

Who are the zombie masters?

Among the things guiding our behavior are hormones, which show no mercy as they drag us from one situation to the next, making sure we wake up in the morning, get fed, and all those little things that keep us alive and employed. Maybe that’s necessary; if it were up to me, I might just dream the day away. But what drives our hormones?

Your bacterial overlords

Your bacterial overlords

According to what I consider to be the scariest research of the past decade, at least one of those drivers is our gut bacteria. I’ll give you a moment to let that sink in. How can tiny little bacteria affect our magnificently controlled life? Easy! They outnumber us! That’s right, there are ten times more bacterial cells in our bodies than human cells, and they have us surrounded. Literally. Our skin, our guts, even mother’s milk has bacteria.

How did this happen? I take a shower every day! I like to think of myself as clean. But in reality, there is no escape. Bacteria are in the water and in the damn air! And mother’s milk? That’s sobering.

It all starts when you are born: as you slide down your mother’s birth canal, you pick up bacteria that find their way into every corner and crevice of your wrinkly little body. If you are delivered by c-section, you miss that, and now there is evidence that you may pay for that loss: you might cheat your immune system of that early challenge and later suffer allergies and asthma. You increase the odds of becoming obese. In Sweden, they will take the mother’s vaginal secretions and rub them into the baby’s face to redress the issue. You have to admire the Swedes for tackling this issue head-on, so to speak.

Then, if you are lucky enough to be breast-fed, your mother provides lactobacillus along with the milk, helping you to digest it. Where do those bacteria come from? Apparently, we all have dendritic cells in our gut that, like miniature taxis, regularly pick up bacteria and shuttle them through the lymphatic system. The bad guys get identified and their picture is put up on the Post Office wall, so the immune system can spot them and hoover them up. In a lactating mother, the good bacteria make their way to the milk ducts and get passed on to the baby.

If you weren’t breast-fed, then you missed this second bacterial booster shot, and it can affect your future in unanticipated ways. Thus we get two initial inoculations from our mothers that help us both to digest our food and to act as vaccinations against pathogens. Quite an elegant system. Somewhat disgusting, but elegant.

From an evolutionary perspective, it all makes sense, but it is shocking to know how entwined our lives are with bacteria. Apparently, they are long-time partners in the human endeavor. Perhaps we should stop bashing them and dousing them with antibiotics.

My mother made me this way

As comforting as this mother-baby link is, it can’t be the whole story. If we are typical kids, we will challenge our gut buddies by eating dirt, licking snails and sucking on moldy dog toys. Children are not sanitary. And it turns out that you can change your gut bacteria in a matter of hours, just by what you eat. Keep in mind that bacterial populations can double in size every twenty minutes or so. That kind of exponential growth can create a million bacteria from a single cell in just seven hours. It zooms to a trillion in just another seven hours. That kind of growth should command respect.

The composition of your gut bacteria thus starts out with what your mom provided and then adds new bugs to the mix. At some point it steadies out and where it settles may have a lot to do with your future adventures in digestion. The bacterial homies in your nether neighborhood are responsible for both the good and the bad. Some bacteria provide important vitamins while others can cause inflammation. You may have a troubled tummy, a jubilant jejunum, or a contented colon. These tiny gut-bugs can even determine your weight. You know what that means: you can blame your mom for being fat!

It is a convenient relationship: our caveman forebears might have foraged for berries one day and chased down an antelope the next. A rapid change in diet like that can cause real distress unless you can shift things around quickly. Human cells can’t possibly change fast enough, so bacteria are the ideal solution. But to grow like that, you have to provide the right kind of food. Some species of bacteria love milk products, some like sugar, and others like meat and fat. What you stick in your mouth will determine which types of bacteria will grow fastest. So ultimately you’re in charge of what types of bacteria will predominate in your gut. Or are you?

Gut BugsHere’s where the zombie stuff gets eerily real: recent research indicates that your gut bacteria can affect your appetite. So, the bacteria that run the show down below may well be telling you what they are hungry for. And your desire for a juicy burger may depend less on a carefully considered decision to super-size and more on simply following the lead of your bacterial overlords. Because your bacteria are giving orders to your brain, some people call this psychobiotic. This term sends shivers down my spine.

But how do they communicate with you? Well, your gut is lined with lymphatic vessels and nerves, and somehow the bacteria trigger hormones and immune cells that constantly confer with your brain. When they crave cheesy dough they send a message to your cortex and the next thing you know, you’re on the phone ordering a pizza.

This then, is the Zombie Diet: you eat whatever your bacteria request. This, sadly, is our default diet. We know we’re going to get a salad for lunch because we know it’s good for us. But when it comes time to place our order, we blurt out “Double cheeseburger with fries!” We can’t seem to help ourselves. We’re speaking straight from the gut.

So who is really in charge here? Basically, it seems that we’re doomed, and science has proved it!

A slender thread of hope

We may not be totally lost if we can actually learn from this and show some spine. I know! What a pain! But now that we have met the enemy and found out that he is us, or at least in us, we should be able to make appropriate changes. We may be outnumbered, but hopefully we are not out-thought by a measly bacterium. So, exerting what little self-control is left to us, we can alter our diet. Yes, there will be complaints.

The theory is that if we can make some little changes like eating more veggies, then our bacteria will shift toward that food and make us crave more damn veggies. Perhaps the little buggers can actually help us to stay the course.

And what course should that be? Most of the evidence for a healthy gut points to diversity. Inflammation can result when we eat too much of one thing and encourage a single species to dominate. So break up your meat marathons with a carrot or two. Seriously, vegetables turn out to be good for you (who knew?), but even broccoli can be overdone. Suffer through some succotash. Mix it up with minestrone.

It’s a long shot, as all efforts at self-improvement seem to be, but worth a try. We may still be zombies, but instead of just brains, now we can moan for greens and grains. The shuffling is optional.


REFERENCES

Jost, Ted, Christophe Lacroix, Christian P. Braegger, and Christophe Chassard. “New Insights in Gut Microbiota Establishment in Healthy Breast Fed Neonates.” PLoS ONE 7, no. 8 (August 30, 2012): e44595. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0044595.

Jost, Ted, Christophe Lacroix, Christian P. Braegger, Florence Rochat, and Christophe Chassard. “Vertical Mother–neonate Transfer of Maternal Gut Bacteria via Breastfeeding.” Environmental Microbiology (2013): n/a–n/a. doi:10.1111/1462-2920.12238.

Huh, Susanna Y., Sheryl L. Rifas-Shiman, Chloe A. Zera, Janet W. Rich Edwards, Emily Oken, Scott T. Weiss, and Matthew W. Gillman. “Delivery by Caesarean Section and Risk of Obesity in Preschool Age Children: A Prospective Cohort Study.” Archives of Disease in Childhood 97, no. 7 (July 1, 2012): 610–616. doi:10.1136/archdischild-2011-301141.

Huh, Susanna Y., Sheryl L. Rifas-Shiman, Chloe A. Zera, Janet W. Rich Edwards, Emily Oken, Scott T. Weiss, and Matthew W. Gillman. “Delivery by Caesarean Section and Risk of Obesity in Preschool Age Children: A Prospective Cohort Study.” Archives of Disease in Childhood 97, no. 7 (July 1, 2012): 610–616. doi:10.1136/archdischild-2011-301141.

Norris, Vic, Franck Molina, and Andrew T. Gewirtz. “Hypothesis: Bacteria Control Host Appetites.” Journal of Bacteriology 195, no. 3 (February 1, 2013): 411–416. doi:10.1128/JB.01384-12.

Requena, Teresa, Paul Cotter, Danit R. Shahar, Charlotte R. Kleiveland, M. Carmen Martínez-Cuesta, Carmen Peláez, and Tor Lea. “Interactions between Gut Microbiota, Food and the Obese Host.” Trends in Food Science & Technology 34, no. 1 (November 2013): 44–53. doi:10.1016/j.tifs.2013.08.007.

2 thoughts on “The Zombie Diet!

    • I’m going to do a series of articles on pickles, water kifir, yogurt, kombucha, and all the other bacterial foods. We might as well admit that we are mere corks bobbing in a sea of bacteria. I, for one, welcome our bacterial overlords!

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