The Human Superorganism: How the Microbiome Is Revolutionizing the Pursuit of a Healthy Life by Rodney Dietert
My rating: 3 of 5 stars
I first read about gut bacteria more than a decade (maybe two) ago, and was immediately intrigued by the implications. And as I continue to read on the topic, my interest only intensifies.
I think Dietert's term superorganism along with his comparison between a body and its microbes to a rain forest provide a wonderful analogy. While we generally think of bacteria as something bad that makes us sick, the truth is we are home to millions of microbes. And these bugs are more than just passengers or tenants. They are part of us. They digest things we can't, provide vitamins we need, influence our immune system, and produce chemicals that communicate with our brain. In fact, it is believed that the mitochrondria in our cells (our cellular powerhouses where energy is produced) were actually bacteria at one point that were engulfed by another more primitive cell.
In fact, we now know that bacteria can turn on portions of our DNA (epigenetics), effecting gene expression. It is also believed that once turned on, this change can be transferred to future generations. Furthermore, there is mounting evidence that under certain circumstances bacteria can transfer their DNA into human cells.
Bottom line: we really are a superorganism whose health is dependent not only on our human cells but also on the health and type of our microbial cells.
Dietert blames many of the non-communicable diseases like heart disease, auto-immune disorders, diabetes, metabolic syndrome and even cancer on changes to our microbiome. Over-prescription of antibiotics that not only kill harmful bacteria but also harm the beneficial bacteria, cesarean births which deny babies critical exposure to their mother's vaginal bacteria and ultimately impact their microbiome and immune system, use of baby formula instead of breast milk which actually contains sugars that can only be digested by bacteria cells, and a modern western lifestyle which does not nurture a healthy mix of microbes have left us either with an incomplete biome or an unhealthy one.
Unfortunately, I think he overstates what we know about the role of microbes as well as the future implications.
He also never quite describes exactly what constitutes a healthy microbiome, probably because we still don't know for sure.
From other sources I've read, the consensus seems to be that behaviors that support general health like eating a diet with lots of fruits and veggies along with daily exercise also support a beneficial and healthy microbiome, while eating a high-fat, high-calorie, nutrient-deficient diet doesn't. Beyond that, I'm not sure.
Interestingly, according to Dietrert we know that obesity is associated with a different microbiome. The question remains, why? Do the bugs cause the obesity or do the behaviors that cause obesity also cause certain bugs to flourish, or does the obesity itself account for the differences seen. Or maybe all the above, none of the above, or something in between. He cites how transplanting microbes from obese mice can actually lead to obesity in previously normal weight mice. This is fascinating, but I'm still not sure we know exactly what this means in the short or long term.
Dietrert also talks a lot about probiotics and prebiotics generally, but backs away from making any concrete recommendations probably because nobody really knows.
I tend to view probiotics like supplements. Most supplements are taken blindly, and we really have no way of knowing if they are helpful or hurtful over the long term. It seems more logical to focus on behaviors that we know are associated with better health as it is likely that they are also healthy for our microbes.
Definitely a fascinating topic that will continue to be explored and developed. Yet another piece to the puzzle that shows just how very complex our bodies and systems are and why you can't tweak one area without worrying about how it may be affecting the system as a whole. Being in medicine for many years, I've observed that many of our "cures" merely exchange one problem for another or treat symptoms as opposed to getting to the heart of the problem. I think our intimate relationship with microbes is another explanation for why. As our understanding of our microbiome increases, it may result in a more proactive and targeted approach to medicine. But for now, eat lots of fruits and veggies, whole foods, exercise daily, get adequate sleep, and manage your stress. Chances are these behaviors will also result in a healthier gut microbiome.
The End of Illness by David B. Agus
My rating: 3 of 5 stars
Dr. Agus is a professor of medicine and engineering at the University of Southern Calorfina Keck School of Medicine and Viterbi School of Engineering. He also heads USC's Westside Cancer Center and the Center for Applied Molecular Medicine. Finally, he is a cofounder of Navigneics and Applied Protenomics, two companies that are focused on the concept of personalized medicine.
At times this felt like a prolonged commercial for Statins, which is unfortunate as it seemed to undermine the overall message which appeared to be promoting a new model of medicine which is customized to the individual and that focuses on the health of the entire human system as opposed to focusing on eradicating a specific disease. After all, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.
While Agus acknowledges the benefits of understanding our genetics, he also points out that our genes only reflect our genetic predispositions and reveal almost nothing about the health of an individual in the moment.
He discusses new frontiers of medicine that include proteomics, a system of identifying proteins present in the blood, which he claims has the potential to tell us more about the health status of an individual at a given point in time.
He also spends a lot of time warning readers against the use of supplements. And he makes several valid points. For starters, the perfect packing of nutrients in foods may make all the difference when it comes to how effective those nutrients are in doing what they do. When we eat an orange, we not only get vitamin C. We get fiber, natural sugars, a whole slew of phytonutrients, and we get them in doses that we (and our microbiome) have evolved to thrive on. Not only do supplements not replace nutrients derived from foods, when taken in pill form, they can actually upset a delicate balance. Of course, there are always exceptions, and he acknowledges this. The point he makes is more to debunk this idea that supplements are innocuous at worst and good for us at best. And I think if you look at the research, it is on his side.
He advocates for using and developing technology as a way to advance our understanding of disease, disease prevention, and the treatment of disease all with an end goal of promoting a personalized approach to medicine.
And of course he advocates for a healthy diet, exercise, adequate sleep, and stress management as these are all factors known to impact our bodies, promoting an environment for disease or health.
Most importantly, he points out that unlike infectuous diseases in which we are fighting a foreign invader, in the case of cancer, we are fighting our own cells. In his opinion, this requires a shift in the way we think about preventing and curing disease. In the case of cancer, we need to understand what internal enviroments keep cells healthy and assist the body's immune system so that it can effectively manage damaged cells that ultimately lead to cancer.
Occasionally he reaches too far with examples that seem counterproductive. For example, the chapter title "The Fallacy of Fresh" is a distraction and even silly. It certainly adds nothing of value to the narrative.
All in all, an interesting read. I enjoyed learning about proteomics and the future implications for personalized medicine as the technology is developed. Unfortunately, this is a little over-written with too many sections the reader is tempted to skip over or wish they had.
Change Your Brain, Change Your Body: Use Your Brain to Get and Keep the Body You Have Always Wanted by Daniel G. Amen
My rating: 3 of 5 stars
In a nutshell, you are what you eat (literally) and what is good for your heart is good for your brain is good for your skin is good for your body.
Less a book about weight or weight loss. This is a book that explores the intimate relationship between our brain (executive function) and our overall health. Amen uses brain imaging to help identify areas of his patient's brain that are not functioning well. His main point is that in order to maximize our health which depends on a healthy brain, we need to be able to target areas of suboptimal brain function. And for those of us who do not have access to brain imaging, he has developed a questionnaire that can be used to pinpoint potential problem areas.
As someone interested in the brain and brain science I enjoyed the content. However, aside from the idea that whatever is good for the brain is good for the body, he never really makes the connection between how addressing brain health specifically will help you change your body.
As a general introduction into the brain and brain health, this book succeeds. As a guide to losing weight or even achieving health this book falls short.
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Ultrametabolism: The Simple Plan for Automatic Weight Loss by Mark Hyman
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
Well, as it turns out Hyman's plan isn't so simple, but his book does give some good advice.
He repeatedly reminds the reader that health isn't synonymous with weight and that weight loss isn't always just about calories in vs. calories out. For example, if you are thin and eating crappy processed foods you are often depriving your body of important nutrients and as a result your health may suffer. Furthermore, if you are overweight and struggling to lose weight, it may have nothing to do with a lack of willpower or even your approach but more to do with an underlying medical condition.
Much of the advice is pretty straight forward. Eat lots of fruits and veggies, emphasize whole foods, and limit processed foods. Also engage in routine and daily exercise. And if you're inclined to do so, taking a supplement may be helpful in achieving your goals, particularly if there is an underlying health condition.
I found the discussion on how diet impacts the body and disease to be worthwhile.
The book is loaded with examples of how an underlying health problem or imbalance can affect a person's health and their attempt to shed unwanted pounds. The book also highlights how a healthy diet (one based on whole foods as opposed to processed foods) can impact disease.
That said, there is nothing revolutionary here. And that's not a weakness of the book. It's simply a fact. Eating healthy, exercise, adequate sleep and stress management are all factors that can impact our health. It isn't sexy. It isn't earth-shattering. And in some respects, it is simple in theory if not always easy to put into practice.
As a health coach, I work closely with clients to help them put what we already know (what they may already know) into practice. What I have found is that the one-size-fits-all approach to dieting, weight-loss, and even exercise has failed a lot of people. This book advocates for a more personalized approach to health and wellness and that is perhaps its greatest strength.
No More Dieting!: Permanent Weight Loss Without Dieting and Freedom From Compulsive Eating by Shauna Collins
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
Concise and to the point
This was a quick read, about 2 hours to be exact. I wholeheartedly support Shauna's (no more dieting) method. The approach is practical and emphasizes lifestyle change rather than quick fixes.
I am a little ambiguous about the chapters highlighting the medicinal management (or use of weight loss drugs) to assist weight loss. Collins certainly makes some good points. For example, she claims that doctors are reluctant to prescribe weight loss drugs yet have no problem prescribing drugs that manage chronic diseases that are often improved with weight loss. Likewise, patients are hesitant about using prescription meds to help them shed pounds but do not think twice about taking meds to help them control high blood pressure or diabetes. Yet in one sense it makes more sense to address weight.
While the section on drugs was somewhat repetitive, I still learned something. For one, I had no idea how many weight loss drugs there were. And after reading, I fully appreciate how the use of meds might be helpful to some individuals, though I also see the potential for abuse.
Overall, a good read written by a doctor that not only treats obesity but was once obese herself.
Nutritional Harmony: Tuning Your Diet to Cancer and Chronic Disease Prevention by Christine Fall
My rating: 2 of 5 stars
More an article than a book.
This is not a book. Read in less than an hour. That said the info is well sourced as Fall provides a summary of some of the health benefits of various foods. Over-priced for what it is unless all you want is a quick and dirty summary of some of the research.
The Complete Guide to Fasting: Heal Your Body Through Intermittent, Alternate-Day, and Extended Fasting by Jason Fung
My rating: 2 of 5 stars
Prior to reading this book, I knew a few people who had experienced positive results with intermittent fasting, which this book covers in addition to more sustained and prolonged fasts. I was curious about the science behind it as well as the basic recommendations and protocol. I also wondered if it might be something that some of my coaching clients could benefit from.
My general feeling was that fasting, particularly shorter intermittent fasts might be a useful short-term strategy for individuals who had been overweight for long periods and/or were what I call "metabolically" sick from years of yo-yo dieting and less than ideal food choices.
Well, after reading the book, my gut feelings regarding fasting were confirmed. Fasting for short periods like twelve to sixteen hours, which essentially translates into eating only between 8 and 8 or 8 and 4, is probably a worthwhile short-term and even long term-strategy for not only losing weight but in maintaining that weight loss as it can assist with metabolic healing. In addition, it seems as if longer-term fasts (3-7 days and maybe even longer) might be a useful tool as well (at least in the short-term) for those who are obese or already have a metabolic issue like diabetes or metabolic syndrome.
That said, I am not sure this book is for everyone. I have a BS in Nutritional Sciences, a Professional Masters in Physical Therapy, and hold/have held numerous fitness certifications over the years. I've also worked with people across the lifespan with a myriad of physical and emotional issues. And in addition to my conventional professional training, I've spent over 2.5 decades taking additional continuing education courses and reading on my own. Basically, when I read this book, I read it with the benefit of a solid base from which to weigh and evaluate the claims being made.
And some of the claims in this book, while not necessarily untrue, are either misleading or confusing. He suggests that prolonged periods of fasting are not only safe but beneficial, which is a dubious claim. While it is true that in cases where someone has diabetes or is morbidly obese, the benefits of fasting may significantly outweigh risks, despite his attempts to reassure the reader to the contrary, there are risks. And yes, for the nutritionally savvy, fasting could be used to fine-tune certain systems, but for the average person??? I think the average person could take the ball and run right off the edge of a cliff. The author himself admits that with chronic fasting, in order to be effective you have to keep upping the ante. This should make one pause and take note.
So if you do read the book, read with some healthy skepticism, and if you do try more prolonged fasting (more than a day or two), make sure to discuss the benefits and risks with you personal physician.
The Secret Life of Fat: The Science Behind the Body's Least Understood Organ and What It Means for You by Sylvia Tara
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
Phenomenal. Absolutely phenomenal.
Kudos to Tara for simply explaining "fat" in all its complexity.
Most of us love to eat it, hate to store it on our bodies though we actually need a healthy amount of it, and struggle to lose it.
In the Secret Life of Fat readers learn why fat is way more than the stuff of muffin tops and jelly thighs. Way more. In fact, fat functions as a organ, releasing hormones and impacting our body systems and behavior. Too much is bad for us, but so is too little. And get this. Once it's there, it will fight to stick around. Furthermore, how, why, where, and when we store it or lose it is a little more complicated than the good old "calories in vs. calories out" model.
Holding a PhD in biochemistry, Tara's credentials are notable, but what I really appreciated about the book were her straightforward explanations and the book's overall organization, both of which make the information easy to understand.
Most importantly, I think her book explains why we are losing the battle of the bulge while providing a basis for a strategy change.
I read a lot on this topic, so some of the information was not new, yet the way she pulls it all together led to some huge light bulb moments on my part. A worthwhile read for all, but particularly for health/wellness professionals.
The Blue Zones Solution: Eating and Living Like the World's Healthiest People by Dan Buettner
My rating: 3 of 5 stars
This is one of several books written by Buettner that draw on information he compiled from the "blue zones" the name given to areas with a high concentration of centenarians.
He starts the book with a brief history of the various cultures associated with longevity and then attempts to identify common overlapping themes for the purpose of making recommendations to the masses. He ends with some "blue zone" inspired recipes, just in case he's done his job and leaves the reader inspired.
From eating lots of beans to having a strong sense of community to being generally active thanks to a lack of modern conveniences to treating meat as a side dish or fare reserved for special occasions, Buettner's findings support the notion that health is not only a functi0n of what we eat, but is also impacted by our social connections, close relationships, daily activities, and sense of purpose among other things.
Though I enjoyed reading, there wasn't anything particularly groundbreaking here, and probably why I think it would be a great book for the novice who simply wants to learn more about longevity promoting lifestyle choices.