You’ve probably heard the expression “We are what we eat.” It’s true not only about the foods we eat, but also the unique blend of microorganisms that live in each of our bodies, some of which come from our food or our immediate environment. These bacteria, viruses, fungi, archaea, and other “wee beasties” (as Antonie van Leeuwenhoek called them in the 17th Century) make up our body’s microbiome.
As a doctor friend told me recently, “we’re basically a jumble of different organisms.” And as the BBC reported in April 2018, quoting several scientific experts on the human microbiome, only about 43% of our bodies’ cells are human. The remainder – the majority! – are not human cells, but are made up of various bacteria, viruses, and other small organisms.
Two recent news stories are worth mentioning here. One of them involves eating chicken. The other involves being exposed to cat feces.
Chickens are Nervous Birds
Does it really matter what you eat and what you breathe? I’ll let you decide.
Let’s start with Jim Harbaugh. If you’re not a fan of American football, you may not know his name. If you do know of Harbaugh, then you’ll recall he’s currently head coach of the football team at the University of Michigan, one of the premier academic and sports schools in the United States. Previously, he coached the San Francisco 49ers of the National Football League (NFL).
Harbaugh is an intense guy. He’s the kind of coach who does not just stand quietly on the sidelines of a game. He’s constantly screaming at his players and confronting the referees about the calls they make. His mouth is open the entire game. His team is lucky is he stays on the sidelines. As a former NFL quarterback himself, he’d probably rather jump in, take the ball from his players, and start playing again.
From the San Jose Mercury News, here are 10 strange quotes from Harbaugh, just to give you a flavor for his oddities.
- “I don’t take vacations. I don’t get sick. I don’t observe major holidays. I’m a jack hammer.”
- “I was and still am happier than a pig in slop.”
- “People talk about cold weather and it’d be tough to catch balls. But the greatest catcher of all time, Michael Crabtree, catches everything. It’s unbelievable. In the northern snowlands, down to the tropics’ sunny scenes, he’s catching the football. Where they throw a football, he’ll be catching it.”
- “You’re kind of numb after 50 shots to the head.”
- “I drank a lot of milk. A lot of milk. Whole milk, though. Not the candy-ass two percent or skim milk.”
- “Apologies always seem to me like excuses.”
- “Suggestion to my Rocky Top colleague, rather than lunch in Florida you might spend your time and focus attending to your present team.”
- “I’m not leaving Michigan. I’m not even considering it. A lot of this talk is coming from our enemies, from coaches, you know the names. We know them as jive turkeys.”
- “They said, ‘Artificial sweeteners were safe, WMDs were in Iraq and Anna Nicole married for love’ … They said.”
- “I am now in control of all things.”
But those may pale in comparison to the quote that was attributed to him recently. Reportedly, he told one of his former players, quarterback Wilton Speight, not to eat chicken. When asked why, he said, “Because it’s a nervous bird.” Speight added: “He thinks some type of sickness injected its way into the human population when people began eating white meats instead of beef and pork. And he believes it, 100 percent.”
Lots of steak, whole milk, and cheap slacks from Walmart. Apparently, it does a body good, at least if your name is Jim Harbaugh and you’re a hard-charging football coach.
And no chicken. Because it’s a nervous bird that infects humanity. Red meat guys should stay away.
Are We What We Eat?
If “we are what we eat”, then do we become nervous birds by eating chicken? In some traditions of Oriental medicine, there’s a belief that eating powdered dried tiger penis can serve as an aphrodisiac and assist with…um…impotence. There are men in China who will pay $5700 for a bowl of tiger penis soup, even though it comes from an endangered species.
Do you truly take in the spirit of the food you eat, whether it’s a nervous bird or a noble beast? Probably not. Let’s go back to the origin of the statement “you are what you eat.” What it means is that the nutrients in the food are taken up by your body. So when you eat highly processed foods, you may glean little nutrition from it. Fat becomes fat. But when you eat lots of vegetables and fruits, legumes, whole grains, and other good stuff, the body benefits from all of those vitamins, minerals, complex sugars, amino acids, phytonutrients, and more.
The body is a machine that breaks down, processes, and drinks up the nutritional components of what you eat. But nervousness or sexual potency are not strictly on that menu. Some advocates of various natural medicinal systems will disagree, but avoiding chicken because it’s a nervous bird seems ridiculous on its face. You are the nutrition you eat, not the psychological state of any animal that becomes your meat.
Your food choices also can affect your biome, that blend of mostly beneficial organisms that calls your body home. It’s unique to you, yet any food choice can alter it somewhat. For example, eating more cabbage and broccoli might nourish certain organisms, which then reproduce in your gut more than others. And in time, if you keep up the cabbage diet, perhaps those particular eebie-jeebies may come to dominate the mix. It may well be possible to choose foods that help highlight the good organisms (such as Lactobaccilus casei, which has been linked with immunity) over the not so good ones (such as the Candida yeast that causes an infection).
The Cat Poo Bug
Next up, let’s consider the second related story from the recent news. This one is about a parasite that infects cats…and humans. Toxoplasma gondii, the parasite, is optimally suited for the body of the cat, which is the only place it has been known to reproduce. But humans can get it from cat feces.
Though it does not sexually reproduce in the human body, Toxoplasma does infect us and it remains in the body. This is not a bacterium or a virus. It is a parasitic alveolate. It causes a disease called Toxoplasmosis. If it infects pregnant women when they are pregnant, it can cause complications with the fetus. Other people can get a mild flu-like illness when infected.
The rest of the time, it just stays in the body and seems relatively harmless. But is it really harmless? A large percentage of the human population, estimated to be 20-50%, plays host to this parasite.
The weird thing is that it affects our brain. It rewires the way we think. Those who are infected, even if they have no noticeable symptoms, may have their behavior altered in a substantial way.
It encourages people to take risks. People infected with toxo tend to ignore risks more often in their decision-making and actions. And it may affect women and men differently. In men, it may increase testosterone, while women retain lower levels of testosterone. As Wikipedia summarizes the results of this research, “men were more likely to disregard rule and were more expedient, suspicious and jealous. On the other hand, women were more warm hearted, outgoing, conscientious and moralistic.”
The recent news on Toxo effects reported on a study of entrepreneurs. Specifically, the researchers studied business students in university who selected an entrepreneurial concentration, rather than something “safe” like accounting. And the researchers also took samples from students who attended an entrepreneurial event.
The results: In both of those instances, entrepreneurial students showed a much higher occurrence of Toxoplasma infection than did the normal population.
Entrepreneurs take risks, since most new businesses fail. And toxo causes people to ignore risk. 20-50% of the human population has this parasite and it affects how we think. What effect has it had on human behavior over time and on human history? How many thousands of people have started additional businesses that would not have been started? How many millions of people have taken risks they might not otherwise have taken?
Scientists also have identified certain gut bacteria which favor certain traits, such as obesity or immunity in the human body. Some day in the future, will there be a time when we understand so well the foods and microbiomes that make us behave certain ways, that probably affect our immune systems, our skin, our hair, and many other things?
Maybe there will be a day when we walk into a restaurant and tell the waiter, “I’ll skip the chicken, but please give me a cabbage salad with your best cat poo dressing.” Naw, that doesn't sound too good. I'll just go find some yogurt or kombucha.
The "sciency" tag is not a typo. Images are public domain or credited within the text.