Once we went to a woman’s house where we had arranged to board our dog for a few days. When we got there, the stench of cat urine was overpowering. It was incredibly vile. We were choking. We could not imagine how anyone could stay in that environment for more than a few seconds.
The woman smiled and invited us in. It was obvious that, for her, nothing was out of the ordinary. She not only didn’t have a problem with the stench, she didn’t seem to know it was there. She had several cats. We never found out how many. She petted one idly as we spoke. We made excuses and left.
It reminded us of the stories that occasionally run in the newspaper about a “cat lady,” who had been turned in for hoarding hundreds of cats in her house, in unspeakable conditions. Imagine how that must smell. How could she stand it?
This may explain it.
Rodents normally hate the smell of cats, particularly the smell of cat urine. This makes sense. A rodent that is not repelled by the scent of cat urine is very likely to become cat food. However, rodents infected with the disease Toxoplasmosis are strangely attracted to the scent of cat urine. Why?
The microbe that causes Toxoplasmosis can only complete its life cycle in the digestive tract of a feline. Somehow the lowly Toxoplasmosis microbe evolved the ability to influence the behavior of the rodents it infects, so as to compel the host rodent to deliver it (the microbe) where it wants and needs to get, even if the rodent dies in the process. This situation, while unfortunate for the rodent that loses its normal anti-cat wariness, helps the microbe succeed in creating new generations, which makes it an evolutionary winner.
But wait, we typically think of higher organisms, not lower ones, as being more self- determining, and of being more capable of dominating lower organisms. Could we be wrong?
As more is learned about the interactions of microbes and more complex organisms, it turns out that things are not always how they appear. For example, some researchers think that “cat ladies” may be infected with Toxoplasmosis, and be attracted to the smell of cat urine just like infected rodents, as if the microbes that infect them are trying to make them into cat food too.
Microbes appear to be more powerful than we think.
There are said to be 100 trillion microbes in the human body, a number much larger than the number of cells that make up our bodies. Most of these microbes live in our intestines. They exist in what biologists call a symbiotic relationship with us, that is, they help us and we help them. It’s easy to see what we do for them; we house, feed, and protect them. What they do for us is continually being discovered.
They are known to serve as part of our immune system, in a sense, as the presence of benign microbes helps to prevent the growth of more dangerous pathogenic species. At the same time, their presence helps to keep our immune functions active and balanced. They keep our digestive tracts healthy. They can manufacture vitamins that we need but can’t create ourselves. They can help break down toxic compounds, as well as dietary fiber.
But, like the Toxoplasmosis microbes, they all seem to have their own agenda too, and that agenda is to succeed evolutionarily by passing on their genes, by creating more of themselves.
Increasingly, researchers believe they accomplish this by influencing the behavior of their host organisms. In fact, they are able to manipulate the genes of the host, not by changing their structure, but by altering which genes are expressed, or turned on, and which are turned off. In the case of human parasites, that means they can change the expression of our genes, and thus influence our behavior.
Do you crave foods? Maybe it’s not you. Maybe it’s your bugs. Yeast and other fungi live by fermenting sugar. For years I’ve observed that patients with yeast infestations crave sugar. Could it be the yeast doing the craving? Some scientists think so. Microbes can secrete chemicals that alter our brain function, and change our appetite. Different microbial populations can lead to, for example, different levels of appetite and of obesity, as well as cravings.
In our practice we see many people with colds and flu. It often amazes me that people who are normally kind, thoughtful, and considerate, appear, when they are ill, to go out of their way to cough, sneeze, rub their drizzling noses and touch everywhere, and otherwise disseminate their bodily fluids far and wide. It’s like they have a compulsion to share. Maybe they do, but it’s not their compulsion, but the imperative of the organisms that infect them. The more interaction the sick person has, the more the virus can spread and replicate itself.
Research bears that out, as various infections have been shown to alter social behavior, stress response, and emotions, because, as previously stated, microbes can secrete chemicals that alter brain function.
When the human genome project was carried out, scientists were surprised to discover that less than 10% of our DNA served to code for replication of our proteins, which was thought to be the function of genetic material. The other 90% plus was actually called “junk DNA.” Interestingly, much of the “junk DNA” turns out to be viral in origin. And, since this 90% of DNA controls which protein-replicating genes get expressed and which remain dormant, our evolutionary infection history, in some senses, controls us today.
Why does this matter?
As I teach in my workshops, there are many things that affect the balance of microbes in our bodies, and the balance of microbes strongly influences our health. Our diets, our exercise, our immune function, our digestive function, and our exposure to pollutants can disturb our microbial ecology. But probably the biggest reason for microbial disturbance is the effect of antibiotics and other prescription drugs.
It’s not that drugs are bad. Many times they are necessary to save lives. It’s that they have unavoidable consequences. And often those consequences involve the destruction of our healthy microbes and their replacement by less helpful and sometimes pathogenic ones.
When you realize that up to 80% of antibiotics in the US are used in the raising of food animals, and that we are exposed to those drug residues when we eat commercially raised animals, and when you read about all the unnecessary antibiotic prescription for viral diseases like colds, flu, and ear infections, and when you learn that all this antibiotic usage leads to ever-increasing levels of antibiotic resistance in microbial populations, and the need for ever-stronger antibiotics to help those infections that require them, you can see that we have a massive collective antibiotic overuse problem that leads to a serious collective microbial problem.
What should we do?
We need to tend our internal microbial gardens. We need to find out whether we have the right species or the wrong species, and we need to do our best to reestablish and safeguard the good ones. That’s part of what we do in our Functional Medicine nutritional work.
Altered microbes contribute to the creation of a variety of diseases, such as digestive problems of various sorts, allergies, sinus problems, autoimmune diseases, and many more. They have even been implicated in some cancers. As we have seen above, altered microbes can apparently contribute to various behavioral issues as well.
We have tools that can help evaluate the status of your microbes, and help get you back to normal.
And who knows, maybe your taste in pets will change.