Full text of biochemist Erika Ebbel Angle’s talk titled “Your Gut Microbiome: The Most Important Organ You’ve Never Heard Of” at TEDxFargo conference.
Listen to the MP3 Audio here:
Erika Ebbel Angle – CEO and co-founder of Ixcela
So, I am here today to talk to you about the importance of listening to your gut.
Brief hello, I’m a 38-year-old entrepreneur, biochemist, went to MIT BU School of Medicine and I have decided to dedicate my life to studying the gut and the gut microbiome.
Six years ago, I even started a company to address this issue and I’m a routine contributor. Some of the publications that you see here as a specialist in gut health. I’ve been really fortunate over the last few years, to have worked with professional athletes and professional athletic teams, to try to improve their gut health; because it’s so intimately related to things like increasing performance, decreasing sickness, and improving recovery time.
So, why am I here today?
Well, I’m here to talk to you about, what I think, is the most important organ; and that is the gut microbiome.
So, for those of you who don’t know what the gut microbiome is, it’s everything from your mouth to your colon, from entry to exit, all the bits in between; so your stomach, your small intestine, your large intestine, and all of the little critters that live in there. So, bacteria, fungi, viruses and cells – there are trillions of these little critters that are living in there. And we’ll talk about this a little bit more later, but diversity is so important in the gut.
So, why is it important to have a healthy gut?
Well, it’s really important for long-term health. So if you have a healthy gut, you’re going to feel more energetic; you’re going to get sick less often; you’re going to have better mental clarity, and ultimately have better emotional well-being.
Versus if you don’t have a healthy gut, a lot of research is showing that this is related to things like autoimmune conditions, diabetes, neurodegenerative disorders like Alzheimer’s, and even emotional issues like anxiety and depression.
So, our theme for today is, ‘You are what you eat.’ so you’re probably sitting there, thinking, ‘Yeah, you know, as a kid, my parents always used to tell me ‘You are what you eat’ as they tried to foist broccoli off on me, or if you were really really lucky, Brussels sprouts and other things like that.’
But the reality is, they’re actually right. Eating poorly can do really two things. So the first one, it can prevent you from getting the nutrients that you need to stay healthy. And second, it can actually damage and change the entire composition of your gut, which will render it unable to digest things properly and create the nutrients that you need to function.
So today, we’re going to look at three molecules that you get from dietary intake; you have to eat these things.
So the first is something called ‘Tryptophan.’ You’ve probably heard of this. Thanksgiving comes, everybody talks about the tryptophan induced coma that happens after you have your food. It’s found in Turkey, but it’s also found in things like eggs and chia seeds.
So, your body takes tryptophan and converts it into a lot of other really important molecules; two of which, we’re going to talk about today. So, one called ‘Serotonin.’ Serotonin is something that makes you happy, super important, and something called melatonin, which actually helps you to sleep.
So, imagine if you don’t have any tryptophan or you’re not consuming enough tryptophan, well, no matter how many roses or diamonds or chocolates your significant other brings you, it’s just not going to make you happy; and that’s kind of sad. Also, you won’t be able to sleep; so you won’t be able to count sheep at night.
Another example is a compound called ‘Tyrosine.’ So, tyrosine, another amino acid, is found in foods like almonds, but it’s also found in lentils and seeds and edamame. Tyrosine is converted to a variety of really important things as well. So, we’ll talk about dopamine.
Dopamine is a compound that you may have heard of; and essentially, it motivates you to do stuff. So, it’s this initiative oriented behavior that it helps to propel. An epinephrine, which is also known as adrenaline, the fight-or-flight molecule which is really helpful when you’re up on this stage.
So, you know, imagine if you don’t have these things, what would happen?
Well, here’s what would happen. one, you’d be drooling on your couch; or worse yet, if you were being chased by a mountain lion, which I’m sure, you know, who knows, may happen at some point in everybody’s life; the emoji being, you know, ‘huh?’ you don’t want this to happen, right? You need a body to respond to these types of situations.
Third, we’re going to talk about something called indole-3 lactic acids. So, it’s really important. It’s found in fermented foods; things like pickles, sauerkraut, kimchi, kefir. ILA is super important because your body takes it in, and there’s certain bacteria in the guts that actually convert the ILA into something called IPA (Indole Propionic Acid). That Indole Propionic acid is actually one of the strongest antioxidants in the body.
And again, you guys might have heard of what, you know, this word ‘antioxidant’ but I’ll explain what it does. So, in your body, you have a variety of different chemical processes that happen; and many of them create things called ‘free radicals;’ these are bad. They’re reactive species that go and damage your cells. They damage DNA, and then ultimately, can lead to things like cancer.
So, these antioxidants come in and actually break down your free radicals, keeping you healthy longer. IPA, very important.
So clearly, eating certain types of foods is really necessary to keep you healthy; but it’s not sufficient. A healthy microbiome is needed to be able to execute these conversion processes that we’re talking about; to take things in, to digest them, and to spit out other molecules that are really important to your health.
So let’s talk a little bit about what makes a healthy microbiome. So I’ve tried to simplify this a bit but essentially, each emoji is a type of bacteria; you have different ones, right? So you’ve got some that digest veggies, some that digest meats and breads and oils, and your gut is populated by many many different types of things.
So, in a healthy gut, you have very diverse species in there. Now, let’s say you decide that you are just going to eat foods that are really high in fat; things like hotdogs and ice cream and pizza; although pizza sounds really good right now. If you train your systems to do this, your guts are going to start using more and more of the type of bacteria that are used to seeing the kinds of foods that you eat; and eventually you’re going to skew the ratios, those bacteria are going to out-compete the other types that are there because they’re just not being used.
And then you’ll end up with a situation where you can have a very unhealthy, not diverse set of bacteria in your gut.
Now, you might ask, ‘Can you reverse that?’ Yes, but it often takes a lot of time and energy to do. Sometimes, you actually can’t; sometimes, you just, you know, once those bacteria are gone, it’s really tough to bring them back.
So, what’s really interesting is the body tries to actually generate the right building blocks, even if you’ve damaged your gut.
So again, on the bottom right hand side, you can see, there’s a silhouette; you can see the little emojis down at the bottom. They’ve taken in food, but you don’t have a diverse set of bacteria in there. They’ve taken in your food and they’re trying to create these compounds to keep you healthy, but there’s just not enough of them; they’re not working the right way.
Whereas, on the other side, you’ve got a silhouette where the person has lots of diversity, lots of different bacteria emojis, and they’re being able to take in the food, digest it and spit out many things that are really important to keep you healthy.
Now, here’s the sad part. Many of the things that we do in our life are in fact completely lethal to the microbiome. I love chips. Sadly, you don’t find a lot of healthy stuff in most chips. You’re not going to find tiresome, tryptophan, or ILA here. Antibiotics medicines helpful but they kill bacteria; and they don’t just kill bad bacteria, they kill all bacteria.
And so, oftentimes, after you’ve gone through a course of antibiotics, you kill off your microbiome. Sometimes, it never rebuilds properly again.
Stress. You know, you hear this, stress kills thing, and stress is bad. We could have a whole 30 minute talk on the impact of stress on the microbiome. Stress is, in fact, extremely bad for the microbiome. Your central nervous system, your brain is intimately connected to your gut; the two talk back and forth to each other.
Think about it. When you’re stressed, you have headache, you feel terrible; you often feel that stress in your stomach, butterflies in your stomach, anxiety; sometimes you have to go to the bathroom more. The two talk to each other all the time. They’re intimately connected. And so, the more stressed you are, the more likely it is that you will damage your microbiome.
And then lastly, you know, we live in a very aseptic society, and this is bad; decreases the diversity of bacteria in the gut. One of my favorite examples is, you know, back many years ago, kids would play in the dirt and they’d be exposed to all kinds of different things.
Now, kids come inside; they watch TV; they play on their phones, and a lot of diseases are actually being connected to the lack of diversity in the gut; things like autism, ADHD. So, super important to get outside.
So, what can we do about this?
Well, the good news is not all is lost. It is possible to improve your gut; and this is one of the things that I get to do every day, and I’m so fortunate in my job. My company actually is trying to measure the functional state of the gut, define what that is, and then to create interventions to improve it. We call this ‘improving your internal fitness.’
So, what are some simple things that you can do to help improve your gut?
Well, one, we’ve talked about changing your diet. Two, we’ve talked about stress management techniques, incorporating mindfulness, meditation, breathing exercises to minimize your stress, or exercise is great; fifteen twenty minutes of walking a day can help to keep you regular. It can, you know, we talked about that in front of the group; that’s what we do. It can help to mitigate your stress, and it can actually help to promote the growth of certain types of bacteria.
And then lastly, targeted supplementation. I’m not saying to take lots of different supplements; I’m saying, if there’s certain things that your body needs, you might actually take a supplement. Yeah. Sometimes, there’s a lot of fish that you have to eat, in order to get the equivalency of one pill; but make sure it’s what you need. So, the next time that you’re lying on the couch, feeling lethargic and not sure why, or you’re sick the fifth time in a year, listen to your gut.