Acupuncture & Chinese Medicine ● Longevity Nutrition

Human Evolution

The next couple of posts will deal with, what I think are, the most magical and amazing beings on the planet…viruses.  A press release that was first picked up February 2, 2010 by Popular Science boasts of the discovery of a new chemical LJ001 that has the capability of acting as a broad spectrum anti-viral.  The actual press release  starts out by saying, “Viruses are insidious creatures…” and then goes on to discuss the potential of LJ001 to put an end to some of the world’s most deadly human diseases including AIDS, Ebola, and hemorrhagic fever.

The development of such a drug has the potential to ease human loss and suffering and contribute to “society’s concept” of a utopian existence.  On the other side of this we must consider the compelling research that suggests viruses could be “the little man behind the curtain”, with regards to evolution of life on this planet.  I’m concerned that science doesn’t yet know enough about how viruses contribute to every aspect of our existence to use a drug like this safely.  For example, the primary gene responsible for producing syncytin , which forms the placenta, comes from the activation of a retrovirus that is embedded in the DNA of all mammals’ germ cells.  Syncytin is very similar in structure to the viral envelop that LJ001 attacks.  This is just one tiny example of how viruses play a part in our existence. 

On February 24th, National Geographic will be re-airing the documentary, “The Virus Hunters” which discusses theories on how viruses have been a powerful force in facilitating the ever-evolving complexities of life on this planet.  This one of the most interesting documentaries I’ve ever seen.

One aspect of discussion pertains to an experiment in which a virus is introduced into the brains of prairie voles causing behavioral changes that resulted in the promiscuous males becoming monogamous. The original article that appeared in Nature.

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This is a continuation from the previous post in which one of my readers asked about methionine restriction as it relates to longevity and methionine content in eggs.  I never claim to be “the knower of the answer” but I like to provide enough information for people to form their own, and perhaps new, ideas.

 As I mentioned last time an increase in metabolism will always result in an elevation of all ROS in cells.  This, by default, speeds cell turnover and aging.  Inversely, reduced metabolism reduces turnover and aging of cells.  This is the same mechanism through which caloric restriction is theorized to promote longevity.   

Restriction of any substance that is severe enough to slow down metabolism causes the mind and body to go into a torpor-like state.  If it doesn’t, damage is incurred.  I see this regularly in my practice as a condition that I have termed “Boulder Syndrome” which I’ve talked about in previous posts.    

It seems that in order to live longer though means of dietary restriction, you have stop fully living or suffer health consequences.  Take SAMe as an example.  SAMe is made from methionine in the liver and acts as the rate limiting step in the production of several neurotransmitters. These include dopamine, serotonin, norepinephrine and its conversion in the brain to epinephrine.  Low levels of these neurotransmitters tend to reduce mental clarity, motivation, drive and overall energy.  This is likely part of the whole conservation mechanism that would naturally slow down the body in times of protein scarcity.

Eggs are so interesting because they contain all the essential nutrients to carry out Phase 1 detoxification and methylation in the liver (choline, methionine, magnesium, B12, B6 and folate).  It happens that a deficiency of any one or more of these essential nutrients has a documented effect on reducing fertility. (Sorry, I just didn’t have time to find that many references for one statement but I can assure you it is a fact).   As I mentioned in the previous post, this could be from some type of signaling from Phase 1 that would indicate the presence of sufficient nutients available for reproduction.  I suspect that if the above nutrients are scarce, Phase 1 probably slows for the purpose of conserving them to maintain other bodily functions more consistent with survival and not reproduction.

Consider how we evolved eating eggs.  In non-tropical zones, eggs are in abundance mainly in the spring and early summer.  As the weather warms the insects hatch providing a sustainable protein source for birds.  The increase in dietary protein, and thus methionine, in birds’ diets would signal the appropriate anabolic processes for them to become fertile and produce eggs.  A few weeks later, early humans would have access to these eggs which would provide the appropriate nutrients for signaling anabolic processes to start preparing them for reproduction.  Methionine moves like a wave through the food chain, from sulfur in soil to plants to insects to birds to humans, signaling the anabolic processes that enable reproduction.

In tropical zones, eggs would have been available most of the time as would an abundance of nutrients that would support reproduction. This scenario applies more to the people of the developed world.

I don’t think simple reduction of dietary methionine intake is sufficient enough to slow aging.  I think it has to be fairly extreme.  Alternatively, I do think that excess amounts of methionine, which would imply excess amounts of protein could be damaging especially if intake of magnesium, folic acid, B12 and B6 is insufficient.  We also have to consider that if we reduce methionine enough to slow down metabolism, caloric consumption must be reduced as well or the slower metabolism will lead to weight gain.

That said, if you would still like to try to reduce your dietary methionine here are some things to consider.  With regards to dietary intake, you have to look at absorption rates. This is influenced by the ratio of methionine to the other amino acids in the protein source.  As a general rule, amino acids will compete with one another for absorption. For example, if you have low levels of threonine, high valine levels inhibit the absorption of methionine  (Anyone want to research which protein sources have these ratios? Good data at http://www.nutritiondata.com/ )  The higher the ratios of other amino acids the lower the absorption will be of methionine.  Animal proteins contain high levels of methionine but much higher ratios of the various other amino acids so ultimately methionine absorption is diminished. I checked some methionine levels in various protein sources and unfortunately got varying results.  It turns out that methionine content of food is related to sulfur content in the soil so there will be significant variability depending on the geography of the food source.  However as a general rule, cottage cheese, eggs and fish were all similar in methionine content. Pork and poultry were a bit higher.  Beef was high but had really high levels of competing amino acids.  Legumes and seeds were much lower.  NOW FOR THE INTERESTING PART.  It has been suggested that a vegan diet offers less methionine and would contribute to longevity through methionine restriction.  However, I found a study done on amino acid absorption in rats.  It turns out that pinto beans, one of the least rich protein sources of methionine, had the highest absorption rate the amino acid.  I’m sure absorption of methionine from soy is low as well because some of the chemicals in soy interfere with overall amino acid absorption.

However, soy introduces an extremely important consideration that might make it impossible for humans to benefit from methionine restriction.  Soy contains estrogen-mimicking phytochemicals which will have some effect on producing anabolic processes. (the exact thing we’re trying to prevent to extend longevity) These chemicals must be detoxified by Phase 1 enzymes in the liver.  If this pathway is not working because of a deficiency of methionine, folic acid etc then there will be accumulation of these chemicals in the fat tissues possibly increasing incidence of hormone-sensitive cancers.  There are hundreds of anabolic hormone-mimicking chemicals that are now ubiquitous in our environment including BPA, several pesticides and hormones from pharmaceutical use. Any steps taken to reduce methionine will slow detoxification of these chemicals to a trickle.

If you want to continue to think creatively, be active, fully participate in life and be able to detoxify various environmental chemicals,  you have no choice but to consume foods that allow your body to do this.  If you want to attempt to extend your life through the means of caloric and methionine restriction then you will spend your life existing, not fully living and you might still get cancer.  Perhaps one way of using the current knowledge of caloric and methionine restriction to extend life is to follow what would naturally happen with the seasons.  For example, reduce your activity in the winter and practice caloric and methionine restriction.  Personally, I love skiing too much and need lots of protein to be able to do it.   That said, I’m going to continue to eat 8-10 eggs per week along with lots of kale.

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One of my readers questioned my recipe from “If Popeye Was a Real Man He Would Have Eaten Kale” and asked what I thought about the research linking longevity and methionine restriction. Eggs are a significant source of methionine and so perhaps could lead to faster aging.  In order to answer this question, it’s important to consider the mechanisms involved and the evolutionary advantages.   This question enters one of the world’s biggest rabbit holes and is too much for one posting so watch for posts related to methionine restriction and longevity in the future. 

To review, several research studies have shown that dietary restriction of the essential amino acid, methionine, results in 42-44% increase in average life span of rats, mice and fruit flies.  There are two major mechanisms that have been identified that contribute to this.  One is lowered production of mitochondrial reactive oxygen species (mROS).  These are basically free radicals produced in the mitochondria where our cells make energy or ATP.   mROS speed up degeneration of mitochondrial DNA, ultimately leading to faster cell turnover and aging.  Glutathione (GSH), is one of the most powerful reducers of mROS.  GSH is made from methionine.  However, restricting methionine intake results in elevated levels of GSH in all tissues except for the kidneys.  How is it that restricting methionine, the one essential amino acid that is a precursor to glutathione, results in higher levels of glutathione? It’s going to be very interesting when researchers figure out the answer to the dichotomy. 

With regards to longevity, I think methionine restriction has two contributing factors.  I’ll discuss one of them here and leave the second for another time.  Here is the first: 

Since methionine is an essential amino acid and is present in all naturally-occurring protein sources, it likely acts as a signal for protein abundance or scarcity.  Cellular signaling mechanisms are too involved for this discussion.  To simplify I’ll just say signaling may directly due to the presence or absence of methionine or may be through a secondary metabolite like homocysteine.  If its presence signals abundance, then the body would increase metabolism as it goes into an anabolic state preparing for reproduction.  An increase in metabolism will always result in an elevation of all ROS in cells.  This, by default, speeds cell turnover and aging.  On the other hand, if protein intake, and thus methionine, is scarce then the body likely creates different signals that reduce metabolism.  Reduced metabolism reduces turnover and aging of cells.  This is the same mechanism through which caloric restriction is theorized to promote longevity. 

With methionine, this control mechanism would incur an ultimate evolutionary survival advantage.  We know that methionine restriction reduces fecundity (reproductive ability).  During times of protein scarcity reduced metabolism via this signaling mechanism would minimize ongoing damage to mitochondrial and cellular DNA.   This would help to preserve the potential for successful reproduction (passing on of genes) and to prolong existence in anticipation for a more abundant and auspicious time.  As mentioned, in times of protein abundance, methionine would signal anabolism and preparation for reproduction.   If an individual is past reproductive age, metabolism will still increase.  In a community setting the increased vitality of older individuals would allow them to contribute more in the short term.  In this situation, survival advantage would be incurred throught The Grandmother Hypothesis .  It would also speed its ultimate demise, freeing up resources for the younger individuals who can still reproduce.

Since we, in the first world, live in a state of perpetual abundance we have time to figure out how we can live longer.  Restricting dietary methionine may likely contribute to this.  It seems logical that you would simply restrict foods that contain high amounts of methionine.  However, it isn’t that straight forward.  Next time I will discuss the glutathione dichotomy and methionine’s role in the alternation between Phase 1 and Phase 2 liver detoxification, the intricacies of dietary amino acid absorption, and research that contradicts the hypothesis that a vegan diet reduces methionine intake.  Yes, the egg question will finally be answered.

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A few weeks ago I published an article about Traditional Chinese Medicine and the Origin of Scientific Thought.  Part of its emphasis was discussing Five Element Theory which marked the beginning of scientific medicine and a departure from Shamanism.  The following is a discussion of the interconnected systems of soil biodiversity, plant ecology, gut microbiology, and human health and evolution. 

In Traditional Chinese Medicine, each of the Five Elements, fire, Earth, metal, water, and wood “symbolize five different inherent qualities and states of natural phenomena” including five movements and five phases in the cycle of the seasons.  People are often stumped by the fact that there are four seasons but five elements. Being the source of all life on this planet, Earth was the fifth, and viewed as the source of all the other elements.

The ancient Chinese scholars identified the digestive system to be an extension of and our connection to the Earth.  After all, it is where the elements of Earth are taken in as food and are transformed into a living being.

The bacteria and fungi present in every square millimeter of soil ultimately act as the digestive system or Earth element for plants.  They fix nitrogen and break down soil nutrients and minerals into forms that can be taken up by the plants’ roots. When we eat plants, we also take in some of the bacteria and fungi present in the soil.  These become part of the incredibly complex ecosystem of the gut.  

Each and every organism present in digestive system is a reflection of the organisms present in the soil.  Each one creates its own unique signals and immune responses that literally determine our state of being on EVERY level. 

We are already aware of the anti-inflammatory and immune boosting benefits of acidophilus and bifidus which are being marketed in several yogurt products.  A more interesting example of this appeared in the journal, Neuroscience, in May of 2007.  Researchers found that the presence of the bacteria Mycobacterium vaccae (which is common in soil and not pathogenic to humans) created an immune response that stimulated serotonin sensitivity in the certain parts of the brain.  A couple of things to take note of here:   First, not all immune responses are bad.  They are simply signals.  Secondly, this bacteria’s presence in the gut results in actual behavioral modifications via serotonin which has a happy, calming effect.  Further investigation suggested that this is one reason gardening makes us happy.

Another example is the pathogenic fungus, Rhizopus arrhizus. This fungus is also common in the soil and in trace amounts in our digestive tract.  Like an ecosystem, the richer and more diverse, the more resilient.  As long as our digestive ecosystem is diverse and healthy this fungus remains at low, non-threatening levels and actually serves many beneficial biologic functions.  For example, if you eat anything from the yam family this fungus converts some of the phytochemicals it into the hormone progesterone which is then taken up into the blood via the lymphatic system.  It’s also used very effectively in German Biologic Medicine as a low-dose suppository to stimulate the body to break up its own blood clots and vascular congestion.

A broader example is the influence of Firmicutes and Bacteroidetes and weight gain in humans.  An article that appeared in Nature  demonstrated a strong correlation between a low level of Bacteroidetes and obesity.  Conversely, thinner people had higher levels of Firmicutes.  Further research showed that these bacteria directly alter carbohydrate metabolism in the digestive system. 

Ultimately the bacteria in the soil determine what types plants can establish.  However, after a plant establishes itself, it creates its own local pathogen controls by promoting rhizobacteria.  When we eat plants and their roots the immunity from the rhizobacteria are passed on to our own digestive systems. From the soil, to the plant, to our own digestive system and back again.  They are not separate.  They are one system.  The foods we eat have a direct impact on the preponderance of the various bacteria and fungi present in our gut.  This, in turn, determines the signals and immune system responses.  As a very simple example, too much sugar results in an overgrowth of some fungi like candida albicans.  (more information on this in the future)

The emerging field of gut microbiology has incredible potential for treating disease.  However, after all the research is done, I believe the ultimate conclusion will be that eating food grown in healthy soil with extensive biodiversity will manifest as a healthy, evolving human community.  With our current technology we have only been able to culture between 0.1 and 1% of the soil fungi and bacteria.  The rest is completely unknown to us. 

It is important to consider the impact of microbial deprivation (via the use of bacteriocides, fungicides, irradiation, triple washing and chlorination of our food and water) on the human health and evolution.  There is a growing body of evidence that suggests the immune system problems we are seeing in the younger generations are a result of insufficient bacterial and viral exposure.  Furthermore, because plants determine the presence of specific bacteria, it’s important to consider the impact that monocultures have on soil biodiversity and how this affects human health.

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The emergence of Traditional Chinese Medicine’s Five Element Theory in 476 BCE “…marked the beginning of what one might call “scientific” medicine…”  Healers began to depart from Shamanism and looking for supernatural causes of disease.   “Instead they began to observe Nature and, with a combination of inductive and deductive method, they set out to find patterns within it and, by extension, apply these in the interpretation of disease.” (G. Macciocia)

Despite modern misunderstanding, they didn’t believe that everything was “made” of the Five Elements, fire, Earth, metal, water, and wood.  They assigned each element to “symbolize five different inherent qualities and states of natural phenomena” including five movements and five phases in the cycle of the seasons.

One of the more interesting concepts to emerge from Five Element Theory is called “The Doctrine of Signatures”.  Its premise is, if something contains a certain quality of one of the elements, it can be used to restore balance to something that is lacking or has lost that quality.  The following are some examples of uncanny medicinal coincidences that have emerged from The Doctrine of Signatures.

Walnuts – If it looks like a brain, it must be good for the brain.  Walnuts are one of the few nuts that are a significant source of omega-3 fatty acids.  It’s become common knowledge in conventional medicine that omega-3 fatty acids  play a crucial role in brain development, growth and function.

Ophiopogen – this herb is in the asparagus family and maintains lushness in dry climates.  Because of this quality it was assumed that its roots would be especially effective for cooling and moistening. It’s traditionally used for conditions where inflammation has parched various tissues which often leads to consumptive disorders like COPD.  It turns out ophiopogen contain nuatigenin-type steroids which ongoing research is revealing to suppress proinflammatory cytokines in conditions like rheumatoid arthritis and COPD.

Earthworms were traditionally used to treat conditions where something was severely blocked such as paralysis from stroke or congestion from asthma.  Applying the doctrine, earthworms can burrow and penetrate.  Modern research has revealed the presence of an enzyme called lumbrokinase that is extremely effective in hydrolyzing fibrin, a clotting factor that can cause strokes.  Lumbrokinase is widely available in supplement form and is used by naturopaths and some progressive physicians for the treatment and prevention of stroke.

*Being “modern” medicine there are efforts to genetically modify goats so that they can produce lumbrokinase  in their milk.  Perhaps the presence of health-giving chemicals is not a sign that we should isolate, concentrate or produce these molecules in a way that is inconsistent with Nature. Perhaps it’s more of an indication of how our diets evolved and what we should still be eating. By the way, earthworms would serve as a great protein source that is really low on the food chain. For expansion on the subject of insects as an evolutionary protein source see “Protein, Human Bodies and Missing Links in the Ecological Model”

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In the midst of an expanding vortex of ideas at last weekend’s Humanity Plus conference I retreated to a quiet corner for a couple of minutes to let my mind catch its breath.  I found myself sitting across from a 19 year old geek (in the endearing sense of the word) whose body looked like it had led a sedentary life under fluorescent lights. After a day and a half of fascinating lectures on subjects ranging from cutting edge AI to nanotech and living forever, I wondered what peaked the interest of this fellow human from an emerging generation.  Expecting another comment about the implications of being able to instantly modify mouse behavior by shining colored beams of light directly into its brain (which is extremely cool), I took pause with his reply.  “Myostatin inhibitors”   Myostatin is a protein that helps to break down muscles to ensure they don’t become too large.  Myostatin inhibitors dumb down its activity allowing muscles to become larger.  The pharmaceutical company, Wyeth, has developed and antibody that performs this function but is not yet on the market.

I asked this kid why he felt he needed that.  His reply, “So I can have bigger muscles.”   Me- “But, you can already to that without myostatin inhibitors.”  He- “Yes, but then I would have to work at it.”  We continued our conversation as I made a mental note to never hire this person. 

As we grow older the gratification that one experiences from taking care of one’s body is indescribable.  It must be experienced.  I have a hard time believing that the biotech or the cogtech world could ever simulate the mental fortitude or awareness that emerges from physical activity.  Gently pushing the body beyond its comfort zone and learning to manage it with breath is to commune with all aspects of existence.

As we face our own physical limitations, our drive and fortitude to expand beyond those limitations grows.  This resonates through every aspect of our lives.  The superficial gains of exercise, such as reduced risk of disease, increased longevity and youthful bodies, pale in comparison to the depth of character that emerges from it.  What precious traits of humanity will be unknowingly sacrificed as we evolve our world to effortlessly achieve more and more of what we consider an ideal?

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New ideas regarding human evolution are blossoming from 6 million year old fossils found in Ethiopia.  Nova’s three-part series, “Becoming Human” debuted November 3rd on Nova on PBS.  Even if you missed the first one the rest will most certainly be  illuminating, with discussions at every level of our ever-evolving  planet.  It may also give the adventurous some interesting travel ideas.  Enjoy!

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