Science and Pseudoscience of Mental Health Podcast: Episode 1
One of the few triple board-certified physicians in the country, with expertise in Internal Medicine, Endocrinology and Metabolism, and Hospice/Palliative care, Dr. Zach Bush abandoned his prestigious academic career in cancer research, and his conventional medical practice a decade ago, after coming to terms with the fact that not only were his pharmaceutically based research and treatment protocols ineffectual; they were making his patients sicker. He then opened a clinic in the middle of a food desert in rural Virginia, where he swapped out pharmaceutical interventions for the medicinal properties of plants. Now based in Charlottesville, Dr. Bush has assembled an outstanding group of scientists and clinicians who are at the forefront of research on the microbiome and epigenetics. He has developed an impactful approach to healthcare which directly challenges ‘big farming,’ ‘big pharma’ and conventional medicine. Below, are some of the key themes that emerged during our conversation.
When We Damage Earth’s Ecosystem, there are Profound Costs to Human Health
Over the past several decades, we have systematically eroded the earth’s ecosystem — an ecosystem which we are inextricably a part of. Tens of thousands of industrial chemicals have made their way into the soil in which we grow our food, the air we breathe and the water we drink, with profound downstream consequences to human health. Dr. Bush makes a compelling case for a causal link between environmental degradation and the meteoric rise in chronic disease. Today, one in two men and one in three women will be diagnosed with cancer in their lifetime, not including skin cancer. Autism diagnoses have more than doubled in six short years from one in 84 in 2012 to one in 36 today, and symptoms of depression and anxiety are ubiquitous. A host of formerly rare autoimmune diseases such as multiple sclerosis, fibromyalgia and Parkinson’s, as well as life-threatening allergies and food sensitivities, are now commonplace.
Environments Instruct Our Genes: Epigenetics
If the human genome was the infallible blueprint for mental and physical development that conventional medicine and the media would have us believe, the state of our health would be relatively impervious to environmental degradation. Current research does not, in fact, support this dogma. Upon completing the Human Genome Project in the mid 2000s, researchers were shocked to discover that humans have a mere 20,000 genes compared for example to the 30,000 genes in the genome of a flea. It was anticipated that humans would have some 200,000 genes, each coding exclusively for one of the 200,000 proteins that our bodies require. This discovery forced the scientific community to radically rethink what our genes actually do, and it catapulted the science of epigenetics to the forefront of genetics research; a science which focuses on how environments instruct our genes. Since the completion of the Genome Project, there has been an upsurge of epigenetics research worldwide, that has revealed the extent to which genes are responsive to a myriad of environmental conditions. Environmental factors have the capacity to act as genetic on/off switches, and they determine which protein a given gene will code for at a given moment, some of which have diametrically opposite effects on the body.
Fully 98% of human DNA does not build genes. For decades this non-genetic DNA was dismissively labeled ‘junk DNA’ and it was assumed to be vestigial material that may have been useful earlier in our evolution. In the last five years, this so-called ‘junk DNA’ has been shown to play a vitally important epigenetic role. In response to environmental conditions, this non-coding DNA manufactures micro RNA which in turn acts as one of the on/off switches and determines which among hundreds of different proteins a given gene will code for. As Bush likes to say, 20,000 genes coding for 200,000 proteins means that we can build millions of different bodies, depending on environmental context; change your environment, build a different body.
Our Internal Ecosystem: The Microbiome
Another blow to the pride of place of the human genome is the explosion of international research on the microbiome over the past decade. It turns out that we serve as a ‘planet’ for a vast microbial ecosystem — consisting of trillions of bacteria, fungi, parasites and viruses and their accompanying genes which collectively number 100 times that of our human genes. These microbes live on us and in us, primarily in our gut.1 We have evolved over the course of millions of years to co-exist with these microbes, and they with us. In order to protect the health of their planet, our microbial inhabitants have acquired powerful mechanisms to optimize human health and well-being. Our physical and mental health is as interdependent on the diversity and balance of the ecosystem that we house, as it is on our planetary ecosystem. Alongside his colleague, biologist John Gildea, Bush made the breakthrough discovery that each species of bacteria within the microbiome produces its own unique carbon-based redox molecule. Collectively, these molecules serve as a communication network enabling these trillions of organisms to work in concert with each other in order to produce, or trigger, the production of the specific vitamins, hormones and neurotransmitters that our bodies and brains require at a given moment in time. The microbiome also communicates via the vagus nerve with our immune system and interacts epigenetically with our genome. Bush estimates that some 30 to 40% of epigenetic signaling to our genome stems from our microbiome.
Although science no longer supports this trope, conventional medicine continues to treat bacteria as mortal enemies that need to be eradicated, judging from current antibiotic prescription rates (833 antibiotic prescriptions per 1,000 Americans annually) and farming practices (300 mg of antibiotics is used for every 1 kilogram of beef, meaning that one third the weight of each cow is prescribed in antibiotics!), and the omnipresence of antibiotic hand sanitizers and cleaning products. In consequence, the microbiome, so fundamental to our health and well-being, is under constant attack.
Monsanto’s Roundup and ‘Roundup-Ready’ GMO Crops
Dr. Bush believes, as do many leading scientists including MIT’s Stephanie Seneff, and environmental researcher and activist Sandra Steingraber, that Monsanto’s signature product Roundup (in synergy with the abuse of antibiotics) has wrought more harm to human and planetary health than any other product on the market today. The Monsanto Corporation was one of a handful of companies who at the behest of the American government created Agent Orange to defoliate the jungle so that the Viet Cong could be more easily targeted by American troops during the Vietnam war, while obliterating their food supply through the destruction of their crops. Agent Orange, an organophosphate, proved to be a direct threat to human health as well. After the war, Monsanto recognized the commercial potential for a variant of Agent Orange to be marketed as a weed killer. With this is mind, Monsanto purchased the patent for glyphosate in 1970, an organophosphate that appeared to be less of an immediate threat to human health. Glyphosate became the active ingredient in Roundup, which was introduced into the market as a weed killer in 1974.
In the 1990s, Monsanto did two things to ramp up market saturation of Roundup. It promoted Roundup as a desiccant (drying agent) for wheat so that it could be harvested more quickly, and it developed the technology to genetically modify a range of crops including soy, corn, canola, alfalfa, cotton and sorghum, to survive the glyphosate assault so that entire fields could be sprayed directly. Prior to this, Roundup could only be sprayed around but not on the crops, or the crops would die. Today, four and a half billion pounds of Roundup are sold worldwide annually. Unlike most man-made toxicants which are fat soluble, glyphosate is all the more pernicious because it is water soluble. This enables it to permeate the soil and water table, and it is distributed throughout our bodies, rather than remaining sequestered in our fat stores. Glyphosate has been found in rainwater, organic soil, and in human breast milk.
Glyphosate is so named because it is a variant of the amino acid glycine. This aberrant form displaces glycine during protein formation, undermining optimal functioning of a number of bodily systems. In particular, the displacement of glycine by glyphosate damages the integrity of all of the barrier systems in the body; the gut lining, the vascular system, kidney tubules and the blood-brain barrier. As these barrier systems are compromised, we become flooded with all manner of toxins, placing the immune system on high alert, and causing massive inflammation in our bodies and brains. As a result, we literally lose the capacity to differentiate between what is self and what is foreign and potentially harmful, causing a tsunami of autoimmune and psychological symptoms.
Originally patented as an antibiotic, glyphosate decimates the soil microbes essential for plant health and the microbiome essential for human health. Of equal concern, glyphosate blocks the Shikimate pathway present in microbes and plants, which is responsible for the manufacture of three essential amino acids — tyrosine, tryptophan and phenylalanine — so named because they are essential building blocks of protein that must be acquired from our food because our bodies cannot manufacture them. Bush says that trying to build a healthy body without these three amino acids is like trying to build a robust vocabulary after the removal of three vowels from the alphabet. The Shikimate pathway also manufactures alkaloids, a range of compounds with medicinal properties. Ironically, Monsanto claims that Roundup is safe for human exposure because we don’t have the Shikimate pathway. But the very fact that we don’t have this metabolic powerhouse is why we are so reliant on healthy microbes and plants to provide us with these vital compounds. Glyphosate-laced GMO crops may look healthy, but they are almost completely devoid of nutritional content.
Given the staggering toll on our bodies and our biome, it is no coincidence that the logarithmic increase in the multiple health epidemics we are witnessing today — everything from cancer and diabetes, to Parkinson’s and autism — maps seamlessly onto the growing use of glyphosate. Meanwhile, Monsanto was recently purchased by Bayer for 66 billion dollars. What a perfect business model! Monsanto reconstituted itself as an arm of the pharmaceutical industry to treat the health crisis that Roundup and ‘Roundup-Ready’ crops created.
Healthy Planet/Healthy Mind
Business as usual — big farming, big pharma and conventional healthcare — is threatening our planet and our very ability to survive as a species. Mainstream medicine would have us believe that we are helpless victims of flawed genes that march us down an inevitable path of disease and despair. Its proposed solutions are pharmaceutical cocktails and genetic engineering. Soaring rates and chronicity of illness provide ample evidence that this model is based in pseudoscience and that it has failed us. Today, 46% of children have a chronic health condition and Bush predicts that if current trends continue, by 2030, one in three children will be diagnosed with autism. The most graphic indicator that our health system is failing is the surging rate of infertility in both men and women; we are losing the ability to reproduce as a species. Our health crisis has little if anything to do with the quality of our genes, and everything to do with the tens of thousands of industrial toxicants that have been introduced into the biosphere; above all, the 4.5 billion pounds of Roundup that is sprayed directly onto ‘Roundup-Ready’ GMO crops annually, hand in hand with indiscriminate antibiotic use.
Planetary and human health are at a tipping point. Solutions informed by the science of environmental health, epigenetics and the microbiome, are elegantly simple, but their impact is profound. In essence, we need to revitalize and reconnect with the natural ecosystem that surrounds us and diversify and balance the microbial ecosystem that lives within us. How does Bush translate this into actionable steps? To start, we need to get out of our “drywall boxes and air-conditioned cars” and reengage with nature. While probiotics may be useful after a course of antibiotics that has effectively wiped out the microbiome, even the most sophisticated brands have a narrow range of bacteria that, taken long term, create a monoculture. The most effective way to restore the microbiome is to spend time inhaling and absorbing the thousands of microbes that live in a multitude of natural settings: woods, mountains, rivers, lakes, oceans, deserts, etc. We also have to eat real food grown in healthy soil, eschewing conventionally grown and processed foods. In so doing, we replenish the diversity of our microbial inhabitants and their communication network and nourish them with real food (most of the nutrients we consume feed our microbes rather than ourselves). In turn, the microbiome regains the capacity to support the body’s barrier systems — both its tight junctions, which protect us from toxic exposures while allowing the passage of beneficial compounds, and its gap junctions, which enable cell-to-cell communication so that our body’s trillions of cells can act with shared purpose.
Currently, four to five percent of consumers buy organic or locally grown food. According to Monsanto’s own research, when the market for organic food reaches 16% of market share, big farming will no longer be profitable. Collectively, we can become part of a grassroots movement in which organic and local farming prevails. Similarly, Bush believes that we will increasingly abandon conventional medical care (aside from a much narrower silo of acute care services) in favor of healthcare systems that work; ones that that emphasize the medicinal properties of nature, and which integrate the wisdom of healing practices thousands of years in the making such as traditional Chinese medicine, qigong, and herbalism, combined with cutting-edge science and technology, as exemplified by his own clinical practice in Charlottesville. In summary, Bush proposes that achieving vibrant mental and physical health requires that we live in harmony with our microbiome, in community with our fellow human beings and in communion with nature.
- While we may not give much thought to the lowly sounding gut, it is two tennis courts in surface area, 70% of our immune system runs alongside it, and it is innervated by millions of neurons collectively called the enteric nervous system, or ‘the second brain’ which can function independently of the brain. When we stop to think about it, the gut, which runs from our sinuses to our rectum, separates us from the outside world; it is the gateway that determines what is or what becomes ‘us’ and what is a potential threat to the self. Hence the concentration of immune function. ↩