Readers of this blog have probably seen a number of my posts detailing 18th-19th Century medical research showing how effective Coca Leaf therapy was in dealing with inflammatory processes in the body. In addition, the medical research from previous centuries on which these posts were based makes it clear that one of the most common (and most effective) modalities for the use of medicinal Coca Leaf was in the treatment of dyspepsia – what we now call reflux, which is a sure sign of Gut Microbiome issues.
In an undeterminable, but undoubtedly very large proportion of cases of dyspepsia in those days the culprit was an exogenous bacteria called Helicobacter pylori, which is now known to be the cause of well over 90% of all stomach and intestinal ulcers. H. pylori is acquired in two ways – it can be acquired directly through ingestion of feces-contaminated water (not as uncommon as one might think, even in the US today), and it can be passed from person to person – often parent to child – through oral contact (Come on sweetie, eat your applesauce – look, Mommy is tasting it! Yum! Now you try some.). That is why H. pylori tends to run in families, and why it was so common in 18th – 19th Century Europe and America, when almost everyone was exposed pretty constantly to feces-contaminated water.
Now for the interesting bit.
While H. pylori infection is epidemic in most of the under-developed world, as shown by epidemiological studies, and is also pretty common in the US (virtually everyone who has diagnosed or undiagnosed ulcers is infected) it is almost unknown among the indigenous, Coca-chewing people of the Andes. HOWEVER, in the non-indigenous, non Coca-chewing cities of Peru and Bolivia H. pylori infection, and the consequent diseases, are as common as anywhere else in the developing world.
Wouldn’t it be interesting to compare the Gut Microbiomes of Coca-chewing indigenous Andean people with non-Coca Chewing city dwelling Peruvians and Bolivians, and also perhaps with the profiles of Americans who have participated in the American Gut Project?
So, to summarize.
1. Coca Leaf was well-known in the 18th – 19th Centuries as a treatment and positive cure for Dyspepsia, which means that it was able to control/eliminate gut infection by H. Pylori, and quite likely by other gut-dwelling pathogens.
2. H.pylori infection is virtually unknown among Coca-chewing Andean peoples, while it is common in the cities of Andean countries.
In science when a theory sounds plausible but the data to test it are absent, the rule is “Think about what the world would look like if the theory were true, and then look at the world.”
If we recall the well-established observations by doctors in the 18th-19th centuries that coca leaf-chewing indigenous Peruvian and Bolivian people showed (and still show) virtually no signs of oral cavity disease, have clearly healthy-functioning digestive systems, are highly resistant to diseases causes by external pathogens, and have highly efficient metabolic systems, it seems fair to speculate that Coca Leaf therapy might be able to arrest and reverse the damage to both the gut wall and the Gut Microbiome caused by antibiotics, industrial food chemicals, and other sources of the suffering and death that seems to be the fate of so many of us living in the “Advanced Economies” of the world.
There is little question in my mind that when Coca Leaf is finally given its day in scientific court it will be shown to be highly effective at treating inflammatory conditions in the gut, as well as conditions involving colonies of pathogens and degraded epithelial cells and the mucosal wall itself. It will be shown to be effective because it not only directly addresses inflammatory processes in the gut tissues, but also addresses the degenerative processes initiated by chemical damage, as with emulsifiers (see below), or by “bad bacteria” that have colonized the upper gut, or by oral cavity bacteria hiding in the plaque below the gums, or by exogenous bacteria like H. pylori that have colonized and set about destroying the integrity of the gut wall while they implant themselves in protective burrows in the mucosal layers.
After all, if the use of a simple, natural medicine like Coca Leaf could treat even one or two diseases like Crohn’s, Ulcerative Colitis, Hashimoto’s, IBS, SIBO, Celiac disease, Primary Biliary Cirrhosis, COPD, Asthma, Congestive Heart Failure, Atherosclerosis, Metabolic Disorder, Insulin Resistance, Obesity, Hyperglycemia, and possibly Alzheimer’s more effectively than the “medicines” currently offered by Pig Pharma – wouldn’t that be a marvelous gift from Mama Coca, the Mother Nature of the Andean people?
In the following discussion I hope to offer plausible if not convincing arguments that this possibility should be considered and seriously investigated.
Those of us who for personal or professional reasons wonder about the origins of the diseases that seem to strike people in economically developed countries far more frequently than they do people who live in economically undeveloped parts of the world are increasingly seeing evidence that factors that affect gut bacteria play a major, poorly understood role in generating these advanced economy diseases, and offer a plausible explanation for why people in less advanced economies seem not to suffer from these diseases – at least until economic conditions improve for them.
Collectively these gut bacteria are known as the “Gut Microbiome”, and there are hundreds of thousands of species of these little communal creatures living in every part of the gut. While most of us think of the “Gut” as our stomach and intestines, in fact the gut runs from our mouth to our anus, colonized all the way by bacteria that specialize in living and performing specific functions in a specific part of our gut.
The Lane Lab at the University of Rhode Island is a treasure trove of research in this area. In a recent paper they write: “The human intestine is an ecosystem that supports up to 100 trillion microbes—a cell number that is roughly ten times greater than the human cells that comprise our bodies. In addition to the vast number of cells comprising the microbial community of the gut, there may be over 100 times the number of bacterial genes present compared with the number of genes in our own DNA (Bäckhed et al., 2005). These beneficial microbes are instrumental in our ability to extract nutrients from food, and also play an important role in the development of our immune systems.”
For example, our mouth contains @ 15% of the total number of species of bacteria in our gut, and although only dental hygienists ever mention it to us, having a healthy mouth is a critical part of whole body wellness. Leaving out, for the moment, the rest of the gut, a sick mouth biome can, by itself, trigger all kinds of disease conditions in organs as distant from the mouth as the brain and the heart.
(As an aside, if you have access to a dentist who uses the new laser technology for deep gum cleaning rather than the old “pick and scrape” technique – give it a try. I can tell you anecdotally that my wife, who suffers from a severely compromised Gut Microbiome, and who has been doing all of the “Leaky Gut” therapies, found that after a single teeth cleaning with this laser technology her “Brain Fog” symptoms disappeared. She was not miraculously cured of all symptoms, but this one very annoying one simply went away.)
When all of these hundreds of thousands of little communities of bacteria are healthy and functioning as they should, our whole body tends to be healthy and vigorous. Not that there aren’t diseases that have nothing to do with a healthy gut that can ravage and destroy us – some of them caused by exogenous bacteria, some by exogenous viruses, some by environmental chemicals, some by radiation, etc. It’s a long list.
However, in this post I would like to ask you to indulge me as I speculate on the potential for simple, inexpensive Coca Leaf therapy as a possible preventative of some, or even many of the “Advanced Economy Diseases”, and also as a treatment and possible cure for others.
Because there are so many factors to consider when discussing the health of the Human Gut, let’s focus just on the role of bacteria in maintaining, or degrading, the mucosal lining of the gut – the “Wall” as it’s called. In the normal, healthy gut there are large numbers of bacterial species whose primary, or sometimes secondary role is to maintain the “Wall” as a thick, protective lining of the gut, allowing ingested substances – primarily food and drink, often called the “Luminal Mass” – to pass smoothly through the upper and mid-gut while nutrients are extracted from the passing mass. These nutrients are processed by the bacteria into forms that can then pass through the mucosal layer, where they are taken up by the blood vessels that lie beneath this protective layer. Many gut researchers call these upper-gut bacteria “good bacteria”.
The mucous surface contains epithelial cells, which are a critical part of the barrier between the contents of the gut and the blood, lymph, and organ systems of the body. After all, when you think about it, the inside of your entire intestinal tube is OUTSIDE the body, although it passes through the body. So the walls of your gut serve to prevent materials that are outside the body from getting in – much the same as your skin. However, the mucous wall serves to allow nutrient absorption and to promote waste secretion, which means that the mucosal wall must be selectively permeable. It must allow some things through, and prevent other things from getting through.
And a healthy gut wall does just that, and it is maintained in good condition by the “good bacteria” that live on its surfaces.
Normally these “good bacteria” don’t live within the mucosal wall – they colonize its surface and work their nutrient-absorbing magic on the contents of the gut as it passes by and is ultimately expelled from the body as nutrient-exhausted waste – feces and urine. (Way too simple, I know, but this isn’t intended to be an academic paper, just a small speculative essay.)
Researchers are now, almost daily, publishing studies that show that when the mucosal wall of the Upper/Mid Gut is compromised, some of our most devastating diseases begin to appear. Crohn’s, Ulcerative Colitis, Hashimoto’s, IBS, SIBO, celiac disease, primary biliary cirrhosis, atherosclerosis, and – some believe – Alzheimer’s. That’s the short list.
There are an increasing number of studies into how the mucosal wall is breached – a condition that some call “Leaky Gut”, but almost all of these breaches begin with a disturbance in the Gut Microbiome.
A common breaching event occurs when a person is administered a heavy dose of antibiotics to deal with an attack on the body by dangerous outside bacteria like Staph, for example. Unfortunately because of the increasing heavy doses of ever more powerful antibiotics needed to deal with increasingly resistant invaders, many of the “good bacteria” in the upper and mid-gut are also wiped out, along with the epithelial cells in the mucosal lining.
So far I haven’t mentioned the lower gut and its denizens, called “Bad Bacteria” by many scientists. Bugs like C. Dificil and Klebsiella, to name just two of hundreds of these lower intestine bugs, normally stay in place and perform all kinds of functions that are essential to successful elimination of waste from the body. In that sense they are not “bad”, because as long as they stay put and do what they are supposed to do, they are behaving themselves and causing no harm.
However, these “Bad Bugs” are also much stronger than the “Good Bugs” that dwell upstairs, so in the event of a whole body antibiotic assault far more of them survive. But that’s not the end of the story. They not only survive, they sense newly vacated territory in the upper gut and they begin migrating and establishing colonies. These bacteria – now earning their designation as “bad” – are not content to live peacefully on the surface of the mucosal lining of the upper gut. Because the lower gut has a completely different kind of lining, the “Bad Bacteria” begin burrowing into the mucosal wall of the upper gut – for reasons that are not yet understood. Some researchers say it is because the mucosal wall offers them a way to strengthen their foothold in the new territory; others say it is because the mucous is yummy. Whatever the reason, these “Bad Bacteria” soon eat through the epithelial cells and mucous lining of the upper gut and – voila – the selectively permeable barrier is no longer selective. All kinds of substances from the “Luminal Mass” can transit directly through the gut wall and into the bloodstream, setting into motion a furious reaction by both the body’s immune system and its endocrine systems which recognize these substances as things that should not ever be inside the body, and the body’s defenses immediately attack. And because the person inside whom this is happening continues to eat and drink, the substances keep leaking through the gut wall and the body’s defenses keep ramping up their responses to the highest possible levels.
Just one brief example – in Hashimoto’s Thyroiditis, what appears to happen is that when the Gut Wall is compromised and certain proteins begin “leaking” through into the blood, the body’s immune system begins attacking these foreign proteins – primarily the gluten protein molecule from grains. Unfortunately, the gluten molecule is almost identical to a thyroid gland tissue molecule, and so the body’s immune system, alerted to the foreign invader gluten protein molecule, also begins attacking and destroying the Thyroid gland tissue. Voila – Hashimoto’s Thyroiditis. If not checked, the immune system will ultimately destroy the Thyroid gland in its misguided mission to protect the body from foreign, and therefore dangerous proteins circulating in the blood and lymphatic systems.
This never would have happened if the gut wall had not been breached, and in almost every case this breach is the consequence of colonization of the upper gut by “bad” bacteria.
Zap – You’re Emulsified
Antibiotic overdose and upward migration of “Bad Bacteria” are not the only identified causes of “Leaky Gut” and its disastrous consequences. For example, an extremely interesting new research paper shows that several of the common emulsifiers used in food manufacturing to keep ingredients from separating such as polysorbate 80, lecithin, carrageenan, polyglycerols, and xanthan and other “gums,” wreck havoc with the gut. In lab animals. This research found that polysorbate 80 (common in ice cream) and carboxymethylcellulose altered microbiota in a way that caused chronic inflammation.
They also found that mice with abnormal immune systems fed emulsifiers developed chronic colitis, while those with normal immune systems developed mild intestinal inflammation and a metabolic disorder that caused them to eat more, and become obese, hyperglycemic, and insulin resistant.
The conclusion of this research seems to be that “emulsifiers” in food somehow “emulsify” the mucosal wall of the gut. Well all I can say is “Duh”.
The Human Gut has evolved over millions of years into a remarkable organ that, in a natural world, is fully capable of protecting the body that serves as its host from virtually any biological or chemical threat found in that natural world. When the Microbiome of the gut is in balance within itself, the entire organism of the body tends to be in balance with the environment.
However, as ‘civilization’ has evolved, and especially since the industrial and scientific revolutions have changed the natural world irrevocably, the Human Gut has simply not had time to adapt and therefore, like the rest of the Human body, it has increasingly fallen victim to both the deliberate creations of these revolutions like antibiotics and processed foods as well as to the waste products of the revolutions like chemical and biological pollution of the air, water and earth.
As the saying goes, we are what we eat, and if what we eat is instead eating us from the inside, there is little hope for a solution coming from our scientific and industrial revolutions. If there is a solution perhaps it will come from reaching back into time and understanding the relevance of at least some of the old ways to our contemporary dilemmas. Surely Mama Coca, just like Mother Nature, is waiting there to help us, if we have the will and wisdom to seek her help.