Mites, Spelunking, Gut Ecology and Wellness During Cancer Treatment

My major as an undergraduate was in microbiology. I was absolutely captivated by single cell microorganisms and what they could do with so little DNA. I remember as an undergraduate doing a research project on a bacterium that drilled its way into other bacteria with a specialized apparatus. Once holes had been made the organism feasted on the minerals, vitamins and protein that poured out of the unsuspecting victim. Or bacterium specialized to live in the most harsh environments like the deep sea with enormous pressure, salt and heat contents. They were super heros and bad mama-jammers in my book. I was falling in love. Besides relationship with dogs and cats, this was a scientist and true introvert’s dream: bacteria didn’t talk back and you could put them in the incubator at the end of the day.

At the same undergraduate school, I was required to take all kinds of classes in ecology, and systems, entomology even; as well as attending several weeks for field study on an island in the Adirondack Mountains of New York one summer. There were about five or six classes one could choose to study. I choose Mycology (the study of yeast and fungi) and Acarology (study of mites). I did not want to go. I was a micro snob not a field person… However, what did I know? The ecology of both fungus/mushrooms and mites turned out to be fascinating. Similar to bacterium, their homes are specialized to meet their environment. For example, the types of mites and fungi you’d find on decaying wood is different from the kind you’d find in soil. And for both there are hundreds of different species all there for a specific and important reason to the whole of the ecology. This information about micro environments has made quite an impact how I view and analyze research.

Our gut ecosystems (also known as gut biomes), like the forest mites, fungi and bacterium, are very important to how our immune systems function, to our moods, our hunger, and many other functions in the body. Bacteria and some yeast line the gut and interact with gut cells, immune cells, and also chemicals (did you know a large percentage of serotonin is found in the gut?). This interaction is really a form of communication which is essential to proper and optimal function and mental health.

Each person is born with a certain amount of gut bacteria which is increased when a transfer of microorganism from mother to baby is made upon breast feeding. The organism variety continues to change as the individual begins to consume food. While each individual has their own unique ecology, we can see regional similarities due to foods consumed in areas. For example, if we compared two peoples gut biome – one from Mexico and one from New Hampshire, we’d most likely see differences because of foods they consume, climate and the external environment.

Particularly during chemotherapy the gut ecology is altered. Chemotherapy targets the most quickly growing cells in the body. That most likely is the tumor cells, but secondarily it’s the epithelial cells from the mouth to the anus. This is why people can experience nausea, taste changes, constipation, diarrhea, sour stomach, and acid reflux to name a few.

Protecting those ecosystems during treatment is important, I would say vital. I am not a huge supporter of probiotic supplements for a couple of reasons: 1. We have 200 to 400 species of organisms in our guts. Supplements supply only a fraction of those organisms. It’s like trying to force population and gentrify an area. The gut has its own intelligence that we do not fully understand; 2. Many supplements, because they are unregulated, may not have what they say they have in them, and may in fact have some harmful organisms that are not suitable for cancer patients or immune suppressed patients.

Because I am who I am, I like to go with the idea of tilling the soil instead of spreading one type of seed. If you build it, they will come. Making sure that the gut cells are happy will allow your gut ecology to return to balance, and aid in keeping your immune system functioning properly and your mood to be stable.

Foods that help with this process include those that have a good amount of soluble fiber. Some of these foods include cabbage (I prefer cooked), acorn and yellow squash, ground flaxseeds, and chia seeds. Great foods also include those that have been fermented like sauerkraut which contain a good amount of butyric acid which the cells and bacterium like. You don’t need much, just a forkful per day. Products like kefir and whole milk yogurt are also good in moderation. (Like any dietary change you need to check with your healthcare provider before starting any new regimen)

The gut also like minerals and nutrients, so make sure you are getting a good amount, and think about having some daily broth in you are low on veggie intake.

Oh and the spelunking. In my college days back east, I used to go caving also called spelunking. It was all very exciting. You had to have a helmet and a lamp that you lit right before you went into the cave. An extra flashlight was also handy. Most of us beginners were also ‘roped’. Down into the depths of the earth which remind me so much of the anatomy of the gut.

The first time I went into a cave we had to crouch down and slide on our bellies through a four feet opening. The walls were dark and dull, curving and obviously formed to some degree by water. Once we squeezed past the opening, the tunnel enlarged and we were able to stand upright. The rock we walked on was surprisingly smooth, and the ridges and curves became more fascinating as we hiked on. We came to a room that was called the cake chamber. Elegant smooth white rocks none with harsh edges had been constructed from years of dripping water high in calcium and magnesium. In this room there were smaller arched chambers fitting only one person, where one could stand under and speak to produce an echo. We continued on passing through chambers with small pools, and passages ways with accumulated bat poop. In one of these pile there was the most beautiful and delicate fruiting mushroom growing. We continued on, we had a destination to get to. As we got closer to our planned destination spot in the cave, we reached an inclined followed by a dramatic four or five feet drop into a great chamber. (This is when I started wondering what the heck I was doing). We were twenty five people with head lamps and we still couldn’t see the end of the chamber, which I imagine the inside of Moby Dick would look like. Twenty five people staring in amazement and awe at the awesomeness of life.