Ecology, not Chemicals

We are awash with information. The fountainheads of Western science such as Francis Bacon would be thrilled. Much has changed since Bacon and his fellow advocates for science established the Royal Society in the 17th Century, but the belief that information will set us free is very much with us. Bacon, of course, expressed that belief in an appalling way: “nature takes orders from man and works under his authority.” Many have commented on what mischief that attitude has caused.

Yet there is a deeply engrained belief about information that remains: with enough information, we will understand how the world works; by assembling the facts, all will become clear. If knowledge is used destructively, it has nothing to do with science. Or so it is believed.

Many—including me—have argued against that particular ideology. The facts in which we are increasingly drenched by the information age do not speak for themselves as that ideology proposes. Believing that they do fails to acknowledge something quite obvious: we make sense of the facts because of what we bring to them and what we intend to do with and about them. Not only do the facts, when revealed, enlighten us as to nature’s secrets, we have to actively turn information into facts. And it’s true of scientists as much as anyone.

Last week, Nature published a research article by scientists at the Cleveland Clinic—a very prestigious, mainstream medical institution. Their article is titled “Gut flora metabolism of phosphatidylcholine promotes cardiovascular disease.” Phosphatidylcholine is a phospholipid—that is, a fatty acid molecule with phosphorus attached that is a common constituent of tissue membranes. It is a source of choline that, among other things, is used to make the neurotransmitter acetylcholine. Phosphatidylcholine occurs in a wide variety of animal products, such as egg yolks, as well as in plant products, such as soy-based lecithin.

As the title suggests, the researchers have discovered yet another bad chemical.

The experiment had two steps. In the first, the researchers looked to see what molecules were associated with the risk of cardiovascular disease. They identified three: choline itself and two chemicals the body makes from it. Each of the three has a crucial, positive role to play in our physiology.

In the second step the researchers found that gut microbes had an essential role to play in converting phosphatidylcholine into the three dangerous chemicals.

An article about this research in ScienceDaily is titled “Common Dietary Fat and Intestinal Microbes Linked to Heart Disease.” The very title itself tells us we’re off to a troubling start. Choline isn’t a fat. Although delivered by attachment to a type of fat, choline itself is a B-vitamin complex. But since everyone knows that fat is bad, it’s easy to connect with the idea that too much of this substance is bad for us. Except these chemicals are not bad for us. On the contrary, they are essential for our health.

The research and the journalism surrounding it come from the deeply entrenched theory that cholesterol and fat cause heart attacks. That theory, of course, is wrong. But that’s the baggage that precedes the findings in this study. And so it’s no surprise that the ScienceDaily article, echoing the researchers, warns of the dangers of eating animal products. Oh, and baked goods, too, because they have these bad fats.

It’s clear that neither the researchers nor the journalists know what they’re looking at. Information is before them, but they don’t see the facts.

The really significant aspect of this research is not the tiresome story of good chemicals gone bad, but the role of our intestinal ecology in both the creation of these essential chemicals and in how that ecology might affect the risk of heart attacks. Although not discussed in the research article itself, the ScienceDaily article has the researchers saying that some of the creatures used for this experiment were less at risk than others because of some difference in their intestinal ecology.

In other words, what they’re looking at but not seeing is that the risk of cardiovascular disease that has them so worked up isn’t about bad diets and bad chemicals. It’s about biologies that are out of balance. It’s about how to prevent heart attacks by tending to our gut health.

That our health is affected by the bacteria with whom we share an ecology, affected both positively and negatively, makes perfect sense in light of recent discoveries about how our ecology affects our energy metabolism, immune function, and cognitive development. Most astonishingly, some of this happens by intestinal microbes directly regulating the expression of genes in the cells of the human intestinal tract. That is, our ecological mates are switching our genes off and on.

The way in which chemicals affect health, whether toxins or nutrients, has been crucial to the advance of health science. However, what is now emerging is a science of health based, not on bad chemicals, but on creatures making a life together.