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Archive for February 3rd, 2021

Interesting possibility: Your Microbiome Could Play a Role in Your Covid-19 Response

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One benefit of a whole-food (not processed food) plant-only (thus high in dietary fiber) diet is that it encourages and nourishes a healthy and diverse gut microbiome, and the more we learn about the microbiome, the greater that benefit is seen to be.

Markham Heid writes for Elemental on Medium:

It’s a mystery that has puzzled the world’s virologists.

The United States and Western Europe — home to many of the planet’s best doctors and hospitals and the most robust public health infrastructures — have been among the regions hit hardest by the novel coronavirus.

Some have speculated that climate, population demographics, government response (or lack thereof), and other factors can explain the high numbers of infections in the developed world. And there is probably some truth to each of these hypotheses. But none seems to fully explain why half of the countries that make the top 10 in Covid-19 deaths per capita — a top 10 that includes the United States — are also among the wealthiest and most medically advanced in the world.

Heenam Stanley Kim, PhD, is a professor and microbial geneticist at Korea University in Seoul. He has his own hypothesis — one that has to do with the bacteria that live in the human gut. “Evidence accumulated around the world [suggests] that people who have an altered gut microbiota have a higher risk for serious Covid-19,” he says.

The human gastrointestinal tract is home to trillions of bacteria, often collectively referred to as the gut microbiota or microbiome. The types, numbers, diversity, and proportions of these bacteria vary from person to person. While some species reliably populate the guts of healthy people and are therefore regarded as “good” or helpful, other types tend to be more numerous in the guts of those who are unwell. The presence of unhealthy bacteria is also associated with barrier problems in the lining of the intestines — a condition known as leaky gut.

In a recent paper, Kim makes the case that gut dysbiosis — the term microbiologists use to describe an unwell or out-of-whack microbiome — may allow the novel coronavirus to penetrate the gut’s lining, called the epithelium. “When the coronavirus leaks into the intestinal epithelium in a person with an altered gut microbiota, it can cause overactive immune responses that can make the situation worse by increasing inflammation,” Kim explains. In severe cases, the virus may even pass through the gut’s epithelial barrier and into the bloodstream, where it can then travel to the brain and other internal organs, wreaking havoc.

Kim cites several recent studies that have found people with Covid-19 tend to have lower bacterial diversity and fewer healthy gut microbes than people who do not have Covid-19. He also points out that a fat-heavy, fiber-deficient diet is a major risk factor for gut dysbiosis. These unhealthy dietary patterns and their attendant medical conditions tend to be much more prevalent in the West than in other parts of the world.

In short, Kim believes that unhealthy diets and unwell microbiomes may explain why Covid-19 has taken such a heavy toll in the United States and some other wealthy nations. He acknowledges that there are gaps in the existing research that need to be filled in order to substantiate his premise. But his microbiome hypothesis makes sense and has some solid preliminary evidence to back it up.

If Kim’s ideas are borne out, they could open up new and game-changing avenues for Covid-19 detection, prevention, and treatment. But other gut experts say that, while worthy of more research, there are reasons to believe that the microbiome is just one piece in the Covid-19 puzzle.

The microbiome-immune connection

Emeran Mayer, MD, PhD, is a microbiome expert and co-director of UCLA’s Digestive Diseases Research Center. He’s been paying close attention to the work linking gut health to Covid-19 outcomes.

“It’s intriguing,” he says. “We know that people with comorbid chronic conditions like hypertension and Type 2 diabetes and hyperlipidemia are at increased risk for severe [Covid-19] disease, and we also know that pro-inflammatory microbes are more common in [the guts of] people with these conditions.”

The stomach and intestines are the immune system’s primary headquarters. “The majority of the immune cells are located right underneath the epithelial layer of the gut,” Mayer explains. And there’s mounting evidence that a range of health issues, many of which seem to have little to do with the GI tract, are affected by immune cells that reside or were once housed in the gut. For example, research in the journal Frontiers in Neurology has found that a person’s risk for stroke has a relationship with the composition of that person’s microbiome. “The outcome at the brain level is based in part on the experience of these immune cells as gut residents,” Mayer says.

Think of the immune cells in the gut as soldier-sentinels on the lookout for trouble. When unhealthy bacteria populate their environment, these soldier-sentinels become skittish and trigger-happy and more likely to respond to threats with excessive force—that is, inflammation. At the same time, poor microbiome health may allow virus molecules easier access to these skittish immune cells — both in the GI tract and elsewhere in the body.

The foods a person eats (or doesn’t eat) can contribute to both microbiome dysbiosis and the development of metabolic diseases like obesity. Even in people who are not obese or diabetic, Mayer says an unhealthy diet may shift the makeup of the microbiome in ways that unbalance the body’s immune responses, which may lead to worse outcomes. (By some recent estimates, only 12% of American adults are metabolically healthy.) Old age, a history of antibiotic use, and perhaps also an overly sanitized, largely indoor existence also seem to be risk factors for compromised gut microbiome health. . .

Continue reading. There’s more, it’s interesting, and the information can lead to action.

Written by LeisureGuy

3 February 2021 at 2:21 pm

The Terrifying Warning Lurking in the Earth’s Ancient Rock Record

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Peter Brannen has a lengthy article (well illustrated with photos by Brendan Pattengale) in the Atlantic. At the link is an audio version in addition to the print version. The article begins:

We live on a wild planet, a wobbly, erupting, ocean-sloshed orb that careens around a giant thermonuclear explosion in the void. Big rocks whiz by overhead, and here on the Earth’s surface, whole continents crash together, rip apart, and occasionally turn inside out, killing nearly everything. Our planet is fickle. When the unseen tug of celestial bodies points Earth toward a new North Star, for instance, the shift in sunlight can dry up the Sahara, or fill it with hippopotamuses. Of more immediate interest today, a variation in the composition of the Earth’s atmosphere of as little as 0.1 percent has meant the difference between sweltering Arctic rainforests and a half mile of ice atop Boston. That negligible wisp of the air is carbon dioxide.

Since about the time of the American Civil War, CO2’s crucial role in warming the planet has been well understood. And not just based on mathematical models: The planet has run many experiments with different levels of atmospheric CO2. At some points in the Earth’s history, lots of CO2 has vented from the crust and leaped from the seas, and the planet has gotten warm. At others, lots of CO2 has been hidden away in the rocks and in the ocean’s depths, and the planet has gotten cold. The sea level, meanwhile, has tried to keep up—rising and falling over the ages, with coastlines racing out across the continental shelf, only to be drawn back in again. During the entire half-billion-year Phanerozoic eon of animal life, CO2 has been the primary driver of the Earth’s climate. And sometimes, when the planet has issued a truly titanic slug of CO2 into the atmosphere, things have gone horribly wrong.

Today, humans are injecting CO2 into the atmosphere at one of the fastest rates ever over this entire, near-eternal span. When hucksters tell you that the climate is always changing, they’re right, but that’s not the good news they think it is. “The climate system is an angry beast,” the late Columbia climate scientist Wally Broecker was fond of saying, “and we are poking it with sticks.”

The beast has only just begun to snarl. All of recorded human history—at only a few thousand years, a mere eyeblink in geologic time—has played out in perhaps the most stable climate window of the past 650,000 years. We have been shielded from the climate’s violence by our short civilizational memory, and our remarkably good fortune. But humanity’s ongoing chemistry experiment on our planet could push the climate well beyond those slim historical parameters, into a state it hasn’t seen in tens of millions of years, a world for which Homo sapiens did not evolve.

When there’s been as much carbon dioxide in the air as there already is today—not to mention how much there’s likely to be in 50 or 100 years—the world has been much, much warmer, with seas 70 feet higher than they are today. Why? The planet today is not yet in equilibrium with the warped atmosphere that industrial civilization has so recently created. If CO2 stays at its current levels, much less steadily increases, it will take centuries—even millennia—for the planet to fully find its new footing. The transition will be punishing in the near term and the long term, and when it’s over, Earth will look far different from the one that nursed humanity. This is the grim lesson of paleoclimatology: The planet seems to respond far more aggressively to small provocations than it’s been projected to by many of our models.

To truly appreciate the coming changes to our planet, we need to plumb the history of climate change. So let us take a trip back into deep time, a journey that will begin with the familiar climate of recorded history and end in the feverish, high-CO2 greenhouse of the early age of mammals, 50 million years ago. It is a sobering journey, one that warns of catastrophic surprises that may be in store.

The first couple of steps back in time won’t take us to a warmer world—but they will illuminate just what sort of ill-tempered planet we’re dealing with. As we pull back even slightly from the span of recorded history—our tiny sliver of geologic time—we’ll notice almost at once that the entire record of human civilization is perched at the edge of a climate cliff. Below is a punishing ice age. As it turns out, we live on an ice-age planet, one marked by the swelling and disintegration of massive polar ice sheets in response to tiny changes in sunlight and CO2 levels. Our current warmer period is merely one peak in a mountain range, with each summit an interglacial springtime like today, and each valley floor a deep freeze. It takes some doing to escape this cycle, but with CO2 as it is now, we won’t be returning to an ice age for the foreseeable future. And to reach analogues for the kind of warming we’ll likely see in the coming decades and centuries, we will need to move beyond the past 3 million years of ice ages entirely, and make drastic jumps back into the alien Earths of tens of millions of years ago. Our future may come to resemble these strange lost worlds.

Before we move more dramatically backwards in time, let us briefly pause over the history of civilization, and then some. Ten thousand years ago, the big mammals had just vanished, at human hands, in Eurasia and the Americas. Steppes once filled with mammoths and camels and wetlands stocked with giant beavers were suddenly, stunningly vacant.

The coastlines that civilization presumes to be eternal were still far beyond today’s horizon. But the seas were rising. The doomed vestiges of mile-thick ice sheets that had cloaked a third of North American land were retreating to the far corners of Canada, chased there by tundra and taiga. The roughly 13 quintillion gallons of meltwater these ice sheets would hemorrhage, in a matter of millennia, raised the sea level hundreds of feet, leaving coral reefs that had been bathed in sunlight under shallow waves now drowned in the deep.

By 9,000 years ago, humans in the Fertile Crescent, China, Mexico, and the Andes had independently developed agriculture and—after 200,000 years of wandering—had begun to stay put. Sedentary settlements blossomed. Humans, with a surfeit of calories, began to divide their labor, and artisans plied new arts. The Earth’s oldest cities, such as Jericho, were bustling.

It’s easy to forget that the Earth—cozy, pastoral, familiar—is nevertheless a celestial body, and astronomy still has a vote in earthly affairs. Every 20,000 years or so the planet swivels about its axis, and 10,000 years ago, at civilization’s first light, the Earth’s top half was aimed toward the sun during the closest part of its orbit—an arrangement today enjoyed by the Southern Hemisphere. The resulting Northern-summer warmth turned the Sahara green. Lakes, hosting hippos, crocodiles, turtles, and buffalo, speckled North Africa, Arabia, and everywhere in between. Lake Chad, which today finds itself overtaxed and shrinking toward oblivion, was “Mega-Chad,” a 115,000-square-mile freshwater sea that sprawled across the continent. Beneath the Mediterranean today, hundreds of dark mud layers alternate with whiter muck, a barcode that marks the Sahara’s rhythmic switching from lush green to continent-spanning desert.

Imprinted on top of this cycle were the last gasps of an ice age that had gripped the planet for the previous 100,000 years. The Earth was still thawing, and amid the final approach of the rising tides, enormous plains and forests like Doggerland—a lowland that had joined mainland Europe to the British Isles—were abandoned by nomadic humans and offered to the surging seas. Vast islands like Georges Bank, 75 miles off Massachusetts—which once held mastodons and giant ground sloths—saw their menagerie overtaken. Scallop draggers still pull up their tusks and teeth today, far offshore.

By 5,000 years ago, as humanity was emerging from its unlettered millennia, the ice had stopped melting and oceans that had been surging for 15,000 years finally settled on modern shorelines. Sunlight had waned in the Northern summer, and rains drifted south toward the equator again. The green Sahara began to die, as it had many times before. Hunter-fisher-gatherers who for thousands of years had littered the verdant interior of North Africa with fishhooks and harpoon points abandoned the now-arid wastelands, and gathered along the Nile. The age of pharaohs began.

By geologic standards, the climate has been remarkably stable ever since, until the sudden warming of the past few decades. That’s unsettling, because history tells us that even local, trivial climate misadventures during this otherwise peaceful span can help bring societies to ruin. In fact, 3,200 years ago, an entire network of civilizations—a veritable globalized economy—fell apart when minor climate chaos struck.

“There is famine in [our] house; we will all die of hunger. If you do not quickly arrive here, we ourselves will die of hunger. You will not see a living soul from your land.” This letter was sent between associates at a commercial firm in Syria with outposts spread across the region, as cities from the Levant to the Euphrates fell. Across the Mediterranean and Mesopotamia, dynasties that had ruled for centuries were all collapsing. The mortuary-temple walls of Ramses III—the last great pharaoh of Egypt’s New Kingdom period—speak of waves of mass migration, over land and sea, and warfare with mysterious invaders from afar. Within decades the entire Bronze Age world had collapsed.

Historians have advanced many culprits for the breakdown, including earthquakes and rebellions. But like our own teetering world—one strained by souring trade relations, with fractious populaces led by unsteady, unscrupulous leaders and now stricken by plague—the eastern Mediterranean and the Aegean were ill-prepared to accommodate the deteriorating climate. While one must resist environmental determinism, it is nevertheless telling that when the region mildly cooled and a centuries-long drought struck around 1200 B.C., this network of ancient civilizations fell to pieces. Even Megiddo, the biblical site of Armageddon, was destroyed.

This same story is told elsewhere, over and over, throughout the extremely mild stretch of time that is written history. The Roman empire’s imperial power was vouchsafed by centuries of warm weather, but its end saw a return to an arid cold—perhaps conjured by distant pressure systems over Iceland and the Azores. In A.D. 536, known as the worst year to be alive, one of Iceland’s volcanoes exploded, and darkness descended over the Northern Hemisphere, bringing summer snow to China and starvation to Ireland. In Central America several centuries later, when the reliable band of tropical rainfall that rings the Earth left the Mayan lowlands and headed south, the megalithic civilization above it withered. In North America, a megadrought about 800 years ago made ancestral Puebloans abandon cliffside villages like Mesa Verde, as Nebraska was swept by giant sand dunes and California burned. In the 15th century,  . . .

Continue reading. There’s much, more more.

Written by LeisureGuy

3 February 2021 at 1:59 pm

Mike’s Natural and the Phoenix Artisan Amber Aerolite brush, with the Mamba razor

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The Amber Aerolite is a brush that will be of particular interest to men who like a large handle with a good grip. The brush handle feels almost bulky in the hand. I like the faceted design — and the amber base — and though the 24mm knot is on the large size for me, the brush works well and does a fine job. The knot is attractive and feels good on the face. (Top of the Chain carries the brush in Canada, and that’s also where I bought my Mike’s Natural shaving soap.)

I haven’t had one of Mike’s Natural shaving soaps for a while, but the Sharpologist article rekindled my interest, so I thought I would return to them. I’m pleased that he’s ditched the tin containers for a plastic tub with a screw-on lid, not so pleased that the tubs are labeled only on the top with the side unlabeled (since I stack the tubs) — though of course this is not an issue for a single-soap shaver (SSS).

The soap is much as I recall. Mike describes how he got into soapmaking, and he makes quite good soap. It’s harder than most artisan soaps. The hardness is due to the formula, near as I can tell, not from because the soap was milled, though the hardness is reminiscent of a triple-milled soap. The formula uses good, skin-friendly ingredients:

Distilled water; saponified tallow (beef) and stearic acid; vegetable glycerin; saponified kokum butter, avocado oil, and shea butter; lanolin, fragrance and/or essential oil(s); saponified coconut oil; kaolin clay, vitamin E.

Note the presence of lanolin — very nice for most men but a small proportion find their skin doesn’t like lanolin. The same is true of many ingredients — good for most, a problem for a few. Examples include lanolin, sandalwood, lime oil, citrus in general, and so on. Men with skin sensitivities generally know that from previous experience, and for them it’s a good idea to try a sample.

Loading the brush works best (for this and other soaps) if you start with a brush that’s merely damp and and brush the puck briskly, adding water (in small amounts) as needed, working the water into the brush after each (small) addition. This morning I had to add 3 driblets of water in the course of loading the brush, in part because of the size of the knot in the brush I was using, in part because of the hardness of the soap, and (I now see as I look at the ingredients) in part because of the use of clay in the formula.  In fact, I would say that the clay is  the main reason for having to add water. In my experience, soaps that contain clay always require a little more care (and water) in loading the brush than soaps without clay.

At one time I could not get a sustained lather from a Mike’s Natural soap, and I finally realized that it was because of my loading method. At the time, I used a sopping wet brush (dripping water) and held the puck on its side over the sink, brushing vigorously. This method worked well on soaps that loaded easily, but ultimately I abandoned it in favor of using a damp brush and adding a small amount of water only if needed. That works for all soaps, and once I switched to that, I had no more problems loading Mike’s Natural shaving soap.

The lather is excellent — thick, creamy, and with a good but not heavy fragrance, which this morning was Pine and Cedarwood. And as I write this, my skin feels very nice.

Three passes with the stainless RazoRock Mamba left my skin perfectly smooth, and I (naturally) finished with a good splash of Anthony Gold’s wonderful Red Cedar aftershave.

It’s a sunny morning and things are looking up.

Written by LeisureGuy

3 February 2021 at 10:23 am

Posted in Shaving

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