Plant Chat: Dr. William B. Miller Jr.
I am really excited to have Dr. William B. Miller, Jr. on my blog! This week, we are shifting our focus to the human body and its remarkable relationship to microbes. The microbiome, probiotics, gut health and the gut-brain axis are new words and concepts that have been gaining popularity in articles surrounding food and nutrition. What do they really mean and how do they impact our health? Dr. Bill Miller is here with us to shed some light on this young science.
Dr. Bill Miller has been a physician in academic and private practice for over 30 years. As he explains in this blog, working with patients led him to consider the importance of microbes and their impact on our health (as well as their contribution to illness). Combining unique observations about patterns of disease from medicine with current scientific discoveries in many other fields has encouraged his novel and provocative insights into our co-evolutionary journey with the microbial microcosm within each of us. If you would like to read more about this topic, Dr. Miller has written a book entitled The Microcosm Within, which illuminates how immunological factors dominate evolution and extinction.
Dr. Miller is a graduate of Northwestern University in Biology, Northwestern Medical School, and is a member of the medical honor society, Alpha Omega Alpha. Besides his medical work, he has been painting in oils since his teens. He now paints figurative works and portraits in his studio in Phoenix, Arizona and his figurative work is featured at Hilliard Gallery in Kansas City.
Dr. Miller currently serves as a scientific advisor to OmniBiome Therapeutics, a pioneering company in discovering and developing solutions to problems in human fertility and health through management of the human microbiome.
What is the focus of your research currently?
Currently, I am publishing peer-reviewed articles on several aspects of the microbiome, for example, the developing fetus and neonate. I am also contributing a series of articles on the impact of cellular awareness and the microbiome on evolutionary development.
When did you begin to hone in on the microbiome and its importance?
I was fortunate enough to be a physician in active practice for many decades. As a physician, it is essential to make predictions about the type of infectious disease a patient may have based on initial physical symptoms. For example, if a patient presents with pneumonia, a prediction can be made as to the best antibiotic to be used, even before the results of lab tests are available. It seems like such an ordinary thing. But I became very interested in why we could reliably predict that it would be one type of microbe rather than another. The answer is actually quite straightforward. Microbes have lives of their own, and distinct personalities, at least, of a sort. Importantly, microbes and all other cells are strategists and problem solvers. They’re not thinking the way you and I are, but they are self-aware and purposeful. Once I began to understand this specific principle, which most physicians don’t think about and almost no evolutionary biologists consider, I was off in a very unusual direction.
Can you describe the concept of the hologenome?
The concept of the hologenome addresses the important issue of how we should regard ourselves as living entities. When we look at ourselves in any mirror, we make the obvious assumption that we are a single being. However, as convincing as that may seem, this is not how Nature actually appraises us. Nature regards us as cellular beings: vast, collaborative enterprises made up of our own innate cells and an enormous amount of cooperative microbial life. We don’t even sense this microbial fraction, but it greatly outnumbers our own cells. The current estimate is about 10 to 1. The best way visualize our bodies is as localized ecologies. The inhabitants of these ecologies are our own cells and our microbes. That microbial fraction is now called our microbiome and we are dependent upon that microbiome for our survival. We exist together so seamlessly that we have the illusion of being a single being. ‘Hologenome’ is the term used to encompass the totality of the genetic contribution that makes us what we are, including all of the enormous number of microbial genes from all the microbes in our microbiome.
Have you changed your eating habits as a result of your understanding of the human microbiome?
There has been an impact, and it has been in two differing directions. The first may seem odd. As we learn more about how the microbiome links to our health, we are realizing that much of what we were taught by well-meaning health advocates in the past was either only slightly true or not true at all. The best example is heart disease. As a physician, I was taught that it was a condition exacerbated by cholesterol in the diet. So you should avoid butter, eggs, cheese, and so on. We don’t yet know what really causes heart disease, but it is most likely a complicated microbial interaction with our own cells and our innate genetic make-up. We still have a long way to go to actually understand, but all the old ideas are now being cast aside. I used to follow very careful guidelines for heart disease, but now I’ve just relaxed and enjoy good food without guilt.
Secondly, there is good evidence that utilizing probiotics as part of the diet is a useful dietary supplement. So that is something I also take advantage of.
How is our gut microbiome affected by our daily food choices?
We are at the beginning of a long journey of discovery with respect to the exact answer to that question. There is no doubt of its significance, but the gut microbiome is highly variable from person to person. What represents optimum for one person might be very far from perfect for another.
We do know for certain that we can shift the balances, but, except for specific rare conditions, we have not yet learned how to precisely specify what that proper balance should be. However, this young field is so promising that it does seem certain that eventually it will have a dramatic impact on healthy living and personal well-being.
What is your personal nutrition philosophy?
My personal nutrition philosophy is quite direct. Moderation in everything. There are few foods that are entirely bad and few foods that should ever be a particularly dominant aspect of our diet. So I follow moderation in total intake and I explore a wide variety of food types to enjoy for my own personal nutrition.
What is the benefit of adding fermented foods to our diets?
The developing popularity of fermented foods extends beyond their exotic taste and their ability to enliven otherwise tired cuisines. There is emerging data that including fermented foods in one’s diet has salutary effects on the gut microbiome balance, particularly with respect to gastrointestinal inflammatory disorders. There is also some evidence that associates the regular ingestion of fermented foods or other probiotics with clinical improvement in mood disorders.
What is the gut-brain axis?
There is an extensive amount of research being conducted on the gut-brain axis. Research to date has revealed that the gut has an astounding amount of associated nervous tissue. In fact, the amount of nervous tissue in the gut is greater than the amount of nervous tissue in the entire spinal cord. A part of the reason is that the gut microbiome is an essential component of our healthy metabolism, and this includes neurotransmitters and other neuroactive chemicals. For example, the great majority of serotonin, a powerful mood modulator, is also deeply involved with gut motility. It has become clear that the microbiome has a critical participant role in regulating serotonin production and uptake. So the old expression, ‘I have a gut feeling’, has been revealed to be true on multiple levels that would have been considered science fiction only a few years ago.
Does eating pickles or kimchi and drinking kombucha offer the same benefits as taking an oral probiotic?
We are just at the beginning of really understanding the benefits of probiotics. So there is work to be done on the optimal means of supplying this significant nutrient. Fermented foods are associated with probiotic microbes and are statistically associated with the kind of probiotic effect that we care about. Interestingly, modern pickles are not actually fermented in the traditional sense since they go through a sterilization process that kills the microbes. So pickles do not offer any significant probiotic contribution. Oral probiotics are very new, and there is little current standardization. It’s too early to know whether they substitute for natural foods. However, I am a great believer in experimentation. I think each person should try some of these probiotic products and see whether their sense of well-being is enhanced. You can be a scientist for yourself.
What are your favorite foods?
Definitely summer fruits, particularly ripe melon, cherries, peaches and plums. I particularly like eggplant in Italian or Asian recipes. For the latter, definitely spicy. And I’m a fan of every pasta dish ever made.
Thank you to Dr. Miller for sharing his expertise with us! You can read more about gut health and fermented foods by checking out the links below.
Written by Rebecca Berg, Dietetic Intern, with Sharon Palmer, RDN