By Joel Brind, PhD
City University of New York
President and CEO of Natural Food Science, LLC
You might think science is basically a left brain exercise, due to the logical reasoning of hypotheses and all the math. But as a lifelong scientist, I can tell you there is nothing more important in doing science and teaching science than the ability to visualize the operation of concepts involving things that cannot be directly seen.
Here’s what I tell my students on day one in lab part of intro BIO, especially those non-science majors who are forced to take at least one semester of laboratory science. I answer the question in all of their minds, i.e., “Why do I have to take a lab course, especially when most colleges no longer require it for non-science degree students?”
The purpose of a scientific laboratory (whether an actual lab room, or an observatory or an instrument set-up in the field) is singular: It is to make the invisible world visible, so that systematic observations may be made of it, for the purpose of the discovery of Natural Law at some level.
On day one, we make simple measurements, with scientific glassware and balances, so that observable characteristics can be measured more precisely than is ordinarily the case. In this way, quantitative relationships (e.g., the normal distribution of mass in lima beans) that are not ordinarily discernible, become discernible. On day two, we do simple chemical tests to detect amino acids and proteins, sugars and starches, using different test reagents to produce different color reactions, in order to be able to detect these substances which are normally colorless. On day 3, we learn to use the microscope, which renders visible things which are ordinarily too small to be seen.
But when it comes to cells and especially the much smaller molecules, even though our fancy instruments can render them visible, it is always good to remember that we are really working with models. Ultimately, we can see that all phenomena are really models or reflections or manifestations of Natural Law. Even if you can directly visualize the movement of a cell, you need a good model to make it real; something that is happening at an ordinarily observable level of existence.
On the right brain side, my ongoing challenge is to find the perfect analogy for whatever I want to understand or have others understand. The perfect analogy can be defined as that familiar situation, easily seen, which embodies the operation of the same laws governing the ordinarily invisible phenomenon under study.
That is how, for example, I came to understand the nature and operation of the innate immune system (the main phenomenon it produces is inflammation) and how it is naturally regulated and controlled.
Research immunologists are typically concerned with the molecules that definable cell types make to target specific pathogenic microbes or tumor cells. These cell types are rather independent of the big picture of what the immune response really is, and typically ignore most of what the immune system does.
Most of what the immune system does is done by cells called macrophages (from the Greek for “big eater”). These are ameba-like cells, different varieties of which (all formed in the bone marrow) circulate in the blood and also populate every organ. The macrophages are the immune system’s first responders to infection. So when a new microbe is encountered in the body where it does not belong, the macrophages swing into action and secrete a variety of poisons (including hydrogen peroxide) to kill the invader before it and its progeny kill you. That violent process is called inflammation (This is real micro-aggression!).
But inflammation also typically happens when there is tissue injury—such as a blunt injury or sunburn—but no infection. That’s why we typically put ice on a blunt injury—to prevent inflammation. Because all inflammation does in that case is cause injury to normal tissue. So why does the body do the wrong thing?
The answer became easily understandable to me by expanding the analogy of first responders to familiar situations where there is damage; sometimes with bad actors present (as in infection); sometimes not (as in blunt injury). So if there is an accident on the freeway, who shows up to take care of it? The cops, of course. And they show up to direct traffic, call the ambulances and the tow trucks, take down witness statements, and get the scene cleared up and the traffic moving again.
Of course, the cops are armed, but there is never a need for any of their guns to be drawn, in an accident. But what if there is a case of road rage? The same cops show up, but this time, their guns are drawn, and maybe fired, to eliminate the threat of bad actors.
In the same way, macrophages show up whenever there is injury or damage (even normal events like blood circulation and ovulation cause minor damage) and get in ameba mode and clean up the cellular debris. But it turns out that naturally, they only draw and shoot their guns—i.e., secrete poisons to kill invading bacteria or fungi—when they detect the presence (via their chemical signatures) of such invading microbes. But if the body is deficient in one little amino acid—called glycine—they get activated to fight the infection, even when there is no infection!
So while so many immunologists struggle to figure out what specific chemicals provoke macrophages to cause the chronic inflammation that underlies most of the diseases that make people sick and die these days (heart disease, diabetes, cancer, etc.), it turns out to be a simple nutritional deficiency that makes these first responders hypersensitive, and essentially paranoid in their reaction to injury.
Since it turned out to be such a simple nutritional fix, I even started a company to sell Sweetamine®, my brand of glycine supplement, while the wheels of my peer-reviewed research (currently collaborating with the NIH) grind on.
In conclusion, if only more researchers used their right brains to help them design communications and teaching methods, we would have more solutions to more problems sooner.
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Joel Brind, PhD is a professor of Human Biology and Endocrinology at Baruch College of the City University of New York, now in his 32nd year, and the President and CEO of Natural Food Science, LLC, which sells the glycine supplement sweetamine® via www.sweetamine.com
What if the view of science is in error, regarding inflammation? What if there is a need and benefit for inflammation in every instance when the body self-selects to invoke that response? What if the error is ours, in not understanding how and why to harness the inflammation we consider to be counter-productive?
You say: “What if the error is ours, in not understanding how and why to harness the inflammation we consider to be counter-productive?” It is odd that you should speak of “harnessing” inflammation, for that is exactly what glycine does. When glycine is adequate (much higher than levels considered “normal”), inflammation is properly harnessed: There is no deficiency in the ability of the inflammatory response to fight infection. In contrast, when one takes any number of “biologic” anti-inflammatory drugs (“Mabs”), which target the macrophages which do the inflammation, one is at greater risk of infection. (Witness the long-winded warnings about avoiding infection in the ads for these drugs.)
But your question is really about inflammation in response to injury, hypothesizing an unknown purpose that is beneficial. I would ask why you would even suspect such a beneficial purpose, when all inflammation does in response to injury is cause more injury and inhibit healing? I rather suspect your hypothesis is born of habitual experience: Inflammation always happens with injury, so it must be an appropriate response in some way. I suppose it comes down to axioms. To me, if some process is plainly injurious, then something is not working right. But in terms of glycine and inflammation, I suppose you want me to prove it.
Very well then. One line of evidence is that if one takes supplemental glycine (like my sweetamine, which provides 8 grams per day of glycine) overt disease conditions such as arthritis and type 2 diabetes are often reversed, obviating the need for drugs. But you might argue that outside of overt disease conditions, people can be generally quite healthy on a typical omnivorous diet without supplemental glycine, although they still get inflammation in response to blunt injury, sunburn, etc. But can they? Consider that about two thirds of all the people who die every day die of cardiovascular disease or cancer; disease conditions rooted in chronic inflammation. Moreover, the situation is worse than it used to be a century ago, and that raises a very critical question: The typical diet in the US today is very protein-rich (bacon & egg breakfast; a tuna fish sandwich lunch, a beef dinner, every day, for example. That means that the diet contains more glycine than ever before, and yet we are dying from inflammation-rooted diseases more than ever before!
So here’s the answer: These days, the meat, fish and poultry we generally eat are not whole foods; rather, just muscle meats. Muscle meats are very rich in the essential amino acid methionine, and relatively poor in glycine. (Most of the glycine is in the collagen, which is in the bones and connective tissues, which we usually throw away these days.) It turns out that, after eating that cheeseburger, your liver is actually getting rid of the excess methionine. But there is only one biochemical pathway to get rid of excess methionine, and it uses up more than double the glycine to get rid of each molecule of methionine. Hence, I arrived at the hypothesis that, even though we eat lots more glycine–and every other amino acid–these days, we are actually depleting glycine, rather than adding to it’s levels in the body.
Sound counterintuitive to you? You’re in good company! A high profile team at Oxford performed a study on almost 400 normal men in the the UK in their 30s and 40s, in 2015. They had about 100 each of vegans, lacto-vegetarians, fish-eaters and meat-eaters (omnivores), and studied in detail the daily intake of all 20 protein amino acids, and the blood plasma levels of all 20 free amino acids. This was the perfect test of my hypothesis: If it is correct, the meat-eaters should have the highest glycine intake, but the lowest plasma glycine levels of the 4 groups. Other amino acids would be expected to have plasma levels that parallel intake. And that is exactly what they found. The sad part is that the authors could not explain their findings!
So I explained it to them in an e-letter I published on the British Medical Journal’s website, in response to another article about inflammation and chronic illnesses: https://www.bmj.com/content/360/bmj.k134/rr-1.
So, the proof is in the proverbial pudding (or in the case of glycine, you might say, in the Jell-o!))