Bill Sullivan (@wjsullivan) is a professor of pharmacology and microbiology at the Indiana University School of Medicine in Indianapolis, an award-winning researcher, teacher, science communicator, and author of Pleased to Meet Me: Genes, Germs, and the Curious Forces That Make Us Who We Are.
What We Discuss with Bill Sullivan:
- What we’re just now learning in the field of epigenetics — the study of how your behaviors and environment can cause changes that affect the way your genes work.
- Why twins who are genetically identical look less alike as they age — or if they’ve been raised apart from one another.
- How the overabundance of plastics and other endocrine disruptors in our environment are affecting not only our bodies on a molecular level, but the physical and mental development of generations down the line.
- How kids — even the unborn — are epigenetically altered by the social and economic status of their parents.
- What we’re learning about the role of the teeming millions of microorganisms that live inside of us — collectively known as the microbiome — on our overall mental and physical health.
- And much more…
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The more we delve into the science of epigenetics, the more we’re coming to understand that there are multiple versions of who “you” can be as blueprinted in your genome — but it’s your environment and how you navigate that environment that bring out the version you’re experiencing today. This is why a pair of identical twins who share the same genetic code may look quite different as they age or if they’re raised apart from one another.
On this episode, we’re joined by pharmacology and microbiology professor Bill Sullivan to discuss the epigenetic factors that nudge us in ways that diverge from our genetic programming as outlined in his book Pleased to Meet Me: Genes, Germs, and the Curious Forces That Make Us Who We Are. Listen, learn, and enjoy!
Please Scroll Down for Featured Resources and Transcript!
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Thanks, Bill Sullivan!
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Resources from This Episode:
- Pleased to Meet Me: Genes, Germs, and the Curious Forces That Make Us Who We Are by Bill Sullivan | Amazon
- Bill Sullivan | Website
- Bill Sullivan | Twitter
- Fast Times at Ridgemont High | Prime Video
- Goonies | Prime Video
- What is Epigenetics? | CDC
- This Is Spinal Tap | Prime Video
- The Woman Who Was 300 Pounds Heavier Than Her Twin Sister | The Oprah Winfrey Show
- Fat? Thin? Molecular Switch May Turn Obesity On or Off | Science
- Endocrine Disruptors | National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences
- How Plastic is Wrecking Your Health | Carol Kwiatkowski, PhD | The Genius Life 42
- Count Down: How Our Modern World Is Threatening Sperm Counts, Altering Male and Female Reproductive Development, and Imperiling the Future of the Human Race by Shanna H. Swan and Stacey Colino | Amazon
- Poverty Linked to Epigenetic Changes and Mental Illness | Nature
- Intergroup Monopoly: A Lesson on the Enduring Effects of Inequality | Action Teaching
- The Human Microbiome: Why Our Microbes Could Be Key to Our Health | The Guardian
- Effect of Gut Microbiota on Depressive-like Behaviors in Mice Is Mediated by the Endocannabinoid System | Nature Communications
- Supertaster: Definition, Benefits, and Drawbacks | Healthline
- The Psychology Behind Liking Spicy Food and Pain | Popular Science
- How a Child’s Food Preferences Begin in the Womb | The Guardian
- Fecal Transplantation (Bacteriotherapy) | Johns Hopkins
- Does Our Microbiome Control Us or Do We Control It? | Scientific American
- Brain Parasite May Strip Away Rodents’ Fear of Predators — Not Just of Cats | Science
- The Effects of Childhood Maltreatment on Epigenetic Regulation of Stress-Response Associated Genes: An Intergenerational Approach | Nature
- Brain-Derived Neurotrophic Factor: A Key Molecule for Memory in the Healthy and the Pathological Brain | Frontiers In Cellular Neuroscience
- Fear Etched in Epigenetics: Phobias, PTSD Can Be Inherited | Genome Alberta
- Human Sperm May ‘Smell’ Their Way to the Egg, Science Study Suggests | ScienceDaily
- Minority Report | Prime Video
- Genome-Wide Association Studies (GWAS) | National Human Genome Research Institute
- Monoamine Oxidase A Gene (MAOA) Predicts Behavioral Aggression Following Provocation | PNAS
- National Geographic and Henry Rollins Explore ‘Warrior Gene’ | 89.3 KPCC
- Epigenomics of Being Bullied: Changes in Dna Methylation Following Bullying Exposure | Epigenetics
- Harvard Study Links Gene And Political Views | The Harvard Crimson
- Professor William Sullivan: Our Second Brain: The Power of the Microbiome | TED Talk
610: Bill Sullivan | Pleased to Meet Me
[00:00:00] Jordan Harbinger: Coming up next on The Jordan Harbinger Show.
[00:00:02] Bill Sullivan: If you take a microbiome sample of intestinal bacteria from a depressed person and put it into a germ-free mouse, that mouse starts to exhibit symptoms of depression. It won't be interested in treats. It won't socialize with other mice. And if you drop it into a bucket of water, it won't even try to swim out like a normal mouse would. So this was a huge discovery that links for the first time, something about the human microbiome is linked to depression.
[00:00:39] Jordan Harbinger: Welcome to the show. I'm Jordan Harbinger. On The Jordan Harbinger Show, we decode the stories, secrets, and skills of the world's most fascinating people. We have in-depth conversations with people at the top of their game, astronauts, entrepreneurs, spies, and psychologists, even the occasional former cult member, undercover agents, or a music mogul. Each episode turns our guests' wisdom into practical advice that you can use to build a deeper understanding of how the world works and become a better critical thinker.
[00:01:05] If you're new to the show, or you want to tell your friends about it, we've got episode starter packs. These are collections of your favorite episodes, organized by topic. That'll help new listeners get a taste of everything we do here on the show. Just visit jordanharbinger.com/start. You can find them also in Spotify, that'll help you get started or help somebody else get started. And of course, I always appreciate it when you do that.
[00:01:26] Today, how much of our makeup is because of our genetics and how much is because of our environment? This isn't just nature versus nurture, but how nurture affects what's already in our nature. And I know that's a little confusing, but we'll get through that today. And we'll explain exactly why our environment actually might interact with our genes to make us who we are. And we'll uncover how our environment interacts with our genes to make us who we really are. Also some things we touch or spray on ourselves might mimic hormones and change the way our body and brain works sometimes in scary ways and our gut biome and what's in our digestive system almost certainly affects how and what we think. This wasn't brand new for me, but the science here is really incredible. Last but not least, a bacteria that makes mice attack cats. Yeah. You've heard me correctly. Really fascinating conversation on some subjects that we don't usually discuss here on the show.
[00:02:16] And if you're wondering how I managed to book all these amazing folks, these thinkers, authors, creators every single week, it's because of my network. And I'm teaching you how to build your network for free over at jordanharbinger.com/course. The course is about developing your networking and connection skills and inspiring others to develop a personal and professional relationship with you. It'll make you a better networker, a better connector and a better thinker. That's all free at jordanharbinger.com/course. And by the way, most of the guests you hear on the show subscribe and contribute to the course. So come join us, you'll be in smart company where you belong.
[00:02:50] Now, here's Bill Sullivan.
[00:02:53] I loved all the '80s references in the book because, born in 1980 myself, you have a lot of, kind of deep cuts. There's a lot of references in there that I go, "Wow. Okay. I haven't heard that for a hot minute."
[00:03:03] Bill Sullivan: I'm glad you caught some of those. That's why—
[00:03:05] Jordan Harbinger: Oh, yeah.
[00:03:05] Bill Sullivan: —I put them in a little, little Easter egg kind of things. A child of the '80s, myself. It was fun to put those in.
[00:03:10] Jordan Harbinger: Yeah. It's kind of like, oh, is that a Fast Times at Ridgemont High ref, or whatever? Did you just mention something from Goonies that you would only recognize if you'd seen it in the last few years?
[00:03:20] Bill Sullivan: Yeah. Some are a little obscure.
[00:03:22] Jordan Harbinger: Yeah, exactly. Obscure. I guess that's the word I was looking for? Like, I'm pretty sure that's a quote from Chunk from Goonies. Everybody born after 1984 is like, "I have no idea what you're talking about." That was my movie though. That was like recorded off TV and VHS, rewatch it every month with commercials. The best jokes edited out, like when the statue falls and he goes, "Oh man, that's mom's favorite part," because the penis falls off.
[00:03:45] Bill Sullivan: Awesome. Yeah, I still have a Goonies shirt. I mean, it's one of my favorites from that era.
[00:03:50] Jordan Harbinger: The book is very interesting. I don't cover health, but this isn't really health. This is more about how humans are biomechanical machines and we're very different from one another. And yet we kind of don't really know why. Is that accurate?
[00:04:04] Bill Sullivan: Yeah, that's very accurate. And this book encompasses a lot of great stuff and it just all started with kind of like the virtual reunion that happened years ago when I got on social media and just started linking up with friends who I haven't spoken to or seen in 20 years. And it makes you think your mind goes back to this classroom full of these budding youngsters and all that potential promise in the future. And you see some people are very successful, some are married, some are divorced, some might be in jail, some struggle with alcohol and drugs, some are writing books. And you wonder why. We were all pretty much the same. We all grew up in the same area, the same relative environment, what creates all these differences. And I think that's a fundamental question that many people at any stage in their life wonder about as we try to interact and work with people throughout our lives. How are we so similar and yet so different at the same time. And by learning the answers to those questions, I think we can live a much happier and healthier life.
[00:05:01] Jordan Harbinger: Yeah. We know that DNA and genes have a lot of the differences, obviously. There's countless books and research on why DNA and genes lead us to have red hair versus brown hair or tall versus short. But the rest of it being environmental and epigenetic is I think, long suspected, but something that most people didn't really know. And even now we don't really know what's going on, right? So it seems like DNA itself has many different options built into it. Does that sound right? Well, I'm oversimplifying it, of course, but it sounds like there's different sort of options on each strand of DNA. And it's not just like, this is who you are. There's different layers.
[00:05:36] Bill Sullivan: I think you hit the nail on the head, Jordan. That's a very concise summary of what epigenetics tries to say as a science. And this is a relatively new science. It really only came to the fore around 20, 25 years ago. Before that there was a lot of genetic determinism, genes being the recipe of life and dictating exactly who you are. And there is some elements of truth to that. Like you said, many people are comfortable with the fact that genes dictate various aspects of our physical nature, including like hair color, eye color, things like that. But there's a lot more to it than that as epigenetics has revealed.
[00:06:12] And in a nutshell, what epigenetics is saying, it literally means beyond the gene. What it is trying to convey is going back to this whole divide of nature versus nurture genes versus environment. And it's basically saying this should not be a division at all. These are two sides of the same coin because the environment actually regulates our genes in real time that creates this fascinating flexibility. And it's kind of interesting to think about philosophically. There are multiple versions of who you can be in your genome. And it's the environment that kind of coaxes out the person that you are. It's a really interesting interplay and it made geneticists think really hard about the limitations of genetics.
[00:07:01] Jordan Harbinger: So epigenetics is essentially how the environment affects what our genes express or which genes are expressed, right? So this is probably a terrible example, but let's say that in cold weather, more people have blonde hair and I'm making this up to be clear. Then if the person who had that gene that said, well, dark hair in warm climate, blonde hair in cold climate. If that person moved to a different climate than their hair would be a different color versus their identical twin, theoretically who stayed in the original environment. Right? So the environment would flip a different switch on that DNA to create something different in the way that that gene expresses itself. Does that make sense?
[00:07:36] Bill Sullivan: Yes, it does. And let me unpack that a little bit. You've actually said quite a bit of really cool stuff in that statement.
[00:07:42] Jordan Harbinger: I thought you were going to say nonsense, but go ahead. I'll take really cool stuff.
[00:07:46] Bill Sullivan: Well, it leads us to some really cool science, okay. I think an analogy might help a lot of your listeners understand what genes are all about because historically, and perhaps in biology class, many people thought of genes as an on/off switch, right? The genes either turned on or it's turned off, but that's not necessarily the case. Genes are more like dimmer switches or volume knobs, okay, if people remember those. So you can have everything from very little negligible amount of that gene being activated to all the way, you know, it could go to 11 to use the spinal tap reference. And that basically, genes build proteins. So the more the gene is turned up, the more the protein is expressed.
[00:08:27] So in a very crude analogy, you can imagine that if someone in one set of circumstances expressed a very little bit of serotonin, which is a critical neurotransmitter, that controls mood. If they had genes that control serotonin, but they have very low levels of it, but then we put them into a different environment or give them a medication that can alter the expression of that gene. Serotonin levels can run and then they experience a better mood.
[00:08:54] I also liked what you said about identical twins, because there's been a phenomenon associated with identical twins that has created a decades long mystery for geneticists. And that's the fact that as identical twins age, as they get older, they look a little different and they sometimes even behave a little different than they did when they were young. And what people need to be reminded of is that they have absolutely identical genes, 100 percent. They are literally clones of one another. So how can this be? How can people with the same exact genes, once they're older in their 40s or 50s, start to show differences. One of the most dramatic examples is twins, identical twins that are discordant for obesity, which means one of the identical twins is lean and the other one is. How can that be if they have exactly the same genes?
[00:09:44] Jordan Harbinger: Right.
[00:09:45] Bill Sullivan: This is where epigenetics come in to play. And the real quick experiment I'll resolve that mystery was when scientists discovered that epigenetics has a say in how much a gene gets turned on or off, they started developing tools where they can monitor this. It's fascinating technology, right? But they can actually stain chromosomes to identify whether they've been epigenetically changed or not.
[00:10:10] Jordan Harbinger: Oh, wow.
[00:10:11] Bill Sullivan: So the upshot is in very young twins. If you look at the analogous chromosomes and you stain for these epigenetic marks, they're pretty much identical in young twins. And then if you look at older twins, 50 years or older, those epigenetic marks are all over the place. They are not conserved between the twins, even though the genes are the same. The song has changed, right? So the epigenetic marks have changed. And that is what attributes differences that we sometimes see in identical twins.
[00:10:39] Jordan Harbinger: It's funny, I've got a pair of identical twin buddies. They're both great people. So I'll caveat because people are going to be like, "Dang, I hope they don't hear this," but they're both really great guys and I'm close with. One of them is like a health nut, personal trainer and the other one used to smuggle cocaine for the Hells Angels. You can definitely tell them apart. I'll put it that way. Not just because of tattoo volume, but because of other very clear reasons, like you would never confuse one for the other, I'll put it that way, and a lot of that's environment.
[00:11:08] Bill Sullivan: Yeah. And it's either physical things that they encounter in their environment or even psychological things. Both of those have been shown to alter genes at the epigenetic level. And you know, we're still discovering new ways that genes can be altered. The analogy that I like to use that seems to resonate with a lot of people is that you can think of your genes as piano keys, but the environment plays the song.
[00:11:31] Jordan Harbinger: I'd love to talk about endocrine disruptors as well. This is something that, first of all, what are these? Because this terrifies me, apparently they're in everything.
[00:11:39] Bill Sullivan: Yeah. A lot of people are justifiably concerned about endocrine disruptors and they are everywhere. They're in all kinds of different plastics. And many of them are what we call forever chemicals because they don't biodegrade anytime soon. So once they are put out there into the environment, they're there to stay. And what's alarming about them as you might surmise from their name is that they disrupt our endocrinology and the endocrinology of other animals. And what do we mean when we say that?
[00:12:08] Jordan Harbinger: Yeah.
[00:12:09] Bill Sullivan: It means that chemically, if you were to — for most people, this is a terrifying experience, but you go back to chemistry class and think about those Tinkertoy models. When you look at chemical structures, the constituents of these plastics, these so-called endocrine disruptors look a lot like hormones and they can act on our body in the same way. Hormones are very delicate molecules and they are only expressed like during certain windows of time during development. And they're expressed under very tight control. You can't have too much of them. You can't have too little. They have to be just right there, like a Goldilocks molecule. Endocrine disruptors, get into the body and they wreak havoc with our endocrine system because they're acting like hormones being expressed at the wrong level at the wrong time.
[00:12:57] Jordan Harbinger: I've heard from friends of mine who are kind of health nuts, they're telling me things like you should get a reverse osmosis filter for your kitchen, because if you're drinking tap water — yeah, you're drinking chlorine and weird stuff from the pipes, which has already gross enough, but you're also potentially drinking, especially if you live in a city or something like that, you're drinking birth control pill, urine runoff type stuff where women who've taken birth control pills and other plastics and things like that that are in there are now in the water. And then I'm chugging a couple gallons of this everyday or drinking my tea. And it's like, I'm taking a small version of those pills among other things. And those are all hormones that would maybe be an absolutely tiny, tiny infinitesimally, small quantities in my body. I'm now slamming a thousand times that per day or a hundred times that per day. That's really, that's disturbing and it's not just birth control pill pee from other people, it's the plastics and the water bottle. Like I remember when I was seven, eight years old playing soccer and they would give us these water bottles that stank to high heaven of plastic. And then you drink the water and the water would taste like this toxic plastic. And I would go, "This is disgusting. Why is no one talking about this?" And then of course, 10, 20 years later, they're like, "Oh, those are BPAs. You should be consuming zero of that. They're illegal now." And that was like in every kid's water bottle that we were told, "Drink enough water. You're playing soccer. Drink the whole thing and refill it.
[00:14:21] Bill Sullivan: Yeah. This is a major, major problem. And it's a fundamental problem with chemical safety. When scientists put out a drug into the world, they go through very rigorous clinical trials to ensure that it's going to be safe and that it won't cause any obvious harm. They test this in tens of thousands of people. When someone invents a new plastic, it doesn't go through that. It just goes out. There's very little regulation. That's tied to that. And it's presumed safe until proven otherwise, which is a logic that is truly befuddling. Especially when you have a chemical, that demonstrably looks like one of the chemicals in our body that is required for development and fertility. So this is a major, major problem.
[00:15:04] There was a wonderful book, very frightening book, but a wonderful book called Countdown that was released not long ago, that describes that the advent of endocrine disruptors being disseminated throughout our plastics and into our environment tracks almost identically with the dramatic drop in fertility that we're seeing in a lot of countries that utilize these chemicals. There's been some epigenetic data that shows that these endocrine disruptors can interfere with a variety of genes that are linked to fertility. This is one of the major concerns of the endocrine disruptors in addition to potential developmental problems in fetuses that might be exposed to these during pregnancy.
[00:15:46] Jordan Harbinger: It sounds like there's a whole show here. So I'll move on pretty quick, but I'm so interested in this because even though I don't cover health, this isn't really one of those things, that's like, it's not a fad diet or an exercise plan. This is something that I think is pretty well-documented and is not just hype. The problem could be overstated. I don't know. I haven't done any research, but it seems to me like if every kid drank out of a toxic endocrine disrupting water bottle for a decade playing sports, growing up, there's something there, especially if it's still in our drinking water/air/food. So one more depressing show to put on the docket. Thanks, Bill.
[00:16:19] Bill Sullivan: And you bring up a good point, Jordan. We don't want to induce a lot of unnecessary fear in people.
[00:16:24] Jordan Harbinger: Yeah.
[00:16:24] Bill Sullivan: So where most scientists are on this at the moment? The fundamental principle and toxicology is dose. Nothing's a poison necessarily. It's the dose, that's the poison. Take the famous example. You can ingest enough water to actually kill yourself water but we don't consider it to be a toxin of any kind it's necessary to live, but it just illustrates the point that everything can be a poison if it's at the right dose. So what you say is critically important. We may be able to tolerate some kind of modest level of certain endocrine disruptors. The problem is we don't test or try to determine what that concentration should be. So what we're trying to get across right now is this needs regulation and research more than, you know, a lot of panic amongst consumers right now.
[00:17:08] Jordan Harbinger: Fetal programming. You mentioned babies and unborn babies being affected by some of these things. How are kids in the unborn effected by the social status and economic status of parents? That was surprising to me. I guess it shouldn't have been totally new, but it doesn't bode well for societies with lots of poverty or planets with lots of poverty when even unborn children, alongside kids that are born are effected by the social status and economic status of their parents. That sounds like a problem that's not going to get solved in one generation or through a couple of government policies, right? It means there's lasting damage to poverty.
[00:17:43] Bill Sullivan: Yeah. This is one of the critical themes that I wanted to try to get across in the book, because especially in countries like ours with this heroic individualism, you know, there's this tendency that we can just tell anyone out there in our country to pull themselves up by their bootstraps. Get a grip and all opportunities are equal. And that is fundamentally flawed when you look at the data.
[00:18:08] So when we talk about things like contaminated water, water, that might be contaminated, not just with endocrine disruptors, but heavy metals, like lead, which have very demonstrable effects on cognitive abilities, as well as a tendency towards aggression. We find a lot of these sorts of things in poor neighborhoods. So socioeconomic stress has long been associated with people having problems, getting out of poverty, but we always go back to this idea. The more I read the data, the more I consider this fantasy that anybody can pull themselves up out of poverty.
[00:18:45] I think it's certainly possible in rare instances, okay. It's certainly been done. But for the vast majority of people, we have to respect truth and understand that these individuals, some of them in impoverished areas who are not getting the proper nutrition, who are possibly ingesting toxins or heavy metals, and who are experiencing perhaps exposure to drugs and alcohol during pregnancy, these individuals are going to be very ill-equipped.
[00:19:15] They have been epigenetically altered, as you referred to it as fetal programming. This is not their choice. They did not choose to be exposed to these stressors while they were in the womb. So how can you possibly blame that child? And just say, "This is all on you to grow up," without any help or assistance or very minimal levels of it. I think the science is really making people reevaluate our idea of what socioeconomic stress does to individuals and how it really holds them back. And what epigenetics has done over the past decade or so has attached some real, tangible data to that process. So if you look at the genes of someone who is born into poverty, they are epigenetically modified at genes that regulate stress and aggression. So we've already set this child up for a monumentous uphill climb that I think we just take for granted in a privileged society.
[00:20:17] Jordan Harbinger: Yeah, it sounds political on its face, but also it really isn't if there's science behind this, right? If we're saying, "Hey, people who don't have the same resources actually have children who are affected by their own lack of resources." And it's not just a matter of habits or behaviors from that person. It speaks to the inequality that you have in a society. But how to fix that is the question. We all know how we quality of outcome ends up, but I don't want to turn this into a political show here.
[00:20:46] I'd love to speak more about the microbiome as well. What is this? And is this why my friend's homes smell?
[00:20:54] Bill Sullivan: Yeah, it probably is, especially if they have pets, they have microbiomes too. So your microbiome refers to the collection of trillions of microbes that live on and inside of your body. And we knew, like for instance, our intestines house trillions of bacteria, and they're there probably to help us digest some foods, maybe keep nasty bacteria at bay through competition, but we didn't understand that they have far reaching roles into personality and behavior as well. And that's what scientists are discovering now, that the microbiome seems to have additional roles that we never appreciated before.
[00:21:36] So what these microbes do in our gut? And, you know, there's hundreds of different species. They make all sorts of different biochemicals and they have an impact on our body. And no one has the same microbiome. In fact, your microbiome can even change as you get older or become exposed to different environments. So this is a dynamic entity to a degree, and it shifts the biochemistry in your body. And that's going to alter perhaps your brain chemistry.
[00:22:04] And this was demonstrated in a very famous experiment, not long ago when scientists took what we call germ-free mice. These are mice that are born under sterile conditions. So they don't have a microbiome. They don't have any microbes in or on them. And they're kept in these sterile cages, which allow scientists to then transplant microbiomes into them to see what happens. So here's where it gets interesting. If you take a microbiome sample of intestinal bacteria from a depressed person and put it into a germ-free mouse, that mouse starts to exhibit symptoms of depression. It won't be interested in treats. It won't socialize with other mice. And if you drop it into a bucket of water, it won't even try to swim out like a normal mouse would. So this was a huge discovery that links for the first time, something about the human microbiome is linked to depression. And to me, that might reshape how we treat this disorder certainly down the line.
[00:23:07] Jordan Harbinger: Yeah, it seems crazy to me that the microbiome can weigh as much as our brain. And I know this because I read it in your book, but also because I had a colonoscopy. So when we clear out those pipes in preparation for something like that, we're literally sh*tting our brains out. It sounds like.
[00:23:21] Bill Sullivan: Yeah, our second brain.
[00:23:22] Jordan Harbinger: Our second brain, yeah. And dogs can track this, right? Not the pooping part, but dogs can track the microbiome. Now, we're seeing things like dogs that can sniff for cancer. Is that kind of what's going on? Is that something different?
[00:23:33] Bill Sullivan: This was another element that I did touch on in the book, because there's been chatter about the microbiome being a unique fingerprint for people. It's almost like DNA. Like I said, you carry around a specific assortment of microbes and scientists can not only identify what they are, but they can identify the relative quantities of them. So the microbes sitting in my gut are definitely going to be different than the ones that are sitting in your gut. And if forensic scientists were able to extract samples at the site or what they're showing now is that dogs can even smell some of these. They don't smell the microbes themselves, but they smell the byproducts, what these microbes are making, and they have an exquisite sense of smell. They can identify and link those sense from the site to a person who carries that microbiome. So that's where things get really compelling and really interesting.
[00:24:29] Jordan Harbinger: The gut has eight million genes in it, you wrote. But is that kind of like saying the chicken, I just ate has a ton of genes in it because there's DNA in the meat, or are you talking about something else?
[00:24:38] Bill Sullivan: Well, if you eat a chicken, of course, you're consuming DNA—
[00:24:41] Jordan Harbinger: Yeah.
[00:24:42] Bill Sullivan: —eating those chicken cells, but your stomach's going to destroy all that. It's going to rip those molecules apart limb from limb.
[00:24:47] Jordan Harbinger: Okay.
[00:24:48] Bill Sullivan: So Jordan can live another day, but the microbes in your gut, even though they're reproducing and dying and turning over those genes are actively producing things, okay. They're actively making things and it's been shown that what they make can get into the bloodstream and can go to the brain. And that's how they can possibly affect mood and behavior as well. So these biochemicals made by the bacteria are dynamic and affecting our bodies in ways we're just beginning to understand.
[00:25:17] Jordan Harbinger: So we're more bacteria than human from the sound of it.
[00:25:22] Bill Sullivan: The current estimates say there's slightly more bacterial cells than the cells that make up our own body. That's true.
[00:25:29] Jordan Harbinger: That's a gross way to start lunch. So hopefully, people are not eating while listening to this. It's a funny visual that there's so much going on down there that there's actually more than in the rest of my body.
[00:25:41] You mentioned being a supertaster. Now, this is something that I've experienced. I'm also a supertaster. Tell us what this is. Cause I've just heard, oh, I have more taste buds than normal people, but what it results in is me hating a lot of things that other people love.
[00:25:54] Bill Sullivan: Yeah. And that actually was one of the first things I wanted to tackle when I got into writing this book and researching it. Because like you, I was a very picky eater growing up and it drove some of my family members crazy. One of the vegetables that I couldn't stand was broccoli, and I still can't stand it to this day. And while I was growing up, most people seem to enjoy this vegetable. And what the hell is wrong with these people? Can't they experience this awful taste that I feel. My brain thinks it's a poison. How can you stomach this?
[00:26:26] What the science has borne out is that there's super tasters among us about one quarter of people, 25 percent or so are supertasters. And I actually got the genetic test to prove it. I don't know if it convinced my parents, why I didn't eat my vegetables when I was younger, but I have genetic proof that yes, I have the gene mutation that creates this excess of bitter taste buds on my tongue that have a heightened reaction. So that is telling my brain like, "What you just put in your mouth is really bitter. It's probably poisonous. You should spit it out."
[00:27:06] Jordan Harbinger: You're listening to The Jordan Harbinger Show with our guest Bill Sullivan. We'll be right back.
[00:27:11] This episode is sponsored in part by GoodRx. People are surprised that prescription prices can vary between pharmacies by as much as a hundred dollars. I checked GoodRx to compare prices at pharmacies near me and find discounts that could save me up to 80 percent. GoodRx is free and easy to use and works whether you do or do not have insurance. Even if you have insurance, there's a good chance GoodRx can beat your copay price. You can check GoodRx online or in their app where you can find prescription savings at over 70,000 pharmacies nationwide like CVS, Kroger, Walgreens, RiteAid, Vaughn's Walmart and more. In fact, my father-in-law when he goes to get his prescriptions filled, he pulls up the GoodRx app, shows the pharmacist, saves like 30 bucks.
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[00:28:10] Jordan Harbinger: This episode is also sponsored by Better Help online therapy. We talk about Better Help a lot on this show. This month, of course, we're discussing some of the stigmas around mental health, and there are plenty of those. We've been taught that mental health shouldn't be a part of normal life. I think that is wrong. We take care of our bodies by going to the gym or working out in the garage like me, having a doctor that we see regularly, trying to keep tabs on our nutrition. We should be focusing on our minds just as much in my opinion. And many people think that therapy is for so-called crazy people, but therapy doesn't mean something is wrong with you. It means you recognize that all humans have emotions and we need to learn how to control them, not avoid them. Better Help is customized online therapy that offers video, phone, even live chat sessions with your therapist. You don't have to see anyone on camera if you don't want to. It's much more affordable than in-person therapy, and you can get matched up with a therapist in under 48 hours.
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[00:29:31] Now back to Bill Sullivan.
[00:29:34] I'm not a picky eater when it comes to a lot of things but stuff like kale was just horrible. You know, I eat it. I'll choke down the juice, but it tastes almost like a gasoline-type flavor. It's not exactly it, but it's really, really bad. It literally does taste toxic. Like my brain is telling me, "Don't eat this it's bad for you," even though everybody at the trendy vegan juice place is like, "Oh, isn't it so good," with some other things that you never put in your body. And it seems interesting that this is by design. If vegetables are good for me and eating less of that is bad because they're good for me being a supertaster hurts me then, right?
[00:30:08] Bill Sullivan: It's a double-edged sword actually. You're absolutely right, that supertasters do tend to have a poor diet. Usually later in life, they have health outcomes that reflect that. So it's really good that you got your colonoscopy because that's one of the risk factors associated with being a supertaster. It's colon cancer, and, you know, things like that because they tend to eat more meats and things like that, less vegetables. But all supertasters should try to identify some vegetables that they can incorporate into their diet, that they can stand or explore ways that they can cook food.
[00:30:39] Personally, I think kale is beyond help. That's just not going to work for us. There's nothing you can do to it. Deep fry it and chocolate sauce as the famous Seinfeld episode said, "I'm still not going to touch it." But there's plenty of things like potatoes, carrots, corn, spinach is okay with me.
[00:30:55] Jordan Harbinger: Yeah.
[00:30:55] Bill Sullivan: I can stomach all of that. But here's where the advantage comes in — and it's not an advantage that you and I can enjoy per se, because it happens at a population level. What biology likes to do in order to ensure the survival of the species is create diversity amongst the population. This works very well with like immune systems or else, the whole tribe could be wiped out by a single pathogen, but there's always going to be some small fraction that are immune to that pathogen, just because we have diverse immune systems. We have diverse taste buds, so the theory goes to prevent peopel, a small tribe way back when when our evolutionary past might've moved into a new environment. There was new vegetation that we weren't sure about. Some people start eating it. They don't taste any unpleasantness to it, but a supertasters would have put it in our mouth, tasted the bitterness and said, "I'm not going to, I'm not going to eat this." Let's say that plan ended up being poisonous, okay. A lot of the other people might've gotten sick, maybe even died, but about 25 percent of us would have lived and we would've carried on the species.
[00:31:58] Jordan Harbinger: I know we pass on some food preferences in utero, and this is something that explains a phenomenon, which I witnessed when traveling, which is that I see little kids in Vietnam or Thailand eating super spicy food that I can't even touch. And I love spicy food, even though I'm a supertaster and we're not supposed to, I love spicy food, but I'll try something that I see like an eight or 10-year-old eating and I can't even get near it. Like my eyes are watering and I thought, how does this happen. Sure when the kids are little, maybe they're fed that kind of food when they're young. And so they're used to it. But according to what you've written here, women are passing on food preferences before the child is even born, which I suppose makes some sense given how the umbilical cords, transport those things to children. But it seems like the gut biome and other cravings are also transmitted that way, which might explain some pregnancy cravings as well.
[00:32:47] Bill Sullivan: There could be a lot of different aspects to this taste preferences are actually very complex. Supertasters are one of the more easier ones to understand. A proclivity for spicy foods in very young age probably has something to do more with the culture, but you can certainly make a case. And I don't know if there's science to support this, but based on what we do know, I think it's reasonable to speculate that a child while still in the womb could be epigenetically programmed. If the mother is consuming a lot of spicy foods, to dial down the thermoreceptors that respond to the capsaicin, the chemical that makes these things spicy, and therefore be a little more immune to that spice, that's one possibility.
[00:33:31] I think I recall reading a recent study about the microbiome in our mouth. We have an oral microbiome. So just to extend the grossness, not only do we have intestine swarming with bacteria, they're in our mouth as well. And they process the food as we start to chew it and break it down and they released enzymes that can perhaps neutralize some of the flavors in the food. So in some areas of the world, the oral microbiome may be influencing the taste experience.
[00:34:03] The other interesting thing about the in utero experience, in addition to like epigenetic modifications that may take place, is that there's pretty compelling evidence that the embryo, the fetus is experiencing some of the chemicals that the mother ingests through her diet. I recall an experiment and I'm hoping I can getting the details right but pregnant women who were ingesting garlic, they sampled the amniotic fluid after they were ingesting this garlic. And it either smelled or even tasted like garlic, which was convincing evidence that these flavors are actually getting to the embryo.
[00:34:42] Jordan Harbinger: I don't know what you'd need to do, how much you'd need to pay me to sample someone's amniotic fluid. Is that even safe to do? I guess they have to test people for all kinds of diseases and things like that. But I don't know, I don't know what kind of check I would need to take a shot of that.
[00:34:57] Bill Sullivan: Science is full of some pretty weird experiments and it does raise the question. How did they loop people into doing this? The other famous experiment that comes to mind involves people sniffing t-shirts that have been worn by showered men for two weeks to rank them as to whether they thought the smell was okay or repulsive. You got to pay me a lot to do that one too.
[00:35:22] Jordan Harbinger: Yeah. Although I will say doing an amniotic fluid tasting or doing a flight of amniotic fluid is pretty gross.
[00:35:28] Bill Sullivan: It's not what you normally set out to do on a Friday night.
[00:35:32] Jordan Harbinger: No, no, definitely not. There's a couple of other gross experiments I'd love to talk about as well. How do we know that gut bacteria affects appearance and health? I know there's some mice experiments here, namely mice eating another's poo, and it changes their fitness and appearance. That to me is crazy. That really does show the microbiomes effect. So hear me out here. I'm not saying I want to try this, but has anyone tried feeding super fit people's poo to obese people to see if that works? It sounds horrible. Still better than kale.
[00:36:04] Bill Sullivan: I don't know about that. Let's see, what you're describing scientists refer to as fecal transplantation or in a less gross way, they call it microbial transplantation. Because it's not necessarily the poo per se, that is the critical ingredient here. It's the bacteria that resides within it.
[00:36:22] Jordan Harbinger: Right.
[00:36:23] Bill Sullivan: There's a excellent medical indication for fecal transplantation. So real quick, some people suffer from a bacterial infection called Clostridium difficile. This is a horrible intestinal infection that produces massive diarrhea, and it's just an awful experience and it's really untreatable through antibiotics. For decades, scientists were like stuck, but what fecal transplantation does takes intestinal bacteria from a healthy donor. And it's not like ingesting poo. Scientist's process it, put it into capsules, okay. And then you just chug these capsules down. And it basically gives you these new bacteria from the healthy donor, and it supplants the intestinal microbes that have gone into disarray in your own gut and allowed Clostridium to thrive. So once you get those healthy bacteria back down into your gut, then the Clostridium resolves, it's got a 95 percent cure rate, which is just amazing from a disease, which we were powerless to treat just 10 years ago. So fecal transplantation has some real potential in helping things, perhaps beyond Clostridium infection.
[00:37:33] This circles back to the interesting mouse experiments. These studies are not done in humans, and we're certainly not encouraging people to biohack or do any of these things on their own. This science is in its infancy. There's we still have so much to learn. And there are potential dangers associated with fecal transplantation. Some of the cool things done in mice, where we go back to these germ-free mice that I told you about earlier, they don't have any microbes in them. You take some of these germ-free mice and you can take intestinal bacteria from identical twins who are discordant for obesity. Remember that means one of the identical twins is leaned, one is obese. So it takes some of that intestinal bacteria from the lean twin, put it into this germ-free mouse, nothing happens. It stays lean, it stays healthy. But if you take intestinal bacteria from the obese twin and put it into that germ-free mouse, it starts to overeat and it becomes obese. That was just a mindblowing finding. And it was the first to really connect the composition of the microbiome to metabolic parameters like obesity.
[00:38:42] And that has been born out in some preliminary human experiments as well. If you take a look at the microbiome from obese patients who then undergo bariatric surgery and lose a lot of weight as a result that. Sample their microbiome after the surgery, it's completely different than what it looked like before the surgery. So this is telling us that there really is a microbial component to metabolic disorders like obesity.
[00:39:11] Jordan Harbinger: Bacteria trigger hunger to get what they want, not what our body needs. You wrote this in the book. What does this mean? Because that has kind of strong implications for — I don't want to get too philosophical about it, but if I think, "Oh, I'm really hungry and I want this." It's not really me that wants it some of the time, right? My guts signaling to my brain, "You should eat that cheesecake." At some level that sort of pisses me off, right? Like I think I'm in charge. Meanwhile, it's a bunch of bacteria in my lower intestine that are like, "Hey man, we're going to manipulate this dumb ass who's walking around with us in his gut to do whatever we want," and I'm falling for it every time.
[00:39:47] Bill Sullivan: And you're not alone in doing so. We are kind of prisoners to a lot of things. And that was one of the themes that emerged in the book that I struggled with as I wrote it. It takes a lot of agency out of what we think we are and how much control we actually have at the end of the day. And I can explain this later. I think that's good news at the end of the day, but it's disquieting at first. There's no question. We seem to be prisoners to our genes. We're prisoners to our environment. We're prisoners to our fetal programming, which we had absolutely no say in. We carry around evolutionary ghosts from our past ancestors.
[00:40:20] So what's left, right? And now we learned that our microbes are controlling us as well. And you're absolutely right. There's some interesting studies that have suggested that bacteria can secrete biomolecules and they go to our brain and influence the cravings for the type of food we want. And it doesn't take long to alter what we want. And that's why I think getting addicted to sweets for example, happens so quickly. Once these sugar loving bacteria populate the gut, they send out signals to our brain telling us, "Hey, go get more sugar," and we abide by our bacterial overlords. And we do that.
[00:40:58] Now, if you shift your diet back to one that is low in sugar, those bacteria go away and they get replaced by ones that don't crave sugar. So you get into this positive feedback loop where you're not craving sugar all the time, eating it in low or very moderate levels. And it's all dictated by the bacteria species in our gut.
[00:41:18] Jordan Harbinger: You said, that was good. Why is that? Because it seems like I should be in control. Maybe it's better if I'm not in my gut can tell me what it needs, even though sometimes what it needs is just really what some invasive bacteria wants, like more simple sugars.
[00:41:31] Bill Sullivan: Right. Well, here's why I say that there's a silver lining to this cloud. We didn't know for the longest time why people were so drawn to sugar and high fats. I mean, yeah, of course they taste good, but these things in excess are doing dramatic harm to the body, but why do we keep eating them? And it's because we are compelled by very powerful forces beyond our control, influencing our brain, perhaps at a subconscious level.
[00:41:58] Now that we know that bacteria play a role in that we can fight back. We can maybe come up with formulations of prebiotics or probiotics to change the composition of microbes that inhabit our gut so that they produce chemicals that make us behave better. Scientists and industry are very intensively looking for probiotic formulations that may help people either crave the right foods or replace a bad microbiome with a good one that will encourage better health outcomes.
[00:42:36] Jordan Harbinger: Yeah. I'm imagining the fad diet of the future, or maybe the actual real medical best practice of the future is going to your doctor. And he's like, "All right, bend over," and they put in some sort of giant vitamin type thing up there that is bacteria that gets you to say, "Oh, I don't need that much sugar, but I sure would love a salad right now, but no dressing for me," right? And some nice clean protein and things like that. All the right cravings are in place. All the wrong ones that bacteria could get starved or removed by whatever formulation that is. I can see there's going to be problems with that kind of thing, but it sounds like there's a definite possibility that we could change our gut biome manually as opposed to doing it by changing our diet first, which is really, really hard and sticking to it. And then over time having that gut biome grow itself. It almost seems like we could kickstart the process by having the right bacteria implanted.
[00:43:28] Bill Sullivan: Yeah, you could, that could be the way that initiates a change to more positive behavior. And of course, you would have to keep up that positive behavior or else you'll go right back to square one with the unhealthy microbiome.
[00:43:41] Jordan Harbinger: Right.
[00:43:42] Bill Sullivan: So it's not going to be like a one treatment will cure you for life. It is going to have to be some lifestyle changes, but at least getting the right microbes in place, it'll really give you an advantage or it'll give you an edge to make those changes. And there's good studies that show like you're suggesting it doesn't necessarily have to be something that we shove up there. It could be something we shove down here. Prebiotics are basically foods that encourage the growth of a healthy microbiome. And they are mostly the fermented foods that are naturally healthy for you to eat. And they're going to encourage the growth of a healthy microbiome.
[00:44:17] Jordan Harbinger: So this is like kimchi.
[00:44:19] Bill Sullivan: Yeah. That's one of the popular ones for sure. But we should add perhaps a little disclaimer here. And I'm certainly not advocating that people go out and start chugging a whole bunch of probiotics. There's no definitive study that demonstrates them to show any great effect in normal, healthy adults, just yet. There's so much more we have to understand. I think it's premature to go out there and start fiddling around with probiotics, but it's perfectly fine to start eating more prebiotic foods.
[00:44:47] Jordan Harbinger: Toxoplasmosis, you write about this. It seems like this is something we can get from cats. And this, I found online cause somebody sent me a video of like a mouse attacking a cat and the mouse, of course, gets eaten. And it turns out that this is how this bacteria gets into the cat. It somehow gets into the mouse by the mouse, getting exposed to cat feces or something like that. The mouse becomes fearless or even aggressive towards animals like cats. Cats think what the heck is wrong with this mouse, kill it. Take a big bite out of it. Suddenly, it's in the cat's digestive system, rinse and repeat. Really cool sort of evolutionary strategy here. And then I found that it can get into humans. And then that started to freak me out a little bit, of course, as do a lot of these things that we're talking about here, because it causes all kinds of problems. And now I've got little kids around my cats. You know, what should I do about this? Should I be worried about this?
[00:45:38] Bill Sullivan: Yeah, we should have a nice little chat about toxoplasma. This is a parasite I've been working on for over 20 years in my laboratory at Indiana University School of Medicine. Fascinating parasite, it's a single celled organisms, so it's not a bacteria, but it's a parasite that can induce behavioral changes in its host. Some of the remarkable things about this parasite is that it gets into all sorts of different animals, which is pretty weird because most parasites only shuffle through one or two different species, but toxoplasma can infect any animal, including humans. And it infected a lot of humans. We're talking, billions of people carry this parasite around in their heads.
[00:46:17] We'll come back to that part. But let's talk about the cat and mouse thing that you mentioned because that's the centerpiece of the parasites lifestyle. The host that it wants to get into the most is the cat. Because the cat gut is the only place that we know of where the parasite undergoes the sexual stage of its lifecycle. For some reason, there's something romantic about a cat gut that the parasite really enjoys, gets turned on by it. It allows them to go into the sexual cycle, which means the cat's going to excrete these parasite eggs called oocysts out into the environment for about one to two weeks during the course of the infection. And most cats, you probably won't be able to tell they're infected. It's a pretty stealthy infection. It doesn't produce a lot of overt symptoms. So these parasite eggs get expelled into the litter box, into the sandbox, into your yard, into the water supply. And these oocysts are highly infectious. You can accidentally ingest them, okay, or you can inhale them. That's one of the major routes of transmission.
[00:47:18] Any animal gets infected. So let's say a mouse comes across some of these oocysts as it's running around the grass accidentally ingests those and becomes infected with toxoplasma. The mouse won't get all that sick, okay, just like any other animal, but the parasite never leaves the body. It ends up going to sleep in the brain in the form of tissue cysts, hundreds, maybe thousands of these tissue cysts all throughout the mouse brain. It causes behavioral changes. So mice that are infected with this toxoplasma parasite, as you suggested, when you looked at that video are unafraid of cats, which is remarkable because that is one of their basic instincts. An uninfected mouse if it gets a whiff of cat odor, it's going to scurry as fast as it can in the other direction. A toxoplasma infected mouse will actually be drawn to that scent and become easy prey for the cat, which is a very, very clever trick that toxoplasma has evolved to get back into the cat, which is where it would prefer to be.
[00:48:20] Jordan Harbinger: So it's like creating a zombie mouse, not quite because the mouse still has other faculty, but instead it's tricking the entire evolutionary or survival strategy, I should say of the mouse and short-circuiting it. And honestly, killing the mouse, right? Because if a mouse is chasing a cat and pissing it off its lifespan dramatically decreases. So it's essentially just taking over the driver's seat, completely hijacks the brain of this mouse and ends up doing so for reproduction.
[00:48:49] So what happens when this parasite or this bacteria gets into humans? Can it cause problems?Am I going to have neurosis in my brain? You know, what about my kids?
[00:48:59] Bill Sullivan: You will have cysts in your brain, but what they do or don't do, that's still a debatable question. Because we can't really do those experiments on people. Like we can in mice, what we can do are like correlation studies and we should say correlation is not causation, but we can look at historical records and serology. We can take blood from a person and tell them if they have toxoplasma or not. So if these individuals do test positive for toxoplasma, we know that they have cysts in the brain. Some of the interesting studies that have been done, parallel what we see in infected mice.
[00:49:35] So infected humans do have a tendency to take more risks. They become more anxious. They also have rage disorder and they have a greater propensity to become schizophrenia. So there's a variety of neuro psychosis that have been again, correlated with the presence of the parasite in the human body. It doesn't say that they cause these things. And again, the science is still relatively new. So we got to take it with a little bit of a grain of salt, but some of the other interesting things that stem off of that is that there was a study done in primates, non-human primates, that had toxoplasma and they were given pads of cat urine to smell. And the uninfected ones, I think it was actually Bobcat, okay, the uninfected primates were afraid of the smell. They would go away from the smell, but the infected ones were not which implies that these infected primates would have been eaten by a Bobcat or some other major predator of primates, just like the mouse is being eaten.
[00:50:37] So it's possible that the parasite is manipulating our brain in a similar fashion that makes us take more risks and become easier prey. And that would have been very significant back in our evolutionary past, but how it bears out in today's technologically advanced culture. What scientists have shown is that people infected with toxoplasma tend to be more risky entrepreneurs. They tend to be involved in a car accident more often than someone who might not be infected. So you see this generalized risk-taking increase in people who are infected with the parasite.
[00:51:13] Jordan Harbinger: Can I test myself, can I test my cats for this? And can I test myself for this?
[00:51:18] Bill Sullivan: I do believe you can test your cat for it. And you probably could ask a doctor to test you, but I'm not quite sure what the information, how it's going to be useful for you because there's no cure for toxoplasma. If you have it, there's nothing you can do about it. That's what my lab is working on. It might just shed a little light into perhaps some facets of your personality. If you agree with some of these correlation studies that have been done.
[00:51:44] Jordan Harbinger: Well, I'm a safe driver, I guess mostly I'm worried about my kid, right? It's like—
[00:51:48] Bill Sullivan: Sure.
[00:51:48] Jordan Harbinger: If my cats have this, I don't necessarily, I don't know if I want them around my two year old and my newborn.
[00:51:53] Bill Sullivan: Well, yeah, that's a good point. Toxoplasma and investigators are usually very quick to add that you don't have to panic about cat ownership. Just follow some very simple, common sense rules, such as cleaning the litter box promptly, perhaps using gloves while you do so. Now there is a very real danger associated with pregnant women. And maybe you've experienced this in going to the doctor, but pregnant women are usually advised to not change the kitty litter at all, because there's a chance that if she becomes infected for the first time with toxoplasma during the pregnancy, it can cross the placenta and either cause a miscarriage or catastrophic birth defects, blindness, and cognitive defects and hydrocephalus, which is swelling of the brain. So there's a very real danger there. And most pregnant women are advised not to change the litter box, perhaps not to garden, don't play in sandboxes, perhaps, you know, with their other kids, because those are major vehicles that transmission. And like we said, toxoplasma gets into all animals and these parasite cysts form in all bodily tissues, not just the brain. So if you don't cook your meat thorougly the parasite cysts can get into you that way as well.
[00:53:09] Jordan Harbinger: This is The Jordan Harbinger Show with our guest Bill Sullivan. We'll be right back.
[00:53:13] This episode is sponsored in part by Purple Mattress. Many gimmicks promise a great night's sleep, but if you're sleeping on a crap mattress, you're going to have crappy sleep. And that's why I recommend sleeping on a Purple Mattress because only Purple Mattresses have the gel flex grid. I got one of my pillow. It adapts and fluxes around pressure points. It doesn't retain heat. Basically, it's a mattress that will spoon you just right. No matter how you sleep. We ordered their best seller, which is the Purple Hybrid 3. And I can say it truly contours your body. It got some unique technology in there. Supportive right where you need it. I don't have my butt falling asleep and stuff like that. I just had my whole body falling asleep. I highly recommend checking out a showroom near you. We went and tried out all the different models. Or try your purple mattress risk-free with free shipping and returns.
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[00:55:20] Now for the rest of my conversation with Bill Sullivan.
[00:55:24] I'm seeing now because I'm paranoid, which maybe means I don't have it. And in contrast, infection is uncommon in pet cats that do little or no hunting and primarily or exclusively eat commercial cat foods. So there you go. Hopefully, we're safe. These are indoor cats. You know, my wife knows not to change the cat litter. I don't know where she read that, but she's been using that as a good excuse for the last few years. So we're safe there.
[00:55:47] Bill Sullivan: Well, she only needs to use it as an excuse while she's pregnant. I don't want her to get mad at me for saying that, but that's the truth. It's only a potential danger while she's pregnant. And if your cats don't go out and hunt, and if they're not fed of raw or undercooked meat, the chances of them acquiring toxoplasma is pretty nominal.
[00:56:04] Jordan Harbinger: Ah, good to know, good to know. This is a weird aside, but I'm glad we covered it. You mentioned in the book as well, about how abuse and neglect can get into our genes as well. We talked about chemicals and exposure and poverty and things like that. But abuse and neglect is interesting because we know a lot of people that have, of course, have rough pasts. I mean, it happens. It's no fault of their own. You're born into a house or you're adopted into a house that has these kinds of things going on, or you leave that house even when you're younger. It's not just something you can quote-unquote, "get over," even if your life improves for decades later on, right? This is still somehow expressed in our genes.
[00:56:41] Bill Sullivan: This was before the most fascinating things I found while researching the material for Pleased to Meet Me. In addition, I mean, you can conceive how physical things in the environment might be able to interact with our body. But what we're talking about now are psychological events. So this is really fascinating. And what we're referring to here, adverse childhood experiences, things like bullying or neglect, they can obviously cause psychological scars. But what epigenetics is showing us is that these adverse childhood events can also cause epigenetic scars on our DNA.
[00:57:18] So if you look at children who have been exposed to these adverse events, they have epigenetic changes at key genes associated with our stress response. So what we specifically see in some studies is that these children have epigenetic changes at a gene that encodes for the glucocorticoid receptor. So this is a stress hormone that is released by the body. It's everyone probably is familiar with cortisol. It's a common stress hormone that children who are suffering from abuse or neglect are secreted all the time. It's chronic. This glucocorticoid receptor normally cleans up that hormone, you know? So in most normal people, they have a quick burst of stress. Cortisol is released and this glucocorticoid receptor kind of cleans it up, okay. So that doesn't cause any bodily harm.
[00:58:09] This gene is epigenetically silenced in these poor children, and that seems to be present for life, even if they get into better circumstances. This gene is just seems to have been shut off permanently. And without that gene being regulated properly, these children, unfortunately, even if they get into a better environment are still maladapted to respond to stress and they tend to be more paranoid. They tend to be suicidal and they tend to be overly aggressive. So it really did screw them, not only at a psychological level, but at the level of the genes. That's what the science is bearing out. And that explains why that most of the children, not all, most of the children's still struggle even after getting into a better environment.
[00:58:57] Jordan Harbinger: That shows the importance of therapy if you have a background that you think maybe isn't still affecting you because you just can't be sure if it's going to crop up later on, you know? It seems like something you don't remember shouldn't affect you, but it's not really the case. Right?
[00:59:13] Bill Sullivan: That's right. And another corollary to that study is a lot of people ask that's not true for all children. So is there something special about the ones that show resilience? And there is. At least one study that I read said that those children have a mutation in a gene that is encoding what's called brain-derived neurotropic factor, BDNF. And long story short that gene is specifically designed to protect and shield the brain from damage. So it's remarkable that even the resilience is not something psychological that we summon from within. It's a genetic mutation that makes you resilient.
[00:59:51] Jordan Harbinger: What about phobias? You mentioned that these can also be contagious. This is kind of crazy to me. So it does make sense though, right? If somebody has got a fear of something and it's passed down to something else, they're offspring, namely in that same environment, that fear could be healthy. Phobia, what do we define this as? Is this an irrational fear or just a fear?
[01:00:10] Bill Sullivan: Yeah. There's all kinds of different phobias and human fear responses, astonishingly complex. And it was kind of something that I drew based on a study that I read about that showed that in mouse models, fear can be inherited. So it's worth explaining this a little bit because it's a fascinating experiment and really shocked a lot of scientists because it should not have happened. This result was very unexpected.
[01:00:38] So the setup is pretty simple. Mice normally love the smell of cherries, okay. Just like people, they like the cherry scent, but not if scientists deliver a little shock to them while they're smelling the cherries. Mice that get shocked while they're smelling cherries quickly develop a fear of the scent. They become unnaturally afraid of the cherry smell. Now, you take those mice and you mate them, they have children, they have offspring that are born afraid of cherries, which is remarkable because they never been shocked. They never saw their parents get shocked. It's just this new phobia that appeared out of nowhere, seemingly.
[01:01:21] Jordan Harbinger: Why do we think this happened?
[01:01:23] Bill Sullivan: So the leading hypothesis is that this is epigenetically controlled and there is some good science to back this up. And just to make it even more fascinating. Those children that are born with this new phobia of cherries, their children also are still born with the smell of cherry. So this happens through multiple generations. The effect eventually goes away. So it kind of dilutes out down the road, but we see a multi-generational passing on of this new fear, which is crazy because that should not happen if you're a classic Darwinian evolutionist. You shouldn't be able to pass on a learned behavior. It would be like, I taught myself how to play the piano, so my kid should be born knowing how to play the piano.
[01:02:07] Jordan Harbinger: Right.
[01:02:07] Bill Sullivan: That's not how it works, but with some simpler responses, like a fear response, this does seem possible. So it turns out, and this is another thing that kind of blew my mind. I had no idea that sperm cells have odor receptors on them.
[01:02:23] Jordan Harbinger: Wow.
[01:02:23] Bill Sullivan: Did you know that?
[01:02:24] Jordan Harbinger: No.
[01:02:24] Bill Sullivan: A sperm can smell. They can smell things, you know, in crude definition of the word, but we have to remember that anytime we taste or smell something, we're actually responding to molecules. And when these molecules get into our body, they go to more than just the olfactory receptors in our nose and up in our brain. They somehow also make their way down to sperm. It's thought that when these chemicals trigger that receptor, it produces an epigenetic change at the fear response genes. Now exactly how that, no pun intended, but how the nuts and bolts of that actually happens. That's still a little bit of a black box, but it gives us a clue as to what's going on because they harvested the sperm from these mice that were shocked and they were epigenetically different than mice that were not exposed to this shocking while they smelled the cherries.
[01:03:21] Jordan Harbinger: So it seems like kids who grow up, maybe in war zones or high crime areas, these aren't phobias necessarily, but a lot of the world exists in these conditions. A friend of mine who I interviewed the other day, you know, he goes to war zones like Central African Republic, and there's kids that just grow up around constant civil war. It seems like if they are to escape this, or even if the country heals and becomes a functional developing or developed nation in the next few decades by some almost miracle at this point, they're children and possibly also grandchildren are still going to have trauma from these.
[01:03:53] Bill Sullivan: Yeah. And there's actually historical records that track that parallel what you said. That if you look at the Dutch hunger famine of World War II, there's some historical records that were kept. This is when the Germans blockaded the Netherlands and they couldn't get food. There was a serious famine there for years. And the children who were born of those mothers who were starving at the time, very interestingly grew up to have problems with obesity and diabetes. They're like that's really kind of weird and unexpected. Their mothers were starving at the time of pregnancy, and now they're struggling with obesity and it's not just because the environment changed necessarily. What is thought to have happened is some kind of epigenetic change that occurred this fetal programming of sorts. And then when scientists examined these children, they have epigenetic changes at the genes that control obesity and metabolism.
[01:04:53] It's hard to say definitively what's going on there, but there's some hint that this kind of epigenetic inheritance might be able to occur in humans, but a lot more research needs to be done. Circling back to the socioeconomic factors, the war zones, and so on, that is a really sad situation. Not only because of the present turmoil that exists, but I think if this epigenetic inheritance is true, it might explain why we get stuck in these cycles of violence from generation to generation to generation. We need intervention in order to break that cycle. I'm not optimistic that it's going to happen on its own because we see now very tangible things happening at the biological level. And we're powerless to do anything about that until we get in and intervene.
[01:05:43] Jordan Harbinger: It seems like soon we're going to know more about how parasites chemicals combined with the environment to affect our brains and maybe even cause criminal or contribute to the cause of criminal activity. I assume this is going to change laws and public policy and even medical treatment of people afflicted and ideally prevent some future crimes. It's kind of sounds like Minority Report, right? "Sir, we know you have this bacteria because of your urine test and now you're 87 percent more likely to assault someone later. So now, you got to take these antibiotics in order to kill the bacteria to prevent future potential crimes."
[01:06:16] Bill Sullivan: Yeah.
[01:06:16] Jordan Harbinger: I know I'm ciphering it up, but that's kind of crazy.
[01:06:19] Bill Sullivan: I know if I'm not mistaken, I think I referenced Minority Report in the book.
[01:06:23] Jordan Harbinger: Yeah.
[01:06:23] Bill Sullivan: Because there there's some shadows of that when you look at these, what are called genome-wide association studies or GWAS. People might've heard of that term, but basically what it boils down to is you're comparing the genomes of criminals versus non-criminals and looking for differences and similarities. So there's been a gene that comes up time and time again in people who are very aggressive and been put away usually for very serious violent crimes. And it's called MAOA. Some people call it the warrior gene, but scientists hate that name because genes don't encode for behaviors. They encode for proteins. And there are plenty of people who have this particular gene variant in the MAOA gene that are not violent and who would not harm a fly, but it's a really interesting correlation.
[01:07:16] And what this gene does, it makes some sense, it produces a protein that regulates neurotransmitters in the brain. And when this protein is malformed, because of this genetic mutation, you get a toxic buildup of certain neurochemicals in the brain that have been associated with violence and aggression. There's a plausible explanation for why this gene mutation keeps coming up again and again in criminals. But we can't use it yet as like a bio marker, like in Minority Report and screen people's genes and say, "You got this mutation, we're going to have to keep you under lock and key." We're not at that level yet, because there are people with this gene and that mutation who don't show any aggression and violence. So it's a puzzle.
[01:08:04] Jordan Harbinger: What about bullying? It seems like that could affect our DNA as well. And that's scary as a parent. You know, my kid's a little bit small for his age. Nothing's happening. He's in preschool. Everyone gets along, but like I went to school, I know how it can be. And I'm a little bit worried about how something like bullying could have affect epigenetics or express itself. And we hear all the time about kids who are bullied really terribly and it damages them psychologically. I see it in my Feedback Friday inbox, and we read about it all the time.
[01:08:31] Bill Sullivan: Bullying is a very sad situation and it's better today actually than when you and I were growing up. You know, I think it's safe to say there weren't any like regulations or programs or workshops in place. It's still a problem when we need them. But what we are seeing an adverse childhood effects and bullying is included under that umbrella are epigenetic changes if it's a chronic situation. I do think kids are generally pretty resilient and they grow out over a lot of these things if they were relatively minor and short term, especially if they have people to talk to, to get them through these situations. But chronic bullying, neglect, or other adverse experiences, then what we might risk are epigenetic changes at these networks of genes that control our stress responses. And those children might grow up to be a little maladaptive in terms of handling certain stresses or engaging in healthy social interactions.
[01:09:25] Jordan Harbinger: We spoke earlier in the show about agency, and we've talked a little bit about public policy and we haven't really explored this, but I'm wondering if you've done any work or seen any research on how the brains of liberals and conservatives differ. And I don't want to pick one side over the other. It's very nonpolitical show decidedly as such, despite the one-star reviews that say I'm a conservative moron and also a leftist shill, usually not the same review, but I'm curious because I would imagine there have to be ways in which each side has either different epigenetic expression or different brain structure of some kind, because it really does seem like we are from different planets a lot of the time.
[01:10:06] Bill Sullivan: It does seem that way. And that's what inspired a lot of scientists to investigate some of the basic personality traits that exist between your average Democrat and your average Republican. I can discuss some of the findings that I found in my research for Please to Meet Me.
[01:10:23] Let's talk about genes first. So people can do genetic comparisons between a group of Democrats and a group of Republicans. And the one gene that popped up again, and again, was a gene called DRD4. And there's a variant of this gene that seems to be present more often in Democrats than Republicans. What does DRD4 do? And how might it be related to the personalities that we normally see in these two parties. DRD4 encodes for a dopamine receptor. And this is a receptor that works in the brain and is linked to the reward response. People with this particular genetic variation in that dopamine system tend to be more risk takers. They tend to be more daredevils. They're open to newer experiences.
[01:11:09] And if you think about it, that on average describes a Democrat more often than a Republican, just being more progressive and open to new experiences. I think that's kind of what people think of when they characterize a Democrat, but a Republican being more conservative likes things the way they are likes tradition, doesn't want to change things necessarily and likes these traditional values. And they don't have this compulsion through this genetic mutation to seek out adventures or new experiences. So that's one example of a genetic difference between the two, not aware of any microbial differences between the two. It would perhaps be interesting to look at toxoplasma and see if there's an enrichment in one group or the other. I don't know if that study has been done.
[01:11:56] Jordan Harbinger: Has anyone tried feeding conservatives poop to liberals yet, or the other way around for that matter? Because both sides have produced plenty of crap, so we won't run short on material.
[01:12:05] Bill Sullivan: I made that joke in my TED Talk.
[01:12:07] Jordan Harbinger: Oh you did.
[01:12:07] Bill Sullivan: That would be a really interesting experiment to do. I would love to see the outcome and it would be amazing. Right? So something that is along the lines of the daredevil, really, that I told you about. This was a study done in mice, of course, but you can make a mouse that is normally shy and timid. You can make that mouse brave by giving it bacteria from a brave mouse. It's pretty remarkable. So your speculation has some science behind it. You can fundamentally alter the personality, at least in mouse by giving them different microbes.
[01:12:45] Jordan Harbinger: This conversation really has, and your book, of course, really has thrown me for a bit of a loop in terms of human nature versus human nurture. I think you put it, it really does seem like there's a lot more to be said for environment and surroundings. And I think like a lot of us, we kind of knew this, but we, I never thought it would be at the genetic level. I just thought, okay, my personality is this way because I'm around these people. I never thought my DNA has actually been expressed differently because of things that have happened to my grandparents or my parents or me or things I don't even remember of things I've been eating, things I've maybe been smelling or gotten bit by. I don't know. That's really crazy. It does also seem though, like this. Uh, field surrounding this that is ripe for over promising, under delivering, outright grifter, right? There's a lot of brain supplements and people that say, "Hey, if you attach these electrodes to you, it's going to change your DNA," and kind of the whole field of nootropics, maybe not every single product in this space, but a lot of these things just seem like kind of nonsense and possibly even harmful. Have you looked into these at all?
[01:13:53] Bill Sullivan: Yeah, I did. Th there's a warning towards the back of the book that whenever we make these new discoveries or develop new technologies, flimflam artists are going to rush in and try to make a quick buck. So you're seeing all sorts of people publishing books on how you might be able to epigenetically modify your genes through meditation or through changing your thought patterns, or how you might be able to change your microbiome through probiotics and so on. I think all that's fair game for speculation and it's tantalizing to talk about, but it's really premature to think that if you're going to pop a certain supplement or think a certain way, that you're going to alter your genes at an epigenetic level. There's just no strong evidence to support those sort of short-term quick fixes are going to amount to anything, biologically significant.
[01:14:42] Jordan Harbinger: Bill, thank you so much. There's a lot to explore here. I'm looking forward to the next 10, 20 years of this science. And it really does sort of throw a lot of things on its head, so a good read and a good conversation. I really appreciate it.
[01:14:55] Bill Sullivan: Oh, I appreciate the opportunity, Jordan. Thanks for providing this forum for us to talk about some of this cool science.
[01:15:02] Jordan Harbinger: I've got some thoughts on this one as per usual, but before I get into that, I wanted to give you a quick bite of a recent episode I did with Simon Sinek. He's been on the show a couple of times. Simon is one of the most sought after speakers and mentors in the corporate world, but he's no stuffed shirt. Well, here are some of his wisdom from the elite levels of public speaking, as well as his organizational skills that keep him at the top of the game.
[01:15:24] Simon Sinek: I have a vision of the world that does not yet exist and I'm trying to build it and whatever it takes for me to advance that vision, speaking, writing, teaching, whatever it is, I'll do it.
[01:15:33] I remember when cell phones were just starting to show up. You know, there was this great promise that we could leave the office because of this device. And in reality, it backfired. You don't leave the office, the office comes with us.
[01:15:44] Jordan Harbinger: Right.
[01:15:44] Simon Sinek: So we were always at the office, you know, because of the device. One of the things that happens when we take the office with us is if we're not constantly engaging in checking in, we actually feel guilty that we're not. You know, you're walking to the subway, you're on the device. If you're off the subway, going to the office, you're on the device. If we take the phone with us for the bathroom, you hold it in and look for the phone. You know, there's something unhealthy about that.
[01:16:07] Jordan Harbinger: So true.
[01:16:07] Simon Sinek: Youu know, when we're not connected, we actually feel guilty. And the reality is, is that ideas don't happen when we're connected. Ideas happen when our minds have an opportunity to wander. And this is why we have our great ideas in the shower, when we're driving, when we're out for a run, when we're just going for a walk. Because the brainstorming session actually isn't the time to solve the problem, the brainstorming session is the time to ask the questions. Allowing ourselves, these disengaged times is absolutely essential for innovation. It's absolutely essential for problem solving. It's absolutely essential for creativity to disengage with the device.
[01:16:39] The problem is, I don't know when it's going to happen. When I was writing Leaders Eat Last, I would have so many ideas in the shower and I would forget them as quickly as I had them that I kept a dry erase marker in my bathroom. And I wrote them the tile. And so as soon as I got out of the shower while I was brushing my teeth, I'd write an idea in the tile. And so when I was standing there the next day, brushing my teeth, I'd be staring at my writing on the tile and I'd sometimes have another idea. So it looked like a Beautiful Mind. It was ridiculous. All the tiles had these little chicken scratches all over it, and I didn't want to erase any of them because I didn't know what ideas were going to be sparked. But my point is, is like, if you figure out what works for you, do that. Keep a notebook by your bed. If you go for a run, take a notebook with you. I usually carry a notebook in the back of my pocket at all times because I don't know when I'm going to have an idea. And like I said, I lose them as quickly as I have them.
[01:17:22] Jordan Harbinger: For more from Simon Sinek, including why it's important to have a worthy rival to stay sharp, check out episode 300 right here on The Jordan Harbinger Show.
[01:17:32] Special thanks to Hi-Chew for sponsoring this episode of The Jordan Harbinger Show. Hi-Chew is a great candy. I've been a fan for a long time since I discovered it in Japan, a couple of decades now. Originally, invented as a gum substitute in Japan, where it's impolite to remove food from your mouth. It's honestly not polite anywhere to do that, but whatever. Hi-Chew was innovative to have a texture like gum, that you can swallow. Biting into a Hi-Chew, it's kind of a flavor explosion, little party going on in your mouth. With over 200 unique flavors like dragon fruit, you probably don't even know what that is, acai, you might not know what that is either. And very specific flavor profiles like Valencia orange versus Mandarin orange. There's a difference apparently. Hi-Chew has a dual layer. There's a special patented flavor release technology, being high tech here, and a unique chewy texture. It's not a gummy. It's not a taffy. It's not too soft, also not too hard. Hi-Chew contains no synthetic colors and is gluten free.
[01:18:20] Jen Harbinger: We want you to love Hi-Chew as much as we do. Visit hi-chew.com/win. That's H-I-dash-C-H-E-W.com/W-I-N, and enter to win an exclusive bucket full of Hi-Chew candy and slag. While you're there, check out how you can become a member of the Hi-Chew chew crew crew, which is an exclusive club where you receive special offers and all the cool things. Go to hi-chew.com/win.
[01:18:45] Jordan Harbinger: It really is incredible how humans are basically just biomechanical machines, who are programmed in part by our DNA, by our environment, and even by one another. And the substances of course, that we end up spraying on our rubbing on ourselves. So much more study is needed, but the field of epigenetics is really going to open some new insights into what makes us human and why we need to treat ourselves and each other a whole lot better if we're going to make it as a species. I really learned a lot on this one.
[01:19:12] Big thanks to Bill Sullivan, all things Bill Sullivan will be linked in the show notes on the website at jordanharbinger.com. If you buy books from any of our guests, please use our links in the show notes because it does help support the show. Transcripts are in the show notes. There's a video going up on our YouTube channel at jordanharbinger.com/youtube. My video is not there, not sure what happened. I had to get a new camera, but Bill's video is there. And that's all right. You've seen enough of me already. I'm at @JordanHarbinger on both Twitter and Instagram, or just hit me on LinkedIn if you want to connect over there.
[01:19:41] I'm teaching you how to connect with great people and manage relationships using the same software, systems, and tiny habits that I use. That's in our Six-Minute Networking course. That course is free. It's all at jordanharbinger.com/course. I'm teaching you how to dig the well before you get thirsty. And most of the guests who here on the show subscribe to the course as well. So come join us, you'll be in smart company where you belong.
[01:20:02] This show is created in association with PodcastOne. My team is Jen Harbinger, Jase Sanderson, Robert Fogarty, Millie Ocampo, Ian Baird, Josh Ballard, and Gabriel Mizrahi. Remember, we rise by lifting others. The fee for this show is that you share it with friends when you find something useful or interesting. If you know somebody who's into epigenetics or nature versus nurture, or just some weird fascinating science, share this episode with him. I hope you find something great in every episode of this show. The greatest compliment you can give us is to share the show with those you care about. In the meantime, do your best to apply what you hear on the show, so you can live what you listen, and we'll see you next time.
[01:20:39] Are you ready for a podcast that doesn't hold back? Check out The Adam Carolla Show, the number one daily downloaded podcast in the world, five days a week, and completely uncensored. Join Adam as he shares his thoughts on current events, relationships, politics, and so much more. Adam welcomes a wide range of special guests to join him in studio for in-depth interviews and a front-row seat to his freewheeling point of view. Download, subscribe, and tune in to The Adam Carolla Show on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Amazon, or wherever you get your podcasts.
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