I recently came across a very interesting article in The New York Times about the possible role fungi may play in the development of everything from asthma to dandruff to prostate cancer. And now, new research suggests simple, safe, and inexpensive antifungal medication may even help combat gastrointestinal problems, such as Crohn’s disease.
Of course, we know some fungi are beneficial to humans. In fact, as with most things in the natural world, it seems we should aim to achieve and maintain a natural balance of these microorganisms…
Symbiosis in plant and animal kingdoms
The entire natural kingdom lives together in “symbiosis.” (This scientific term explains how different organisms benefit from each other by living in close proximity with each other.) And I studied these important, mutually beneficial relationships in health ecology starting in college zoology and then for my Ph.D. in Anthropology.
The plant kingdom was established on dry land about 470 million years ago. And plants thrived alone on land for about 100 million years before the first animals appeared.
Then, when animals (and eventually humans) came along, they adapted to their environment, which was primarily the plants surrounding them. In fact, they naturally began to use plants as nutrient-rich foods and medicine.
Of course, plants also developed poisons to defend themselves against animals and other predators, as I explained last week. In fact, many commercial products sold today make use of active plant poisons—including insecticides, pesticides, herbicides, and fungicides.
These active plant poisons are also used in medicine. For example, atropine treats certain types of nerve agents and pesticide poisonings as well as some types of slow heart rate, and is used to decrease saliva production during surgery. It comes from the “belladonna” plant in the deadly nightshade family. (I’ll tell you more about nightshade plants in October, so be sure to stay tuned!)
And digitalis is carefully dosed to treat congestive heart failure and heart rhythm problems (atrial arrhythmias). It can also increase return venous blood flow throughout your body and reduce swelling in your hands and ankles. It comes from the purple foxglove (Digitalis purpurea) genus of plants.
We also see symbiosis in the animal kingdom…
For example, there are vast areas of grassland throughout the world that won’t sustain growing crops for human consumption. So, about 10,000 years ago, humans learned to domesticate ruminant animals, which are true herbivores or “vegetarians.” They consume the grasses that naturally grow in these areas, which humans can’t eat. Then, humans eat the grass-fed meat and dairy—which are highly nutritious and healthy foods.
New research into the important “third kingdom”
That point brings us to the “third kingdom” of fungi to which we are all also connected. This kingdom includes the human microbiome, which is the environment in and on the human body where billions of healthy probiotic bacteria thrive.
It also includes the mycobiome, the environment in and on the human body where hundreds of thousands of species of microscopic fungi live. Of course, fungi can also support plants through symbiosis. In fact, fungi provide nutrients from adjacent trees, plants, roots, and soil.
How do fungi influence human health?
As I mentioned at the beginning of this Dispatch, modern medical science is beginning to study how fungi affect human health. Like probiotic bacteria, fungi are found everywhere in and on the human body. In fact, they’re even found in breast milk. They colonize the skin shortly after birth. And they even colonize the GI tract.
But recent studies show that an overabundance of a certain type of fungi called Malassezia may play a role in the development of irritable bowel conditions…
In fact, researchers have found that people with Crohn’s disease have high concentrations of Malassezia on their intestine walls, while healthy patients have almost none. Researchers have also demonstrated that adding Malassezia to the guts of mice bred to develop Crohn’s exacerbates GI tract inflammation.
Of course, the mainstream drug treatment for Crohn’s disease, called TNF inhibitors, can cost up to $38,000 per year and cause a slew of side effects. But they’re only effective 60 percent of the time.
So, a simple antifungal medication may be a safe and inexpensive alternative. In fact, clinical trials on this promising treatment are currently planned.
Research also links an unbalanced mycobiome to asthma, bladder conditions, and even prostate cancer.
The scientist who led this recent research thinks bacteria, fungi, and other microbes work together as another important example of symbiosis in the natural world. And I quite agree.
So, to stay up-to-date on this promising, new line of study…keep reading my Daily Dispatch and monthly Insiders’ Cures newsletter. (If you’re not yet a newsletter subscriber, all it takes is one click.) As a loyal reader, you’ll be the first to know any updates.
“You’re Covered in Fungi. How Does That Affect Your Health?” The New York Times, 4/9/19. (nytimes.com/2019/04/09/health/fungus-microbiome-bowel-disease.html)