Natasha’s Story: Eating Disorders and the Microbiome

natasha

Hi, I’m Natasha.

One of the first things the doctor said to me when I was first diagnosed with an eating disorder was that by going down this path, I’m basically committing a very slow suicide. Calmly, she explained that as the eating disorder progresses, the brain will shrink and my cognitive functions will decline. The body will begin to reclaim muscle non-selectively to try and obtain the protein and other nutrients it’s not receiving through diet – potentially leading to problems and/or failure of the heart or other organs. The stomach will shrink, and the digestive system will atrophy, since it’s not being fed, and therefore can’t properly carry out its activities.

Through experience, I also learned that the idea of food becomes difficult to stomach, relationships decay, and life in general becomes very difficult to cope with.

These symptoms sound terrifying – and they are. For anyone else, this would be more than enough motivation to do anything that would allow them to recover as soon as possible. For the most part this means drastically increasing food intake. And who wouldn’t want an excuse to eat more? Or be encouraged to eat whatever they want and as much as they want so that they can get back to a healthy weight?

For someone with an eating disorder, the prospect of eating and putting on even a few hundred grams is more terrifying than all of these things.

After a while, the process of eating becomes not only psychologically uncomfortable, but also physically painful, frequently leading to bloating, gas, constipation, and sometimes nausea.

A few months after I was diagnosed, I was due to start university at the age of 16. What was already to be a huge transition was made more difficult, as I was undergoing treatment. I began to blog about my experiences, more as a way of helping myself cope with it all, and to explain to those around me what it was like – since it was often confronting for them. I soon found that people started to approach me, and tell me that they were experiencing similar things. What scared me here was the state of their wellbeing, and how common it was. I certainly didn’t wish what I was feeling on anyone else.

At this stage, I was also developing an interest in molecular and microbiology, and by my second semester I had transferred to another university to pursue this. It wasn’t until my second year that I got to take my first microbiology course. While I was excited about everything I was going to learn, I never expected it to be more than an academic interest. I was lucky enough to have an incredible lecturer that pushed us to work hard and develop problem solving skills – and while normally I’d be overwhelmed by this, my increasing love of microbiology made me more determined to get through it. With this determination came the small but powerful push to try to get better, and the confidence to do things I was too afraid to do otherwise. While I still haven’t put on the weight, it at least encouraged me to eat enough to function at the level required – which was a big step.

This wasn’t the only benefit though. Because I was so keen to learn about microbiology, I started reading everything I could about it, and trying to stay up to date with new developments. Just over a year ago, the word “microbiome” started to pop up everywhere, and all of the sudden people were learning that the bacteria on, around, and in our bodies play a much larger role than previously thought. Studies into how it (particularly the microbiome of the gut) affects mood, depression, obesity, immunity, and many other aspects of health were being conducted. This led me to start asking about the effects of eating disorders on the microbiome, how this in turn affected the body, and how it could possibly lead to something that could help people suffering from eating disorders.

Recently, uBiome announced that they are collaborating with Dr. Cynthia M. Bulik at the University of North Carolina Centre of Excellence for Eating Disorders to attempt to answer some of these questions.

The gut microbiome has been shown to have significant impacts on the functioning of digestion, the immune system, and many other functions of the body. An imbalance of the microbiome can contribute to many diseases, and can allow selection for bacteria such as C. difficile – a bacterium commonly found in the gut which in high numbers is associated with ulcerative colitis. Bacteria deprived of nutrients can also begin to eat into the gut lining, and cause inflammation and problems in the gut – decreasing the ability to digest food properly and absorb nutrients.

This makes people with eating disorders particularly susceptible, since their food intake is insufficient to sustain their microbiome (not to mention themselves). Lack of nutrients taken in would drastically decrease both the diversity and abundance of microbes in the gut – sometimes permanently – and as described above, this can have serious consequences.

Studies into the role the gut microbiome plays in eating disorders and vice versa are therefore incredibly important and may lead to discoveries about what influences the development of eating disorders, likelihood of relapse, and insights into how to make the re-feeding process more comfortable. While it’s only early, and will likely take several studies to fully understand the relationship between eating disorders and the gut microbiome, this is a significant first step in the process, and one which will hopefully lead to new ways of helping to treat, or even cure them.

Employee Profile – Orli Kadoch

Meet Orli Kadoch, Research and Collaborations Lead:

 

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Name?

Orli Kadoch

 

How did you find out about uBiome?

I was watching the Exponential Medicine Panel on live stream and saw Jessica’s talk about uBiome and the future of citizen science.  I hadn’t heard much about uBiome previously, but I instantly identified with her message and the direction of the company.  I did a bit more research and it sounded as though this company aligned perfectly with my career goals.

 

What do you love about working for uBiome?

uBiome gives you the opportunity for exponential growth, and I’m not just talking about bacteria! I’m someone who excels when given new experiences and the ability to learn, and I have been able to truly utilize all of my science and business skills as well as my entrepreneurial drive to forge partnerships, come up with new ideas, and rub elbows with the best and the brightest in the industry. The co-founders are incredible mentors who really emphasize a positive career trajectory. They see the bigger picture and will go the extra mile to help you get there!

 

What did you do before working at uBiome?

I’ve had a largely scientific and medical background, focusing on neurobiology at UC Davis and then conducting research in thoracic oncology at UCSF. I’ve also worked in medical clinics and hospitals, in oncology, plastic surgery, and pediatrics.  

 

What did you want to be when you grew up?

I wanted to be a neurosurgeon until my junior year of college. I still have tremendous respect for the field, but I was better suited for an environment where I could engage with the world on a larger scale. Now I work with surgeons to create partnerships and studies, so I’m happy to still be involved in the field to some degree. My hope is that I can help advance the fields of medicine and science.  

 

What tips do you have for someone who wants to follow in your footsteps?

I think a few new-hires have probably heard me say this, but for someone in the startup environment, I’d advise them to “just say yes.” As I mentioned, we’re given such a wonderful opportunity at uBiome to grow and try new things.   A lot of these things will be out of your comfort zone, but saying “yes” means that you have the chance to learn and grow in order to meet those challenges. Looking back, I remember many times where saying “yes” completely changed my role at uBiome for the better.  

 

What is something most people don’t know about you?

For the most part, I like to keep my feet on the ground, so many would be surprised to know that I went skydiving a couple years ago! It was a fantastic experience and one that I am happy to be able to cross off my “bucket list.” Would I do it again?  Probably not–I’m happy I got away unscathed the first time and don’t want to push my luck!

 

What do you like to do outside work?

Jump out of planes!  Just kidding…

We live in a beautiful city, so on most weekends you can find me exploring new scenic trails on a long hike with friends or sipping a delicious mint mojito from Philz (admittedly, I’m a bit addicted)! I also love spending time with my family, seeing movies, and meeting new people. I don’t count this as work, but it is also important to me to keep up to date on relevant scientific articles and the latest in biotech news. 

 

The Case of the Curious Microbiome

 

Meet Siavosh. He’s the data scientist behind last week’s popular post on male vs. female microbiomes.

Siavosh grew up overseas, got his PhD in Physics from Stanford, and is now an amazing part of the uBiome team. His desk is right next to an impressively high window that streams in sunlight and looks out over the city of San Francisco.

During a conversation near this window, we decided to start digging into the microbiomes of the fine folks who work here at uBiome, to see what we find and share it with you. Siavosh bravely offered to go first.

Here’s what we discovered in looking at his gut microbiome data:

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The charts above show that Siavosh’s level of Bacteriodetes is elevated far above what we would expect in the anonymized, aggregate uBiome dataset.

What about the error bars, you might be wondering? Well, the figure below shows that the prevalence of Bacteriodetes is 22% +- 13% in our dataset. In other words, the 68% confidence interval for the mean of Bacteriodetes is 9% to 35 %, and Siavosh has 38%.

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Why is he so different?

Differing levels of bacteria in the gut are known to be affected by a number of factors, including diet, exercise, health conditions like Crohn’s disease and depression, and even where we live and grew up.

One possible explanation for his outlying data is that Firmicutes tend to be more prevalent in obese people, and Bacteriodetes more prevalent in lean people. (He’s on the leaner side.) Growing up in Iran could also have had an effect, as well as the differences between his diet and the traditional Western diet.

We’d like to open this up to our readers too. Can you think of other possible explanations for Siavosh’s gut being enriched with Bacteriodetes? And better yet, would you like to add your microbiome to the mix, and see what mysteries lie in your gut? Find out what’s different about you!

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