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Performance-Enhanced and Sex-Driven

Probiotics are back (yes, they were once a thing) and a growing number of companies claim that by adding live microorganisms, bacteria does the body good. Dannon’s Activia yogurt touts probiotics as a way to regulate the digestive system. Powerful Yogurt and Naked Pizza serve up similar health claims. The brisk business in beneficial bacteria brings in around $28 billion a year. With names like Lactobaccili, Streptococci, and Bifidobacteria, these microorganisms have been linked to lower rates of constipation, ulcerative colitis, and chronic diarrhea. Consult with Dr. Google and you might find that probiotics are the next Prozac, the cure for acne, and a surefire boost to your sex appeal.

Despite nearly a century of research—first on “scientifically soured milk” and life-prolonging yogurts—the concept remains largely under-researched and oversold. At the same time, scientists are finding that the trillions of microorganisms, as many as 10,000 different species, or about 160 species per person, flourish in our warm, wet intestines. Microbes influence our health, sometimes far beyond the gut itself. If the human microbiota, as it’s known, is an integral part of overall health and physical fitness, could microbes serve as performance-enhancing microorganisms?

One study—known, in some circles, as the “Great Balls of Fire”—claimed that probiotic yogurt imbued male mice with bigger balls and a behavior the researchers called swagger. The lead investigator, Susan Erdman, a cancer biologist at MIT in Cambridge, Mass, is a researcher with an unflagging enthusiasm for her work (and also a dedicated athlete). Three years ago, quite by chance, she told me, a colleague had noticed that the female mice in her lab colony were becoming so unbelievably shiny, they looked almost opalescent.

“I have dogs at home,” Erdman says. “Some of them go after the yogurt containers and lick them out when we’re done. I remember thinking, ‘Zappy is a black dog who glows like crazy.’” Back in the lab, colleagues began to notice that male mice had large, protruding testicles. (She showed one video of a mouse strutting around his cage like overeager stud at an oonts-oonts nightclub.) The animals exhibited slim physiques and had little abdominal fat. What gave them a youthful edge: yogurt.

Erdman suspects that bacteria confer a “glow of health” in aging animals, essentially mimicking the peak health of younger animals. In a series of recently published studies, she examined mice fed an isolated strain of bacteria called Lactobacillus reuteri, a microorganism originally isolated from human breast milk. Drinking the probiotic infusions halved a mouse’s body weight, no matter how much gooey “fast-food” chow they ate. The bacteria sped the healing of superficial skin wounds. In males, it led to heavier testes. “We ended up with a triad of features that we affectionately call shiny, skinny, and sexy,” she says. “These are indications of supreme physical fitness.”

{%{"quote":"“We should be able to harness probiotic microbes just as we’ve harnessed microbes to make our bread and brew our beer.”"}%}

Probiotic bacteria, which tend to number in the billions, don’t stick around with the tens of trillions of microorganisms already living in the gut. Yet, just passing through appears to shake things up and the ingested microbes stimulate the body’s immune cells, though the exact mechanism behind the effect remains unknown.

The strain Erdman studied, for example, ushered in a cascade of hormonal changes connected with an animal’s thyroid, adrenals, and gonads. “When we started feeding them microbes, the mice suddenly became more active,” she says. “How would that translate into people? You would presume that they would suddenly have more desire to get up and move around—increased energy levels, changes in metabolism, that’s mostly a good thing, right?”

So far, despite any speculation, there’s only tantalizing hints for how research in mice might translate into healthy humans. In one 2011 study in the New England Journal of Medicine, researchers examined 1.6 million years of data to determine what factors caused Americans to gain weight as we age. Potato chips, processed meats, and sugary drinks were the worst for lean body mass. People who ate yogurt, on average, lost about one pound every four years. Today, the U.S. National Institutes of Health lists hundreds of trials on probiotics—from dental health to weight loss—and most of the commercially available Lactobacilli and Bifidobacteria strains target gastrointestinal disorders.

If a particular active ingredient, or cocktails of organisms, treats diarrhea, then another set of organisms may better stave off post-marathon fatigue. (After all, you don’t grab any random pill when you’re sick.) Perhaps probiotics altering digestion also give athletes a boost by contributing to good overall health. In the few small studies thus far—hinting at longer run-to-exhaustion times and improved immune response of fatigued athletes—the existing concoctions do not appear to be a performance panacea. Moreover, because people may carry genes that make them more or less responsive to probiotics, physicians may need to get a sense of who you are as an individual before recommending a microbial cocktail that would be particularly good for bringing out the best you that you could be.

Today, there’s still a substantial gap between the lab incubator and your mouth. But looking around, you might never notice that. In the U.S., there’s no standard of labeling for probiotics. Marketing claims go largely unregulated. “If you go to your local pharmacy or supermarket, you will see shelves with compounds labelled as probiotics,” says Martin J. Blaser, a microbiologist at New York University and author of the book Missing Microbes. “Each of them has different claims for what they can do. They represent many different organisms. What I can say for sure is that almost none of them has been well tested—with respect to any of the claims.”

Not that scientists doubt the importance of these microorganisms. Far from it. Are the most important microbes may be the ones we evolved with for millions of years and acquire early in life? Blaser worries that we’re eradicating these species through the indiscriminate use of antibiotics. (Populations such as the Swedes, using far fewer antibiotics per capita, he says, are at least as healthy or healthier as we are.) Once we better know what’s missing, he says, we can expect to deliberately add them back in. “At some point in the future, we will have scientifically based, well-tested probiotics that will have specific uses to improve human health. We should be able to harness specific microbes to use them for our advantage just as we’ve harnessed microbes make our bread and brew our beer.”

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Marathoners Chase Round-Number Finishes

The sun beats down on your head. Sweat drips from the tip of your nose, and your legs and feet beg for a reprieve. As you cross the finish line at your latest marathon, you squeeze every last ounce of energy from your body because, damn it, you will crack three hours this time around.

And then you see your time: three hours, one minute, twelve seconds. You feel stupid for the thought, however fleeting, that it was all for naught.

Your love of round numbers—and their implied significance—isn’t unique. In fact, as Runner’s World reports, a new study by economists at UC–Berkeley and the University of Chicago crunched data from more than nine million marathon finishes since 1970 and found that chasing elusive round marks is the norm for athletes of all stripes.

Of course, completing a marathon with a slightly slower time doesn’t mean much in the long run. Puns aside, you still accomplished a physical feat many people couldn’t.

So, if the arbitrary goals we give ourselves while training don’t really matter to our health, why do we fixate on them? As the study’s authors explain, the phenomenon of “bunching”—spikes in finishes just before hour, half-hour, and even ten-minute milestones—“cannot be explained by explicit rewards (e.g., qualifying for the Boston Marathon), peer effects, or institutional features (e.g., pacesetters).” The answer, instead, lies in the psychology of goal setting. Although the physical benefits are negligible, the psychological ones are very real, and when we fail to meet the goals we’ve set for ourselves, that failure stings.

As with any data involving more than nine million points, these scientists had a lot of information to parse, and the thing is worth a read—if you’ve got the time and the patience—but some key points should be highlighted anyway.

For one, in the final two miles of marathons, participants generally slowed down by 5 to 14 percent. That is, unless they were close to a round-number barrier, in which case, the study found, they often sped up. In other words, these arbitrary goals really can lead athletes to tap into the depths of their energy reserves.

But there’s a limit to this seemingly superhuman psychological strength. At faster marathon times, the ability to speed up in pursuit of breaking a round number declined: only 30 percent of runners trying to crack the three-hour mark could accelerate on their push to the finish, compared with more than 40 percent trying to finish in under five hours.

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The Runner's Ticking Time Bomb?

Long-distance racers have a history of dying. Pheidippides, the first marathoner of us all, croaked at the finish line. Recently, two runners, both under the age of 40, collapsed near the finish line of a half marathon in Raleigh, North Carolina. Though the race’s organizers said that the men’s deaths appeared to be from natural causes, the frequency of racing-death headlines is not so natural.

Studies published in the Journal of the American College of Cardiology say that about one in 200,000 runners will experience sudden cardiac arrest, and one in 50,000 will experience a heart attack from coronary artery disease during a marathon. According to the Heart Foundation, 250,000 Americans suffer sudden cardiac death annually. Many of these incidents can be linked to preexisting conditions. It has been calculated that one in 500 U.S. high school athletes has a usually trivial and identifiable cardiac “abnormality,” such as hypertrophic cardiomyopathy, or HCM, a thickening of the muscle wall around the heart.

The American Heart Association has linked HCM to a third of the 1,866 recorded athlete deaths over the past three decades. Of that number, many are runners like Micah True, star of the national bestseller Born to Run, as well as athletes such as University of Southern Indiana basketball player Jeron Lewis and Chicago Bears defensive end Gaines Adams. But these are rare and high-profile cases. Still, if the probability of experiencing cardiac arrest during physical activity is seemingly so low, and if knowledge about the problem is at an all-time high, then why are athletes dying so frequently?

Maybe because you don’t know you are dying. “The symptoms of a heart attack are the same as the side effects of exercise,” says Bonnie Taub-Dix, a registered dietitian who appears regularly on Good Morning America. “Your heart is racing, you are sweating, your chest hurts, and it’s hard to breathe.”

In a report on Fox News, Gordon Tomaselli, a cardiologist at the Johns Hopkins Outpatient Center, explained an athlete’s ability to run right through all the warning signs. “In order to have symptoms, it’s a supply-demand situation. You only get chest pains when the demand on the heart outstrips its ability to supply blood and nutrients to other organs,” he says. “So you can be totally asymptomatic, and your first symptom is sudden death.”

While the symptoms may be hard to pick up on, underlying conditions are not—as long as you look for them. ECG tests are the best method for pinpointing any preexisting heart problems, and while the idea of making tests mandatory for race participants has been tossed around, event directors and runners alike know that wouldn’t be practical. Beyond testing, knowing what your body is saying, and when to stop during the miles logged, is even more important. “Moderation is the key to everything,” says Taub-Dix. “Running and exercise are great for your health, but there is such a thing as too much of anything.” 

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How to Race (and Live) Like a Spartan

“Am I intense? Yes, I’ll be the first to admit it.” So writes Joe De Sena about a third of the way into his new book, Spartan Up!, out May 13 from Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. To which any reader is likely to reply, out loud, “No kidding, Joe!” De Sena, 45, is the creator of the Spartan Race, a massively popular obstacle race series that he’s grown into a $60 million business since 2010.

In Spartan Up! De Sena tells his personal story—kid grows up poor in Queens, New York; takes over dad’s pool-cleaning business; gets rich on Wall Street but also fat; finds himself through adventure racing; and moves to a Vermont farm—but mostly he works at convincing you that to find happiness and success in life, you need to suffer.

That’s the point of a Spartan Race—the plunges into frigid mud puddles, the crawls under barbed wire, and the climbs over greased walls are supposed to hurt. So are the daily training hours for your next race. As De Sena sees it, endure the pain and everything else in life seems easy by comparison. Regardless of what you think of the obstacle-racing trend, it’s hard not to finish Spartan Up! without feeling motivated to push harder during your next run, ride, or burpee session. With that in mind, here are a dozen of De Sena’s prescriptions for going farther and faster, and generally bettering yourself, pulled from the pages of the book.

{%{"quote":"Upset? Stressed? Mad? Run. Still feel that way? Run faster."}%}

When you push your body to its limits, when you are out of breath and in pain, when you are lying on the ground exhausted—that’s the kind of experience that reveals to you how bad things can be. By doing this, you’re changing your mind’s frame of reference to set new standards. When that challenging workout is over, the small worries of the day seem like nothing.

If you never want to get sick again in your life, do 30 burpees a day. This works assuming you eat healthier as well.

The easiest way to convince your body that sitting in traffic is not worthy of a stress-induced freak-out is by showing your body what real stress feels like in the controlled setting of a daily workout.

You can either go to bed satisfied with your efforts today or stressed about what you left for tomorrow.

Be extremely physical and use every minute of your time. My wife thinks I’m nuts, but I will exercise in public if I have time to kill. She gets embarrassed, for example, if I am doing burpees in the airport. Being healthy should never be embarrassing. 

Preparing for the unexpected is easy. You just need to do the unexpected. Break out of your routine. Go for a run at night. Swim in the open ocean. Stop and climb a hill in the distance. Go farther during that bike ride.

You can talk all you want about mental strength and positive attitude… Mind over matter only takes you so far before you find yourself beyond your body’s literal control.

The pain of regret, the pain of failure—the drive to avoid feeling this pain ever again is what pushes us to work harder, to be a better person.

A good training partner can push you farther and faster when things are going well, but they can become essential when you’re burned out or training or skipping workouts and start slacking. You are conspiring against your own laziness by having a friend help hold you accountable.

The alarm goes off at 5 a.m.—what do you do? Believe it or not, our success in life hangs in the balance. If we go through life hitting the snooze button, our chances for success plunge.

Work harder. Be better. Do more.

Look for a feature-length profile of Joe De Sena in the upcoming July 2014 issue of Outside.

Excerpts from
SPARTAN UP! by Joe De Sena with Jeff O’Connell to be published on May 13th, 2014. Copyright © 2014 by Spartan Race, Inc. Used by permission of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company. All rights reserved.

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Until the Teeth Fall Out of Your Head

One day, during your struggles, you look down at your thigh. You should see a familiar scar from an old childhood wound. But now that scar has begun to pull apart, skin separating, as if the stitched seam in a pair of jeans has started to unravel.

Meanwhile, your teeth have grown so loose in your skull that, if you had the strength in your hands, you could pluck them out with your own fingers. The hair follicules on your legs have turned purplish. You bruise at the slightest touch.

As one description puts it, if this malady continues on its course, “the body will degenerate into a bleeding pulp for which death is a blessing.”

This is not some rare and frightening disease recently emerged from primate populations in Central African jungles. Rather, it is one of the oldest human maladies known. For four hundred years, it had a profound effect in shaping world history, and yet is almost forgotten today.

This “bleeding pulp” of the human body represents the end stages of scurvy.

A Disease as Old as Us

Scurvy has probably been around as long as humans existed—Hippocrates made note of it in Classical times—but it wasn’t until about 500 years ago that it threatened the balance of emerging world powers. Basically, scurvy is caused by the lack of what we now call Vitamin C (or ascorbic acid). Most animals need Vitamin C to survive, but most of them can manufacture it in their own bodies, with the exception of certain primates, bats, and guinea pigs.

To describe its role in the human body, I think of it as a kind of atomic welder in the body’s foundries that make proteins. One of the most important proteins the body manufactures is collagen, which helps form the tough, connective tissues—ligaments, tendons, skin, blood vessel walls. Scurvy sets in when there is no vitamin C to weld together the collagen protein in these tissues.

“The Explorers’ Disease”

This became glaringly obvious starting in the late 1400s when sea-going European explorers made epic voyages in search of new lands. They sailed for months without fresh food that contains Vitamin C. Scurvy typically appeared among the crew after ten or twelve weeks at sea, but sometimes sooner. Vasco da Gama’s expedition around Africa to India in 1497 suffered mightily from it, saved by an Arabian trader who happened by with a boatland of oranges. A French expedition led by Jacques Cartier, his ship trapped in the ice in the frozen St. Lawrence River in the 1530s while looking for a Northwest Passage, lost 25 out of 110 men.  

Cartier ordered an autopsy on one 22-year-old victim to try to understand what this curious malady was.

“It was discovered,” according to the expedition’s journal, “that his heart was completely white and shriveled up, with more than a jugful of red date-coloured water about it.”

(One of my favorite scientific books of all time, which describes some of these events, is Kenneth J. Carpenter’s “The History of Scurvy and Vitamin C.”)

Once European nations developed navies to colonize and defend distant lands far across the seas, the death toll from scurvy skyrocketed. By one calculation based on nautical records, between 1500 and 1800, scurvy appears to have claimed around two million sailors.

What’s bizarre is that it took so long, literally centuries, for European powers to figure out a reliable cure such as the famous British Navy lemon juice, which was instituted around 1800. Countless cures were lying under the noses of every expedition and were long known to native peoples. Cartier’s expedition was saved from utter decimation through the knowledge of the local Indians, who, in the depths of frozen winter, showed the clueless Frenchmen how to brew tea from the needles and bark of a tree called the anneda, much later identified as the white cedar, or arborvitae. This happened to be very high in Vitamin C.

Other native peoples in cold regions throughout the world—where there are no fresh fruits or vegetables available in winter—had figured out over the millenia what herbs or barks or animals to consume that happened to be high in Vitamin C and would keep them healthy during the long frozen months. The Inuit of the Arctic, for example, chewed on whaleskin, extraoridnarily high in vitamin C, while the Yukon Indians knew that the adrenal glands of field mice would keep them healthy in the winter.

Collapse of the Overland Expedition

In my book, Astoria, I’ve written about the possible effects of scurvy on Wilson Price Hunt’s Overland Party in the winter of 1811-12. They were trapped in a huge canyon (unmapped then but known today as Hell’s Canyon of the Snake River) with little or no food. I suspect at least some members, such as the collapsing Scottish fur trader Ramsay Crooks and American hunter John Day, were succumbing both to hunger while also severely weakened by scurvy.

The Shoshone Indians saved Hunt’s Overland Party from this fate. When a group of Hunt’s party finally escaped Hell’s Canyon and reached some Shoshone villages, the Shoshone fed them, among other things, dried, pounded “wild cherries.” It’s not clear just what type of cherries these were, but some cherries (or cherry-like fruits) are extraordinarily high in Vitamin C. The acerola, or West Indian cherry, contains about 1700 mg of Vitamin C per handful, or 170 times what the human body needs daily to recover from scurvy. Experiments on conscientious objectors during World War II showed that 10 mg per day of Vitamin C cleared up the symptoms of scurvy within a few weeks.

Whatever kinds of cherries, it is almost certain that the Shoshone Indians ate rosehips, either dried and infused in teas or mixed with other foods. Rosehips are another power pill when it comes to Vitamin C (each cup of fresh rosehips contains close to 1,000 percent of the human daily requirement for Vitamin C). With pounded wild cherries, and rosehip tea or rosehips mixed in stews or in pounded meat, Hunt and his Overland Party were restored from their possible scurvy and debilitating nutritional weakness. With these mega-doses of Vitamin C from ancient, traditional sources, the Overland Party continued on its way to the Pacific to start the first American colony on the West Coast.

The Hardest Way West

In this exclusive excerpt from the new book, Astoria, the legendary Overland Party attempts to establish America's first commercial colony on the wild and unclaimed Northwest coast—provided, of course, they survive the journey.

Peter Stark is a full-time freelance writer of non-fiction books and articles specializing in adventure and exploration history. His most recent book, Astoria: John Jacob Astor and Thomas Jefferson’s Lost Pacific Empire; a Story of Wealth, Ambition and Survival, tells the harrowing tale of the quest to settle a Jamestown-like colony on the Pacific Coast and will be published in March 2014 by Ecco/HarperCollins.

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