Dr. Zach Bush is one of a small number of triple board-certified MDs in the United States whose expertise encompasses endocrinology, metabolism, internal medicine, and hospice and palliative care. To date, Dr. Bush has enjoyed a well-earned and prestigious career in cancer research in addition to his conventional medical practice.
About a decade ago, Dr. Bush realized that his pharmaceutically-based treatment protocols were not healing his patients as they should be, and he even felt they were serving to actively harm them. It was at this point that he decided to walk away from his research and his practice. He moved to rural Virginia in the middle of a food desert and established a clinic that focused on the medicinal properties of plants. Today, he runs an innovative and integrative medical clinic in Charlottesville and also heads an outstanding team of researchers who are at the forefront of epigenetics and microbiome research.
As Dr. Bush explains, “The microbiome is an ecosystem that lives in and around the human being. It is composed of not only bacteria, but also fungi, parasites, viruses, and the like. This ecosystem is massive in comparison to the biology that we hold as humans.” In terms of bacteria in our ecosystems, our understanding of its proliferation has only grown. “It’s not understood that bacteria dwell in the breast, prostate, or in our solid organs,” Dr. Bush clarifies, “and it’s in our gut lining, on our skin, in every pore, in our nasal sinuses, and in our mouths.” The proper balance of bacteria is critical for the healthy functioning of our independent systems and overall health. “The interesting thing about the microbiome is it has the capacity to balance. It can balance tens of thousands of species of bacteria with millions of species of fungi and hundreds of thousands of species of parasites,” notes Dr. Bush. However, Dr. Bush has noticed within his own practice and experience with patients that the over-use of antibiotics has damaged the microbiome’s ability to self-regulate and balance. “So, we have this massive ecosystem that’s all working in a very coherent and coordinate fashion. You then throw in an antibiotic and you can see the incredible disruption that we cause in the fabric of the biology in which we live.” Dr. Bush offers the example of a poorly tended garden. If a gardener hasn’t nurtured and cared for the soil in a balanced way—providing enough moisture content, nutrients, and compost—then their plants will most likely die.
“We live just as the plant does on our body’s ‘organic soil.’ Our soil happens to be that of our gut and the nutrient delivery of our microbiome,” he relates. “As we kill the ecosystem in our gardening soil, the plants are damaged, and the soil is further weakened. As we take antibiotics in our food, in our water systems, and in our prescription medications, we are decimating the very fabric of the way in which our life springs out of our ‘soil.’”
In furthering the discussion on the repercussions of ingesting compounds that are harmful to our gut and microbiome, Dr. Bush heavily focuses on the dangers of glyphosate. Glyphosate is the active ingredient in Roundup; a weed-killing product manufactured by Monsanto. “This is a molecule that is made from the backbone of an amino acid which is a naturally occurring building block for the proteins that our bodies are built from,” Dr. Bush notes. “That glycine backbone is then tagged with a phosphate group and a carboxyl group to create an amine on the other end. We end up with a molecular family called an organophosphate.” In 1959, this very organophosphate chemical was patented in Japan as a chelating agent (a chemical compound that reacts with metal ions to form a stable, water-soluble complex). The toxicity of this agent was well known and so the chemical was not distributed in the marketplace.
In the mid-1970s, Monsanto began developing chemicals to be used for cleaning industrial piping and sewer systems. Because of glyphosate’s proven chelating ability, Monsanto purchased its patent. They began using it as a pipe cleaner to effectively tear mineral buildup off the lining of pipes to clear clogs and increase flow efficiency.
“However, they found that as soon as that pipe emptied on the other side of the water system, it killed all the plant life and organisms in the streams,” reveals Dr. Bush. “They suddenly realized that they had something that was damaging ecological life.” It’s now recognized to be the same process that occurred in the 1970s with Agent Orange. Agent Orange was the chemical that was transported to Vietnam and used to defoliate the jungles. Vast amounts of this organophosphate were aerially sprayed to kill jungle plant life in order to expose the Vietcong army and more effectively coordinate attacks against them.
In a similar vein of thinking, “Monsanto realized that if they couldn’t market glyphosate as a pipe cleaner, then maybe they could go ahead and market it as a weed killer. Unsurprisingly, they got permission to do that,” Dr. Bush says. Beginning in the late 1970s, glyphosate was marketed and sold as a product called Roundup. By the mid 1980s it was a household name and found in the garages and sheds of millions of Americans. However, it’s not only the glyphosate in Roundup that makes it a particularly damaging product to use. “It has surfactants and other chemicals, too. There are sixteen other compounds that are toxic in the final product of Roundup,” Dr. Bush points out.
Dr. Bush works with a team of farmers to understand the practical implications of Roundup in the farming industry. As the farmers explained to him, “As single spraying of Roundup in a field can kill fifty percent of the worms normally found in that acreage.” Dr. Bush points out that, “Earthworms are obviously one of the most important parts of that soil’s ecosystem. [Glyphosate] is an extremely toxic chemical to all of life at every level. It impacts the plants, the microorganisms, and the macroorganisms. They are all dying very quickly under a single application of Roundup.” It doesn’t take much to extrapolate and imagine the collective impact of the entire farming industry’s use of this chemical. As previously mentioned, glyphosate is water soluble which means it won’t remain on any surface or subject for long. As soon as rain falls or farm irrigation is initiated, the chemical washes through the soil, into the water table, and out into larger waterways.
“The water system that collects the vast majority of the Roundup spray in the United States (from an agricultural standpoint) is the Mississippi River,” declares Dr. Bush. The Mississippi River collects all of the water from Montana, North Dakota, South Dakota, Minnesota, and Missouri. All of the water in these states ends up in one water system which concentrates the Roundup and extraneous fertilizers used by countless farms. “It’s not surprising that it’s now the most horrible zone for life to exist in,” Dr. Bush sadly extolls. “As the Mississippi empties out into the Gulf of Mexico, we kill all the microorganisms, fish life, and everything else living in the water.” Unfortunately, there is also a dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico at the mouth of the Mississippi that is the size of Rhode Island. It is expanding daily from chemical dumping that is killing algae and microorganisms and bleaching the life out of the coral.
“Australia went crazy with glyphosate around 2007 and have been more steeped in it over the last decade than even the United States. They’re killing the coral reefs there, too. We’ve got this massive decimation of life on Earth, all from our chemical farming.”
From a global perspective, “The same thing is happening in the Great Barrier Reef,” Dr. Bush describes. “Australia went crazy with glyphosate around 2007 and have been more steeped in it over the last decade than even the United States. They’re killing the coral reefs there, too. We’ve got this massive decimation of life on Earth, all from our chemical farming.” Asked whether laws should be enacted to prevent further damage, Dr. Bush responds, “It absolutely should be illegal. I think that the rise of consciousness is happening, and I fully anticipate that it will be illegal in the next decade.”
Outside of the environmental impacts of glyphosate, Dr. Bush is connecting the dots to explain spikes in chronic illness that are being documented amongst American children. “Forty-six percent of children in the United States now have a chronic disease diagnosis. There are plenty more that have yet to be diagnosed, suffering in silence.” Dr. Bush is even examining the prevalence of life-threatening allergies that are extremely common in this generation of children. “If you ask any school nurse how many EpiPens they had on the shelf in 1985, they’d say, ‘Maybe one.’ Now you go to a school and they’ve developed these fancy boards that all the EpiPens click into with each student’s name and their specific allergy. There are now so many kids that are allergic to something in the natural environment because they have no barrier,” he says. “They’ve destroyed the barrier system and everything they eat goes zipping right into their immune system and causes a reaction.”
In yet another connected trend, Dr. Bush also examines the overuse of pharmaceuticals in society. His concerns fall with the heavy use of stimulants on millions of children, and the ways in which very narrow diagnostic labels separate us as humans from the root cause of suffering or illness. “Polypharmacy [the practice of taking multiple medications] is really just chasing after the wind. It’s not getting anywhere near the root cause of the situation. Back in the 1990s, with the big debut of Prozac and the SSRI (serotonin reuptake inhibitor) class of antidepressants, it was an amazing time where we thought we had found a magic bullet for depression,” he recalls.
Dr. Bush carefully explains that such medications increase the amount of serotonin available in the synapse (the space between neurons). The amount of serotonin is not increased, however; the body isn’t making more. The medication simply blocks the uptake of serotonin so more of it is left in the synapse to keep interacting with surface receptors on the brain’s neurons. In this way, there is simply more serotonin available even though there is no more serotonin in your body than there was before taking the medication.
“It’s the highest science out there around these pharmaceutical agents, which are all chemicals. They are pharmaceutically derived, which means they’ve been changed or perturbed from their natural state,” Dr. Bush says. “This means they’re going to have side effects and negative impacts on the human body when taken, and so, we’re just missing the whole root cause of health. We’re certainly missing the pursuit of health and healing through the belief that the pharmaceutical industry should be any part of that, let alone the foundation of it.”
In specifically looking at children with autism, Dr. Bush has his own theories: “Any parent who has struggled to help their child with autism knows their child’s gut is so messed up. ‘Why can’t I get it right? Why can’t I find the right diet? Why can’t I get them to do it?’ These are all common questions I hear.” In Dr. Bush’s opinion, the gaps in diet realized by parents and the early efforts of their clinicians, led to the realization that nutrition is a fundamental part of the treatment process. “It’s not discussed by neurologists or family doctors that diagnose autism. It doesn’t get presented as a frontline treatment method. You’ve got to change the microbiome; you’ve got to change the nutrients going into the child, and this is just not taught.” Dr. Bush’s experience is that the education of physicians is directed into the pharmaceutical belief system that leaves the understanding of the underpinnings of disease sorely lacking. He even finds that, as a collective, physicians’ knowledge about nutrition, exercise, and healthy lifestyles isn’t detailed enough.
In a holistic view, we’re not simply a product of our genome. In fact, for many of us, our genome plays a limited role in the expressions of our health. Our microbiome coupled with the planetary health that surrounds us on a daily basis is what enables us to live happily or unhealthily. What steps can we as individuals take to build ourselves a better brain or a better body? What can we do to help our loved ones? Dr. Bush has some thoughts.
If you haven’t caught it yet, you can build yourself a new body and brain. That is such an important story for you and your suffering children, grandchildren, nieces, nephews, etc.,” he exclaims. “It’s so exciting because we have so much human potential that is untapped. We have never really lived life in a sense of wonderment; of connection to nature as a society.”
“It’s so important; I want to infuse hope into all of you! If you haven’t caught it yet, you can build yourself a new body and brain. That is such an important story for you and your suffering children, grandchildren, nieces, nephews, etc.,” he exclaims. “It’s so exciting because we have so much human potential that is untapped. We have never really lived life in a sense of wonderment; of connection to nature as a society.” Dr. Bush is quick to point out that many individuals have come to this conclusion and have found a true nurturing synergy with Mother Nature. “This can happen through a meditation process or some other experience—near-death experiences are very common in this scenario—where people will spend time on the ‘other side of the veil’ and suddenly come back into the body. They completely change their whole perspective on their connection with nature.”
According to Dr. Bush, this is a critical step to find a connection to who we are as individuals and to discover what we are here to do on this planet. “That process looks a lot like getting nature back in your life,” he said. “It’s first about getting the silence in your life. Turn off the TVs, turn off your computer, turn off your wi-fi, and get some silence in the house. If you can’t get it in the house, then just leave, get in your car, and drive as far away from civilization as you can. Get out of the car—I don’t care if it’s in the middle of a field or by a waterfall—and stare at a leaf for a while. Stare into nature for just a few minutes and find reconnection there.” We are not separate from the natural world around us, and sometimes it takes a concerted effort to remind ourselves of this fact. “Have you recently felt that incredible sensation of grass on your toes?” Dr. Bush asks. “Bare feet in grass—especially when you’re in a field of wild flowers—where you’re able to feel the crumbliness of the soil beneath your feet, the tickle and pressure of the grass, and the flower leaves pushing against your ankles and toes is magical. It’s a real life, four-dimensional massage happening from Mother Nature and it goes into all of your neurologic systems. The bottom of your foot is the reflexology map; every single organ in your body can be nourished, nurtured, encouraged, and inspired by the touch of grass on the bottom of your feet.”
Do something to get yourself and your children back into nature. You’ll have scratches, you’ll have bug bites, and you’ll have bumps and bruises because you will be intimately interacting with nature. There will be an exchange of blood, microbes, and RNA, and that will happen just by sitting outside and breathing and experience nature. Let nature touch you.”
In Dr. Bush’s mind, that should be the starting point for all of us if we’re feeling less than well, unbalanced, or unhappy. “If you feel sick, then stop whatever you’re doing. If you need to pull your kids out of school for two weeks or take a sick-leave, then do whatever you need to do to create a few days of nature for your children and for yourself,” he advises. “Get out there! Go on a canoe trip, do something to get yourself and your children back into nature.” Although it won’t necessarily be as comfortable and convenient as the lives to which we’ve become accustomed, Dr. Bush insists the benefits far outweigh any drawbacks. “You’ll have scratches, you’ll have bug bites, and you’ll have bumps and bruises because you will be intimately interacting with nature. There will be an exchange of blood, microbes, and RNA, and that will happen just by sitting outside and breathing and experience nature. Let nature touch you.”
As a society, we’ve been conditioned to prepare ourselves before we step out the door and into the outside world. From all manner of sunscreens, bug sprays, and SPF clothing, we are fully armed with protective products to keep natural dangers at bay. However, Dr. Bush cautions against such drastic measures becoming an obsession. “Don’t go out there and spray yourself down with bug spray and cover yourself with sunscreen,” he advises. “At least give yourself a few minutes of real, uninhibited, unfiltered nature.”
While Dr. Bush’s view on overall health is multi-faceted, it most definitely isn’t complicated. We must broaden our understanding of our biologic ecosystem to minimize our vulnerabilities to injury as the result of antibiotic over-dependence. We also must educate ourselves on the unfortunate prevalence of chemicals in the food we eat, the water we drink, and the medications we take. Dr. Bush concludes that, “Our vulnerability is as much from our convenience lifestyle as it is from the drugs in our environment.” So, make your life a little less convenient. Research any and all geographical concerns in terms of chemical dangers, grow your own food whenever possible, inject more silence into your life, and sit in nature on a regular basis. Reset your microbiome and calm your mind—your body will thank you!