Having Guts

Down the Chute, Where
the Slimming Bacteria Live

The mouth. While some may call it a temple for words and tastes, where great thought are expressed, and divine flavors often pay visits, it has also another, far more reductionist and not so noble, role: it’s only the first of two ends of a very long tube.
Albeit we won’t get it to that other side, not now anyway, our survival as humans still depends on what travels down into our fat lips, crosses the battleground of our guts, and gets out through a drain hole. Not all is turmoil in there, though. So come, let’s meet the locals.
For despite the many realms our thoughts have conquered, and the reasons why we orbit around the universe of the table, and always come back for more, we go out of our way to dissociate such fulfilling parts of life from what they ultimately imply, body-wise.
We made love and food with our months, and often recite with eloquence what they mean to us, and coyly, how we could never ever live without them. However, any mention to what goes on below the belt, and our appetite goes into a receding mode, embarrassed that we’d even thought about it.
And yet, deep down, you know you think about it, all the time. It’s just not something that, thankfully, most people would like to share on Twitter. But from a medical point of view, we really are what we eat, even though no parallel connection has been established yet between thought and personality.
That’s why Gulp, Mary Roach‘s book on the human digestive system in all its warts and, well, more warts, is so illuminating. And also, why there’s reason to some cautiously feel good about research that points to a bacteria that may have been making people fat all along.

FANTASTIC VOYAGES
In the 1966 movie, a loose adaptation of a series written in the 19th century by Jules Verne, former Bond girl Rachel Welch leads a team of miniaturized scientists who are injected into a man’s carotid artery to destroy a blood clot in his brain. Of course, if they’d fail, the entire world would end.
It was one of the first cinematic incursions into what was known then about the insides of the body, but mercifully, they stayed clear from digging too deep or going down under. Also, because Isaac Asimov wrote a novelization of the movie’s screenplay, published right (more)
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before its release, many still think he’d also come up with the original concept.
Other variations of the same theme came up too, both as movies and books, including Asimov’s own Fantastic Voyages II, which had even less to do with Verne’s version. Besides the production’s value and visual breakthroughs, it has nothing on Roach’s detailed descriptions of the nitty gritty of our own viscera.
Truly, as shown by the pictures illustrating this post, our guts do possess an eerie and stunning beauty. Just check the work of Luke Evans and Joshua Lake, who swallowed a piece of B&W 35mm film, and Dr. Kai-hung Fung, who used HD CT scans. But such thinking can also quickly turn into a nightmare when one think about the implications of robot pills, capable of monitoring us from inside our bodies.
But Roach‘s book is also a trip worth taking, since among lengthy passages on virtually unknown, and probably unsavory, sites such as the ‘sack of hydrochloric acid’ and the ‘tubular leach field,’ and processes as the ‘moistened bolus,’ she’s clearly having a ball taking us by the hand, or rather, dragging us by our feet and nails down through it.
In this surreal, and yes, stinky, rabbit hole we all carry around, even in our most lofty and sophisticated moments, she finds plenty of reasons to marvel at saliva, for instance, and not necessarily for the same reasons we do too, and at the microflora and fauna living inside us.
Along, she sort of resurrects an old people’s idea, this time based on sound science, that whatever we carry in bodily fluids may influence our health and state of mind. Thus they used to call it ‘humours,’ which would make know-it-alls medical students of the mid 20th century to laugh out loud. Well, who’s to laugh now?

ONCE UPON A BACTERIA
There are more wonders to be learned about it too, such as a new type of transplant we’ll spare you from knowing what kind now, but that’s suffice to say, is not made of exchange of organs, but rather of what a set of organs produce. To our own segueing purposes, however, at one point she does say that one’s health may depend ‘on who’s living in your gut.’
Good point. That’s exactly what a team of researchers led by Washington University Dr. Jeffrey I. Gordon seemed to have hit upon: a friendly bacteria that may, one day, help people lose weight, or never gain it, if initial results pan out into an effective therapy. Then again, what worked on lab rats may not work on us, in the long run. Still.
The findings are part of a larger ongoing investigation into causes and new possible treatments to painful, and chronic, ailments such as irritable bowel syndrome and Crohn’s disease. And as for animals being sacrificed for our own well being, well, for now, let’s not knock the good doctor for that either.
In fact, our not so principled objection would be to the notion that there must be always a pill to relieve us from making lifestyle decisions. After all, except for well known medical conditions, increasing obesity numbers are due to a proven combination of massive outputs of junk by the food industry, lack of healthy choices for the poor, and ‘abso-freaking-lutely’ our own eating habits.
Then again, it was a similarly serendipitous way that led science to discover the Heliobacter Pylori, another resident of the human gut which was found guilty of causing peptic ulcers. It’s only logical that, as more complex analytical tools are developed to study our insides, more good news should be expected too.
In the present case, the specific bacteria is yet to be isolated, and the results were only achieved through that kind of procedure we were trying so hard not to mention: the fecal transplant. Which gives Roach, whose Gulp preceded Dr. Gordon’s study, and who really seemed to have enjoyed describing it in detail, a last word of sorts.

(*) Originally published on Colltales on Sept. 13, 2013.

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