Thursday, 28 January 2016

Challenge? You've 10 Trillion to Dinner

I'm not much of a scientist. When I was at school (back on Noah's Ark), Science wasn't a collective subject, there was Physics, Chemistry and Biology and they were three separate things.
I loved Physics. Miss Alfred, a young black woman, was an inspirational teacher, and had I stayed in the West Indies, perhaps the whole path of my life would have been different. Perhaps I would have grown up to agree with a boy I later knew, who, complimented on his college First, or Double First or whatever it was, laughed deprecatingly and said: 'Oh, Physics is just a game!'
But we moved to the UK and the inspirational teachers I had at school in England weren't in the Science field.
I didn't get to study Physics at all, Biology faded from my curriculum, and I was asked, very politely, if I would prefer to leave the Chemistry set.

My school, BAHS in Trinidad has changed beyond recognition, but this is much as I remember it. Painting by Angelica Awai Barrow

Arts and the Humanities beckoned - or at least, their teachers did - and because school timetables are built solely around exam schedules, many things in life have remained a bit of a mystery. But in the last year or so, some aspects of science have increasingly fascinated me.
Such as the countless millions who, apparently, are more me than I am.

I am not an individual, I am We. (The Royals have known all along.)
Suddenly, it's not so much 'I think, therefore I am', but more a case of 'I eat, therefore I'm not sure who I am'.
We are, it seems, only the sum or our microbial cells. The heart and soul and mind that makes me an individual, comprise a mere 10 trillion human cells; but I am inhabited by as many as 100 trillion other microbial cells, so 'I' am outnumbered 10 to one. But by and large none of us knows what those inner cells amount to, and, at the moment, we have very little control over what they make us to be.

Just over a year ago someone recommended that I read Gudrun Jonsson's book Gut Reaction. It is a slim book, first published nearly 20 years ago. I imagine it could easily be 'overlooked' nowadays as its tag lines about losing weight and detoxing would rank it in the 'fad section' for many people, including me. But I trusted the person who'd told me about it.
Reading it made me feel as if a light had suddenly been turned on in a dark, dusty and unknown cellar, revealing endless secrets that I wished I'd known sooner. These gems of information made sense of stuff that I'd been grappling with for years - mainly health issues, but other related problems. It wasn't so much that I discovered a set of missing links, reading the book rather gave me a feeling that up until now I'd assumed I knew the building I inhabited - my body - but was suddenly aware that actually all these years I'd only been living on the upper floors, I'd totally missed the basement where the key archives, guidebooks and manuals were stored.

A mind opener

For example, take the immune system. We all know about our immune systems, largely because they seem to spend half their time broken, or working below par. If stopped on the street and asked to point to my heart, my kidneys and my immune system, I'd certainly have had trouble with the third.
A gland somewhere, maybe -
'That's an interesting one,' I'd probably have said. And meant it.
I daresay most people are more clued up than I am, but I was spell-bound to realise that my gut comprises practically all of my immune system.
Or rather, the trillions of microbes that inhabit my gut. The microbes that make me me and you you. The microbes that are different - or differently balanced - in all of us, rather as our fingerprints are different.

Microbes are the flavour of the moment now. Perhaps they have been for years, but they're only just reaching those of us who live on the edge of science, like me.
It fascinates me to know that during birth, we are 'innoculated', if you like, with our mother's microbial cells as we pass through the birth canal. So vital are these to our future well being that huge studies are now taking place where babies born by C-section are being coated with their mother's vaginal microbes as soon as they are born. Microbes, they now know are central to everything we are and everything we will be. If we miss out on getting the right ones at birth, things may never go right. They help us digest our food, process drugs, educate our immune system, resist disease, and - it seems - they even affect how we behave, think and live.

They can tell, with 90% accuracy whether you are obese or lean without looking at you, just by looking in a lab at microbes taken from your stool sample; and they are increasingly linking microbial make-up with diseases/conditions, including IBS, heart disease, colon cancer, autism and depression, as well as obesity.

How our microbes make us what we are

It's not just the manner of our birth that affects our interior selves. It's what we eat, how we live and the medicines we take. Rob Knight, a leading scientist in this field, has said that we may come to look on antibiotics with the same horror as nowadays we view the metal implements with which the Egyptians mushed up the human brain in order to drain it from the body before embalming could take place. Quite a thought, but not outlandish considering how antibiotics destroy the balance of microbes in our gut.

Last night I watched Trust me, I'm a Doctor on BBC2, which is a fascinating programme. Two women of the same age were given an identical diet for a week and their blood sugar levels were monitored constantly. (Also their sleep, activity and mood.) It was found that foods that spiked one woman's blood sugars had the opposite effect on the other, and vice versa. So the old adage of 'Chocolate is bad for you, brown rice is good' has gone out of the window. It may not actually be true for everyone. It all depends on your gut flora. And your gut flora depends - to a large degree - on what you eat. Does that sound like a mind-bender to you too? Whichever way you look at it, minding the diet of 10 trillion is tricky.

BBC 2's Trust Me, I'm a Doctor

I am beyond fascinated. 

I had amoebic dysentery as a baby in Africa. Who knows what havoc that may have wreaked? It was my own fault - the dog and I shared a shoe and between the two of us I believe we ate a good bit of it, but now I want to turn the clock back, and get the aftermath of that episode dealt with by a chap like Rob Knight. But also I want Miss Alfred back in my life to see whether, given a different start in secondary school, I might  have become a scientist like my brother, at the cutting edge of such amazing discoveries. 
And speaking of school, how long will it be, do you reckon, before notes home from the teacher cease to read: 'Dear Mrs Bloggs, Tommy is being disruptive again. Please will you attend the Principal's office on Tuesday at 10am', and say instead:
'Dear Mrs Bloggs, Tommy is being disruptive again. Please will you arrange for a stool sample to be delivered to the school's Behavioural Lab by 10am Tuesday, so that dietary adjustment can commence.'
I don't know about you, but I'm certainly going to be watching this space.



  1. this is brilliant Lorely .... I believe if we are listen more to ourselves ( and not to tv spots or food-gurus ) we only would eat, what is good for us individually and not what is good for the pockets of big multi-nationals. Just pretend we are goats rambling around in an unspoiled area with a great biodiversity of plants and we would pick, what is good for us. I'd like to believe it is all within us ...

  2. Eat! Eat!
    (in the past I would have said Hear! Hear!)

  3. Very inspiring, Lorely! Even it is a little bit hard to understand for me, be I know about the theme....especially for me, as a person with some allergies, it would be helpfull to learn more about it!

  4. Thank you for the comments.
    Tina - maybe you are right. Happily goats don't get a choice of cakes, chocolates, bread - etc! But yes, if we didn't have supermarkets, maybe we'd all be better off healthwise!

    J - Flora! Flora!

    Bine - I am sure you can find both the book and the talk that I mention in German - I expect they would both help with your allergies. Good luck!

  5. A great read and so fascinating. I have recently read The Good Gut by Justin and Erika Sonnenburg (find it at your library) published 2015. They are researching the microbiota (our gut flora) and they have put science into laymen's terms and it is a fantastic read. Wheat Belly is another insight on food/science and our gut flora.

  6. Thanks Helen, I will look out for those. It is something I would really like to find out more about. How's the sauerkraut??

  7. Yes, fascinating. I too have been following Trust Me I'm a Doctor - always a great series, even if the title is ironic! I hated physics at BAHS, by the way, as far as I remember, though part of me wishes I could go back and start again with science (and maths). I''m fascinated by medicine these days, including the immune system - mine doesn't work perfectly (I was diagnosed with an underactive thyroid many years ago now). Given an interest in all things medical and all things linguistic, plus a personality type that would be a good fit, I sometimes think that being a Speech and Language Therapist would have been good alternative career for me. No regrets or 'what ifs' though, and at 60 I'm certainly not about to retrain... :-)

  8. Isn't it funny, how different two memories of the same place can be. Maybe you didn't have Miss Alfred teaching you Physics! All such a long time ago. You might find reading Gudrun Jonsson helpful re immune system.


Ah, go on! Make my day - leave a comment!