Years ago I read an amazing book by Michael Gershon called “The Second Brain.” (1998) The subtitle after the colon (not a pun) was “A Groundbreaking New Understanding of Nervous Disorders of the Stomach and Intestine” and it was promoted with the phrase “Your Gut Has a Mind of Its Own.” The idea was that the gut evolved from the same proto-organ cells as the brain and continued to function in a connected way, using the same molecules.
I thought it was brilliant and would take the world by storm. But no, it sank beneath a sea of pop diets and quasi-cures. Just recently I began to search around and found that the phrase that would unlock the info was NOT “The Second Brain,” but rather “The Gut-Brain Axis,” and it is a HOT topic! There must be books, but I’m reading recent research articles by using Google. There are several lines of investigation.
One is the molecules, which happen to be the serotonins and opioids of the body that make a person content and functional. Gershon spoke of a neural network, a sleeve around the intestines that connects it to the brain so that when your brain exclaims OMFG!! your gut clenches. You feel it in your gut. But it works in both directions. If your intestines are blown up with gas, half-poisoned with something indigestible, you have a “gut feeling” that something is wrong -- to say nothing of a bellyache. The body has two communication systems: the nerves (autonomic nervous system in this case) and the molecules. BOTH are busy all the time along the brain-gut axis.
When I did my hospital chaplaincy, the surgery patients did not want to talk about God. They wanted to talk about shitting, to use the “vernacular.” They and their doctors wanted peristalsis to begin again, that pulsing that moves things along the guts. Most of the patients had depended upon habit patterns to make a dependable rhythm of when things would reach the point of needing to clear the body. But the hospital had not just shocked their body, it had also ruined their habit patterns. I learned to be respectful of their need to talk about it.
I had to learn this because my childhood was full of the same struggle. All three of us sibs were “withholding,” a psychoanalyst might say, which was also the style of my parents. We all coped with distress by using mockery, distancing, and secrecy. In those days one didn’t consider the feelings of children but simply dosed them, so we were given awful stuff called “petrolauger” or something -- basically agar-agar -- mercifully not castor oil. And the doctor showed my mother how to halve an apple and use a spoon to scrape it into a kind of raw applesauce to put down us for the sake of the pectin. We’d stand in a row like baby birds while she scraped and spooned. That lasted about a week.
So the next resort was enemas. Invasive, relentless, anal rape. That’s what it felt like to me. I screamed and fought while my mother did the same, screaming “just relax.” Oh, sure. A decade or so ago I had a colonoscopy, was terrified, and then amazed as the nurse so gently and persuasively managed the task of cleaning me out just before the procedure. Of course, the drugs helped.
The other line of investigation is less traumatic, but the results can be just as dismaying. A human creature is an assemblage of cells, most of them connected in interdependence for the sake of the homeostasis they can achieve by working together. But we now realize that there is a huge community of eukaryotic cells (meaning with nuclei and DNA of their own) living in our intestines. They are dependent on their environment (us), but they make their own decisions, respond to whatever happens, and their responses affect their habitat which happens to be our bodies. They say that half to three-fourths of the cells walking around as “us” are really these microbial hitchhikers. And we are better for it. They add their “drugs --” their excreted molecules -- to our circulating codes to calm us or activate us, cheer us up or draw us into depression.
Gut census and analysis is a whole field of endeavor. Some docs are even trying “microbiota transplant” -- basically, like bone marrow transplants, transplanting one person’s fecal matter with all its denizens into another person. Some people have a fondness for such exotica as high-retention coffee enemas. Imagine microbes with a yearning for Starbucks -- we knew they’d eventually find locations everywhere. These strange ideas got a quick kick in the pants when it was discovered that toxoplasmosis (tiny worms), which go through a cyst stage in cat litter boxes, were delighted to get into rats where they removed the rats’ fear of cats, so that after gut processing their descendants would arrive back at a friendly cat litter box.
We are all worrying about lab-created molecules that interfere with our bodily functioning but we probably don’t worry enough about the effect of antibiotics on the biota of our guts. At the very least they change the population and at the worst, they wipe it out. Then you need your doc to make a gut-match for immigration. Or some people use yoghurt, especially women who also hostess hordes of little eurkayotes in their uteruses. Rough usage in the tender mucosa of genitals can rip tissue breaches (fistulas) [some people will ask whether that’s a pun -- yes.] that allow intestinal excreta microbes to mix with vaginal populations. The results are not good at all.
The weekly ag newspaper I get includes a column specifically for farmers about health, both mental and physical since they blur into each other. For the first time I read that ag chemicals (pesticides, herbicides, fertilizers) have enough echo of human molecules that the ailing farmer should take a list of what is being spread along to the doctor. They are so close to prescription drugs that the interaction may cause depression, feminizing, and sexual problems -- making farmers into dull boys. But once alerted to manage their internal microscopic animal life, they will take an interest and be far healthier for it. They’re used to thinking about flora and fauna.