Gulp: Adventures on the Alimentary Canal, Mary Roach (2013)

Gulp: Adventures on the Alimentary Canal, Mary Roach (2013)

Mary Roach’s Gulp was everything I’d hoped for, and a wonderful book for me to read. To call it interesting would be a massive disservice – the content is rich in story, wild yet grounded facts, and prose colorful enough to stimulate any sense while reading. It should be required reading for students of medicine, anatomy, nursing, and similar fields; and it’s one I imagine any human with even the faintest interest in her health would enjoy.

Yet Roach connects all of this to science, with a refreshing perspective of both history and the present state of thinking on each section. Note the colon, which she reasonably claims, we may know much less about simply because of its natural smell and disgust.

I particularly like her organization. Each chapter is exactly focused on its topic; transitions are quick but fluid.

In both her introduction and final chapter, she enlightens the lay reader of a little of the history of Elvis Presley’s final years and ultimate death: it was likely due to megacolon, if only proximally. We feel particularly empathetic for the artist, whose colon was many inches in diameter at times, lived for hours in his bathroom, and, at the end, had part of a barium-drink clogging his colon for months. I’ve felt IBS pain, and cringed to read these sections.

The chapter on saliva was perhaps my favorite – what a wealth of information I had no clue about! Her discussion of the double standard of saliva and other bodily fluids – how these are perfectly acceptable within our “body,” but repulsive and unacceptable once the fluid leaves, except for those we love – is spot-on. Indeed, she notes another culture finds the fact that we collect and store our nasal excretions while ill to be particularly brutish!

The chapter on the stomach discusses the purpose of the organ, competitive eating, and what happens when it is filled far beyond a natural capacity.  In another, she reminds me, we should really eat more organ meat – especially liver, stomach, and bone marrow.

I’ve read “Bonk,” and this book convinced me to consider reading the book on cadavers. I look forward to her next book!

She ends with the microbiome, and notes how effective modern treatments – fecal transplants – have been. Unfortunately, insurance companies are incredibly slow to recognize these procedures (even with a 93% success rate, in one review!), and the sick are actually performing them on their own, at home. One reason I love biology – the study of life! – is for the humility it imparts on me in my human shell. Fittingly, she closes the book with one of my favorite, most humbling quotes:

We’re basically a highly evolved earthworm surrounding the intestinal tract,” Khoruts commented as we drove away from his clinic the last day I was there. Eventually, the food processor had to have a brain attached to help it look for food, and limbs to reach that food. That increased its size, so it needed a circulatory system to distribute the fuel that powered the limbs. And so on. Even now, the digestive tract has its own immune system and its own primitive brain, the so-called enteric nervous system. I recalled what Ton van Vliet had said at one point in our conversation: “People are surprised to learn: They are a big pipe with a little bit around it.”

Poignant notes on Science:

  • The moral of the story is this: It takes an ill-advised mix of ignorance, arrogance, and profit motive to dismiss the wisdom of the human body in favor of some random notion you’ve hatched or heard and branded as true. By wisdom I mean the collective improvements of millions of years of evolution.

  • It takes a sizable sum of arrogance and ignorance to second-guess human anatomy and the evolutionary fine-tuning that produced it. The colon that Lane would so cavalierly lop from his patients’ interiors is more than a simple waste-storage facility. The bacteria feared and despised by the likes of Lane and Tyrrell and Kellogg—the germs that live and thrive and ply their trade within our waste—are not only harmless, they are critical to good health.