Gulp: Adventures on the Alimentary Canalby Published 01 Apr 2013
|Gulp: Adventures on the Alimentary Canal.pdf|
|Publisher||W. W. Norton & Company|
The irresistible, ever-curious, and always best-selling Mary Roach returns with a new adventure to the invisible realm we carry around inside.
“America’s funniest science writer” (Washington Post) takes us down the hatch on an unforgettable tour of our insides. The alimentary canal is classic Mary Roach terrain: the questions inspired by our insides are as taboo, in their way, as the cadavers in Stiff and every bit as surreal as the universe of zero gravity explored in Packing for Mars. Why is crunchy food so appealing? Why is it so hard to find names for flavors and smells? Why doesn’t the stomach digest itself? How much can you eat before your stomach bursts? Can constipation kill you? Did it kill Elvis? We meet scientists who tackle the questions no one else thinks—or has the courage—to ask. And we go on location to a pet-food taste-test lab, a bacteria transplant, and into a live stomach to observe the fate of a meal.
Like all of Roach’s books, Gulp is as much about human beings as it is about human bodies.
"Gulp: Adventures on the Alimentary Canal" Reviews
I'm considering giving up on this book even though the topic is interesting. If only Mary Roach could restrain herself from quite so much levity. The jokes, asides, and snarky personal observations come on strong. They're constant, unrelenting, (somehwhat geeky humor) and are a distraction from otherwise fascinating material.
Her research is impressive and I appreciate her trying to make it not dry and clinical, but she goes overboard. Why do I care how pretty the scientists are, what they're wearing, or how the room is furnished? She has a rambling style and includes lots of irrelevant details, along with puns, apologies for the puns, and so many little wink-wink, nudge-nudge passages that it verges on dumbing down.
It's kind of like those PBS science shows about the complexities of the universe or time travel - or a Michael Moore documentary - where they incoporate lots of cartoons, sound effects, and nerdy jokes to lighten it up and make it more accessible to teens. A little of that goes a long way, however. I wouldn't care for dry medical journal reporting either, but it does a disservice to push it quite this far in the clownish direction.
I can't recommend this book highly enough. Roach truly is the funniest, best science writer I've ever had the pleasure to read. Her inquisitive mind doesn't always follow a linear path & the side tracks are illuminating.
"While a seaman might survive the suction and swallow, his arrival in a sperm whale's stomach would seem to present a new set of problems."*
*I challenge you to find a more innocuous sentence containing the words sperm, suction, swallow, and any homophone of seaman. And then call me up on the homophone and read it to me.
- Mary Roach in Gulp: Adventures on the Alimentary Canal
Jonah got swallowed by a big fish? The above quote is in the part of the book discussing that. The good news is that whales have a fore stomach with no digestive juices. The bad news is that it is like a gizzard on some birds & crushes the food into manageable sizes. Sharks will also swallow prey whole, but their stomachs do have digestive juices & they do digest living prey as three sea turtles found out to their detriment.
Yes, much of the book was about gross stuff, but it was seriously interesting. We're basically an evolved digestive system. The alimentary canal is the core of the man-beast. It creates our energy & all the rest of the body is simply a way to spread the wealth & get a return investment to feed it more efficiently. We rely on (live for?) our gut & the sales pitch we're subjected to daily is full of misinformation & outright lies.
You think I go too far? The first third of the book is devoted to what we eat & why. Smell & taste are not processed by the frontal lobes of our brain. Did you know that people who lose their sense of taste & smell can actually starve to death because they can't swallow? It's that important.
Our body's sensors can get screwed up & we can develop bad habits, but it's often good to give in to a craving. I never thought much of food restrictions & never subscribed to any fad diets, thankfully. I always try to eat a fairly balanced diet of what I want & apparently that's pretty much a good thing since everything is working well & I've been the same weight since I was 20. Maybe liver tastes yucky to me because I shouldn't eat it. Yeah, I'm going with that.
Why do some diets work for some people & not for others? Apparently, each gut is as unique as a fingerprint. By the amount & types of bacteria in it, your family could be traced since Momma seeds yours. What you digest & how is also covered to some extent. This isn't a dietary book, though. There are no clear cut answers to the individual, but there is a lot of overall knowledge.
I never knew how much misinformation was floating about. The chewing fad of the early 1900's was disproved a century or more (Roach gives dates, I just have a bad memory.) before it was suggested & even implemented in some cases by our government, basically at the behest of a well connected con man. But that's just one of many cases she discusses throughout the book. Many are still in play today.
The stomach is amazingly ductile, but people can blow it up. Interestingly enough, it's never happened to a competitive eater. There are several sections devoted to this wondrous organ & its abilities. Really interesting chapters devoted to comparing what it can digest & how fast it moves food along, too.
The small intestine gathers most of good stuff out of what we swallow and the colon gets a little more plus the water, but it does some important digestion of its own. I was a little disappointed that there wasn't anything about the gall bladder, but my wife's problems with that organ taught us that it isn't considered part of the digestive system, even though bile is very important in the process. Be warned. Your stomach doctor might scope you through both ends, but they don't do gall bladders at all. It's like the step child of the digestive system. They just tell you to take Maalox & ignore it after that.
She also explores the similarities & differences between our digestive system & that of herbivores a bit. I didn't know that rats & rabbits processed their food for many vitamins in their colon (B's & K). Process, but not absorb. Whoops! This is why they HAVE to eat their own poop. (Bunnies suddenly aren't nearly as cute, are they?) They're severely stunted if diapered. More illuminating are the comparisons between us, gorillas (vegetarians) & monkeys.
Probiotics? The overwhelming majority are just marketing. The bacteria you need most are anaerobic (can't live in an oxygen environment) so you won't find them in a yogurt cup nor will they survive the trip through the stomach. There is a way to restore them, but neither the insurance nor pharmaceutical companies are happy with it. You probably won't be either, unless you're suffering from severe colon problems & changing your own diapers a dozen times a day. Two words: Fecal Transplant. It often works, too.
There are a couple of chapters devoted to farts. Gross! Yeah, but figuring out what makes them stop smelling would sure be nice, wouldn't it? I've been in a couple of elevators that I barely made it out of with my lunch intact. So some people study them, even make synthetic farts. Eating charcoal doesn't help - it's absorbancy is used up way before it gets to the colon where the smelly gases are generated. So just how do they deodorize them? Well, Beano DOES help with beans, but they've worked out some other ways, too. Unfortunately, no one will read about them in normal magazine ads. Those publications say the yuck factor is too strong. You can find out about them in this book, though.
There's another quote in the book about the anus being a marvel of engineering beyond man's technical ability in that it is able to handle gas, liquids, & solids on command with aplomb. (Usually, hopefully!) So calling someone an asshole is really talking them up!
This has gotten way too long, sorry. It's fascinating & I only touched a few of the high points. There's a lot of excellent knowledge here & only Roach's delicate touch could make it so readable, even at lunch time, about the only time I have to read during the spring.
I'd also like to tip my hat to Ed, Mary's husband. You're a lucky man, but you must have a great sense of humor & the hide of a rhino. Seriously, she explores whether or not he can kill her in the night with beer farts if she sleeps with her head under the covers! That's almost as bad as his trip to England in Bonk: The Curious Coupling of Science and Sex where he got to spoon with Mary while a doctor used a sonogram to see how things fit together during coitus. Ed, you're a better man than I!
When it comes to literature about eating, science has been a little hard to hear amid the clamor of cuisine. Just as we adorn sex with the fancy gold-leaf filigree of love, so we dress the need for sustenance in the finery of cooking and connoisseurship…Yes, men and women eat meals. But they also ingest nutrients. They grind and sculpt them into a moistened bolus that is delivered via a stadium wave of sequential contractions, into a self-kneading sack of hydrochloric acid and then dumped into a tubular leach field, where is it converted into the most powerful taboo in human history. [no, not wearing white after Labor Day]If I had my own university I would see to it that Mary Roach received an honorary doctorate in Scatology. She does seem to have a predilection for investigating elements of human functions that would be considered indelicate in polite company. Of course, to my not-so-inner-Beavis, this is mother’s milk. (Oh, god, no. Is she going to look into that next?) So far, Ms. Roach, a science writer, has managed to process information and squeeze out books on dead bodies (Stiff), the afterlife (Spook: Science Tackles the Afterlife ), some of the more personal elements of space travel (Packing for Mars) and sex (Bonk: The Curious Coupling of Science and Sex). In Gulp, Ms. Roach looks into the details of how, during our corporal existence, we fuel the engines that allow us to scoot between planets or partners, and which make it possible to contemplate what should be done with our remains.
Mary takes us on a lively cruise down the alimentary canal, which lies somewhere between Love Canal and Root Canal, but with more jokes. Really though, a canal is what we are. Stuff in, stuff out, and an increasingly complex control mechanism to make sure it keep flowing. Philosophy? Religion? Civilization? Whatever. Feed me. Let me poop and pee and the rest is gravy. Because, you know, if you can’t or don’t eat, everything else is moot. (Insert anorexic model joke here) If you can’t get rid of the final product, everything else is really nastily moot. So, while our trip with Captain Mary may lack the derring do of the good ship Proteus, (and the wooden leg of that other well-known cruise) it is a fantastic journey from here to there, and most definitely not back again.
As with any sightseeing outing, your tour guide will point out the structures along the way that are considered to be of interest. All ahead full and pay no attention to those white particles dangling from the tree roots along the side. We begin our look inside by examining how smell affects the way things taste to us. If you smell a rat, it might be because of its diet, of which more later. Our first stop is the nose, along with our sense of smell, which functions as the body’s TSA, with its own list of items that may not be brought aboard.
Hold on for a bit as the captain steers the boat into an unexpected cul-de-sac. While there, you will pick up some info on the food you get for your cats and dogs. Ok, backing out and here we are, looking at the appetite for organ meat in various places and cultures, what is good about it and how many of us consider it nasty. It is in this chapter that we discover that Narwhal skin turns out to be rather tasty.
Around the bend and down the hatch, Ms. Roach spends some time pondering the question of whether, like one jaw-weary fellow in 1903, we might believe that by chewing one’s food very, very thoroughly, one can gain greater nutrition from it than someone could by chewing it a more typical number of times. And while you are mulling that over, Roach goes poking into the strange case of Dr. William Beaumont, the researcher, and Alexis St Martin, his personal guinea pig, the proud possessor of an ill-healed and surprisingly non-fatal gunshot wound to the torso. It scarred up oddly and left the enterprising Doctor Beaumont direct access to Mister St Martin’s stomach. Let the testing begin, and go on and go on. Hey, come back here. I’m not done. For a feature length look at this, up that tributary on the left, you might poke your nose into Open Wound: The Tragic Obsession of Dr. William Beaumont by Jason Karlawish. Next, Captain Mary points out the surprising relationship between spit and laundry detergent, actually between spit (there are two kinds, neither of which is called warm) and a lot of things, and why we like our foods to be crispy and crunchy. And if you were wondering if this little excursion included the risk of being devoured by large living creatures, Roach can fill you in on the odds of surviving inside a leviathan’s stomach.
There are plenty more sights to be seen on this journey, subjects like ways of eating oneself to death, the explosive danger of intestinal gas,
(“I know a case, this was fifteen years ago, where the man ate a huge meal and then took an inordinate amount of Alka-Seltzer.” [Dyspepsia expert Mike] Jones made an exploding sound into the telephone. It was like that Monty Python sketch, the Wafer-Thin Mint, where the guy is gorging himself and finally he goes, “I’ll just have this one wafer-thin mint…’”)
and the booming field of flatulence.
(I bet you thought I was gonna go with the infamous bean scene from Blazing Saddles. I am much too classy for that. You will have to go there on your own. Just click this.)
And did you know that it was not only possible to ignite farts, but that there are some people who have flammable belches?
Roach gets to the bottom of the practice known as keistering, and hooping. Prison is a likely lab for such research into the use of the rectum as a cargo hold. The storage capacity is impressive, to the point that one inmate was referred to as OD for Office Depot, for his hooping capacity, actually used for keistering office supplies. I’m not using that stapler.
And you will be amazed at how much of a rat’s diet consists of material that…um…emerged from the rat. So on spotting a certain rodent in Orlando, try to stop yourself from asking what it is in that taco he is toting. And you do not want to be downwind of that breath.
The colon comes in for considerable examination, and figures in a surprising theory for the cause of death of a king. She comes clean in a look at the history, reasons for and abuses of enemas. And, of course Mary lets loose when she gets the scoop on pooping. She even notes a chart that delineates the seven different types. You know you want to see it.
Bristol Stool Chart
Ok. Time to squeeze yourself off the boat. Be sure to tip the guide.
Roach always delights in reporting on names that are particularly apt.
my gastroenterologist is Dr. Terdiman, and the author of the journal article “Gastrointestinal Gas” is J. Fardy, and the headquarters of the International Academy of Proctology was Flushing, New York.I suppose the academy might be better off in Richmond, VA, in the neighborhood called Shockoe Bottom, or maybe in Proberta, CA.
A couple of minor gripes. This book could really have used an index. And the chapter on feeding Spot and Fluffy, while interesting, seemed a bit of a digression from the main journey.
That said, reading Mary Roach is akin to the pure joy one experiences from things like Ripley’s Believe It or Not, with the benefit of knowing that there is no smoke and mirror involvement. Reality is soooooo weird. And we have Mary Roach to thank for refilling our occasionally dwindling mental storehouse of disturbing images, (You will never think of Elvis quite the same way after reading this book) and fascinating scientific facts, like the possible origin for the belief in fire-breathing dragons or the medical efficacy of fecal transplants.
There is never a doubt that Mary Roach will make you laugh and teach you things you never knew before. What could be better? Ok, I mean aside from the Blazing Saddles clip.
Here is the full vid of the wafer thin mint bit, aka Mr. Creosote. Don’t even try watching this if you get queasy easily. It requires a very strong stomach or a very weak mind.
The May 2013 issue of Smithsonian Magazine features an article by Roach, The-Gut-Wrenching-Science Behind the World’s Hottest Peppers and there is another piece in that issue that may be of interest, Why You Like What You Like by Tom Vanderbilt. BTW, the articles are named differently in the magazine and on the web site.
Town Hall Seattle has an excellent audio presentation by Roach
Mary is interviewed on NPR
And in the New York Times
There is a wonderful interview with Mary on The Daily Show, a two parter. Here is Part 1 and here Part 2
Janet Maslin’s NY Times review
Although it shows a pub date of April 2016, this one appeared in my feed on July 19, 2018 - From Greatist.com - Poop Health: Is Your Poop Normal? Here's the No. 1 Reason to Check Your No. 2 - by Maria Hart - gotta love their take on the Bristol Chart
Did you know that the human infant enters the world without information on what is edible and what is not, and until they are around the age of two, you can get them to eat almost anything? Or that saliva could be used to pretreat food stains because of the enzymes it contains (the same enzymes are artificially manufactured for laundry detergents)? Or that one of the reasons we like crunchy foods might be because we have a destructive nature and derive pleasure from destroying things?
Mary Roach is a popular science writer, and her books are accessible and hilarious. Gulp is about food, eating, and the human body: the journey food goes from the moment it passes our lips to the moment it exits our bodies. An interesting and informative book that had me laughing out loud as I read. Don’t skip the footnotes.
— Jen Sherman
from The Best Books We Read In March 2017: http://bookriot.com/2017/04/04/riot-r...
When I read Packing for Mars two years ago, I was very vocal about how my favorite chapter was her detailed exploration of pooping in outer space*, so it was with much excitement that I realized her next book, Gulp (subtitled Adventures on the Alimentary Canal) was about the science of eating, digesting, and yes, excreting. Maybe you think that's gross, and if so, to you I say THIS.
*Seriously, if you're not going to read the whole book, at least read that chapter. She includes a transcript where astronauts see one of their turds floating around, and they're all, 'It's not mine!' 'Mine was more gooey!' 'Mine looked like a snake!' or something like that. It's amazing.
I did indeed learn way more about pooping (and not pooping) in Gulp than I had bargained for. I also learned about saliva and parasites and exploding stomachs and how smelling is more important to eating than tasting and how Elvis was really killed by his colon (Roach has great personal interviews with experts that accompany each of these things, including one with Elvis' doctor). Also: how some people think the dragon myth was started because of cavemen kicking snake corpses close to a fire, which might have caused the explosion of other dead animals being digested inside the snake, releasing a gas that then burst into flames out of the snake's mouth (this was in one of the chapters about the science of farting -- yes there is more than one). Also also: poop transplants are a real thing.
Actually, I want to talk about that poop transplant thing some more because I think it's the perfect example of what Mary Roach is all about. Poop transplanting -- or as it's known in the medical community, fecal transplantation -- is actually a really beneficial procedure, although it sounds majorly disgusting. The human colon is a veritable colony of bacteria, most of it beneficial to our digestion and immune systems. When that balance is upset by something, like a large dose of antibiotics for example, or if a person is born without certain bacteria (fun fact: babies get most of their bacteria from their mother at birth) diseases or disorders can result. The example she uses is the common bacteria c. diff, which in the case of the patient she observes, has taken over his colon due to an absence of other more important bacterias. Poor guy's had basically nothing but diarrhea for YEARS. But after his fecal transplant? The proper ratio of bacteria is re-established and his digestive problems are cured in a matter of days.
And yet, as Roach is careful to note, the medical community does not take this procedure seriously, in large part due to the taboo surrounding its subject matter. No insurance company yet recognizes the treatment as valid, and it's extremely hard for doctors and scientists to get funding. Also a factor is that drug companies do not enjoy the idea of a procedure that does not involve drugs, and that in fact, removes the possibility entirely that drugs will be needed by patients in the future. But Mary Roach loves this stuff, the stuff nobody wants to think about, and she loves the people who spend their lives asking questions and doing weird experiments just like this one, because she understands that we need people like the guy who invented poop transplants to think outside the box. If they're not doing it, who the hell will?
I suppose it will be another two years before we get the next Mary Roach book, but I'm willing to wait if she's willing to keep writing books like this one.