Health · Memories · Reading


Earlier this month I read “Gut” by Giulia Enders. It has the subtitle “The inside story of our body’s most under-rated organ”. I had been looking forward to it, enjoyed it, and recommend it. There are lots of exclamation marks! And rather weak jokes! But that didn’t spoil it for me.

This book constitutes a new development in our e-reading habits. My wife had downloaded it but not read it yet. If she had bought it “on vinyl” I could have picked it up anytime but we sorted out our “Amazon Household” and can now share books across our various devices. We are learning about the limits of this – it seems that I can download the content that she makes available to me on two devices rather than the five I have used at various times in recent months.

The digestive system, the journey that food makes right through the digestive tract, has been a source of fascination for me since O Level Biology. When I sat those exams, many decades ago (when they were still called O Levels), the digestive system did not feature. It had appeared in exams in each of the five previous years (we had been coached well with previous exam papers) but not that year. When it had not featured on our first paper I was sure that it would be on the second, so revised the subject to the exclusion of nearly everything else. If I were a betting man I would have put money on it appearing in the second paper, and would have lost. (I still managed to get an A somehow, but, as you can probably tell, would have liked the opportunity to be tested on my favourite topic.)

Coincidentally my 9-year-old daughter has been learning about the digestive system at school. Among other things this has involved creating a mush of food and drink in various receptacles to reflect how they work their way through the body. One of her classmates was so affected by this that he threw up, but fortunately he made it to the lavatory in time. If you are of a similarly sensitive disposition you might want to stop reading now. There will be more of the same.

My brother was always more affected by discussions of food and bodily functions than I was. You could put him off his food very easily. I remember a Saturday evening when we were in our early 20s, eating our dinner before heading out for a few beers at The Manor, a long-defunct local pub. A friend came round while we were still eating and told us stories about the cats in the town where he grew up in Ireland. He went into some detail about their genitalia. I carried on wolfing down my food, unaffected by the subject matter, but my brother started pushing what remained of his meal around his plate. Later, on our way back from the pub, he asked, “Didn’t you feel a bit queasy when Oliver was talking about cats at dinner?” I replied then as I would now: nothing puts me off my dinner.

When we were children I could make him queasy with the thought of cheesy footballs, which we all agreed were the most disgusting things we had ever eaten: room temperature, processed, smelly cheese in some kind of wafer, shaped like a football. For a while teasing him about it seemed like a good idea. I could go up to him and say, stretching out the words, “Cheesy footballs, chee-sy foot-balls, chee-ee-sy foot-baaalls …” and run away once I’d made him feel sick. But he’s three years older than me and when he’d recovered he would catch up with me and pay me back, usually with a Mr Spock death-grip, or maybe a Chinese Burn. This was, needless to say, in the 1970s.

Why am I telling you all of this? Well, it’s partly because I’m putting off writing about anything more graphic, anything more revealing about my own digestive habits. I would like to write about the effect on my own digestive processes of giving up wheat, and then reintroducing it to my diet, but feel rather coy about going into too much detail. I’ll just compare it to the effect that giving up coffee has on me. In the same way that removing coffee from my system (or reintroducing it later) does something to my head, and induces the most painful migraine for a day or two, so removing (or reintroducing) wheat recalibrates the lower part of my digestive tract. It makes me wake up in the night with the most painful urge to use the bathroom, and a fear that there might be something terrible happening at the lower reaches of the alimentary canal. I mention this in case you decide to give up wheat for yourself, as a warning about what might happen to you. A day or two later all is well. In my case, when the effects of wheat have been cleared out of my system, I feel about half a stone lighter, and hungrier than usual.

Getting back to what my daughter has been learning at school I asked her if anyone had raised the questions that Giulia Enders’s book gave me the answers to, and which had never crossed my mind before: why is poo brown and why is wee yellow? It’s quite possible, in a class of 30 children learning about this stuff, that someone might have wondered, but nobody did. The brief answer is because of how blood breaks down once it has done its work. Our bodies are creating fresh blood all the time and when “old blood” has completed its tasks circulating round the body it is broken down and removed. The parts that are removed through urine are yellow and the parts that are removed in poo are brown. If you want more detail you’ll find it in the book. I could transcribe a few quotes about it but I want to go and have my lunch.

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