Monday, May 19, 2008

More input on output

It’s a beautiful sunny day in Seattle and in my neighborhood, that’s a lot like flicking on the fluorescents in a bar after last call. You know the moment when you realize that what might have looked like the romantic dancing of shadows are clearly a smattering of stains that are nothing short of miraculous so high on a wall and in patterns reminiscent of a crime scene. It’s also the first time you wonder too that a stray cigarette didn’t torch the place once you’ve calculating how much alcohol has soaked into the floor. You could cook a steak over the flames of the welcome mat alone but only after pausing first to thank God for shoes. Nobody needs to mention the startling way that bright-eyed charmers with porcelain complexions who converse lucidly turn into pasty-faced drunks with a crazy inability to focus once floodlit. Bartenders really should just flick on the lights throughout the night whenever someone tries to stumble out the door with anyone whose name they didn’t already know when they arrived. Consider it an intervention. Yes, it’s interesting that here on the Hill crazy people look crazier in bright sunlight but maybe that’s because those of us suddenly absorbed in the awkward and labored effort of a rusty Vitamin-D production are a starker contrast.

In the glare of summer sun, the infestation of bugs on a curbside rat* carcass outside one of Craig’s favorite Mexican restaurants looked more like a little beach party which made me wonder if I should rain down a cloud of spray-on sunscreen to keep the little buggers from sunburn. In light of that and every other now-evident dingy detail, I couldn’t help but wonder if this whole neighborhood could use a pressure washing in spite of it’s nearly constant dousing of rain. Can you imagine a whole street of people shivering and clinging to their fluffy hotel towels handed to them like Red Cross supplies after getting a hearty pressure-wash and a scrub from concerned soccer moms who carpooled over from their orderly cul de sacs on an emergency mission? I think Eastside moms would be happy to don pink lapel pins and do it as a fundraiser for breast cancer awareness. They’d get sponsored by other soccer moms with slightly busier schedules or allergic reactions to the mandatory latex gloves. Though it would be fun to watch, I’m reminded of my 1940’s bathroom fixtures with their shiny, slick coats long scoured away and realize that pressure washing wouldn’t bring back the luster. Personally, for the sake of the visual environment and knowing that I couldn’t blame the rain today, I wouldn’t have minded if one crisply dressed mom sorted out my bed head while I waited in line for coffee. I suspect they’d lob off the last four scraggly inches at the direction of my friend Josh who’d seize the opportunity to right a wrong. (I think it bothers him more than he’d say though what he said was, “you should cut this off” as he wagged a chunk of it at me distastefully. Maybe that actually does capture his level of 'bother'.)

I was instead distracted by a text message that read, “HA HA I JUST DID THE ON THE TOILET SQUAT POOP.” All-caps courtesy of the author. My reply was “Cleanly? Props either way but extra points for accuracy. Your descending colon is in love with you right now.” As I’ve mentioned, most people wander away from me at parties almost immediately in hopes of finding less horrifying conversation and a little nosh, what’s left is an assortment of characters that send text messages like the one above. This one in particular might require a little background:
I once dated a man who routinely stood on the toilet seat while making deposits because, as he said, modern toilets are designed for a deconditioned population who can’t squat fully. As a result, our colons are straining at awkward angles that don’t accommodate our mechanics. Fascinating. You can see why I was smitten. I may have shared this fact with a number of people and at some point many of them lost my number and stopped returning calls. The few that are left obviously have the kind of social schedules that allow time for excremental experimentation and the sharing of results.

Since I read Fiber Menace, I’ve been particularly distracted by the end results of my nutrition. My concern for input has been entirely eclipsed by my focus on output. This, as you can see, is something I’ve been sharing with friends of like interest which you’d assume would be nobody. But unlike this particular gentleman with scientific leanings, I’m unwilling to dedicate any of my efforts in the direction of bathroom circus acts given the incident in a Bed and Breakfast outside London when I was six. After a long drive, my sister beat me to the bathroom and neglected to mention that the toilet seat was unanchored. She must have calculated my results with glee knowing that, at my height, my feet would barely touch the floor and she waiting until I started my urgent business to fling the door open and watch my panic as the seat began to slide starboard while I tried to cling to the toilet paper holder. Amid the whir of a rapidly unfurling roll of paper, the result was a mid-stream Sit ‘n Spin experience that left me forever uncertain of toilet seat stability. Is it odd that uncertain footing is the only reason I find the concept of squatting on the toilet seat out of the question?

My efforts have been in other directions. I have been drinking a daily bottle of Kombucha which was a recommendation of Jennifer Adler, my favorite dietician, brewer of bone broths and apparent purveyor of concoctions. Kombucha as defined by Wikipedia is, "the Western name for sweetened tea or tisane that has been fermented using a macroscopic solid mass of microorganisms called a "kombucha colony," usually consisting principally of Acetobacter-species and yeast cultures." When I sent one of my clients, a long-time sufferer of psoriasis, to her she recommended that he drink a bottle a day. I decided that perhaps I could benefit from the good advice.

First it’s important to know that I chew yogurt and could never tolerate pulp in juice. I get confused by viscosity and texture so the floating nonsense in kombucha throws me off. Frankly, I don’t consume anything with that consistency unless I’ve offended a waiter and, in those cases, I’m unaware of the unsolicited contribution. Now, there's not a lot of floaty nonsense but what exists is the kind of thing you're accustomed to spitting out not swallowing. When I notice the content, I suffer a moment of confusion and a desire to choke.

"Each time the kombucha culture goes through the fermentation process, it creates one new "mushroom" layer, or zoogleal mat, which will form atop of the original. After three or four layers have built up, the tea will become sour and taste somewhat like sour cider." Zoogleal mat - I'm not sure I could have made up a word that sounded that gross and it brings me right back to visions of the welcome mat in the aforementioned bar scene. My only contribution would be to change gleal to gleet. Um, sorry - moving on.

When I sipped a bottle disdainfully during an at-home training session with a client, I felt compelled to share about it mainly because she was beginning to take the look on my face personally. She later tried a bottle and described the smell as ‘vile.’ And her pronunciation was so uniquely British. Her inflexion captured a true repugnance that doesn’t translate with an American accent. In fact, I suggest that you go back and read ‘vile’ again with a British accent in order to capture the mood here. In New England, we can generate the same intensity with the expression, “it smells like ass.” We’re a classy bunch. (By the way, using that phrase in the Northwest will make you even less popular. Most Seattleites will at very least claim they lack a frame of reference.)

Wikipedia blames it on the acetic acid. "Acetic acid, which gives Kombucha that 'kick' to its smell and taste" says the post and I say 'kick' is entirely subjective and depends on who's doing the kicking and whether or not you saw it coming.

*Regarding the rat, I’m sure it just paused to peek in the windows and curse the heartburn that keeps it away from enjoying a good burrito before it died from arteries clogged by the General Tsos’s Chicken served next door. But keep in mind, Craig, that Tabasco kills the taste of all things e. coli but sadly not the symptoms. Drink the cheap tequila – the aftermath can be blamed on a hangover

Thursday, May 1, 2008

Gut Bomb

There are people who can pour a beer straight down their gullet. They’re popular at Frat parties. My friend Shmi can do that with a Grande, nonfat, 190 degree, two-Splenda latte. Oddly, she’s not that popular at Frat parties. Maybe it’s because she can’t roll a quarter down her nose and bounce it into a cup with any predictability or maybe because Frat parties simply don’t serve up the kind of persnickety coffee order that would allow her to shine. Either way, I always get a kick out of watching her do it on Sunday afternoons while my coffee disappears in slow sips between the play-by-play analyses of both of our lives. What that actually sounds like at the next table is that I describe the blind, hapless stumble I took through my week and she manages to rephrase it as graceful, practiced choreography performed for an approving audience. That takes abundant creativity and most of the afternoon.

By the time we run out of coffee and conversation, our bellies are equally empty. But since I’m the kind of carnivore often caught standing over the sink eating red meat out of the palm of my hand and she’s the kind of vegan whose food is always certifiably soulless, we have a hard time finding a common nosh. After the pretense of internal struggle, I sometimes buckle to her wheaty whims only to find myself with a mouthful of Mighty-O Donut - Local and Vegan - thinking, “Hmmm, these really aren’t very good.” It’s a real shame considering the cost.

From what I can see, my little Indian friend has a iron-clad gut fitted to her fire-proof esophagus but my dainty little system can be leveled by a sugary confection like a blow dart from five paces. The roiling belly usually starts at around midnight and gets incorporated into a bad dream featuring rabid monkeys that spend most of the early hours jumping on my middle while munching donuts and grinding crumbs into my quilt. I awaken as rested as anyone who teases wild monkeys might, with low energy and a sterile gut. Given all the ways to commit crimes against gut flora, you may all be waking to your own sea of stagnation or perhaps just smelling like a monkey’s plaything which, by the way, is a different diagnosis but equally unfortunate.
Most people don’t pause to consider that the antibiotics taken on purpose and the no-so purposeful second-hand dose they get in animal products thanks to the liberal lacing in animal feed to ensure meat and diary makes it to market, continue to kill bacteria including your all-important belly buddies even after you’ve macerated them. And if you think keeping a pet gold fish alive is a challenge, try keeping a gut terrarium flourishing with a food allergy like mine. That midnight rumble in my belly is the sound of an entire population being massacred. The least I could do is erect a memorial monument in my duodenum.

It’s this bacterial infantry that not only forms normal, moist stools (sometimes the word ‘moist’ is just icky) but it also enables the destruction of pathogenic material, manufactures essential vitamins, protects the intestinal walls, and develops and regenerates tissue. Without this teeming environment, you can’t absorb the nutrients in your food and you begin to suffer from the maladies of malnutrition. But no matter how many billions of one-celled soldiers you have in your army, they’re no match for a Mighty-O if you can’t gut it out against an allergen.
In fact, there’s a lot of things that can cause that kind of genocide including protein deficiency, excess dietary fiber, intestinal acidity, diarrhea, heavy metals , silverware, mercury from amalgam fillings, food coloring, environmental pollutants, colonics and, as mentioned before, antibiotics and allergic reactions. Some of the items on the list are easy enough to explain. Intestinal acidity occurs when pancreatic ducts get blocked usually by too much indigestible fiber in the duodenum; diarrhea flushes flora; heavy metals and amalgam fillings are toxic; silverware and food coloring has antibiotic properties; and colonics are silly for obvious reasons. It’s the protein and fiber that require a little explanation courtesy of our good friend Konstantin Monastryrsky, in Fiber Menace:

Protein deficiency – intestinal flora derives its energy and plastic nutrients not from food, but from mucin, which is secreted by healthy mucous membranes. Mucin is a glycoprotein – a molecule that bonds glucose with amino acids. Gastric and intestinal mucus is formed by combining mucin and water. Mucus protects the lining of the stomach and intestines from mechanical damage, enzymes, gastric acid, astringent bile, and food born pathogens. The deficiency of the essential amino acid threonine, for example, curbs the body’s ability to produce mucin, and correspondingly, bacteria’s ability to function and procreate.

Excess dietary fiber – The byproducts of fiber’s bacterial fermentation (short chain fatty acids, ethanol, and lactic acid) destroy bacteria for the same reason ethanol, and lactic acid) destroy bacteria for the same reason acids and alcohols are routinely used to sterilize surgical instruments – they burst bacterial membranes on contact. And that’s how fiber addiction develops; as the fermentation destroys bacteria, you need more and more fiber to form stools. If you suddenly drop all fiber, and no longer have many bacteria left, constipation sets in as soon as the large intestine clears itself of the remaining bulk.

Under other circumstances, the absence of intestinal gasses might be cause for a sense of superiority around your uncouth and noisy friends but, in this case, it’s just a symptom of a sterile gut along with the more obvious constipation. What isn’t so obvious is that frequent respiratory infections, asthma, bronchitis, chronic rhinitis, post nasal drip, nasal voice, sinus congestion and allergies might be a tip off too. Deficiencies in Vitamin K, which is a byproduct of bacterial metabolism, can show up as hard to stop ordinary bleeding and bruising while deficiencies in Vitamin B12 produced by intestinal flora causes numbness and tingling of hands and feet, shortness of breath, chronic fatigue a sore mouth and tongue and mental confusion.

Finding a new community to populate your suddenly sterile stomach is a little more complex than my usual advice to lick doorknobs for a routine immune boost. Posting a listing for free room and board to wayward organisms on Craig’s list won’t get the job done either. But you’ve already done your gut an injustice if you don’t habitually smooch livestock on the nose, fling dung for distance, and caress every surface at the Greyhound bus station all without washing your hands. It’s called the hygiene theory and we’re living in a world where our sterile guts match or sterile environments. In fact, aside from our unfortunate lack of incidental contact with bacterial sources, the fact that formula fed children miss their first infestation from breast milk and adults with appendectomies lack a place to store their starter culture to boost their count when their tank is low, doesn’t make things any better.