Digesting all the facts — without getting bogged down

Three studies of the gut give a whole new meaning to toilet books, says William Cook. They’re actually worth reading

16 May 2015

9:00 AM

16 May 2015

9:00 AM

Follow Your Gut: The Enormous Impact of Tiny Microbes Rob Knight, with Brendan Buhler

Simon & Schuster, pp.120, £7.99, ISBN: 9781471138904

Gut: The Inside Story of Our Body’s Most Underrated Organ Giulia Enders

Scribe, pp.288, £14.99, ISBN: 9781922247964

The Good Gut: Taking Control of Your Weight, Your Mood and Your Long-Term Health Justin and Erica Sonnenburg

Bantam, pp.320, £14.99, ISBN: 9780593074299

Funnily enough, after my editor sent me these three books to read, my guts started playing up. Suddenly, food seemed to go straight through me. At first I wasn’t bothered, but when it didn’t get any better I began to worry. I went to see my doctor. She told me to bring her a piece of poo to see if they needed to stick a camera up my bum. I realise this is probably the last thing you want to know, but that’s the whole point about the gut: no one wants to talk about it, or even think about it, until something goes wrong.

These books set out to break this taboo, and they’re full of fascinating things I didn’t know. I had no idea that reading about crapping could be so absorbing. It brings a whole new meaning to the term ‘toilet book’. These toilet books vary in tone and content but they all share the same central premise: we may think digestion is disgusting but that doesn’t stop it being interesting. And the most interesting thing is, each person’s gut is unique.

The main thing I learned from these books is that our guts are full of bacteria. Only a few of them are bad for you, and some do you a lot of good. Each person has a different set, depending on where you’ve been and what you’ve been up to. Like your internet history, it’s a map of who you are.
Hunter-gatherers had a broad range of bacteria, because of the broad range of stuff they ate. Growing our own food narrowed this range, which was bad news for our intestines. Industrialisation made things even worse. Modern life has reduced the prevalence of bacterial diseases, but it’s made us more prone to allergies. Messing with our bacteria could be at the root of all sorts of other ailments, too. You might guess some microbes are a marker for colon cancer. But did you know other microbes are associated with multiple sclerosis and rheumatoid arthritis? Cause or effect? We’re still not sure.

The thing bacteria hate most is antibiotics. Antibiotics don’t just kill bad bacteria. They kill good bacteria too. This leaves us bereft of the healthy microbes that aid digestion. Farmers have known for ages that feeding antibiotics to animals makes them fatter. There’s growing evidence that antibiotics could make us fatter too. Even worse, the antibiotics we take for minor snuffles breed superbugs which are resistant to the worst diseases. And what about all the antibiotics we eat in artificially fattened meat?

We all know our thought patterns can affect digestion (that’s why you get butterflies in your stomach) but did you know that process also works the other way around? Mice with different microbes have different dopamine and serotonin levels. Change the microbes and you change the way they think. Rats with toxoplasmata (common in cats — and cat owners) are indifferent to danger. A higher incidence of toxoplasmata has been found in reckless drivers.
Other microbes are prevalent in people with autism and schizophrenia. Nothing conclusive — not yet, but food for thought.

Bacteria population density in the different regions of the gut.   From Gut: The Inside Story of Our Body’s Most Underrated Organ by Giulia Enders, illustrated by Jill Enders
Bacteria population density in the different regions of the gut. From Gut: The Inside Story of Our Body’s Most Underrated Organ by Giulia Enders, illustrated by Jill Enders

This cutting-edge research is intriguing, but most of the practical advice is pretty simple. Don’t take antibiotics unless you’re really ill, and always finish the course. Squatting while you take a shit is actually better for you than sitting on the toilet (seems the French were right all along). Try to eat more fibre — it’ll give your guts a good workout.

Kitchen hygiene is important, but you can make your home too clean. Some men from South America took their pregnant wives to Antarctica, so that their babies would be born there and claim the mineral rights. When they returned home, their babies died. Their chilly birthplace was too sterile to give them the immunities they needed. Children born by caesarean section sometimes suffer comparable (though far less acute) problems: they miss out on all the useful bacteria in their mother’s birth canal. This is largely uncharted territory, and we’re only just beginning to find out about it. ‘We are not individuals, we are ecosystems,’ says Rob Knight, of the 100 trillion microbes that live inside our gut.

Of all these authors, I found Knight the most readable. He makes some amazing conceptual leaps. Giulia Enders has a warm and simple prose style and her sister’s illustrations are delightful. Justin and Erica Sonnenburg are more matter-of-fact. Their no-nonsense tome is a how-to guide for getting healthy (less red meat and saturated fat, worst luck — more yoghurt and sauerkraut).

These books share some common ground, but they all have their own plus points. They complement each other perfectly — a three-course meal, if you like. After digesting all three of them — often while sitting on the toilet, which was apt — I still can’t face the thought of a faecal transplant (one of the best ways of acquiring healthier bacteria, apparently) but I’m now awaiting my colonoscopy with weary fatalism rather than blind panic.

Got something to add? Join the discussion and comment below.

'Follow Your Gut', £7.59, 'Gut', £12.99 and 'The Good Gut', £12.99 are available from the Spectator Bookshop, £14 Tel: 08430 600033

You might disagree with half of it, but you’ll enjoy reading all of it. Try your first 10 weeks for just $10

Show comments
  • WJOBrien

    The above sound like very much needed reads. We “modern digital sophisticates” oddly enough miss out on so much of what used to constitute basic understanding of how our bodies actually work.

    I wonder if the above books deal with parasites associated with Western human digestive systems. Thirty years out from now this era in British and indeed most of Western civilisation will be known amongst parasitologists and epidemiologists as the Age of Ascaria not Aquarius. Contrary to normal practice of a mere fifty or sixty years ago the general public do not “take a physic” or a “wormwood purge” to remove both liver flukes and the many varieties of worms which inhabit not only the city and country persons’ gastrointestinal system but in many instances their lungs, hearts, brains and musculoskeletal system as well.

    This is all the more ridiculous as every day pet and animal lovers dutifully worm their dogs, cats, horses, livestock and even their aquarium or pond fish which also transmit the above. While migration of ascaria and liver flukes is zoonotic (from animal to human) in nature few give any thought to parasites they could get from their pets. To add insult to injury the foreign aid agencies of the West ship megatonnes annually of purgatives and internal cleansers to the developing world (Bayer of Germany’s Albenza is one of the most popular and effective broad-spectrum parasite cleansers for human) as high priority items to help rid the developing world of these serious vectors for disease yet how often has you GP brought up the issue with you?

    Parasite cleansers are inexpensive. It is difficult to find a treatment regime’s medication which per full one-time treatment costs over 30-40 dollars US.

    Apparently getting wormed is like actually dealing with STD to politicians and the middle class: neither of these issues affect “respectable persons” and therefore they should be marginalised in the public eye…except as they affect the developing world. It would be quite funny if one day the developing world’s stats on these conditions were better across the board than the West’s numbers.

    Like school system head lice these conditions are a source of some levity and mild annoyance but all of them show every indication of reaching plague status. All it takes is for the absolutely wrong mutant to evolve or migrate from a tropical human ecosystem to the West.

  • Callipygian

    Squatting while you take a shit is actually better for you than sitting on the toilet (seems the French were right all along). Try to eat more fibre — it’ll give your guts a good workout.
    Sounds like advice for the constipated. Fibre in excess might actually be a problem, for complex reasons that I’m not going to discuss but other people do. It would seem to be a remedy for people that eat too many carbohydrates. Instead of dosing them with potentially damaging fibre, it would be far better to cut the carbs. The advice about less red meat and saturated fats sounds — pardon my french — like cr*p. Do these people actually know what they’re talking about?
    And: who has time to read in the loo (or would want to)? A mystery I’ve never understood.

    In any case, the human body really is a sack of horrors — even an efficient one like mine. No wonder I’ve given up s-x!