Coded gray.

Thursday 22 June 2000


Pic of the day: Me, a the end of today's entry.

I cannot stomach it

I realized today that I don't really know how a stomach works. Not the entire digestive tract, but the bag that food rushes down into when we swallow. That's how I've thought about it, really: A bag. It probably does not help that its official Norwegian name is "magesekk", stomach sack. Like a rucksack on the stomach.

Actually, I'm not quite that ignorant. I knew that the stomach secretes a quite strong acid and some enzymes that help kill microorganisms and break down the food. A special layer of mucus keeps the stomach from digesting itself, though occasionally a Helicobacter bug will cause painful sores. (The bacterium is also a suspect in some forms of arteriosklerosis, as it can travel into the bloodstream and cause inflammation. But enough of that.) Finally, I knew that the stomach will spend longer time on the food if there is fat in it. I have used this to good effect by eating pommes frites when I knew I would have to go without food for ten hours or more. My stomach is quite slow when dealing with fat. Your mileage may vary, but generally fat slows down the stomach.

"Why?" did I ask myself today at work, when I sat on the toilet instead of going home as I had planned to do at that time. How can a stomach know when it has digested the food enough? It must have some kind of sensory organ, but for some reason I have never heard about it. It must be pretty advanced. For instance, what happens when one eats a new meal before the old one is completely digested? The stomach will have to make a quick decision as you start chewing: Rush the previous meal, or risk them being mixed. There is after all just one stomach. I realized that I don't have the faintest idea how it deals with that kind of situation.

Personally I tend to go a long time between large meals, and avoid eating again until I grow hungry. My stomach will helpfully alert me when it approaches empty, which is pretty much my only signal. I don't feel any other discomfort by going without food. Going without water for too long can make me weak, though.

That's the one thing I dislike about the design of our digestion: There is no way to tank up on water while the stomach is working with a large meal. It's like you're buying a bottle of soda and you stand in line behind someone with a huge shopping cart overloaded with stuff. :)


The funny thing is that our digestion and the internal organs generally work quite well without our conscious interference. Most people probably have only the vaguest idea of what goes on in there. You pop in food and you feel better. Sometimes you have to get rid of wastes. What happens in between is a mystery that does not keep us awake at night ... until it goes awry, of course.

Having continued to read Scientific American on the bus, I could not avoid noticing that most articles included a recommendation of fruit and vegetables. Want to live longer? Eat fruit and veggies at every meal. Want to stay healthy while you're alive? Eat fruit and veggies at every meal. The stuff is full of antioxidants and compounds that stops pre-cancerous cells from progressing into cancer, and it keeps you from growing fat. Well, I can sure understand the last one.

Whenever I tentatively try to eat some fruit, any fruit, my guts panic. The stomach has no protests at all, and judging from the time delay neither have my small intestines. But the large intestines react with horror and hastily try to flush the alien substance from the body. Gah. Luckily I can eat all manner of bread and pasta and other grain products. Even some vegetables in moderate amount. But add any fruit, and things go down the drain quickly...

Well, I guess it beats constipation, which seems to be very common these days.


It's interesting to see how different cultures have chosen different internal organs as the site of feelings. We routinely refer to "matter of the heart", but others talk about the stomach or even the liver. The Bible mentions that God knows our "hearts and kidneys". It is obvious that our inner parts react to our emotions as well as to what we do. An exam or a visit to the dentist can upset our stomach well before the actual fact.

This of course makes me wonder just how much of my digestion trouble is actually due to the food and how much is due to my emotions, if any. Actually the fruit connection seems to be pretty objective; but for instance Cola ... a small glass of Cola is enough to upset my sensible innards here; but when visiting SuperWoman, I can easily drink two glasses of it with little effect. Presumably it works by increasing the general tension in my body, and she works by reducing it. (Don't read anything dubious into this. It's just the way with me and good friends.) And back on the farm, I would eat oat porridge and like it well. But when I tried the same here, I got so unwell that I did not try it again.

Which just goes to show, I guess, that body and soul are as intertwined as a coin and its inscription.

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