Monday, February 9, 2015

Thoughts on a Peculiar Illness

Last week, I went through an odd illness.  What I initially assumed were pangs of hunger began on Tuesday night and then persisted for the rest of the week.  It wasn't a constant ache.  In fact, it didn't feel like a typical pain.  It was just a series of uncomfortable, acute pangs that waned and waxed through the day.  

By the end of the week, I was more perplexed than uncomfortable.  Most stomach ailments I've felt cause some kind of digestive trouble, but my digestion was unaffected.  Was it a chemical intolerance to something I ate?  Some kind of stomach flu?  I don't really know, but it made me think about my stomach more than I normally do.

My biggest wonder was this: why did I experience any given stomach pang specifically when I did?  Why not five minutes earlier, or later?  If you burn your hand, the pain is dull and continuous.  If you have a sore muscle, it barks when touched or used.  What made my stomach hurt when it did without any obvious cause?

Recently, I've learned that the gut is far more active than I was previously aware.  It's constantly sending and receiving various signals from the brain in order to track our metabolic needs.  We -- our conscious selves -- are really only informed when the sum of those signals indicate hunger, or fullness, or possibly nausea.  

My brother, Jack, once observed that when you blow out a candle and see smoke make eddies and gyres in the air, we imagine the gyres to disappear with the smoke.  Really, though, the air is doing that all time time, we're just oblivious to it.  The smoke acts as a tracer, and lets us see the way air moves.  I thought of this when it occurred to me that some irregularity in my stomach was sending off an errant signal.  I don't know which one, but each brief unexpected jolt through out the day might have been heralding some stomach event which I'm never ordinarily made aware of.  The pangs, I found, tended to be consistently more frequent at some times of day than others.  Even without knowing the specific trigger, it pleases me to imagine that there existed any specific trigger at all.

After three days my discomfort lessened, and by the fifth day I was back to normal.  I never experienced typical symptoms associated with an immune response, which makes me wonder if something caused a kind of upheaval of the natural flora of my gut.  We're all full of healthy bacteria which aid our digestion 1, and perhaps one strain gave way to another in a tumultuous coup.  I don't know if this is the case.  If it is, I can't say if normality returned for me when it my stomach restored the status quo or when it settled into life under a new dominant regime.  Whatever the cause, I'm more impressed than ever by the little we truly know about our alimentary system.

1 My former adviser, Katrina, was very fond of reminding everyone she met that each of our bodies contain more bacterial cells than native human cells.

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