Gut Feeling: When You’re One Parasite Away From Better Health

The American Heart Institute estimates that 1 in 6 Americans currently have metabolic syndrome—and it’s likely almost none of them know it.

In his book Your Brain on Food, Gary L. Wenk explains that metabolic syndrome, sometimes called X syndrome, happens when your body stops regulating your glucose and fat metabolism, which in turn throws off your sensitivity to insulin production. It’s characterized by high blood pressure, high blood sugar, and storing additional fat.

Any one of these conditions is bad news for your health, but all three put together double your risk for heart disease and leave you five times more likely to end up with diabetes.

Other than bad luck, what puts some people more at risk for developing the syndrome?

There are a number of factors. Here’s one. The brain relies on six different types of taste buds on your tongue, which prompt your dopamine receptors to send you a little reward when they sense sugar and fat. Unfortunately, some of us are genetically predisposed to weaker tongue signaling, and as a result, need to take in more sugar and fat for our receptors to get the message. We tend to make up for this by taking in more sugar and fat.

This kind of input has a direct effect on the gut, increasing the number of macrophage white blood cells, which in turn wreaks havoc on your body’s ability to regulate glucose and process fat. Is there an anti-macrophage, if you will, that can undo its effects? Thankfully, there are: another type of white blood cell, eosinophils.

What’s the fastest way to raise the eosinophil count in your gut? If you happen to be eating while you read these words right now, this is where you might consider putting your sandwich down or waiting until you’re done eating entirely before you continue.

Scientists from the University of California at San Francisco have been conducting highly successful experiments that involve introducing a parasitic worm into the afflicted person’s intestines. The presence of this intruder puts your immune system on notice, and your immune system responds by activating more and more eosinophils, until the balance is restored and your friendly little helper can be safely removed after about a week.

It may sound disgusting, but the truth is your body has countless parasites inside of it already, including a good three pounds of bacteria in your digestive track alone. (There, don’t you feel better now?) Most of these little critters live their whole lives undetected, never doing any serious damage, and some, like that three pounds of bacteria, are outright beneficial.

If reading about this already gives you a crawly feeling in your gut, the good news is you can also gradually reverse metabolic syndrome through sustained life changes—exercise and a healthier diet. Still, if you could use a little boost, remember that the unwanted parasite of yesterday could be your new gut buddy tomorrow. In the words of Mr. Rogers, “Could you be, would you be, won’t you be my neighbor?”

What Do You and Your Cat Have in Common?

What do you and your cat have in common? Well, one possibility is a unicellular organism called Toxoplasma gondii. There are roughly 7 billion people on the planet and in a recent Scientific Mind article, Gustavo Arrizabalaga and Bill Sullivan suggest as many as 3 billion of us are carriers for Toxoplasma. It’s estimated that just in the U.S., one in five people are infected. In less industrialized countries, estimates are as high as 95%.

Up until recently, the protozoan known as Toxoplasma was considered largely harmless,  just one of the millions of parasites we humans play host to every day. But recent research by Charles University parasitologist Jaroslav Flegr and others indicates there is reason for concern.

Flegr’s work suggests that if your first experience with Toxoplasma occurs while you’re pregnant, the parasite can reach the fetus, moving through tissues and organs, spreading from cell to cell. Possible results include birth defects or miscarriage.

Toxoplasma also is able to cross the blood-brain barrier in rats, where it sets up camp in the neural circuitry and begins to alter the brain, and with it, that rat’s entire demeanor.

What does Toxoplasma make these rats do? A single-cell organism is not sophisticated enough to have a master plan, but over time, it has evolved some freaky tendencies that bring Toxoplasma closer to its ideal host: cats. An infected rat doesn’t just show no fear of its natural predators, it is actively attracted to the smell of cat urine. The result? Bad news for rodents, and great news for Toxoplasma.

A parasite that encourages risky behavior in rats might not make headlines. But what about humans? Can Toxoplasma cross our blood-brain barrier as well? In a ten year experiment involving 2500 people, Flegr’s team found correlation between Toxoplasma infection and certain personality changes.

In Gary Wenk’s new book Your Brain on Food, he reports that infected women showed tendencies of becoming more “trusting and warmhearted, less prone to jealousy or suspicions.” This alone may not seem like cause to ring alarm bells, but it seems to line up with a general lack of self-preservation: infected women also had a noticeably higher suicide rate.

Infected men, on the other hand, showed more aggression, suspicion, and jealousy. Given the long history of human interaction with cats, it’s not beyond imagining that this tiny protozoa might have shaped our long history of warfare.

A brain parasite that can rewrite its host’s personality sounds more like a hacky sci fi plot point than fact. But although some of the more aggressive findings still need additional research to establish solid cause and effect, it’s enough to raise some questions. Perhaps chief among them, “Oh my god, is this thing inside me?”

A simple blood test can determine whether or not you’re a carrier. In the meantime, keep in mind that Toxoplasma is passed through contact with an infected cat’s feces. Even if you don’t have pets, you can pick it up in your own backyard from stray cats, or on any food or vegetable that might have been exposed to them.

The Toxoplasma club is 3 billion members strong. Hopefully you’re not one of them.

The Secret to Good Communication: It’s all About the BIC

You may not know the name of Hungarian journalist László József Bíró, but if you’ve ever written a shopping list or jotted down a quick note, you probably owe him. Frustrated by the constant smearing of his fountain pen, Bíró noticed one day that newspaper ink dried considerably faster than his writing ink. Had Bíró found a solution to his handwriting woes?

Well, no. Poured into a 30’s era fountain pen, newspaper ink was too thick and sticky to work on a standard nib. After some tinkering, he hit upon the idea of a ball and socket approach, and with some ink-brewing help from his chemist brother György, the world had its first ballpoint pen.

The new design soon found some success, beloved by World War II British Royal Airforce pilots because it didn’t leak at high altitudes.

After the war ended, a number of companies duked it out for the rights to produce their own ballpoint creations. Who ultimately came out on top? A Frenchman, Marcel Bich,  and the company he named after a shortened version of his own surname. Bíró might have invented the ballpoint, but Bic took it worldwide—and made it a household name. Today, Bic sells more than 20 million pens a day.

And no wonder: the new highly affordable pens were a huge improvement over the writing tools of yore. Who knows how much more prolific the Jeffersons or Austens or Twains of the world could have been, unencumbered by ink refills or messy smudges?

When it comes to written communication, the Bic is elegantly simplistic. What if there were an equally simplistic solution for verbal communication?

How many of us find ourselves at a loss for words when dealing with our friends or loved ones? The ability to read someone and deliver the proper response might be true wisdom. Until the next generation of inventor puts together a robot to help us calculate the right thing to say at any moment, perhaps the best we can do is to lean on a different kind of Bic.

When someone comes to a friend or a loved one with a problem, there are roughly three types of response they might be looking for:

Bolstering

Sometimes a person needs us to simply prop them up and let them know it’s all going to work out.

Insight

Other times, that friend or loved one is sharing their sorrows in search of getting some help sorting through various interpretations and solutions.

Compassion

Then there are the times a person wants neither cheery words nor a new perspective on their situation, but just a sympathetic ear, a chance to vent their feelings, fears, and frustrations.

 

This may sound simple, but often the key to truly feeling comforted is receiving the right step of BIC. Have you ever confided your problems to a friend, hoping they would tell you it was all going to be okay, only to instead get a gentle, “Wow, that really sucks”? Or maybe you’ve spilled your woes to a significant other and been met with a ten-point plan of attack when all you wanted was a hug.

Different people have different preferences, and those can vary from situation to situation and even from minute to minute. Ideally, we want those we care about to be in tune with us, to intuitively understand what part of BIC is required. But during emotional stress, a quick shorthand could save a lot of guesswork and frustration, to help us get it right the first time in the moments it matters the most.

After all, pens and conversations have something else in common: no erasers.