Good Food Mood

This article was published in The Hindu 

Some of my articles, especially ones that involve the night sky have me pondering on the nature of our existence and how minuscule we are in the scheme of things. The precise sequence of things that led to this particular form of life on this planet and so on. Generally, the night sky is simply a becalming experience that inspires humility, and some vague musings.

The scale of the universe is one that is awe inspiring. We are minuscule compared to the universe, but we also contain millions of minuscule particles compared to our own size. As far as the microbes are concerned, we, each of us: deer, goose, humans are a universe unto ourselves. There is something deeply spiritual in that : we contain multitudes and we enable multitudes. The diversity and beauty of the microbial world is immense, and one that is still emerging in our understanding of it. With the sound of rain pattering outside, I was sitting snugly inside reading I Contain Multitudes by Ed Yong, stopping every now and then to read out an interesting piece to the children.

Ayar padi maligaiyil thaai madiyalil kanrinnai pol
ஆயர்பாடி மாளிகையில் தாய் மடியில் கன்றினைப்போல்
maya kana thoongugindran thaalaelo
மாயக்கண்ணன் தூங்குகின்றான் தாலேலோ
Avan vaai niraiya mannai undu mandalathai kaatiya pin
அவன் வாய் நிறைய மண்ணை உண்டு மண்டலத்தை காட்டிய பின்

Roughly translates to: Here is little Krishna, sleeping like a little calf after eating a handful of mud and showing us the universe within it.

The son played the video for the nth time on the television, and the daughter said, “Oh no – not that again. How many times will you see that video?”

“See…see here – when baby Krishna opens his mouth, his mom can see the whole universe inside it. The whole universe!” he says his eyes widening, quite unable to comprehend why this fact is not as astounding to his elder sister.

“Yes – but you said that already.”

“I always watch what you are seeing!” said the fellow stung at this accusation of hogging the television. His sister scowled, the toddler tensed and I sensed it was time for dinner before the situation escalated, and rivers of tears joined the gurgling rivers of rainwater outside.

Inside the house, we sat down around the dinner table with hot food and slurped at it. We kept getting interrupted by alerts giving us flash flood warnings, and it increased the gratitude for being inside, relishing warm food and enjoying one another’s company. Minutes into the meal, the situation had considerably lightened and the children were rolling off their chair giggling at something inane. I watched them bemused.

Countless writers have written about the effects of good food. Jerome K Jerome from Three Men in a Boat goes on to describe the effects in great detail:

It is very strange, this domination of our intellect by our digestive organs. We cannot work, we cannot think unless our stomach wills so. It dictates to us our emotions, our passions. After eggs and bacon it says, “Work!” After beefsteak and porter, it says, “Sleep”. After a cup of tea(two spoonfuls for each cup, and don’t let it stand for more than 3 minutes), it says to the brain, “Now rise and show your strength. Be eloquent and deep and tender; see with a clear eye, into Nature, and into life: spread your white wings of quivering thought and soar, a god like spirit over the whirling world beneath you, up through long lanes of flaming stars to the gates of eternity!”

What is it with food and mood? Is there a direct connection between the gut and the brain?

It turns out that there is. In ‘I Contain Multitudes’, Ed Yong goes on to write that there are now studies directly linking gut bacteria with mental well-being. We have a long way to go in understanding the role of gut bacteria.  Some studies indicate reduced symptoms of depression in people with irritable bowel syndromes after consuming certain types of probiotics.

If research advances enough to diagnose certain types of borderline psychiatric patients and is able to treat them with specific types of probiotics to enable well-being, would that not be great?

An excellent article on the topic by Maria Popova here: https://www.brainpickings.org/2016/08/10/i-contain-multitudes-ed-yong/

The future could hold in store for us enough advances in microbiology & genetics, to enable personalized treatment options that aims at holistic healing. That is a promising, if distant, future to strive towards.

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It is estimated that every human contains 100 trillion microbes, most of which live in our guts. By comparison the Milky Way contains between 100 million and 400 million stars.

Maybe the mud that baby Krishna swallowed contained bio luminescent bacteria that made the universe inside of him light up when he opened his mouth.

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Whatever it is, like Jerome K Jerome says: “We are but the veriest, sorriest slaves of our stomach, Reach not after morality and righteousness, my friends; watch vigilantly your stomach and diet it with care and judgement. Then virtue and contentment will come and reign within your heart.”

Blame The Toxos

Every once in a while a book comes along that changes the way you fundamentally view things. I Contain Multitudes by Ed Yong is one such. In the book, the author covers various types of microbes, bacteria and pathogens that we carry within ourselves or encounter in the world. A fascinating adventure awaits the reader on this microscopic journey.

The book shows us how each being is a complex symbiosis unto itself. A concept we know vaguely but appreciate deeply when we read the book.

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We have heard of parasitic infections that control the minds of hosts like rabies. Rabies makes its carriers aggressive and the only way for it to spread is by biting and scratching another being. ( Rabies is probably the basis for the myth of the werewolf.)

There is one particular type of parasite that is chilling in its tale. Toxoplasma Gondii or Toxo is a single celled organism that latches itself onto brains. It is also referred to in the TED talk linked below for further information.

Quote : Toxoplasma Gondii is a brain parasite otherwise known as Toxo. It can only sexually reproduce in a cat; if it gets into a rat, it suppresses the rodents natural fear of cats and replaces it with something more like sexual attraction. The rodent scurries towards the cats with fatal results, and T.gondii gets to complete its life cycle.

Toxo has been known to manipulate mammals. It makes rats run towards cats and offer themselves as prey just so toxo can reproduce. Classic tale of self destructive behavior, wouldn’t you agree? It is also proven that many humans play host to Toxo.

TED Talk by Ed Yong

The book led to many happy, wild conjectures such as:
(a) Could that be the reason Cat videos are so popular on You-tube? I mean, I have always wondered: Why Cat Videos? Why not hippo videos?

(b) Humans affected with Toxo also fare differently on personality tests, showing different trajectories when it comes to risk taking and pleasure seeking behaviors. Could a combination of Toxo and Dopamine releasing behaviors such as increased reliance on social media have engineered the elections?

It sounds like a weird sci-fi scenario: Toxo encourages self-destruction, dopamine clamors for fake news, and the world falls prey to single celled organisms manipulating mammals (us), while we run around like zombies thinking we have free will.

The understanding of human biology has fascinated mankind for centuries. But advances in microbiology itself is less than 200 hundred years old. Even then, our narrative surrounding the understanding has been harsh: Bacterial infections, germs, plagues, survival of the fittest. While there are numerous examples of these, the truth is that we also play host to a large number of helpful microbes and bacteria.

Theodore Rosebury, a microbiologist, wrote in 1928, during his research that:

“The knowledge that micro organisms can be helpful to man has never had much popular appeal, for men as a rule are more preoccupied with the danger that threatens their life than in the biological forces on which they depend. The history of warfare always proves more glamorous than accounts of co-operation.”

A fact so timeless that we ought to have it framed in halls of learning if it isn’t already.

P.S: Please watch the TED Talk by Ed Yong – it is only 13 minutes long.

Stop and Look at the Snails

After enduring a particularly long spell of drought, we are relishing the rains lashing down on us this year. The clean, fresh air after the rain is one we relish. As the toddler son and I make our way to school every morning, our heart lifts at the marvelous rainbows, the cherry blossoms starting to bloom and the beautiful snails out on the roads.

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Sometimes, we come up with silly names for the little creatures we find on our path. Turbo the Snail is always a welcome sight. Earthy Worm invokes the same curiosity if not adoration. Toby Turtle is remembered with affection, and we wonder aloud how we can find ways to hobnob more freely with turtles.

Watching the snails leave a shiny trail behind them one rainy day, we squatted there wondering whether that trail left behind by snails is poisonous. That innocent minute squatting on the sidewalk looking at snails criss-cross our path raised so many questions. It looked to us like a snail could not get very far if it had to flee a predator.

Where do they live when it is not raining and can’t move?
What if we had slippery slopes for snails? said the toddler always keen to help.
Do only snails walk the slippery slope? (completely lost on the toddler of course) and so on.

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“Amma, we will be late! Hurry up.” said the conscientious fellow and we galloped past the snails wondering how much there was to do in the world, and how little we manage to do.

The thought that there is so much more to be done can sneak up at you in the most unexpected moments. Like the time I was reading a love story written by Alexander McCall Smith in the book Chance Developments. The story imagined the life of a young man in Scotland using a vintage photograph of a young man helping to change a car tire in the presence of a beautiful young lady in a cream colored coat.

 

In the book, the young man is taking a stroll around a loch and is fascinated by some plants that many ignored because they were believed to be poisonous, but he nibbles at them lovingly almost, since his father had tried and demonstrated to him that these particular plants were not poisonous at all. He had studied the properties of the plant, and traced the origins of the myth to a Celtic folktale, and though most tales started off with a kernel of truth, this one probably did not.

How is a story as innocuous as that supposed to make one feel like there is so much to be done? Because they are so many ways in which we can remain curious, to question the this-is-how-it-is-done-s of the world. The fact that we can bust one myth just by questioning it is good. And it proves that we pave the path for one more myth to be broken and then one more.

It has been a few years since I read ’Surely, You’re Joking Mr Feynman – Adventures of a Curious Character’ By Richard Feynman. I remember one passage in which the celebrated scientist talks of watching ants as they made their way around his backyard. Marveling at how they navigated obstacles placed in their path, and admiring the innate steadfastness of the species.

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The quest for knowledge can be a curious, interesting journey, if only we take the time to stop and look at the snails.

Richard Feynman on the Meaning of Life – Brain Pickings

Toby Turtle’s Lessons on Life

Toby the Turtle came home for a week. He was a much loved member of the family, and soon after helping to cook a meal would join hands with heroic forces to battle evil in Spiderman Vs Sinister Six wars. Toby the Turtle is the kindergarten classroom stuffed toy who comes home for a week to the proud Star of the Week. It is a great honor for the children, and I saw the kindergartener in our home puff out his chest and look important, as he carried Toby around. He loved having someone to take care of, and I must say Toby lightened the atmosphere in the house.

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We all seemed to like having the stuffed toy around, not least because of the change in pace, but also because Toby brought the class journal with him. Every child who had Toby had written a page or two about what they did with Toby, and how much they loved him.

“Toby is my friend.”, ” I wish I could keep Toby with me forever.” seemed to be common sentiments across all the pages in the journal, and I must say had I been Toby, I would have loved it.

In other news, I recently read a book on aging, Being Mortal: Medicine and What Matters in the End by Dr. Atul Gawande. Atul Gawande is a surgeon, and the book is a must read for all of us who must contemplate mortal life. The business of living with dignity, pride, compassion and meaning. In the book, Dr Gawande explores the process of aging using multiple examples, interspersed with his experience with his own father, who was also a surgeon. His father gradually loses his health, and despite his deterioration, was determined to lead life on his own terms.

Modern medicine has made phenomenal advances. Life expectancy has increased, and for the first time in the history of mankind, we have as many people under the age of 5 as above 80.

When something happens and people make it into hospitals, the attending surgeons and doctors will do everything in their power to ensure that they can save lives, and often let the near and dear know what the problem is, and what the medical options are, but not much more.

Dr. Gawande explains that it is up to us, as patients, family members or friends to ask and be equipped with the critical questions of living. Questions such as:

1. What is your understanding of your illness and how far along has the condition progressed?

2. Your fears or worries for the future

3. Your goals and priorities

4. What outcomes are unacceptable to you? What are you willing to sacrifice and not?

And later,

5. What would a good day look like?

Though it examines a serious subject, it is not a morbid book, and pragmatically looks at the problem of aging in the current medical system. There are lively portions that explore the elements of a happy life as much as it opens our eyes to mortality. Take for example: Bill Thomas’s effect on Geriatric care.

Dr Gawande talks about one scenario where Dr Bill Thomas, a director of a medical facility in upstate New York, was upset about the well-being of those in the geriatric ward. He being a quirky, brilliant gentleman, and felt that it was the lack of vibrant life around hospitals that is the cause for long term residents to suffer from boredom, loneliness and depression.

Having grown up on a farm himself, he petitions the management that the missing link was teeming life. After some work, he manages to convince the management that having some plants, birds etc would help people get better sooner. As soon as the nod came, he got busy, and before people knew what was happening, truck loads of living beings descended on the premises: Not a dog here and a cat there, but hundreds of parakeets, dogs, cats, rabbits, hens – a whole menagerie.

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The next few days were mayhem as nurses and doctors worked hand in hand trying to get the birds into cages and making sure there was someone to feed the birds and so on. The hospital was furious, nurses complained about having more to do as if caring for the old people were not enough. Administrators complained about infections, they complained about cleanliness.

But something phenomenal came about from the experiment: Patients who were uninterested and mute took notice. They would watch the birds, and weeks later would talk, and in some cases, patients cared for the birds, and whenever they could, took up feeding the birds. In time, it resulted in fewer health interventions. People were happier and general health improved. Every body liked having some being to care for.

(You can read the section of his interview here, though the book has the whole story)

http://nymag.com/scienceofus/2014/10/atul-gawande-on-being-mortal.html

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And it didn’t boil down to how the animals saved them. It boiled down the idea that people need to have purposes in their lives, and that you could offer ways that they could connect to them. That they could live for something larger than just being alive.

That is the essence of humanity. We need to care, we need to feel needed and wanted, and we need to feel empathy: whether we are 5, 40 or 80.

Toby the Turtle taught us that. Kindergarten teaches us about life in lovely ways.

Beauty in Diversity & Unity in Adversity

This article was published in India Currents & San Francisco Chronicle.

I am one of the thousands of people who ride BART regularly. One particularly cold morning, as two train loads of people tried to stuff ourselves into 1 train, I took to my favorite pastime on the train when not being able to read or write: people-watching. It was packed and constricted given the crowd. I mused on the different experiences that Bart has given me.

I look around me to see that people from different backgrounds, different religions, different ideologies, different skin tones, different economic levels are all there rubbing shoulders together. We all say our sorry’s and our don’t worry’s good-humoredly when the train pulls an unexpected stop and we all bump into each other.

Over time, the trains have provided opportunities for conversations with people traveling elsewhere. As they clamber on with suitcases and strollers, it is hard to not share their enthusiasm. When they get off, you give them a quiet smile and wish them a happy vacation, and they all smile back happily and go on their way. The experience of travel had already started as far as they are concerned. They already got to smile at strangers, already got to ask directions from people very different than themselves.

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If you truly want to experience life, the public transit is a good place for it. Take for example, the con-man who asks for precise and exact amounts of money every few weeks. “Good morning all. I need 89$ and 27 cents to save my son – I would appreciate anything you can help with. Thank you, thank you, God bless you.”

“Didn’t you ask for $137 and 25 cents last time”, asks an exasperated regular, and the con-man does a bunk, trying his luck in the next compartment.

Then, there is the prattler who takes care of his business on the phone, the I-am-right-ler ensconced in his seat comfortably in the middle issuing moral dictums, the scornful-lookers who think the train is beneath them, the relentless hair combers who brush the shines away from their hair, the make-up doers, the readers, the coders, the writers all shake down together in a tiny space for that aspect of the day.

https://nourishncherish.wordpress.com/2015/06/11/the-trees-spiritual-path/

On these trains and platforms, I have been transported to small villages in Africa, felt sorry for people living in war-torn regions, listened to the lilting tones of foreign languages, seen and heard people share stories about Egyptian mummies, been wary of con-men, talked to erudite people who have shared a drop of their wisdom on the way.  I have also edged away discreetly from people who are stone drunk at 8 o’clock in the morning rearing for a fight, and seen people injecting themselves with drugs. I have seen policemen and policewomen go about their grim duties of ensuring a safe transit with a smile on their faces.

https://nourishncherish.wordpress.com/2010/10/09/yogic-alcoholics/

I have talked to people who are wondering whether they will be able to afford health care , laughed with pregnant mothers, and then congratulated them months later and be shown the baby’s pictures.

As a woman I have no country. As a woman my country is the whole world: Virginia Woolf

I have listened to loud music that I otherwise might not have listened to because some quirky character decided that what the world wanted that day was some music. I like the street musicians on the underground stations singing to a seemingly uninterested audience. But I have noticed a little spring in peoples’ steps as they near the musicians, and a slight smile even as they move away.

Anyone who doubts the advantages of diversity should get on public transit and immerse themselves in the experience. There is beauty in diversity.  

I may not know people’s names, I definitely do not remember every interaction, but as I started writing, I realize that there is so much that I have absorbed about life just by riding the public transit. Therefore, I was doubly pleased to see Bart tweet out in response to Donald Trump’s ban on immigration that everyone is welcome on Bart.

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Beauty in Diversity & Unity in Adversity, seems like a good slogan in these times.

Thank you Bart.