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?"