BOOK REVIEW: Body Am I by Moheb Costandi

Body Am I: The New Science of Self-ConsciousnessBody Am I: The New Science of Self-Consciousness by Moheb Costandi
My rating: 5 of 5 stars Page

In this book you’ll learn about: a man who wanted a perfectly healthy leg amputated, a fisherman who felt like his hands were crab claws, a woman who felt she wasn’t responsible for the actions of her hand, various people who’ve experienced “Alice in Wonderland Syndrome” [i.e. feeling one has shrunk or stretched,] and about many other issues stemming from the body’s sensory and motor integration with what we think of as the mind. For most of us, the most powerful take-away to be gained from this book is just how wonderful and awe-worthy it is that we have bodies that are so well integrated and coordinated that we can go about life engaging in all sorts of fascinating and productive activities.

While this isn’t the only book that addresses this subject, I think it’s a topic worth learning more about and reflecting upon in depth. We can get so out of touch with the fact that our body is integrated with our mental and sensory experiences that we take “brain in a vat” scenarios as a given for the near future, as if one is the sum of one’s neuronal connections. This book will disabuse one this notion. In fact, the final chapter (Ch. 10) questions the proposition that copying consciousness is a matter of mastering such neuronal mapping. It’s easy to miss how much of our emotional experience is rooted in what’s happening in our guts and heart, and how much all the non-central nervous system parts of the body play in our conscious experience of the world.

I learned a great deal from this book and would highly recommend it.

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BOOK REVIEW: The Exquisite Machine by Sian E. Harding

The Exquisite Machine: The New Science of the HeartThe Exquisite Machine: The New Science of the Heart by Sian E. Harding
My rating: 5 of 5 stars Page

Release date: September 20, 2022

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In this book, a renowned heart researcher presents an overview of what we know (and don’t know) about the human heart: i.e. what can go wrong with it and why, how [and to what degree] it fixes itself, and what modern medicine can do to treat or replace a damaged heart. I learned the most from the middle of the book – i.e. chapters five through seven. Chapter five explores plasticity in the heart, plasticity is a concept that most people associate with the brain and its ability to rewire itself to contend with damage or changing needs. The other two chapters look at how the heart can be damaged, specifically as a result of emotional experience. A “broken heart” isn’t necessarily a misnomer.

Chapter four is also intriguing but takes the win for “which one of these things is not like the others.” It deals with big data, though not in a general sense but rather as it applies to gaining a better understanding of the heart. This chapter discusses a common challenge of medical research: that it’s hard to come up with large enough study groups of patients with close enough to the same problem to draw solid conclusions. Four also discusses the potential of the vast amount of data that exists, e.g. Fitbit heart rate figures.

The last couple chapters deal largely with the future of heart repair through genetic / biological means (as opposed to via mechanical hearts and technologies, which are dealt with in Chapter nine.) This is where the book gets to be a challenging read for a readership of non-experts. It gets technical and jargon- / acronym-heavy.

The heart is an astounding entity, relentlessly at work, rarely giving up despite regularly being subjected to intense shocks, an organ tied to our whole being in a way that humans have always felt – if only just begun to understand. If you’re interested in learning more about this magnificent organ, check this book out.

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BOOK REVIEW: Immunity by Jenna Macciochi

Immunity: The Science of Staying Well—The Definitive Guide to Caring for Your Immune SystemImmunity: The Science of Staying Well—The Definitive Guide to Caring for Your Immune System by Jenna Macciochi
My rating: 5 of 5 stars Page

This is a book about how to keep one’s immune system firing on all cylinders, and it reports on the scientific findings about how a range of lifestyle activities (e.g. exercise, sleep, and nutrition) impact upon the robustness of one’s immune response. The book was exceedingly timely, having been put out last spring in the early days of the pandemic [though I was delinquent in getting to my review until now.]

The book consists of just seven chapters, though they are substantial in length and extent of discussion of the respective topics. The first chapter offers a primer on the immune system, its components, and how it does its crucial job. This chapter also explains how vaccinations work, what autoimmune diseases and allergies are, and what role genetics (nature) and lifestyle / environment (nurture) play in immunity.

Chapter two investigates a range of topics at the nexus of lifecycle and immunity, including: differences between male and female immune responses, pregnancy and immunity, and the effects of aging and menopause on immune system activity.

Chapter three is about our intestinal microbiomes and immunity. If this seems like a strange topic to devote an entire chapter to, you probably haven’t been following the voluminous outpouring of research findings about how our helpful microbiological lifeforms are being shown to have a profound impact on all aspects of human health and well-being from mental health to, well, immune system robustness.

Chapter four explores how immune system activity is compromised by lack of sleep or poor-quality sleep. However, it also looks more broadly at how our immune system responds to the various cycles in which it finds itself — from the daily cycle of days and nights to the yearly seasonal cycle.

Chapter five considers the nexus of mental health and immune response. As was mentioned with respect to the gut, the connections between physiological activity and mental health are becoming ever more apparent – though there remains much to be understood.

The penultimate chapter is about fitness and physical activity and what is know about why exercise is so good for one’s immune response. Of course, there seem to be diminishing marginal returns (less benefit for a given additional workout) and even diminishing returns (negative outcomes) if one goes too crazy with one’s exercise regiment and doesn’t give one’s body adequate amounts of rest.

The final chapter is about the role of nutrition in immune system activity. The approach is very much accord with my own beliefs which are that if one eats right, there is little need for supplements, and no volume of supplements will save you from a poor diet. The emphasis is upon a high-fiber diet rich in plant nutrients and balanced to provide all necessary macro- and micronutrients, while debunking fads and dietary myths. There is discussion of many of the foods that are traditionally associated with immunity (echinacea, elderberry, turmeric, etc.,) and what claims seem to hold and which are unproven.

If you don’t know a lot about the science of healthy lifestyles, this book offers an additional benefit in that it approaches the topic from a quite basic level. That is, it provides a lot of background information that would be useful for a complete neophyte to understand the points about immune activity. So, for example, the author lays out rudimentary explanations of micronutrients or sleep cycles before getting into the relevant information about how these impact on immunity. Of course, the flip side is that for those who have studied this science, it may take some skimming because there is a lot of material that will probably be elementary to those who practice healthy living.

I found this to be an extremely beneficial book. Its focus upon what one can do to improve immune robustness makes it tremendously useful for the average reader. It presents the science without getting too deep in the weeds of detailed physiological activity. I felt the author did an excellent job of walking the line to produce a book that is useful, readable, and digestible.

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BOOK REVIEW: Missing Microbes by Martin J. Blaser, MD

Missing Microbes: How the Overuse of Antibiotics Is Fueling Our Modern PlaguesMissing Microbes: How the Overuse of Antibiotics Is Fueling Our Modern Plagues by Martin J. Blaser
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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This is one of several popular human biology books of recent years to take note of the fact that your body’s cells are outnumbered 10 to 1 by the bacteria that live in and on you—mostly in your digestive tract—and that our penchant for killing microbes has begun to show signs of harm as well as good. Since the germ theory took hold, we’ve been slaughtering all the little buggers we could, but increasingly we’ve learned that this isn’t without costs. In essence, we’ve been throwing out the baby with the bath water when it comes to our bacteria, while at the same time creating super-bugs.

As a first-worlder who’s been living in the developing world (India), I sometimes get ask if I get sick here a lot or at all. My stock response is to ask the asker whether they have Crohn’s Disease, IBS, Type II diabetes*, or any of the other diseases of affluence seen mostly in the first world. (*Type II diabetes is becoming much more prevalent in the developing world, notably in India where they like their deserts about 9000 times sweeter than, say, a fudge brownie. Furthermore, the disease has disproportionate effects in such countries because of limited treatment availability and late diagnosis.) In many cases, these developed world diseases are being tied to the killing off of our good gut bacteria.

Doctor Blaser’s book focuses on how overuse of antibiotics creates problems. For those who say, “I don’t get no stinkin’ antibiotics when I’m sick. I just suffer it out. Ergo, I don’t need to read this book,” there remain facts of which you should be aware. One such fact is that some of the antibiotics injected into the animals that become our food can act against our own personal microbiome. Yet another is that antibacterial soaps and gels are ubiquitous. Furthermore, the increased popularity of C-sections has starved infants of a source of good bacteria, and made them more prone to certain childhood illnesses.

“Missing Microbes” is organized into 16 chapters. The first discusses many of the “modern plagues” that have come about through the wholesale war on bacteria. The next couple chapters look at the role of microbes on the planet and in our bodies. There is a discussion of increasingly successful pathogens as well as the drugs that came along to take care of them. There is a discussion of over-prescription of antibiotics by dentists and doctors, their use in agriculture, and the transfer of good bacteria from mother to child and how rampant use of C-section negates this transfer. There are a couple of chapters on H. pylori and the lessons learned from trying to eliminate it after it became tied to ulcers. (In one of the most famous stories in modern medicine, a researcher swallowed a beaker of H. pylori to prove his theory to a skeptical audience of physicians.) Asthma is discussed as an example of an illness one might not expect to come about from destroying gut bacteria. One of the effects covered over two chapters is getting bigger (re: fatter as well as taller.) Staving off disease under crowded conditions isn’t the only reason modern agriculture uses antibiotics, it also makes for big, meaty animals—which when eaten by people may make big, meaty (actually, fatty) humans. Blaser then talks about how bad the situation might get (using the term “antibiotic winter,”) before discussing solutions. It’s, of course, true that humanity has gained a lot from antibiotics, and so putting the genie back in the bottle is not a solution. A nuanced approach is called for, and that’s what the author discusses.

I found this book to be informative, and would recommend it to anyone wanting to learn more about the risks presented by overuse of antibiotics.

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