Stomachs and Cognition

Something more mundane, but likely as least as relevant to many readers as yet another post on Hazard Analysis. Also, I have been struggling with the composition of a technical post on TCAS for a while so a bit of whimsy might be in order.

I have suffered off and on from gastric ailments for a number of decades, having been first affected by persistent gastritis from just before I went to college until when I started graduate school (many people experience this the other way around :-) ). And then again for a while in my late thirties. It amazes me about my bodily comfort and general health that it takes me so long to discover simple, obvious things. Such as, in the case I will relate, close on four decades. Standard medical advice with regard to gastritis is “cut out tea and coffee and alcohol until you feel better”. There’s a big part missing, especially about how to avoid the next bout. See below.

Some of it might have to do with upbringing. My mother nearly died of a cerebral hemmorhage when I was young. She woke up at night with a blinding headache, so my Dad said, and vomited every ten minutes. He “tried to cope” and finally took her to hospital in the car (we had no telephone) when he “couldn’t cope any longer”. Point one, which took me many years to understand: one inclines to “cope” when ill, but love, care and “coping” is sometimes less helpful than cold recognition and action. All emergency medical personnel know it, because they experience it daily, but we are all susceptible to the phenomenon nevertheless. Last year a close friend inadvertently poisoned herself, and it took hours of misery, dutifully attended by family at home, for her to realise she needed immediate medical help – and she’s a nurse!

Mental note to oneself. It’s about time to take a CPR and first aid course. I just read in The Guardian that 80% of people in Britain who suffer cardiac arrest outside of a hospital die of it, whereas the figure for that subgroup who are administered CPR by a passer-by until the ambulance gets there is only 35%. Besides, I can’t convert my FAA pilot’s licence to a German one until I take one.

So, returning now to tummies. A subject about which worry increases with age. But I want to talk about the insides, not the outsides.

I noticed a significant change in my gastric comfort when I first came to Germany for six months a couple of decades ago as a visiting academic in Hamburg. Certainly not because of German food :-) but I think because I didn’t use a car for six months, as compared with using it multiple times daily in California. I carried on not using a car in Switzerland, where I went next, and started cooking every night because I just couldn’t get in restaurants the stuff I liked to eat (if you want a disappointing gastronomic experience, try Chinese in Berne. Or, even worse, Mexican. If you’re Bernois/Bärner I doubt you will be offended by this observation, am I right?). I felt even better. I thought, there must be something more to this lifestyle-and-stomach stuff than “you feel better when you run or cycle more”, which was the limited extent of my personal wisdom before this experience.

Turns out there are people who suggest that the digestive system is a non-conscious but very complex cognitive system. One’s brain/mind reacts to lifestyle changes very obviously – too much “stress” (whatever that is) and one’s mood and demeanor changes, as does one’s cognitive uptake. We pay attention to our brains because of the phenomenon of consciousness, and it may well be that we don’t pay attention to what our stomachs are doing because they don’t “tell” us in the same way in which our mind does. But, so the thinking goes, the digestive system is equally as important as the brain for well-being. It’s a hypothesis worth considering.

There are simple things one can do to find out about basic stomach state. My lady friend above, the nurse, is full of helpful info. For example, you can buy litmus paper strips to measure the acidity of your sputum. You stick one on your tongue for a couple minutes and read it. It turns out I have very acid sputum, which correlates with an unusually acid stomach (it doesn’t test for personality :-) ). I tested every few days for a while, until I thought I could pretty much guess my stomach acid level intuitively from how I was feeling.

What to do about it is equally simple. Foodstuffs are classified as basic, acid or neutral, and if you know that, then in times of more-acidic stomach one can simply avoid the acidic ingredients and eat more basic ones. So, for example, I love limes, used to put them in my tea as well as fruit juice, and on cut fruit to keep it from oxidising in the fridge as well as for flavor. I also love caramelised shallots, and garlic, indeed I used to use fair amounts of garlic with almost every meal. All acid. Bread is acidic; potatoes are basic. Cheese is acidic (I think), butter is neutral. And so on.

In recent times, I have cut out the limes and the garlic except for occasionally, and reduced the onions. It works. I can indeed moderate my stomach acid through diet. Trivial chemistry, but it never fails to astonish me how ignorant I can be of such things until others point it out. There are increasingly fancy medicines one can get to treat acidic stomach, of course, but why medicate when diet does it? As I said, it took me four decades to find out. Duuuhh.

If I’d cut out the evening glasses of wine I’m sure it would be even better, but then what would be the point of evenings?

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