When visiting a museum, one can expect to see collections of paintings, archaeological finds, historical evidence, coins, or even old cars. But if you go to the new exhibition at Jerusalem’s Bloomfield Science Museum, you will encounter poop, stomachs, large and small intestines, diarrhea, constipation, a trillion (good and bad) bacteria, gastric juices, toilet positions, farts, vomiting, allergies, intestinal worms and more.
Has longtime museum director Maya Halevy lost her mind? Does she want to put visitors off their lunch?
No, this delightful exhibition, which will remain on the site for a year and has an expected audience of hundreds of thousands of children and adults of all ages, is as special as it’s unique.
It’s based on a quite brilliant, best-selling book written eight years ago by Giulia Enders, a German medical/doctoral student in gastroenterology at Goethe University in Frankfurt. Her passion for the gut and its inhabitants really started when, at the age of 17, she developed severe and long-term atopic dermatitis and she realized it was due to an antibiotic treatment she had received. She explained in the book that since she was born by cesarean section, she was unable to breastfeed from her mother, and that probably affected her insides.
The 33-year-old author, a two-time scholarship winner of the Heraeus Foundation (that supports scientific research and education) wrote her first book titled Gut – The Inside Story of Our Body’s Most Underrated Organ. Her aim was to educate the public about their insides that work, when healthy, like a complicated well-oiled machine, and discuss taboo subjects.
It was translated from the original German (over one million copies sold) into 40 languages including French, Italian, Spanish, Arabic, and Hebrew (T’hushat Beten: Hasipur Hamadhim Shel Ma’arechet Ha’ikul, 302 pages, Kinneret, Zmora-Bitan Publishers, NIS 98).
After attending the festive opening attended by museum heads, representatives of the Jerusalem Foundation, Jerusalem Mayor Moshe Lion, Hebrew University scientists, and other guests, I read the Hebrew edition and couldn’t put it down.
Who is the book for?
The book’s target audience includes teenage and adult readers without a scientific background, and popularizes some of this fascinating information, based on the latest medical research.
Her cheerful, rejoicing tone was boosted by her sister, Jill Enders, who illustrated the book with a large number of fanciful, black line drawings. Jill decided not to depict bacteria as ordinary shaped objects but as recognizable creatures with faces.
The sisters worked together to help create the exhibition, which has been shown at numerous museums, including Cité des Sciences et de l’Industrie (Universcience) in Paris, the largest science museum in Europe, titled Microbiote.
From there, it was adapted for Jerusalem’s science museum and called Stomach Feeling. Both came to Jerusalem to attend the festive opening, as did Bruno Maquart, chairman and CEO of the French museum who also spoke at the event.
The attraction, on the museum’s third floor, covers about 600 square meters and contains dozens of interactive exhibits, videos, graphic panels, and more. It offers a tour from the mouth to the anus, including all the organs and organisms along the way, using interactive screens, and videos of the Israeli-invented PillCam as it travels through the intestine.
Visitors also pass through a domed intestinal section with finger-like, red villae to proceed through the exhibition. One game asks participants to arrange meals according to how much fiber, protein, carbohydrates, and fat are recommended for good health.
Although I went to the exhibition before reading the book, as it explains so much, I would recommend reading the book first, but if you don’t (yet) have the book, go right ahead to the museum.
The book and the exhibition, which could teach physicians and even gastroenterologists a new thing or two, provide concrete tips for understanding the intricate digestive system and practicing good gut health. For example: What is the best position to poop to avoid anal hemorrhoids and fissures? Crouch, as they used to do in the army and many toilets around the world before the “throne” was invented, or raise your legs on a short stool to straighten the rectum.
What are gluten and lactose intolerances? What causes gastroesophageal reflux and what can be done about it?
How can one prevent unnecessary nausea? Why is it important to overcome the reluctance to poop away from home? How are the gut bacteria (microbiome) set up and modified throughout life and how are they affected by antibiotics?
What are the benefits of saliva? Why is it important to eat a lot of fiber? Should tonsils and adenoids be surgically removed? Is the appendix a troublesome reservoir of bacteria or does it have a purpose when not infected? What are the unexpected effects of toxoplasma gondii on human behavior? What side should you lie on if you have a stomach ache?
She notes in the book, that people have made the brain and the heart into heroes without which none of us could live, while treating the gastroenterological system with apathy or even disgust. Few people think about poop unless they have medical problems with it, or when they walk their dog. But Jewish tradition, in which a blessing is made after every visit to the toilet, impressively indicates that one’s intestines (and kidneys) are no less important than the brain and heart.
Few people know how the gut works. It is one of the most complex, important, and even miraculous parts of our anatomy, and scientists are only now discovering quite how much it has to offer. New research shows that gut bacteria can play a role in everything, from obesity and allergies, to Alzheimer’s. The need to treat a sudden onset of severe depression in people whose lives are otherwise fine may be due to an unhappy gut, she adds.
Everyone’s saliva is slightly different. In fact, saliva analysis can be used to test for diseases of the immune system or certain hormones. It even contains a painkiller called opiorphin. It’s an endogenous chemical compound first isolated from human saliva. Initial research with lab mice shows the compound has a painkilling effect greater than that of morphine, that works by stopping the normal breakup of enkephalins, which are natural pain-killing opioids in the spinal cord.
Without opiorphin, a small sore in the mouth would hurt terribly. That explains why a sore throat often feels better after a meal, and even minor sores in the oral cavity hurt less. Chewing gum supplies a dose of oral pain reliever from the saliva. Is our spit partly responsible for the reassuring effect of comfort eating? Medical research into both pain and depression may deliver the answers in the next few years.
Brushing with toothpaste when you wake up and at bedtime reduces the number of bacteria in your mouth; brushing in the morning is like cleaning up after the party the night before.
Enders explains that if we swallow a raw egg, it will undergo the same processes in our stomach as it would in the frying pan; the white of the egg turns opaque, the yolk takes on a pastel color, and both set and become solid. If we were to vomit the raw egg back up after the right amount of time, the results would look like almost perfect scrambled eggs without the cooking.
We can’t expect to feel a burst of energy as soon as we’ve swallowed that last mouthful of a meal. In fact, many people find they feel tired and sluggish after eating. The food has not yet reached the small intestine.
The tiredness is perhaps inconvenient for our brains when we are at work, but the small intestine welcomes it. It works most effectively when we are pleasantly relaxed, allowing the optimum amount of energy available for digestion, while our blood is not full of stress hormones.
Everything we eat comes from living things – at this biological level, there is no difference between an apple tree and a cow. Exercise for at least an hour if you want to burn fat. Good fat can work wonders. Cold-pressed (extra virgin) olive oil is a soothing balm for the heart and blood vessels and helps protect against arteriosclerosis, cellular stress, Alzheimer’s, and eye disease (macular degeneration). It also has beneficial effects on inflammatory diseases, such as arthritis, helps protect against certain kinds of cancer, and prevents excess weight gain.
Extra virgin olive oil is recommended, but don’t fry it at high temperatures because it releases free radicals; for frying use canola (rapeseed) oil. Free radicals do a lot of damage to our bodies because they don’t actually like being free, but prefer to bond with other substances including nerve and blood vessels and skin on the face, causing inflammation of the blood vessels (vasculitis), aging of the skin or neurological disease. Always close the container of olive oil carefully after using it and keep it in the refrigerator, Enders advises.
Large amounts of good (HDL) or bad (LDL) fats are not beneficial. It’s like smearing too much moisturizer on your face. Nutritional experts recommend getting between 25% and a maximum of 30% of our daily energy requirement from fat.
Foods that complement each other include whole-grain rice and beans, pasta with cheese, pita bread and hummus, and peanut butter on toast.
Plants that contain all the necessary amino acids in the necessary quantities include soya, quinoa, amaranth, spirulina algae, buckwheat, and chia seeds. Tofu has a well-deserved reputation as an alternative to meat, but increasing numbers of people are developing allergic reactions to it, Enders notes.
A simple reason why almost no one is allergic to meat, for example, is that humans themselves are made of meat, and so we generally have few problems digesting it.
Many bottles of salad dressings found in the supermarket contain fructose-glucose syrup (often known as corn syrup), which is harmful. Studies have shown that it can suppress the hormone named leptin that makes us feel satiated, even in people who are not fructose intolerant. A salad containing the same number of calories but with homemade vinaigrette or yogurt dressing all keep you full longer, according to the author.
The average American (and Israeli) consumes 80 grams of sugar per day. Our parents’ generation, consuming just honey on their toast, far fewer processed foods and a normal amount of fruit, ingested only around 16 to 24 grams per day. The neurotransmitter serotonin not only puts us in a good mood, it is also responsible for making us feel pleasantly full after a meal. Too much snacking is a side effect of fructose intolerance if it’s accompanied by other symptoms such as stomach aches.
Curing meats with large amounts of nitrate salts was once the common way to ensure that people would not be poisoned by what they ate. But today, sausage and cold meats must now contain no more than 100 milligrams of nitrate per kilogram of meat, causing rates of stomach cancer to drop considerably. It’s best to avoid such foods completely.
Our hunter-gather ancestors ate up to 500 different local roots, herbs, and other plants in a year; a typical modern diet includes just 17 different agricultural plants at most. It is not surprising that our gut has lots of problems with a dietary change of that scale.
Feces are not made up mostly of indigestible food waste, Enders writes. More than half consists of water, and one-third of bacteria, with a third containing indigestible vegetable fiber, remains of medicine, cholesterol, and food colors that the body wants to get rid of. The more fruit and vegetables you eat, the more feces you excrete in each bowel movement. Enders describes the differences in consistency and color of poop.
The microbiome (collection of huge numbers of bacteria – good and bad – in the gut), which was hardly known to the public only a few years ago, is the subject of a large amount of scientific research and public discussion. Taken together, our gut bacteria has 150 times more genes than a human being. Children born by cesarean section take months or even longer to develop a normal population of gut bacteria. Three-quarters of newborn babies who pick up typical hospital germs are those born by cesarean section. They also have an increased risk of developing allergies or asthma.
One American study showed that administering lactobacillus to those babies can reduce their risk of developing allergies. The same treatment has no effect at all on children born naturally.
By the age of seven, there is barely any discernible difference. But one’s microbiome can include bacteria that you “inherited” from your grandparents and parents, and antibiotics taken unnecessarily or in large amounts can destroy some of them.
In many countries like India or Spain, there is almost no regulation of the amount of antibiotics given to animals. This turns the animal’s guts into giant breeding zoos for resistant bacteria, and people in such countries have significantly more infections with multidrug-resistant strains. In Germany, regulations do exist, but even there the rules are ridiculously vague. This allows many vets to make a lot of money in the semi-legal “antibiotic trade,” Enders writes.
All of this is only the tip of the iceberg of the book. Dive into it and visit the museum for a serious but playful introduction to your digestive system.