The body is a beautiful horror.

As we wrap up spooky season and the last of the leaves go orange and gold, swirling to the ground, I thought I would examine the human body, wondrous miracle and monstrosity that it is with all its quirks and frailties and strengths, with all of its horrors! Around the time of the last of the last harvests and the chilling of the air, sneaky little viruses begin to wend their way into our bodies, setting up shop and wreaking absolute havoc with our respiratory systems, our digestive systems, and our body’s internal thermostat. These little invaders are passed to us when we contact a surface that another infected person has contacted or when we sit in close proximity to their normal respiration or their coughs, sneezes, and even their singing! It is like a horror movie in which invaders creep onto and into us invisibly.

When I was a child, my next oldest sibling and I would often miss the Halloween festivities because we would catch strep throat. It was always either strep throat or tonsillitis with me. I was always on this or that antibiotic, so much that it permanently stained my adult teeth, which were growing in. Why our parents just didn’t have our tonsils taken out is beyond me. But that same group A streptoccus bacteria that causes strep throat, in the wrong body or situation can morph to Scarlet Fever (which was thought to have blinded and rendered deaf the great Helen Keller), cellulitis, rheumatic fever (which can damage the heart permanently), or necrotizing fasciitis (flesh-eating bacteria). A relative of streptococcus – streptococcus pneumoniae – is even worse. It can cause something as relatively benign as an ear infection or can become life-threatening as meningitis, an infection in the tissue around the brain and spinal cord. Oh yes, these little buggers can come from an innocent sneeze or cough at daycare and travel home to Mom, Dad, siblings, and grandparents. It’s a wonder the homo sapiens have survived, given the ways we can pass on these nasty little invaders.

And yet when I was a child, we were pretty careless about sitting too close, sharing a drink, or licking off someone else’s ice cream. Bobbing for apples at Halloween was still a thing. Yes, just put your face into this tubful of apples that other snotty-nosed children have been sticking their faces into! Step right up! I wonder why little Johnny is sick every year after Halloween? Something must be making the rounds.

But the funny thing is, when it comes to viruses, our bodies can be trained to recognize a virus’s signature and can learn to mobilize forces against it when encountered. That’s a pretty cool trick! A vaccine works by taking either the antigen (the thing in the virus that causes a reaction) in a weakened or inactive state, or by using the blueprint (RNA) from the virus to teach our immune systems to fight the virus when it is met. (Thank you, microbiology classes!) It’s like putting a sled of blocking dummies in front of football players to teach them how to hit and push the opposing players (away from their quarterback or running backs). It’s like a momma cat teaching her kittens about mice. If you see this, here is what to do. I got my bivalent booster for Covid along with my flu shot on Thursday after work. Yesterday my immune system launched a response that left me feeling achy and feverish, very tired, but means that my system is now training to fight any virus resembling the two.

The body is a wonderful collection of systems. Our involuntary reflex to use our muscles to pull air into our lungs happens from the minute we’re born until the minute we die. Little sacs in our lungs strip oxygen from the air we breathe and drop it into red blood cells that are then pumped by the heart throughout our entire body along arteries and capillaries. When the oxygen in those cells is used up, the cells are recirculated through a system of veins back through the heart to the lungs where they will be refilled and recirculated. Marvelous! Every cell in this wondrous body is alive and has a purpose.

We take in food through our mouths – hopefully nutritious, delicious food – where saliva begins the process of breaking down the food (particularly starches, which are broken down into sugar by amylase), and then our stomach continues the process of breaking food down with hydrochloric acid and digestive enzymes to deal with the fats, the proteins, and the carbohydrates that comprise the food. We make about 3-4 liters of those lovely gastric juices every day, and the lining of the stomach is usually immune from being consumed by the gastric soup because it is lined with a thick mucus and the pancreas – a gland, really – contributes bicarbonate (also contained in bile) to help neutralize excess acid. If everything is working as designed, small contractions along the digestive tract keep moving the food through until our body has absorbed every good thing from the food we ate and sends the rest out as waste. (One of my brothers has a motility disorder that has created a world of hurt for him. Things definitely aren’t working as designed with him.) Most of the nutrient absorption happens in the small intestine, where all those gastric juices plus motion break down the food into its smallest components. Your body absorbs the sugars, amino acids (from protein), fatty acids, and glycerol for use in building the things you need for energy, growth, and repairs. Excess nutrients are stored in the liver, and some are routed through the lymphatic system, which uses white blood cells to help fight infection and such. Start to finish, that delicious sweet potato you had for lunch is farmed by your gut for every good bit it contained and is released during your morning constitutional the next day. Yes, Virginia, our mouths are connected to our assholes, which should explain a lot about politics to you!

Most people know a lot about muscles, thanks to the exercise industry, but don’t know much about nutrition. Our bodies need certain nutrients on a regular basis in order to work properly. Without those nutrients, things can begin to go awry. Good nutrition is hard to get these days. If you go for what “sounds good” or what “tastes good” by today’s standards, you’ll be stopping for that bucket of greasy chicken or a hamburger with french fries. The body can’t do a lot with those horrors, so it stores a lot of the excess fats, which eventually build up the omentum – the beer belly, the spare tire, the big donut. (Although if you read more, you’ll find out the omentum isn’t just a wall of stored fat; it is an important part of the body’s department of defense!) If you choose a salad or a bowl of steamed broccoli instead of the fries, you body rubs its figurative hands together and says with glee, “Ah, now you have given me something I can work with!” It can use the nutrients found in plants to help repair your cells and fend off those nasty viruses.

Let food be thy medicine.

Hippocrates

Listen, I’m the absolute worst when it comes to giving my body what it needs. Since cancer, the one thing I’m good at is providing my body with rest. But with all of these systems trying to work together in my body, I need to do more than that. I need to give it real, nutritious food so it has the building blocks it needs to fight infection (and cancer), to repair its cells, and to keep me putting one foot in front of the other. I need to give it fresh air and exercise to help improve my lung function and to break down and rebuild the muscles throughout my body. I need to give it vitamin D (something we can only synthesize with the help of the sun) either through supplementation, enriched products, or the sun.

My ex-husband used to tease his little sister when they were young. “You have a ghost in you,” he would say. Or he would tell her, “You’ve got a skeleton in you!” True, true. We’re all walking monstrosities! Skeletons, covered in meat and blood and organs, covered in a multilayered organ called skin. Animated by a soul (a ghost?) – or just by random electrical impulses, if that’s the way you’re inclined to think. The skeleton and all its covering demands food! It demands movement. It demands. And if it doesn’t get what it wants, it begins to disintegrate and eat itself. Think osteoporosis, muscle wasting, and cancer.

And sometimes, our body does a really horrific thing by attacking itself! Autoimmune diseases develop that cause us to wage war against our own organs, our own skin, our own skeleton! It’s friendly fire, really. If you were watching any of this in a horror movie, you would be frozen with terror! What science fiction author could conceive of such a complex, error-prone system as the one in which we find ourselves? It is easier to talk about machines. Machines need us to program them, to maintain them, and to secure them. What then is human life but a system of programming, maintenance, and security? It is creating good habits. It is giving the body the fuel it needs to perform at its best, and it is protecting life and limb, sometimes with a little thing like a vaccine.

Just a few observations from my fever dreams this weekend. Be well, everyone, and take care of your ghost and your skeleton!

Peace, Jude

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