It takes guts!

How has a book about bowels sold more than 1.5 million copies? "Gut: The Inside story of our body’s most underrated organ” owes its runaway success to the fresh, humor-filled approach of its author, 24-year-old German microbiology student Giulia Enders. Published in English and French this year, DiscovHER looks at the research of this young woman scientist, a rising star in her field.

Let’s talk about guts

When an enthusiastic microbiology student bounced onto the stage at Berlin’s 2012 Science Slam, the audience was cheering from the outset. With 10 minutes to sum up her research project to study bacteria proteins in the gut, the young scientist proved her point that studying guts is a charming field of research. She told the audience “I have to be honest and say that I love my field of study…It all began with the anus and then my big fascination in human guts...Usually it gets uncomfortably silent” she jokes. Enders won the competition, her presentation went viral and the wit with which she approaches a less appealing research area, prompted a book deal, an instant hit in her native Germany.

The gut-health link: a new research area for modern medicine

Enders is fascinated by the workings of what she deems our body’s most underestimated and shameful organ. 

"The gut, in most people’s eyes, is good for little more than going to the toilet", she writes. Hailing the influence of the gut on health and wellbeing as one of the key research areas for medicine today, Enders has published a tome that explores everything from how pooing works to how gut bacteria, our «Pokemon collection of characters, » influences obesity, allergies and even depression. The book reviews have been adulatory. Many people share Enders fascination with bowel movements.

A bodily function far from basic

Enders message is a clear one: let’s stop thinking about the gut as basic. Our gut covers a surface 100X the area of human skin and there are some 100 trillion different bacteria living there for starters. 

"The first surprise is the sophistication of our sphincters,” she writes. Thanks to teamwork between the external sphincter and the internal sphincter, the external sphincter helps keep us from breaking wind in public or going to the toilet in an unfamiliar environment. Yet if we supress the need to go too often, that communication can break down, resulting in constipation. “When the two sphincters are talking properly to each other again, going to the little girls’ room or the little boys’ room is an altogether more pleasant experience”

Let’s rethink our toilet habits

“Squatting has been the natural defecation position since time immemorial,” Enders writes. Quoting research by doctor Dov Sikirov she advocates a return to this age-old position. Sikirov found that toilet time was more than halved when subjects squatted to go. And further Japanese research backs this up. As Enders so eloquently puts it, when we sit or stand, we benefit from an extra insurance policy, a muscle that encircles the gut like a lasso, rather like a kink in a garden hose. “It means our faeces hit a corner.” When the lasso muscle relaxes in a squat, the road ahead is straight, and “the faeces are free to step on the gas.”

Unhealthy gut – unhealthy mind

In the book’s foreword, Enders relates how in her first semester as a student, she sat next to a guy at a party who had the smelliest breath she’d ever smelled. “It wasn’t a typical bad breath smell” she recalls. The next day the guy had killed himself. Enders couldn’t stop thinking about his terrible breath. “Could it have been a diseased gut creating that smell, and if so, could a diseased gut also have affected his psychological state?” She explores research which shows that certain digestive problems create nervous disorders in the gut. These send signals to the parts of the brain that process negative feelings. But mental health practitioners, she points out, aren’t looking at what’s happening in their patients guts.

The comfort eating – saliva link

At the other end, our saliva contains a painkiller stronger than morphine. Called opiorphin, it was discovered in 2006. As Enders points out, our saliva only contains tiny amounts otherwise we’d be “spaced out all the time.” Its’ purpose is to dull pain that would otherwise be unbearable in the mouth, which contains more nerve endings than anywhere else in the human body. Enders wonders if this hidden painkiller in our spit is partly related to the joy related to comfort eating.

Toilet humor – with a serious message

Wittily illustrated by her sister, Jill Enders, a graphic designer who specializes in scientific communication, Enders has created a gut health handbook to entertain and inform in equal measure. The take-home is to care of your gut, and thus help care for your mind and your emotions.

Currently studying for her medical doctorate, we can expect to hear lots more from this talented scientist and born communicator on the mysteries of the gut. Do you know a scientist working on an unexpected field of research? Let us know on Twitter @4womeninscience.

Born in 1990 at Mannheim, Giulia Enders won first prize at the Berlin Science Slam 2012 and twoscholarships at the Wilhelm und Else Heraeus Foundation. Her work “Darm mit Charme“ ("Charming Bowels") was published in Germany in 2014 and translated into English for publication in 2015. She is currently purshuing her medical research doctorate at the Institute for Microbiology in Frankfurt. 

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