Friday, March 28, 2014

Navel Gazing

Stop what you're doing. I want you to perform a quick experiment. Slide your hand under your shirt and stick your finger in your belly button (for those of you with "outies," please play along). I want you to contemplate that little crater and how, for nine months, it served as the life link to your mother, providing all your metabolic necessities. Let's face it -  the belly button gets very little respect.
Last week's View from the Womb took us back to our fetal origins, so I thought it only appropriate to discuss how each of us was nourished and sustained during the sojourn in our mother's belly. When you think about it, the belly button is an amazing little nugget of mammalian anatomy.

Humans are placental mammals, which means each of us develops within our mother's body and is delivered alive and kicking (hopefully) to the outside world, as opposed to being hatched from an egg or transferred to a pouch, kangaroo-style.
The belly button serves as the point of attachment for the umbilical cord which, together with the placenta and the amniotic sac, make up the life support system for the developing fetus. The cord itself contains three main vessels: two arteries that deliver deoxygenated blood from the fetus to the placenta. where it is oxygenated, and a vein that returns the oxygenated blood back to the fetus.No, you are not confused: the roles of the arteries and veins are reversed, just as in our pulmonary system.

The cord sprouts around the third week of pregnancy and can grow up to sixty centimeters (about twenty-three inches) long, allowing the fetus to perform its amniotic acrobatics during pregnancy. In the case of twins, although they share the placenta and may even occupy the same amniotic sac, each will have its own cord (the one instance where it's not nice to share).
The umbilical cord allows the exchange of nutrients, like amino acids, glucose, and oxygen between the mother and fetus while also serving to eliminate waste, such as carbon dioxide. The placenta does the heavy lifting of fetal nourishment; the cord simply acts as a conduit.

When the baby is born, it is still attached to the placenta via the cord. The cord is cut as soon as it ceases pulsing (a few minutes after birth), and the baby is left with an ugly little stump, which will dry up and fall off about two weeks later. Your fate as an "innie" or an "outie" is determined by the the amount of scar tissue that develops. Extra tissue means you’ll join the ten percent of folks who sport an outie.
Blood from the umbilical cord is a precious commodity. It contains valuable stem cells, which doctors believe will eventually be used to regenerate tissues. If your liver fails, they may simply grow you a new one! Cells from the cord are also showing promise in treating burns. The cord is a gift that keeps on giving.

It turns out there's been quite a bit of navel science in recent decades and the research is providing some interesting button-info. For instance, they've identified over fourteen hundred different strains of bacteria nestled within the navel; something to think about the next time you're running your tongue over your partner's belly. And depending upon how deep the button delves, there may also be quite an accumulation of lint. The bigger and hairier the belly, the greater the lint accumulation, since it’s the rubbing of belly hair against clothing that produces the fuzz. It pays to do a bit of housekeeping from time to time.
Duke University researchers have found a correlation between the height of the belly button and how fast one can run or swim. Turns out the higher the button, the faster the athlete. Who'd a thunk it?

The size and shape of the navel is also associated with sexiness. Supposedly, a shallow button with a slight hooding is considered more appealing than other manifestations. Outies are out, as are those that are too deep. Mine's a bottomless pit, so I guess I'm relegated to a life of social isolation...
And if you're pregnant, you can morph from an innie to an outie. But have no fear; when your body returns to normal, the button usually follows suit.

Each and every aspect of our bodies represents who we are and where we came from - from our evolutionary past to our reproductive present. Our belly buttons serve as links to our fetal past; tangible evidence of the connectivity between mother and child.

So the next time you squabble with your mom, take a deep breath and fondle your button. Always remember who got you here.

 Here's a video of cutting the cord, for those who want to see it firsthand. See you next week.

Friday, March 21, 2014

A View from the Womb

Close your eyes and imagine a list of all the places you've ever lived in your lifetime. Organize the list however you choose: states, countries, continents... Perhaps your list is very short, although it's a rare individual who is born and raised in one place these days. I grew up a military brat, moving about every two years. By the time I was a teen, I was acclimated to the life of a transient.
Although our backgrounds may vary, there's one place all of us have lived; one location that is central to each of our existences. We've all inhabited that magical, muscular pouch, the womb.

Known in technical circles as the "uterus," this hollow, expandable sac resides just north of the vagina and serves as the site of incubation for each and every one of us. The inner lining (endometrium) is a thick layer of tissues that grows ever thicker as it prepares for pregnancy; the optimum thickness of a healthy uterus is eight millimeters, in case you were wondering. This blood-rich lining will nourish the fetus on its path to personhood while providing a cozy-comfy abode in which to grow.
But what's it like in there? When you spot a pregnant woman, ever wonder what life is like for the fetus? What sounds and sensations assail them as they float within that somnolent sea of amniotic fluid? Let's spend a few minutes inside their world.

As early as week seven, that little peanut is moving around. The mouth and tongue are almost developed and although the taste buds won't develop until week twenty, the fetus is sucking and swallowing about a liter of amniotic fluid per day. This will prepare the little guy for real-life feeding later on. A newborn as young as three days old can differentiate between sweet, sour, and bitter tastes. It can also tell the difference between breast milk and formula, and, I’m betting, would overwhelmingly choose breast over bottle.
By week eleven, the sensory nerve endings are in place and by the fourteenth week, innervation is complete, meaning the wiring that enables the tot to experience and respond to its surroundings is up and running. By week sixteen, the fetus will usually begin to kick, which is known as "quickening." (Is it me, or is does that word conjure up a scary image of a demon fetus?)

By the twenty-fourth week, the ears are developed and functioning. I wonder what the fetus can hear - I suppose the muffled sounds of a subsurface world, like what a frog experiences as he cruises the depths of his pond. I'm sure there's a constant soundscape of bodily functions as the mother churns out the metabolic necessities for that demanding little tenant and I bet by the ninth month, the fetus has become immune to the ever-present rumbles of flatulence. Pregnancy is a gassy business.
And speaking of gas… I wonder what a womb smells like. The nasal structures are in place by week eight, although that sense of smell will really kick in once the baby makes its debut. Smell is one of the most developed senses in a newborn and it enables the little tyke to recognize its mother and root out the nipple. Newborns can even sniff out danger, although their defenses are limited to a grunt and a squirm.

The visual system is one of the earliest to begin developing but takes the longest to complete. The eye begins forming as early as the third week of pregnancy and the optic nerve by week eight. By the sixth month, the visual cortex is innervated and by month seven, the little bugger is taking a look around. But the eyes aren’t complete at the time of birth; vision will continue to improve, even as the newborn reaches his fourth month. And if the baby is born early, its eyes may still be sealed, like a puppy's.
 It’s a shame we can’t remember the womb. What safer place could there be than tucked inside your mother, blissfully unaware of the harsh world that awaits your arrival; protected from the noise and stress of everyday life, all your needs met without having to lift a teeny, tiny finger.

I’ll never experience growing a live person. I decided long ago to forgo parenthood. But I've been on the receiving end of pregnancy. During my tenure as a medic, I had the good fortune of delivering five healthy babies, so, although I didn’t take part in their development, at least I ushered them safely forth.

And that’s about as close to pregnancy as I care to come.
Related Posts
A Mother's Touch
Breasts for Hire
Below the Equator

The beautiful images in this week's post are courtesy of the gifted photographer, Lennart Nilsson. Check out his amazing website.

Friday, March 14, 2014

Eating Our Own

In the early 1900s, anthropologists studying aboriginal populations on the Pacific Island of New Guinea documented a strange disorder among the folks known as the Fore. The symptoms were most common among Fore females and began with tremors, slurred speech, and difficulty walking before advancing to loss of muscle control, dementia, and death. The scientists were stumped. Genetic? Probably not, since such a lethal anomaly would have been weeded out of the small gene pool. 

They finally traced the disease to a virus, but it was the mode of transmission that was most disturbing. The virus was contracted by members of the tribe who were eating the infected flesh of their dead.
The Fore participated in a unique mortuary ritual. When a family member died, the kin would meticulously dismember the corpse, remove the entrails, and scrape out the brains. This gruesome task was carried out by females, who refused to let all that meat go to waste - especially the brains. When the brains happened to belong to an infected individual, the virus was passed along to the hungry relatives. Thus, the mystery was solved and cannibalism was the culprit.

Cannibalism, known in nerd-speak as “anthrophagy," is nothing new. There is even evidence, in the form of cut marks on bone, that Neanderthals may have been consuming other Neanderthals. Humans certainly have a long tradition of eating their own, and there is a range of reasons for snacking on Sapiens. Let's discuss.
Let's start with the traditional forms of cannibalism. Although claims of cannibalism are probably overstated, there are documented accounts. But even cannibals have preferences. 

Some will only eat outsiders - what we term, exocannibalism. For example, following a battle, some groups will consume their fallen foes as a statement of power. It was reported in 2003 that Congolese rebels supposedly ate the bodies of pygmies taken in battle. Some cannibals do it simply for sport. The Mianmin of New Guinea would actually hunt down neighboring tribes when they craved an exotic treat.

Endocannibalists are those who restrict their consumption to members of their own group. It's traditionally tied to spiritual beliefs; a way of holding on to the dead or acquiring aspects of their personality. Perhaps they view it as a form of "comfort food." Like Americans and their fried chicken.
Some forms of cannibalism are part of a broader deviancy. We've already discussed Jeffrey Dahmer's exploits in October's Dead and Lovin' It, but Jeff isn't alone in his quest for flesh. Here's a case from my home state of Florida... In May of 2012, police shot and killed Rudy Eugene after he was found naked on the interstate munching on the face of an elderly homeless man. To this day, no one knows why Mr. Eugene suddenly turned cannibal (although I truly believe Miami brings out the “weird” in all of us).

In the 1600s, cannibalism was part of the early medical landscape. It was believed the pulverized flesh of Egyptian mummies contained curative properties, thus medicinal cannibalism became a widespread practice across Europe, persisting into the 1900s. But medicinal cannibalism predates by a long shot the "mummies as medicine" approach. Galen, one of the founding fathers of medicine, prescribed human blood to treat a range of disorders. Of course, he also believed blood flowed through two separate systems in the body and venous blood was produced in the liver, but even geniuses get it wrong sometimes.
But back to cannibalism…

There is much debate among anthropologists about the accuracy of many accounts of cannibalism. During the era of colonialism, the accusation of cannibalism was a means of categorizing a group as subhuman; as monsters. It was much easier to justify enslavement and genocide when those you were capturing or killing were lowly “eaters of the flesh.”
But cannibalism has also been undertaken out of sheer desperation, in some cases, fairly recently, where people have been forced to choose between cannibalism and starvation. This is known as survival cannibalism, and those who partake are compelled by that most basic ultimatum: eat or die.

New evidence points to cannibalism among the Jamestown settlers who came to Virginia in the early 1600s. Bioarchaeologists identified cut marks and signs of dismemberment on the remains of a teenage girl. Out of the original three hundred settlers, only sixty survived what became known as the “starving time” -  the intense winter of 1609.
A more recent incident occurred in 1972 when a Uruguayan rugby team flying to Santiago, Chile, crashed high amidst the Andes Mountains. Of the original forty-five passengers, some of whom were killed in the crash, sixteen managed to survive for over two months on the barren mountains by eating the flesh of the dead.

And who can blame them? Yes, there will be those who claim they would rather die than eat a fellow human, but no one can truly say what they would do in such a situation. As far as I’m concerned, meat is meat and survival is a heck of a better alternative than death.
Besides, consider some of the fast food garbage we enthusiastically consume… A human’s gotta taste better than that.

For all my European readers, here's a juicy article about your flesh-eating history...

Friday, March 7, 2014

The Sideshow

This week, I started a new job. For those of you who’ve been reading the blog for a while, you’ll recall back in May’s Losin’ It that I lamented the inevitable demise of my position. Well, it ended last month, my new position started Tuesday, and all is well in the world again.
Jobs are important. Think how much time we spend at our jobs, how they can define who we are as individuals. When I left the fire department, I went through a serious identity crisis. For thirteen years, I proudly wore the title “firefighter/paramedic.” I was a “hero,” a “lifesaver,” a self-proclaimed badass. When I left to enter grad school, I was suddenly a nobody (the title “grad student” won’t even get you a cup of coffee).

But when I graduated six years later and marched from campus with my shiny new PhD, I was somebody again, with a brand new identity. I admit, going from firefighting to archaeology was a strange transition and, although my careers were at odds, they made for some incredible experiences.
So in recognition of odd jobs, I thought we’d take a quick look at the disturbing history of human exhibitionists, otherwise known as the “circus freaks.”

That common term was a cruel label given to those who relied on physical deformities or biological oddities to eke out a meager living as a circus sideshow. During their heyday in the 1800s, these unfortunate individuals were readily labeled “freaks,” since the medical community lacked the sophistication for accurate diagnoses.
For example, Lionel, The Lion Faced Boy was covered with six-inch-long hair over most of his body. Born in Poland in the late 1800s, Lionel suffered from hypertrichosis, a rare genetic disease that causes excessive hair growth. Today, this condition is treated through medications that inhibit hair growth or through manual hair removal, but no such treatments were available to poor Lionel. He died of heart failure at the age of forty-one.

Conjoined twins were always a big draw. Chang and Eng Bunker were two of the most famous. Born in 1811 in Thailand (then known as Siam, thus the name “Siamese Twins”), the brothers were omphalapagus twins - joined at the abdomen – and shared a liver. Had the brothers been born in the modern era, they most likely could have been separated. Separation depends on the type of twinning involved and omphalapagus twins, which account for about thirty-three percent of conjoined twins, have a high success rate when the heart is not involved. Fortunately, the brothers’ condition didn’t seem to slow them down. They married a set of sisters and ended up having twenty-one children between them.
Another condition that resulted in deformities deemed worthy of exhibition was acromegaly. The condition causes excessive growth of various body parts , typically the hands, feet, and jaw, as a result of overproduction of growth hormones (usually from a tumor of the pituitary gland, which controls such hormones). But it also causes thickening of the skin, excessive height, and an enlargement of the bones of the face. The deformities can be frightening. Mary Ann Webster suffered from this horrible condition. Born in London in 1874, Mary, like many sufferers, developed the disease as an adult (the condition is called “gigantism” when it strikes children). As the disease progressed and her face became more distorted, she was cruelly billed as “World’s Ugliest Woman” and put on display.

Of course, the most famous sideshow star was Joseph Merrick. Dubbed the Elephant Man due to the leathery grayness of his skin and its rough, mottled texture, and the gross deformity of his face and body, Joseph lived a tortured life. Shunned as a child and suffering from what has now been diagnosed as Proteus syndrome, he went into the sideshow business after several failed attempts in sales. But as the shows fell out of fashion in England, his handlers sent him on tour throughout Europe, where he ended up beaten and robbed. After making his way back to London, he was taken in at a local hospital and through the generosity of the medical staff and an outpouring of public support, was granted a permanent room where he lived out his short life, dying from asphyxiation at the age of twenty-seven.
Humans can be cruel. Even under the best circumstances, our differences can evoke ridicule and abuse. So the next time you have a bad hair day or bemoan the fact you’ve gained a bit of weight, grab an ounce of perspective. Think for a moment what it must have been like for those who made their living off the public’s painful scrutiny and for those forced to carry on this horrific tradition today.

May they find peace.
I leave you with a favorite poem of Joseph Merrick's...