The Digestive System

The digestive system has its own special defenses. Bacterial decomposition and fungal growths produce repulsive odors, the repulsiveness being our adaptation to be disinclined to put bad- smelling things into our mouths. If something already in the mouth tastes bad, we spit it out. Taste receptors detect bitter substances that are likely to be poisonous. After we swallow something, there are receptors in the stomach to detect poisons, especially those made by bacteria that multiply in the gastrointestinal tract. When absorbed toxins enter the circulation, they pass by a special group of cells in the brain, the only brain cells directly exposed to the blood. When these cells detect toxins, they stimulate the brain’s chemoreceptor trigger zone to respond first with nausea and then with vomiting. This is why so many drugs are so nauseating, especially the toxic ones used for cancer chemotherapy.

Circulating toxins almost always originate in the stomach, so it is easy to see how vomiting is useful: it ejects the toxin before more is absorbed. What about nausea? The distress of nausea discourages us from eating more of the noxious substance, and its memory discour- ages future sampling of whatever food seemed to cause it. Just a single experience of nausea and vomiting after eating a novel food will cause rats to avoid it for months; people may avoid it for years. This remarkably strong onetime learning was named the “sauce bearnaise syndrome” by Martin Seligman, a psychologist who recognized its sig- nificance after contemplating the untimely loss of his gourmet dinner. Why is the body capable of such a strong association after a single exposure to a food that produces illness? Imagine, for a moment, what would happen to the person who ate poisonous foods repeatedly.

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