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Wednesday, August 03, 2005

Was Darwin Lactose Intolerant?

You knew it, didn't you? You just knew it. All that controversy over evolution – and it's all our fault.

Sorta. Anthony K Campbell and Stephanie B Matthews recently published a History of Medicine article in the Postgraduate Medical Journal (2005;81:248-251) that makes a case that Charles Darwin's lifelong illnesses were really symptoms of "systematic lactose intolerance."

Here's the abstract:

After returning from the Beagle in 1836, Charles Darwin suffered for over 40 years from long bouts of vomiting, gut pain, headaches, severe tiredness, skin problems, and depression. Twenty doctors failed to treat him. Many books and papers have explained Darwin’s mystery illness as organic or psychosomatic, including arsenic poisoning, Chagas’ disease, multiple allergy, hypochondria, or bereavement syndrome. None stand up to full scrutiny. His medical history shows he had an organic problem, exacerbated by depression. Here we show that all Darwin’s symptoms match systemic lactose intolerance. Vomiting and gut problems showed up two to three hours after a meal, the time it takes for lactose to reach the large intestine. His family history shows a major inherited component, as with genetically predisposed hypolactasia. Darwin only got better when, by chance, he stopped taking milk and cream. Darwin’s illness highlights something else he missed—the importance of lactose in mammalian and human evolution.


Not everybody buys this, of course, but just think if Darwin had made the connection in the 19th century. That sure would have made those long years in the 1970s before I got diagnosed a lot more fun.

If only Darwin had been smarter…

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4 comments:

alan said...

Campbell and Matthews say it takes 2 to 3 hours for lactose to reach the large intestine. If I go to Baskin Robbins and eat 2 scoops of ice cream, I have 30 minutes at best before I feel the LI.

I have a friend who has to race home after having for dessert some tiramsu or anthing dairy. It's a game to see if he can make it.

Also, how common is vomiting a symtom of LI?

Steve Carper said...

Milk products often trigger what is called the "gastrocolic reflex." This is a natural trigger from the stomach that signals the intestines that food is coming and to start peristalsis.

In some people, however, this signal creates an urgent need for a bowel movement. What's being evacuated is the remains of food that gone through the digestive process, not the food that's just been eaten, though.

This seems to be associated with Irritable Bowel Syndrome in some people.

Vomiting may be a symptom of LI in children, but it's not considered to be a symptom in adults. If milk products are causing vomiting, some other problem is likely causing it.

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