Folks can treasure strange things--even things that originated in people or animal innards, sometimes causing excruciating pain and complications in the unfortunates who grew them.
Take bezoars, slimy glops of foreign matter that form blockages in stomachs. Queen Elizabeth I proudly wore a gold ring sporting a dried bezoar--and she wasn’t alone in this odd love. The growths, first found in stomachs of wild goats, were long believed to have medicinal properties. In ages past, you could even rent a bezoar for the day if you couldn’t afford to own one yourself. (The word “bezoar” comes from the Persian word for “antidote.”)
Or take gallstones, which form farther down the gut, in the gallbladder. They’ve been found in the innards of 3,000-year-old Egyptian mummies--and exist in an estimated 15 million people in the U.S. today, many of whom suffer no symptoms and may never know they are there.
Gallstones are not just treasured by folks who’ve had them removed and taken them home to keep in a jar. Long considered curative, animal gallstones are still used in Oriental medicine (one Chinese medicine Web site promises to supply “dried ox gallstones of finest quality, freshly harvested, all year round.”)
Gallstones, what is more, are rather attractive. They’re mixed in hue--beige, brown, gray, yellow and white--and sometimes resemble ice crystals or tree rings when sliced through. They can consist of various kinds of chemicals in different ratios, but in this country, most have cholesterol as their major ingredient. That isn’t surprising, because there’s lots of cholesterol in the gallbladder--the bladder’s job is to squeeze a mix of cholesterol-derived chemicals called bile into the gut to help digest fat. Normally, the cholesterol stays dissolved. But sometimes it starts forming tiny crystals--known as sludge--and, eventually, stones.
In some people, the stones may sit there indefinitely and cause nary a twinge, says Dr. Salam Zakko, professor of medicine in gastroenterology and director of the gallstone evaluation and management center at the University of Connecticut. In others, because of the positioning of the stones, it hurts like the bejabbers when a fatty meal is eaten. The gallbladder squeezes and strains against the stones, which sometimes block the opening to the small intestine--causing discomfort for hours.
Treatment, these days, can involve anything from the mildest intervention (eat less fatty food) to actual removal of the gallbladder, Zakko says. But Zakko frowns on the holistic health practice of attempting to “flush” the stones out of the gallbladder by consuming giant meals and a copious quantity of olive oil--because besides being rather painful, it can be dangerous. “I have seen patients who have been through that and run into major trouble,” he says.
Gallstones come in various shapes and sizes. So, too, do bezoars (which are found in people as well as wild goats) and which appear as dark brown, green or black masses.
The textbooks classify bezoars according to what they’re made of--which can be hair, insoluble vegetable matter, even certain medications (sometimes still with visible bits of pills embedded in them).
Not surprisingly, hair-based bezoars are most common in kids with psychological compulsions to chew hair. Vegetable-based bezoars often crop up in people whose stomachs don’t churn normally, allowing the fibrous material to stay put and build up. Overindulging in persimmons, in particular, is a known bezoar-inducer: Tannin in the fruit starts coagulating in the stomach.
Sometimes, bezoars are totally without symptoms--but can induce feelings of fullness, nausea, vomiting, pain and weight loss when they cause a blockage. They can often be dealt with by deftly snaking endoscopes down into the stomach and breaking down the mass, bit by bit, with forceps, little nets or by flushing, Zakko says. Sometimes they require surgery.
Other remedies are on the wane, Zakko says--such as plying the patient with meat tenderizer to try and break up the mass. “It tenderizes the stomach wall as well.”
One of the oddest-sounding bezoars occurs when hair not only forms a clump in the stomach but meanders into the small intestine too, forming a long, black stringy mass--a condition known as the “Rapunzel syndrome.”
We doubt if Queen Elizabeth would have opted to adorn herself with that.
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