The Curious Case of Dr. Eijkman

bored-chicken-finalBefore we get started there is something you need to accept about he human body…that it is and always will be an elegant and extraordinary mystery. Whether you’re a sleek and sexy, Ashram Yoga instructor, a chiseled cross-fit enthusiast with triceps like boulders, or a 300 lb chain smoker with a mild cinnamon bun addiction your body is truly amazing. I say that with confidence because with all of the things that could go wrong with our bodies, for many of us it is “not normal” to be sick. Your body simply does it’s job and we can only grasp what a remarkable job it does when something goes wrong.

So what can go wrong?

Let’s say you robbed a vengeful fortune teller of $2,000 dollars at a poker game in Atlantic City. The next day you woke up to find that a deadly curse had been placed on you. In a matter of weeks you will begin to lose weight. You will suffer from swelling, weakness, and pain in your limbs. Depression eventually takes hold of you and you lose the capacity for empathy. Tragically, lesions begin to form in your brain resulting in epileptic attacks. Eventually your suffering ends in madness and heart failure. YOU ARE DOOMED…unless you find the anecdote. The only thing that can stop the curse before it starts, brown rice. Wait…WHAT?!  Let me explain..

You see, in Southeast Asia millions of people truly did suffer from a curse. It’s name was Beriberi, and it refers to a collage of symptoms affecting neurological and cardiac functions in many of the notoriously destructive ways I’ve already described. Then along came a crafty, Dutch physician named Christiaan Eijkman who sailed the ocean blue to Indonesia in search of answers. One day that answer came in the form of a question; “why aren’t the chickens sick?”

Beriberi was everywhere. It affected the soldiers, the villagers, and even their farm chickens. In fact Eijkman had a few chickens loitering about his clinic with similar symptoms. Well eventually he started noticing that a few of the chickens seemed to be recovering. So what changed for the chickens? Their diet changed.

The camp where Eijkman was staying had a new cook who decided that rather than waste the good rice on the chickens he would just feed them the regular ole brown rice.

The Dutch had taken over Indonesia at the time (as in the Dutch-East India Company) and they ate polished white rice (rice with its golden, outer husk removed) along with the locals. White rice has a longer storage life and when you live in a hot and humid climate in a time before water-proof, plastic containers or refrigeration, the storage life of your food is everything.

Unfortunately, when you remove that outer husk you shed the bulk of the nutrients in the rice. Our guy Eijkman proposed that there was a mystery nutrient that was “vital” for maintaining normal physiological function. That nutrient would later come to be known as thiamine (vitamin B1) an essential amino acid your body needs to build protein and carry out normal ATP synthesis and a grocery list of metabolic pathways.

When the Europeans would sail back home with symptoms of Beriberi, people would naturally suspect that they had brought some exotic, tropical disease back with them. It was Eijkman who offered the insight that Beriberi was caused by an insufficient diet and not an infection. Eijkman would share a Nobel Prize for medicine with another nutritional hero named Sir Frederick Hopkins who demonstrated through experimentation that  without the yet unidentified “accessory food factors,” proteins, carbohydrates, fats, and minerals could not support normal growth in test animals. Thus our understanding of vitamins was born from chance, scientific observation, chickens, and an Indonesian cook whose name has been lost to history.

Stay curious, stay classy, and never stop learning my friends 🙂