Summer Reads: Four Books That Taught Us Something New

Summer Reading: From Gut Health to Mental Health to Riding Waves

In my younger years, I didn’t enjoy reading in the summer. The two seemed diametrically opposed. We were not reading enough in the other three seasons?

But sometime in my 30s, I caught a bug. Summer and reading came together like chocolate and peanut butter (or nut butter for those who are so inclined).

I used to view summer reading as a chore. Now I see it as an investment and entertainment. It is enjoyable. If it isn't, I don’t hesitate to move on. There are too many great ones to read so why struggle through one if it does not strike a chord with you.

These are the books that hit for me this summer. They span the gut microbiome to the gut-brain axis to the relationship between our genes and nutrition to a surfing memoir.

Each book offers the reader something to think about well after the last page is turned. I hope the list sparks your own interest.

Our Microbiome, The Gut-Brain Axis, Epigenetics & A Surfing Memoir

I Contain Multitudes, Ed Yong

This is the first book I read on the human microbiome. This book opened my eyes to the symbiotic relationship between human cells and the bacteria that lives with us. Ed is a well-published science journalist. My three favorite quotes from Ed’s book: 

  • The microbiome is not a constant entity. It is a teeming collection of thousands of species, all constantly competing with one another, negotiating with their host, evolving, changing. It wavers and pulses over a 24-hour cycle, so that some species are more common in the day while others rise at night. Your genome is almost certainly the same as it was last year, but your microbiome has shifted since your last meal or sunrise. 
  • It would be easier if there was a single “healthy” microbiome that we could aim for, or if there were clear ways of classifying particular communities as healthy or unhealthy. But there aren’t. Ecosystems are complex, varied, ever-changing and context-dependent – qualities that are the enemies of easy categorization.
  • When you choose your meals, you are also choosing which bacteria get fed, and which get an advantage over their peers.

The Mind-Gut Connection, Emeran Mayer, MD

A deep dive into how the brain and gut microbiome communicate with each other and how that communication can affect our physical and emotional feelings. Written by a gastroenterologist and professor at UCLA, the book delves into the emerging research behind the gut-brain communication channel and offers some lifestyle suggestions to optimize health. My three favorite quotes from Emeran’s book:

  • Your gut has capabilities that surpass all your other organs and even rival your brain. It has its own nervous system, known in scientific literature as the enteric nervous system, or ENS, and often referred to in the media as the “second brain.” This second brain is made up of 50-100 million nerve cells, as many as are contained in your spinal cord.
  • Ninety percent of the signals conveyed through the vagus nerve travel from the gut to the brain, while just 10 percent of the traffic runs in the opposite direction, from the brain to the gut. In fact, the gut can handle most of its activities without any interference from the brain, while the brain seems to depend greatly on vital information from the gut.
  • As we scientists got over our initial surprise at the pivotal role of gut microbes in brain-gut communication, and as we investigated this relationship further over the last few years, it became ever clearer that the brain, the gut, and the microbiome are all in constant, close communication. We began thinking of the brain, the gut, and the microbiome as parts of a single integrated system, with plenty of cross talk and feedback from one part to another. I refer to this system throughout the book as the brain-gut-microbiome axis.

Deep Nutrition, Cate Shanahan, MD

An enlightening read that introduces how our diets affect us on a cellular level. Cate dives into the connection between diet and gene health and in particular, gene expression. She believes there is an underlying order to our health. Deep Nutrition is a good read for anyone experiencing health challenges or for those who largely follow the Standard American Diet. My three favorite quotes from Cate’s book:

  • Epigenetic researchers study how our own genes react to our behavior, and they’ve found that just about everything we eat, think, breathe, or do can, directly or indirectly, trickle down to touch the gene and affect its performance in some way.
  • The body of evidence compiled by thousands of epigenetic researchers working all over the world suggests that the majority of people’s medical problems do not come from inherited mutations, as previously thought, but rather from harmful environmental factors that force good genes to behave badly, by switching them on and off at the wrong time. And so, genes that were once healthy can, at any point in our lives, start acting sick.
  • Epigenetics helps us understand that the genome is more like a dynamic, living being—growing, learning, and adapting constantly. You may have heard that most disease is due to random mutations, or “bad” genes. But epigenetics tells us otherwise. If you need glasses or get cancer or age faster than you should, you very well may have perfectly normal genes. What’s gone wrong is how they function, what scientists call genetic expression. Just as we can get sick when we don’t take care of ourselves, it turns out, so can our genes.

Barbarian Days: A Surfing Life, William Finnegan

Barbarian Day is my favorite non-health book from the summer list. It is a memoir about growing up, discovery, adventure and as the title suggests, surfing. While not a good surfer myself, I can still appreciate how William turn waves into poetry. My three favorite quotes from WIlliam’s book:

  • I did not consider, even passingly, that I had a choice when it came to surfing. My enchantment would take me where it would.
  • But surfing always had this horizon, this fear line, that made it different from other things, certainly from other sports I knew. You could do it with friends, but when the waves got big, or you got into trouble, there never seemed to be anyone around. Everything out there was disturbingly interlaced with everything else. Waves were the playing field. They were the goal. They were the object of your deepest desire and adoration. At the same time, they were your adversary, your nemesis, even your mortal enemy. The surf was your refuge, your happy hiding place, but it was also a hostile wilderness—a dynamic, indifferent world.
  • Surfers have a perfection fetish. The perfect wave, etcetera. There is no such thing. Waves are not stationary objects in nature like roses or diamonds. They’re quick, violent events at the end of a long chain of storm action and ocean reaction. Even the most symmetrical breaks have quirks and a totally specific, local character, changing with every shift in tide and wind and swell