Saturday, May 8, 2010

Lactose Intolerance

Around the time I turned 30 (some 18 years ago) I started having a lot of gastro-intestinal problems.  I felt sick and in pain all the time.  Doctors tested me for intestinal parasites, colon cancer, and a host of other undesirable ailments.  I had upper and lower GI tests, colonoscopy and lots of blood work.  Nothing clicked.  Then finally, my GP suggested I stop eating dairy for a few days.  My symptoms ceased almost overnight.

I'd grown up watching my father eat a bowl of ice cream every night before bed.  I had made a solemn vow to my self as a child that I too would enjoy this supreme indulgence.  My first real job was at a Baskin-Robbins.  I LOVE ice cream.  I SCREAM for ice cream (we all do.)

And so, for years I ate it nearly nightly.  Finding out that it was the primary culprit in my gut distress was a major blow.  But little did I realize that it would be the easiest of the lactose problems that I could solve.

Milk is sweet because it's loaded with sugar.  Lactose to be precise.  Lactose is actually a disaccharide, meaning that it's a sugar built out of two, less complicated sugars, galactose and glucose.  Those simpler sugars can be absorbed through the walls of the small intestine.  But lactose is too big and is passed into the colon where it becomes fuel for the vast numbers of bacteria that live there.  Essentially they ferment the sugar, creating hydrogen, methane and carbon dioxide.  All this gas in the colon results in a wide range of potential symptoms like cramps and flatulence. 

Anybody who gets lactose in their colon has these symptoms.  But most people have an enzyme in their small intestine called lactase which cracks the lactose into its constituent sugars.  Babies have a lot of lactase so they can digest breast milk easily.  Most people have a big reduction in lactase production by age 4.  Various populations around the world tend to have more or less lactase in adulthood (i.e. lactose intolerance tends to track strongly to genetic heritage.)  Recent research suggests that the ability to digest milk into adulthood is a relatively recent mutation, possibly as recent as 7500 years ago.

It's the norm in nature for adult mammals not to be able to digest lactose.  It makes evolutionary sense since having adults compete with infants for a protein source like breast milk would have negative outcomes.

Nevertheless, American culture and diet is dominated by lactose tolerant northern European dairy lovers.  If it tastes good, it will taste better if cooked with butter and covered with cheese.  Trying to avoid dairy is a nightmare.  (Most, many, a hell of a lot of) restaurants use butter for everything, they even grease the grills with it. I love BBQ, but many of the best sauces use milk powder as a secret ingredient.

It's true that you can buy LACTAID® Products and thank god for that.  These types of products try to replace the missing lactase in your system so you can digest dairy without feeling like you're going to die.  But for me, they fail about 1 time of out every 4.  This makes every chocolate chip cookie a big decision.  One cookie that slips past will hit me in 40 minutes, crashing my entire GI track and making me rush for the bathroom.  I have to be very very diligent when traveling or when I have meetings scheduled.  When the lactose hits, I need to be within 30 yards of a bathroom.

My life has really changed as a result of lactose intolerance.  I have lactose induced diarrhea a minimum of 5 times a week no matter how carefully I try to use Lactaid or dodge dairy.  It's in everything.  It dominates a lot of my thinking where food is involved.

Lactose intolerance was a must-paint in my series of personal frustrations.  I tried to think of how to represent it without being disgusting.  I started looking at the molecule itself:
 and noticed that the two sugars provided rings that were joined in a way that reminded me of handcuffs.  This image struck me hard!  I'm shackled by lactose every day.  So I bought a molecular modeling kit and whipped up the dreaded beast, fitting it to my hands like handcuffs:

I took this picture and combined it with the formula C12H22O11 (lactose,) and worked it on the computer to get the palette I liked:
 I freehand sketched this onto tracing paper and worked it until I liked it.  I rearranged a couple of the atoms to work better:
I painted the canvas (16"x20") with Mars black mixed with a little glaze medium and transferred the tracing to it using graphite paper.
I painted in the formula and the atoms first:
Then I started working on the arms and hands.  I wanted to work in a severely reduced  palette and restricted myself to Mars Black, Cadmium Red Medium Hue and Titanium White.  I did mix these with a lot of glaze medium to get varying levels of gloss, especially to get the black carbon atoms to stand out against the black background:
 This picture shows the left arm after I added the shading (so you can compare with the image above):
The hardest part turned out to be painting the connections between the atoms.  In the end I was able to get a better 3D effect by painting curved lines with a little pin-striping shade lines to emphasize the curvature:
Acrylic on 16"x20" canvas, here's the Flickr page.

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