Monday, May 16, 2011

NOTHING TO SNEEZE AT: Why Mom’s rules are bad for your health

If my mom had ever read this blog post, she would have beaned me with giant zucchini.

DON’T LET YOUR MOTHER READ THIS. Send her out of the room.

She gone? Good.

I have a theory. It’s a simple theory, really, and I’m not the first to think of it, but moms don’t like it. The theory is this: Good manners are bad for your health. This is especially true of the good manners your mom insisted on when you were a kid—you know, the ones having to do with four-letter words like “yawn” and “spit” and “burp,” plus others that I can’t mention here even while Mom’s out of the room. “Sneeze” has more than four letters, but it belongs here too.

Almost all the rules Mom imposed back then are bad for your health. When she told you not to yawn or burp in public, she was flying in the face of millions of years of carefully calibrated human evolution. We were designed to burp and yawn. When I repress a burp or squelch a yawn, I am defying Mother Nature in the name of Mother Weathers.

The fact is, our bodies are anachronisms. They are outdoor organisms in what has become an indoor world. They were designed to live in forests and on the plains, not in offices and on trains. They were designed to hunt and graze, not write memos and choose between forks. It took eons for nature to create the sneeze, which still performs an important health function. Okay, so today we live in conference rooms and restaurants, and sneezing there isn’t as pleasant as sneezing outdoors. Nevertheless, it’s still good for us.

I therefore recommend that we ignore our mothers and accept reality. I recommend that we legalize the public burp, yawn, and spit, and encourage the uncovered sneeze.

There. I’ve said it, and I’m not ashamed.

Muhammad was a great advocate of the burp.

Let’s begin with the burp. We burp because we swallow air when we eat. Everybody does it. Doctors call burping “eructation.” Right after we burp, we automatically swallow a little more air, and pretty soon we have to burp again. It’s as regular as breathing. If we didn’t burp, our stomachs might explode. (In fact, there are cases on record of people who have gases in their stomach which have been known to literally explode, but that’s something different.)*

In many Near Eastern countries, of course, it is considered de rigueur for dinner guests to belch loudly after a meal, to express their satisfaction. Until the 17th century, the same was true in Europe. Then came fussy mothers. The prophet Muhammad preached that a belch, followed by the expression “Praise Allah,” would help “avert seventy diseases, of which the least is leprosy.” Wouldn’t surprise me if he was right. Bring back the burp.

Likewise, the uncovered sneeze. Sneezing, along with coughing, is simply a way of preventing bad stuff like dust and bacteria from getting into the lungs. Thanks to sneezing, which doctors call “sternutation,” lung tissue is almost completely free of microorganisms. Without sneezing, our nice warm, damp lungs would be a teeming hell of bacteria, and we’d be sick a lot. When you sneeze, you can rocket a germ up to twenty feet away. When you cover up a sneeze with your hand or handkerchief, you’re missing the whole point, which is to get the bad stuff as far away as possible. Germs are much more likely to thrive on your wet, sweaty hand than on the ground, where they’ll dry up and die.

Aristotle considered sneezing sanctified.
When we sneeze, we go unconscious for a split second. Also, it is impossible to keep your eyes open when you sneeze. This is Mother Nature's way of keeping germs out of the eyes, which, modern doctors tell us, may be the conduits of cold germs. When we sneeze into our hands (as our mothers tell us to do) and then wipe our eyes or pick up the phone, we’re probably giving somebody a cold.

Like burping, sneezing also has a distinguished history. Aristotle lumped yawning, sneezing, and belching together as “ejective” acts, but he considered sneezing more “sanctified” because it came from the head, not the belly. Folklore saw sneezing as a sign of life. A sick man who sneezed was thought to have a good chance to recover. In the Bible (2 Kings 4:35), the first sign that Elisha has brought a dead child back to life is when the child sneezes seven times. Some psychologists believe that a person who is able to let loose with a good sneeze is more likely to experience strong orgasms.

The next time you have to sneeze, ignore your mother, keep your hands down, and let fly. As a courtesy, make sure you're not aimed at anybody. Run outside first, if you have time.

As for spitting (let’s keep this brief), it works about the same. When you’ve got germs, your mucous membranes increase the secretions to wash them away. You’re better off expectorating the result than . . . well, any of the alternatives.

Time for the return of the spittoon?
Spitting is seen world-wide as a way to bring good luck. Hence, fishermen spit on their hooks, and fighters spit on their hands. In some places, shopkeepers spit on the first money they get each day, for good luck; in other places, people spit on newborn babies as a blessing. Some experts say blowing a kiss is a variation of spitting for good luck. Spitting is good for you, Mom notwithstanding. Bring back the spittoon.

We are all born to yawn.
Let us end with the mild-mannered yawn. Your mother told you it is improper to yawn in public. She was wrong. A yawn is good for you. Experts have never really understood the yawn, but the latest medical theory has it that a yawn helps the lungs by forcing open the little air sacs (alveoli) that bring oxygen to the blood. Tibetans believe that a yawn, like sexual intercourse and dying, produces a higher state of consciousness. If somebody yawns in the middle of your next speech, consider that.

It’s obvious that the world changes faster than evolution can keep up with; it will be another 20,000 years, for example, before a baby is born who is adapted to the electric light. Our bodies are still the same outdoor bodies that were designed to sneeze and spit in the wide open spaces. The world is now an indoor world of little ladies who tell us not to spit and sneeze in their kitchens. Their rules are not good for us.

But don't tell Mom I said that.

*As for the gases that build up in the lower regions of the digestive tract, it’s best that we dispatch them in a short, small-font footnote, far out of the sight of Mom. Certain foods, especially certain carbohydrates, react with bacteria in the intestines in a kind of fermentation process. The resultant gases are released through flatulence. Unrelieved gases can be dangerous. Though some Hindus and Arabs see flatulence as a form of purification, freeing the body of evil spirits, more common is the Greek attitude. If a Greek priest “broke wind” during a religious rite, the ceremony was declared invalid. For that reason, priests were forbidden by law from eating such food as beans before significant ceremonies. I refuse to say any more on this subject, even with Mom out of the room.

This essay first appeared in Memphis magazine in April 1989. It has been reprinted widely, including in the 2005 and 2006 editions of the Virginia Tech English Department's first-year Composition text.

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