Sex Sleep Eat Drink Dream: A Day in the Life of Your Body

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An entirely new way of looking at the human body

The acclaimed science writer Jennifer Ackerman lends her keen eye and lively voice to this marvelous exploration of the human body. Taking us through a typical day, from the arousal of our senses in the morning to the reverie of sleep and dreams, Ackerman reveals the body as we’ve never seen it: busy, cunning, and miraculous....
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Sex Sleep Eat Drink Dream: A Day in the Life of Your Body

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An entirely new way of looking at the human body

The acclaimed science writer Jennifer Ackerman lends her keen eye and lively voice to this marvelous exploration of the human body. Taking us through a typical day, from the arousal of our senses in the morning to the reverie of sleep and dreams, Ackerman reveals the body as we’ve never seen it: busy, cunning, and miraculous.

Advances in genetics and medical imaging have allowed us to peer more deeply inside ourselves than ever before, and one of the most amazing recent discoveries is that we are deeply rhythmic creatures. The human body is like a clock -- actually an entire shop of clocks -- measuring out the seconds, minutes, days, and seasons of life. Weaving pieces of her own life with that of "everyman," Ackerman shows the importance of synchronizing our actions with these biological rhythms -- and how defying them can cause us real harm. We learn the best time of day to drink a cocktail, take a nap, run a race, give a presentation, or take medication, along with a host of other fascinating facts (such as why you always succumb to a cold while your spouse doesn’t even though you’ve both been exposed to the same sick child). At once entertaining and deeply practical, this fascinating book will make you consider your body in a whole new light.
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Editorial Reviews

Kyla Dunn
In Sex Sleep Eat Drink Dream, Jennifer Ackerman gives us an enthusiastic tour through 24 hours in the life of a typical human body. She demystifies our internal "clocks" and the genes that wind them, but also goes far beyond—revealing what science has to say about everything from whether you can catch a cold from being cold to the hows and whys of the orgasm. Such wide-ranging material has the potential to get out of hand, but here it is nicely tamed by the book's lucid structure—with section headings that take us from "Morning" through "Afternoon" and into "Night"…Neophytes, and even science-phobes, will find Ackerman's approach to biology welcoming. Her language is accessible, and she focuses heavily on "news you can use."
—The New York Times
Amanda Schaffer
Science writer Jennifer Ackerman, a contributor to National Geographic and the author of two previous books, scoops up…tantalizing tidbits in Sex Sleep Eat Drink Dream, loosely organized as a day in the life of the body. The book progresses from a 5:30 a.m. wake-up through a day of work, food, exercise, cocktails and sex, with each activity launching forays into the scientific corpus.
—The Washington Post
Library Journal

Science writer and journalist Ackerman (Notes from the Shore) takes readers on a tour of our bodies and complex circadian rhythms, which help to determine our well-being or discomforts like magical clockworks. She writes, "By timing your actions so they're in concert with these rhythms, you can maximize your performance...[and] by defying them, you may cause yourself real harm." Ackerman proposes to inform her audience "about the new science of your body, the many intricate and intriguing events occurring inside it over a twenty-four hour day" by drawing on her life experiences as well as on those of celebrities both past and present and by summarizing new scientific findings about the body and the internal and external forces that act on it. From the extensive notes, it is obvious that Ackerman has done her research, but overall this general approach to the body, with personal recollections and the occasional historical fact, does not reveal the cutting-edge information one might expect; most educated lay readers will be unsurprised by her revelations. An optional purchase for public libraries.
—James Swanton

Kirkus Reviews
Science writer Ackerman (Chance in the House of Fate: A Natural History of Heredity, 2001, etc.) tracks the daily grind from first awakening to falling asleep: a clever way to teach human physiology. The author begins by noting that the first hour after waking is not our best. "The brain doesn't go from 0 to 60 in seven seconds," declares one of the many experts quoted here. For those hard-to-wake-up folks, the author mentions a fiendish MIT invention: a fuzzy alarm clock that rolls off the bedside table and hides so that the sleeper must get up to search. Such asides enliven the text, as do such personal details as a nightmare Ackerman had and the time she and her daughter encountered an escaped bull. Her narrative takes your basic white-collar worker to the office, sees him/her making a stressful report, then going to lunch, experiencing the afternoon trough (when we all would do well to take a nap) and on to evening. We learn that the cocktail hour is our peak time for alcohol tolerance; we metabolize it better then. Then comes dinner and on to bed for sex, sleep and dreams. In each of these episodes, Ackerman explains what we know and don't know. Nobody understands fatigue, for example. On the other hand, a lot seems to have been learned about falling madly in love vs. experiencing a long-term loving relationship. Much is also known about the multiple clocks in our cells and the master clock in the brain that determines the circadian ebb and flow of hormones and chemicals that control temperature, heart rate, etc. We ignore these rhythms at our peril, Ackerman notes, decrying the havoc wrought by shift work, medical residents' schedules, jet lag and other sleep disruptions. Most of usneed seven to eight hours of sleep, she warns, rather than the typical six or seven. An insightful text celebrating just how clever is the machine we call the human body.
From the Publisher
"It's rare to find a book that delivers so much knowledge in prose that's such an enormous pleasure to read."—Miriam E. Nelson, Tufts University, and author of Strong Women Stay Young

"Jennifer Ackerman writes with the precision of a scientist and the elegance of a poet . . . invigorating, informed, insightful, and wise."—Steve Olson, author of Mapping Human History and Count Down

"A fascinating look at what modern science tells us about who we are."—Elizabeth Kolbert, author of Field Notes from a Catastrophe

"A delightful picaresque . . . You'll never think about your body—and what you do to it—in the same way again."—Stephen S. Hall, author of Size Matters and Merchants of Immortality

"Ackerman offers a pleasant day's diversion." Publishers Weekly

"An insightful text celebrating just how clever is the machine we call the human body." Kirkus Reviews

Ackerman has hit her stride [with] a virtual full-body scan conducted over the course of 24 hours." Booklist, ALA

"A readable and remarkably comprehensive tour of all that is new and intriguing in the study of normal human physiology."—Abigail Zuger, M.D.
The New York Times

"Ackerman's illuminating and hospitable book helps ensure that the inner life of our bodies will receive its fair share of wonderment."—Kyla Dunn The New York Times Book Review

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780547085609
  • Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
  • Publication date: 10/2/2008
  • Edition description: Reprint
  • Pages: 272
  • Sales rank: 961,331
  • Product dimensions: 5.40 (w) x 8.10 (h) x 0.70 (d)

Meet the Author

Jennifer Ackerman is the author of Notes from the Shore and Chance in the House of Fate. The recipient of a grant from the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation and literature fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts and the Bunting Institute of Radcliffe College, she writes for National Geographic, the New York Times, and other publications.

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Read an Excerpt


You are your body. It holds you in and holds you up. It constrains you and controls you, delights and disgusts you. And yet its activities are mostly a mystery. Let’s face it: We’re all body-conscious to one degree or another, acutely aware of our physical façades—the symmetry and wrinkle of face, the curve of torso, girth of thigh, roll of belly, flare of feet. But how many of us have a handle on the drama unfolding inside? As Saint Augustine said, we go forth to wonder at the heights of mountains and the courses of the stars, yet pass by the miracle of our own inner lives without wondering. In health, the body often operates so smoothly that we can almost forget it exists. Most often it’s some failure or perturbation that captures the attention. In fact, many of us spend our time trying not to be aware of what’s occurring within. No news is good news.
Not so. This came home to me some time ago when I succumbed to a virulent flu after a stressful run of life. The flu sucked the juice out of me for weeks and robbed me of all the facets of physical existence I relish: the satisfactions of work and exercise, the sweet smell of my children and other sensual pleasures, appetite and eating, restful sleep. When I emerged from my illness, I felt not only the relief and joy of having my body back, but a sudden sharp desire to learn more about it. What was the nature of those pleasures my healthy body so enjoys? And the problems that occasionally plague it? I realized I didn’t have a clue what went on inside me, in sickness or in health. I had no idea, for example, what underlies digestion and its precursor, hunger—that mysterious loop that translates the absence of nutrients into the craving for comfort food—or, for that matter, its antithesis, nausea. I hadn’t the foggiest idea what a virus did to my body, or alcohol to my brain, or cumulative stress to my energy and health. I knew my body did some things more effectively in the morning, others in the afternoon or evening, but didn’t have an inkling why. Though that bout of flu was hardly a near-death experience, it did remind me that my whole existence was going to come and go in this same ark of skin and blood and bones; the “go” part, of course, loomed closer every day. Even the long-lived among us are alive for only about 700,000 hours. My body would exist only once; I would never have another one. Wouldn’t it be a good idea to get to know it a little?

When I was in first grade, I had a fine grasp of my inner life. I knew that my heart beat somewhere inside my left chest, near where I put my hand to pledge allegiance. I knew that when I brushed my hair, I was stroking dead cells, a grotesquery I gleefully shared with friends at every opportunity. I knew that what my stomach took in as a snack—say, a whole box of raisins—might have later consequences. I knew I would get cranky if I didn’t have a nap. Beyond that, I didn’t give it much thought. This went on, more or less, for thirty years. Then came that flu that struck like lightning on the road to Damascus.
To remedy my ignorance, my first thought was medical school. I imagined poring through Gray’s Anatomy, committing to memory nerve and bone, perusing the Lancet and the New England Journal of Medicine for case studies describing mysterious clinical syndromes: “A 10-year-old girl with recurrent bouts of abdominal pain,” or “A 22-year-old man with chills and fever after a stay in South America.” Medicine had the appeal of detective work: observing closely, analyzing, diagnosing, offering treatment. But starting a medical education from scratch at the age of thirty-five would rule out normal life well through my childbearing years.
Also, I did know one thing about my body. It lacks the constitutional prerequisite for the kind of schedule demanded of doctors: It needs sleep. The night before committing myself to a two-year postbaccalaureate premedical program, I dreamed of diving off a bridge and landing headfirst in a slough of mud. In the morning, I canceled my medical school plans.
It was another decade before I got around to tackling the topic as a writer. Over the next several years, I hunted everywhere I could for the latest engaging news about the body. I read dozens of books and hundreds of journals. I prowled the laboratories of scientists and attended their conferences, meetings, and lectures. I observed significant events in my own body and subjected it to numerous tests and experiments.
I discovered that it was a good thing I waited as long as I did. Much of what we know about the body we’ve learned only recently from an explosion of new discoveries. In the past five or ten years, science has made a great leap forward in grasping the underpinnings of everything from hunger and fatigue to exercise, perception, sex, sleep, even humor. We know thiiiiings about the body that were scarcely imaginable a decade ago—exactly which brain regions are active as you read this sentence, for instance, or what cumulative stress does to your waistline, or how exercise can help you learn. This fresh news suggests answers to questions that once seemed beyond the reach of science: Why do you succumb to a cold and your partner does not, even though you were both exposed to the same sick child? Is there a biological basis for spousal arguments over whether those red pants match that crimson shirt? How is it that your colleague can eat anything she likes and never gain an ounce, while you just look at a doughnut and put on half a pound?
In the past decade, we have learned that the human body is only 1 percent human and 99 percent microbial, at least in terms of cell count. (That you and I don’t look more germ-like is due to the small size of bacterial cells relative to our own.) We know that just thinking about exercise may increase muscle strength, and that too little sleep can lead to too much weight gain. We have begun to see that “timing is everything”—that if you want your body to go through life at its best, you should pay close attention not just to what you are doing, but when you are doing it.
Some of what we’ve learned has come from studying cases in which normal bodily functions have failed. As the seventeenth-century English anatomist Thomas Willis said, “Nature is nowhere accustomed more openly to display her secret mysteries than in cases where she shows traces of her workings apart from the beaten path.” From appetite gone awry we’ve glimpsed the chemical essence of hunger. From a failure to recognize faces we’ve garnered new insights into the miracle of face perception; from one who “lost touch” we’ve learned about the biology of a caress.
Other scientific breakthroughs have arisen from innovative tools for seeing inside the body. In centuries past, studies have required a bizarre injury to expose the previously concealed innards of an unfortunate patient. The closest thing we had to a real window on the workings of an organ was accidental—a chance hole in the stomach of Alexis St. Martin, for example, which gave an army doctor named William Beaumont an intimate view of the digestive organ at work. This was followed by the first x-ray photographs in the twentieth century, which yielded clear but static images of bones in their misty envelope of flesh. In the past ten or twenty years, new imaging techniques—positron emission tomography (pet) scans and functional magnetic resonance imaging (f MRI)—and ways of “listening in” on the activities of cells have allowed detailed looks inside the living, working body. Brain scans have pointed a bright spotlight at what’s happening in the brain in real time as we recognize a face, learn a new language, find our way around a Byzantine city, follow a Bach sonata, or get a joke. With tools that allow us to eavesdrop on the cells of the human gut, we’ve discovered the existence of a “second brain” there, as well as a world of organisms living in its twisted topology of villi and crypts. So, too, huge strides in genetics have helped us explore in a whole new way the fundamental workings of organs, tissues, and cells. The lion’s share of new knowledge on human genes has been gleaned from the study of other organisms: mice, fruit flies, zebra fish. Much to the delight of scientists, the mechanisms that run creatures from fungi to humans often have a common basis. What is true of lowly yeast is also true of you.
Among the fascinating new findings is this: An essential part of our inner life is rhythmic. “Our body is like a clock,” wrote the scholar Robert Burton in 1621. It’s true. We are not just time-minded but time-bodied, right down to our very core. The human body possesses a whole shop of internal clocks that measure out our lives. These timekeepers tick away in a “master” clock in the brain and in the individual cells throughout our flesh, affecting everything from the time we prefer to wake up in the morning to the accuracy of our afternoon proofreading, our speed during an evening run, even the strength of our handshake at a late-night party. We are usually unaware of the in ternal rhythms generated by these clocks, sensing them vividly only when we abuse them, during shift work, jet lag, or adjustment to daylight- savings time. Yet they govern the daily fluctuations of a surprising range of bodily tasks, from the operation of individual genes right on up to complex behaviors—how we perform in sports, tolerate alcohol, respond to cognitive challenges. By timing your actions so they’re in concert with these rhythms, you can maximize your performance at a meeting or minimize your dental pain. By defying them, you may cause yourself real harm.

This is a book about the new science of your body, the many intricate and intriguing events occurring inside it over a twenty-four-hour day. There is, of course, no typical day. Nor is there a typical body experience. (In using the first person, I am borrowing a tack from Thoreau: “I should not talk so much about myself if there were anybody else whom I knew as well.”) Physicists may deal in uniformity, in things that are all the same, such as electrons and water molecules. But biologists must cope with staggering diversity. No two animals are alike, even when they’re clones. The same is true for two cells and two molecules of DNA. And while recent research suggests that we humans are genetically more alike than we are different, we are nevertheless marked by millions of small but significant distinctions of anatomy, physiology, and behavior. We diverge in our appetites and metabolism and in the way we taste and see. We differ in how we tolerate stress and process alcohol and in our preferences for bedtime and waking time. One man’s tonic is another’s poison. One woman’s stimulus is another’s trauma. One body’s night is another’s dawn.
Even within an individual, variation reigns. Over the course of a day, a year, a lifetime, we are many different people. As Montaigne said, there is as much difference between us and ourselves as between us and others.
Nevertheless, we all share common body experiences. A single volume can’t hope to cover them all, or even those that transpire within the confines of a single day. The choice of topics here reflects my own preoccupations, as well as guesses about what will prove interesting for others. From caress to orgasm, multitasking to memorizing, working out to stressing out, drooping to dreaming, it’s here.

Copyright © 2007 by Jennifer Ackerman. Reprinted by permission of Houghton Mifflin Company.

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Table of Contents

Prologue     xi
Arousal     3
Making Sense     16
Wit     27
The Teeth of Noon     43
Post-Lunch     54
The Doldrums     73
Strung Out     84
In Motion     98
Party Face     119
Bewitched     135
Night Airs     145
Sleep     157
Hour of the Wolf     175
Acknowledgments     191
Notes     195
Index     237
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