Mental Well-being

Dirty Buenos Aires and Toxoplasma Gondii

Buenos Aires, the capital city of Argentina, likes to think of itself as the “Europe of South America”. Such fancy airs would be rather quaint if it wasn’t for the fact that Porteños are not just proud, they can also be abrasively rude. The first morning after our late-night arrival in the city, I dashed out of our Monserrat apartment to collect some supplies. Medialunas (sweet crescent breads a bit softer than croissants), milk, juice, yoghurt. I was nervous to practice my very rusty Spanish but it was inconsequential either way. The cashier ignored my greetings and a passer-by retorted “Ella esta lindo pero no intiendo mucho”. As it happens, thank you for the complement, but I do understand a bit.

Don’t expect smiles from shop assistants. Brace yourself for reproach from public servants.

There are of course redeeming features to the City. The “parrilla” or “asado”, which refers to meat cooked over the fire, is charred with gaucho-dexterity, unleashing a flavour so delectable that I’d consider it some of the best in the world. Try a ‘bife de chorizo’ which is a buttery hulking cut that has no relation to chorizo sausage. Always serve yourself a healthy portion of chimi-churi. Although overly-famous, La Cabrera in Palermo is a good bet. If you go during normal eating hours, i.e. 7-10pm, they sometimes have specials since the locals only come to dine at around 11pm. Don Julio will also not disappoint. For something budget-friendly and on-the-go, we cannot speak more highly of Nuestra Parilla, a grubby, hole-in-the-wall in San Telmo, offering the city’s best choripan. If you go on Sunday to catch the antiques market, expect a long queue.

“Nuestro Parilla” in San Telmo. Your best bet for a Choripan.

The tango is pretty slick and the neighbourhood of San Telmo is charming with its cobblestone streets and old world facades. But watch out for the dog faeces. Back in 2010 when we spent a whole month in the city, we giggled at the dog walkers negotiating their 7-something pack of leashed hounds but in their wake you’ll need to side step the turds. We donned the term “poo-stepping”, which is a short hand for “poo side stepping”.

Dog walking is big business in Buenos Aires.

Buenos Aires is a dirty city.

Perhaps the high levels of surliness have something to do with exposure to toxic, behaviour-altering microorganisms that find refuge in the gut of their hosts? Am I joking? Yes and no.

Recently there has been quite a commotion in the neurosciences with studies showing that gut-dwelling bacteria can exert very real influences on the mind and behavior of the human in which they inhabit. This brings new meaning to liquid hand-sanitizer during one’s travels.

Its long been established that the gut is affected by strong emotions. Just think how the stomach churns in response to panic. But the proposal that mental life is affected by the gut itself and its “fauna and flora”, has only recently reached serious entertainment. Scientists are looking to the gut to try explain a whole array of psychological and physical anomalies, including stress reactivity, eating behavior and even developmental disorders like autism. Some actual examples… A bacteria called B. infantis appears to play a role early in life to regulate the release of chemicals involved in the stress response. Another specimen, bifidobacteria (Probiota Bifida) facilitates fat loss and weight reduction. And, using brain imaging technology, it has also been shown that women given certain probiotics that grow in fermented milk, respond with less reactivity to emotional events.

But the number one offender in the public spotlight is a parasite called Toxoplasma Gondii, T Gondii for short. Unlike dog faeces, T Gondii is commonly found in cat litter and it received notoriety when it was shown that it could be transmitted from mother to foetus, causing a number of congenital defects such as hearing loss, blindness, cognitive and motor deficits and even miscarriage. Pregnant women should not clean the cat litter. But the research that has been causing a stir of late comes from a UK laboratory which found that infection with T Gondii can cause increased dopamine in the brain.

One can’t help but react with a passing thought that increased dopamine sounds like quite a nice thing.

Not in this case. T Gondii in infected humans has been related to issues with self-control and aggression and some of the neuropsychological problems seen in schizophrenia, a psychiatric condition that is related to atypical and excessive dopamine transmission. Abnormalities in the functioning of the brain’s dopamine system have also been linked to other neurological disorders, such as attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, Tourette’s syndrome and Parkinson’s disease. But whether the risks associated with T Gondii outweigh those of other known genetic and psychological risk factors, remains to be seen.

For now, some agile poo-stepping, the odd anti-worm tablet and a good hand-scrubbing before you tuck into your bife de chorizo should keep you in good standing.

To end, some facts about the most common causes of Traveler’s Diarrhea (“the TDs”) – not to be confused with “the DTs” (delirium tremens from alcohol withdrawal). Aside from fatigue and regular visits to the bathroom, these critters won’t have you acting strange.

#1. Escherichia coli (E. coli), spread by feces and accounting for up to 50% of cases with the highest rates in Latin America.

#2. Noroviruses, most common in Central America.

#3. Shigella bacteria, the cause of dysentery, affecting 15% of travellers. If you see blood, it’s probably Shigella.

#4. Campylobacter, common in Thailand.

#5. Giardia. This guys arrives for the long haul. TDs lasting up to several weeks. With bloating.

  1. Antiobesity and lipid-lowering effects of Bifidobacterium spp. in high fat diet-induced obese rats (Hyang Mi An et al).
  2. The Neurotropic Parasite Toxoplasma Gondii Increases Dopamine Metabolism (Emese Prandovszky et al).
  3. Collective unconscious: how gut microbes shape human behaviour (Dinan et al).

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