What the Frog?

My book club meets the second Thursday of every month. It’s great, because I get to read (or am forced to read) all kinds of books I wouldn’t normally pick up. Like this month’s pick: Survival of the Sickest: The Surprising Connection Between Disease and Longevit, written by Dr. Sharon Moalem.

Even before I started reading it, I knew there were some theories in the book about the origins of diabetes. And it wasn’t long before I received a text from one of my friends: “You would totally outlive all of us if we were stuck in the arctic!” My curiosity was piqued.

I didn’t have to read far before I got to the part where the author tries to explain the evolutionary advantages that diabetes conferred on our ancestors. He does this by comparing people with high blood sugar levels to wood frogs. Here’s the story, as filtered through my English major brain:

There are these North American frogs that freeze solid every winter. Completely solid — frozen enough so that they look dead. Only they’re not dead; come spring, the frogs thaw out and hop along their merry way.

Moalem describes how they pull this off:

Just a few minutes after the frog’s skin senses that the temperature is dropping near freezing, it begins to move water out of its blood and organ cells, and, instead of urinating, it pools the water in its abdomen. At the same time, the frog’s liver begins to dump massive (for a frog) amounts of glucose into its bloodstream, supplemented by the release of additional sugar alcohols, pushing its blood sugar level up a hundredfold. All this sugar significantly lowers the freezing point of whatever water remains in the frog’s bloodstream, effectively turning it into a kind of sugar antifreeze.

I'm confused too, little Wood Frog. I'm confused, too.

He goes on to argue that diabetes (in all of its glorious forms) might be the human body’s response to the Ice Age — that high blood sugar levels made us pee more and kept us from freezing to death in very cold temperatures. Of course, there are more holes waiting to be poked in this theory than I have in all 10 of my fingertips.  And by the time I got to the frog part of Moalem’s discourse, I’d already come across passages like this one:

As of today, Type 1 diabetes can only be treated with daily doses of insulin, typically through self-administered injections, although it is possible to have an insulin pump surgically implanted. [Emphasis mine.]

And this:

Modern-day diabetics, on the other hand . . . have no use — and no outlet — for the sugar that accumulates in their blood. In fact, without enough insulin the body of a severe diabetic starves no matter how much he or she eats. [Emphasis mine here, too.]

“For frog’s sake,” I thought. “How am I going to unexplain this to a group of my non-diabetic friends while we’re all half-drunk on chardonnay?”

Yes, the story of the frog is fascinating. And I’m sure the Ice Age was a real bitch for all parties involved — diabetic or not. But I cannot bring myself to connect the dots between Type 1 diabetes and the long-term survival of the human race. Even if people who had diabetes 13,000 years ago could survive long enough to reproduce, how would this trait prove advantageous enough to be passed down throughout the last 12,000 years? Didn’t this guy do any research on what life was like for people with diabetes before the discovery of insulin?

I was all fired up to argue these points Thursday night, and for while, I did. But I started to feel like I wasn’t making sense, and that there was just too much to explain, and that I was too emotionally invested in the topic to argue the theories of a New York Times Bestselling author in a way that was level-headed and coherent.

I didn’t want to be the girl at book club that talks about all of her health problems, or the one who gets too know-it-all about a particular issue. It sounds weird, but I felt like this guy was making excuses for diabetes, and it pissed me off. What’s so terrible about seeing a disease as nothing more than something gone wrong? Do we really need a nifty explanation for everything? Am I just bitter because, even after dozens of theories and tests and transplants and studies, we still don’t have a cure?

Even four days later, I can’t get this segment of the book — and our book club discussion — out of my head. I keep trying to figure out how I might have explained things a little more clearly, and why this guy’s reasoning got under my skin.

There’s one thing I do know: the next time I’m trying to explain wood frogs and diabetes to crowd of people, I’d like to have the entire DOC on speaker phone.

9 comments on “What the Frog?

  1. Oye vey. We are there! Put me on speed dial.

  2. ThreeSows says:

    Excellent post, totally understand where you are coming from! I am currently reading a book (jaw continually hitting ground) where the auther claims to have rediscovered a theory of the blood first ventured in the 1800s, which now provides a reason and cure for diabetes,in all its rich diversity. Not dissuaded by over a century of science, he claims his theory is backed up by a ‘controlled study’ of 40 (yes 40!) people, 10 of whom dropped out. Cure involves drinking ‘green water’. Give me strength!

  3. Wow… I’m speechless. Or maybe, there’s just a frog in my throat. As if I needed another one, now I have another book on my list of those to burn. Or to ponder. (Also, wonder if this has any connection to my lifelong fascination with frogs, as one of my recent D-Blogs discusses, or why there are things we call Froggy Loggys…) Hmm. I may need some beer to mull this one over.

  4. Rachel says:

    I *loved* this book when I read it a couple years ago, other than the “surgically implanted” insulin pump and “severe diabetics” comments. Then again, I’m all over the evolution of disease, anthropology, microbiology, etc. I think theories of potential evolution of diabetes could provide clues into a cure down the road, too.

    I took it to mean that maybe thousands of years ago higher blood sugars were the norm, and then eventually it was lowered in most individuals based on all sorts of social, economic, cultural, and geographical factors. For those it didn’t, the characteristic remains dormant until the autoimmune attack.

    • Jacquie says:

      Thank you for weighing in, Rachel! I’m glad to hear this from someone who’s read the book and has diabetes, too. Obviously, I had a hard time figuring out how much my experience colored my reading of the book.

      I think part of what got me was that, if I recall, all of the other diseases and conditions he discussed were long-term issues — diabetes seemed like the only one that could kill you pretty quickly.

      I will say that I enjoyed other parts of it, especially the chapter about the Guinea worm and the ants that commit suicide when they’re taken over by parasites.

  5. Kim says:

    You can put me on speed dial as well. Ready and willing to educate and argue when duty calls. How frustrating!

  6. Yeah, the frog stuff doesn’t bother me (however I haven’t read the book). I think what is amazing and stupid at the same time is the pump comment. If this person was writing a factual book, that would have been easy to find the correct information on. Which leads me to think maybe the author is a complete moron all around. Gotta wonder. If they can’t take 5 minutes to double check facts…then….how stable is the rest of his reasoning.

  7. Well, as a book club member (though not of yours), I think I get it. Book club is not like work. You aren’t giving a presentation. You are enjoying conversation, mostly light or heated about things not touching most of you too closely. In my current book club, we once read a book about a man with multiple wives and one of the members admitted her dad had done that very thing (unknown). Suddenly the book went straight to her as the center focus. After a few questions I could tell it made her uncomfortable. While diabetes is not as severe (right word?) as that, I think it applies. You want discussion, not to be interviewed or on the defense. I mean, there’s WINE involved! I think all your thoughts are so understandable. And I’m really glad you have your blog and I get to read it.

  8. Yeah, but it made for an excellent blog post, right?

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