Wednesday, June 13, 2007

Fish That Will Eat You Alive And Make You Healthier At The Same Time

When I was a boy, my family and I would sometimes spend hot summer days at a local lake. One spot in particular, called “Spillway” because of the spillway dam nearby, had an artificial sandy beach where I enjoyed swimming and splashing around. My favorite thing to do there was to find a relatively quiet and shallow area in the water and sit very still. Why? Because little fish, small perch and sunfish mainly, would be curious and would gather around me. After a little while, they would grow bold enough to come up and nibble at my toes and any exposed moles or birthmarks. Very cool. Last summer I and my family went back there for a visit. I was happy to introduce my fish-loving wife and toddler son to them.

But an odd thing would occur to me as they nibbled at me. Though I found the sensation funny, I couldn’t help but think that the fish’s main motivation was not to be friendly, but to “taste” me and see if I was edible.

A couple days ago my lovely wife was reading our June 2007 copy of Scientific American and came across an intriguing article on page 31, entitled “Fish That Go Skin-Deep.” It reported about a little resort in the hills of central Turkey, in a town called Kangal, where people would pay to dip their diseased limbs and bodies into hot springs – to be eaten alive by wild fish!

Back in 1917, a shepherd dipped his wounded leg into the hot water. These little fish, which are a little under 4 inches, or 9.7 cm, long, nibbled off the dead flesh from the wound. “Miraculously” his wound healed nicely. The fish are of the species Garra rufa, and became known as “doctor fish.” By the 1950s, a local family enclosed the hot pool and a population of the fish in it, then started charging people for the right to let the fish eat their wounds. Normally the fish would move back and forth between the hot water (34 degrees C, or 93 degrees F) and an adjoining cool stream, eating algae and insects. But almost nothing grows in the hot spring, so the fish are very eager to eat human flesh as a food source. They only pick off the dead skin, though, and it isn’t painful:

These “doctor fish” nibble off the dead skin while exuding an enzyme called dithranol (anthralin) which prevents fast developments of cells from the skin, therefore preventing psoriasis (source). Besides psoriasis, the fish have been helpful in treating neurodermititis and eczema. Some 3000 people a year visit the resort, and the fish have been collected and transferred to other spas in China, Japan, and elsewhere to be used for the same purpose. HERE is a link to one in Denmark.

Of course, being eaten alive for the sake of one’s health isn’t a terribly new thing. Consider medical leeches, for instance, which were used for all sorts of purposes in the Middle Ages of Europe, removing “bad humours,” but are used in modern times for relieving pooled blood, numbing pain, reducing swelling, and keeping blood flowing to surface areas though anti-clotting enzyme secretion. Increasingly, medical institutions are using medical maggots, too, (yes, maggots!) which are grown in sterile conditions then allowed to squirm around, painlessly, on open wounds (such as burns) digesting away and eating the diseased skin while leaving healthy tissue untouched. The wound heals significantly quicker. HERE is an interesting article about the modern use of both medical leeches and medical maggots. Both critters have been approved by the FDA for this use.

So the next time you get dry, flaky skin and decide to rub lotion on it or scrub it off, you should feel a touch of guilt. There are some hungry fish in Turkey who would love to eat you alive.

Oh, and by the way, fellas, if you should ever visit the Spillway beach, I wouldn’t recommend swimming in the nude. Certain dangly parts look too much like worms to curious little fishies.

HERE and HERE are YouTube videos of the Kangal resort, with folks being eaten alive by the little fishies.

HERE is another YouTube video of the Doctor Fish in action, at a Croatian clinic made for the "fish treatment." Just don your Speedo and lower yourself into a tub/aquarium!

Picture taken from HERE.


Anonymous said...

Umh- pretty freaking cool!'

Pageturners said...

The BBC World Service had a programme about this about 10 years back. A couple of hitchhikers had found the resort, and the man, who had psoriasis, took the cure. He said he'd been told it would almost certainly be permanent.

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Anonymous said...

While at a spillway in southernI ILl had the experience of fish nibbling my moles. It didn't hurt, but can't say I enjoyed it much.