Super fun and Super informative! A review of the book, “Superheroes Inside Me” and a conversation with the author.
Have you ever wondered how your immune system fights to keep you healthy? And did you know that eating well will help it do that?
Now imagine trying to tell your 8-year old that they have cells inside them called macrophages, neutrophils, B cells, NK Killer cells, helper T cells, dendritic cells and a few others.
And then imagine telling your child that these cells are what help them to keep from getting sick. Or if you are sick, that they help you to get better? And then going into the specific details about how they do that?
Can you imagine that?!
Carolyn Akinyemi did!
She takes a complicated, difficult subject, our immune system, and makes it accessible and easy to understand for people of all ages.
Aha! a perfect subject for a Biology4everyone article!
This article looks at Akinyemi’s book, “Superheroes Inside Me” and talks with her about how it came to be.
How did I hear about this book?
I met Akinyemi on a blog forum where writers share their creations and look for feedback from other writers. I was intrigued by her book’s title and asked her if I could read it?
She sent me a pre-publication edition and asked for comments and feedback. I read it and was hooked!
So let’s talk about the book.
Introducing our immune system’s superheroes
Chapter 1 is “Meet Your Superheroes”
Akinyemi’s first stroke of genius was to turn our immune system’s fight to protect us against disease into a battle between superheroes and villains. The superheroes are the different types of cells in our immune system and the villains are nasty invader germs!
In this chapter, she cleverly illustrates all the different superhero immune cells according to what those cells actually do in our bodies by arming them with their weapons or superpowers that they bring to the fight.
How did she do this?
First, she breaks them into two teams; The Innate Team and The Adaptive Team.
The Innate Team includes macrophages, neutrophils and dendritic cells that all engulf or “eat” invading cells and break them apart. This is Mac, Neutro and Den, the Munch Bunch.
Not only do they “eat” the invaders, but they also pass messages to the second team.
The Adaptive Team is her elite force. It includes B cells, helper T cells, regulator T cells and cytotoxic T cells. Akinyemi calls them Miss B, helper T, Cyto T and regulator T.
Here’s how one member of the Adaptive Team, Miss B, performs in the book. (B cells are the cells that make our antibodies.)
Miss B’s hair is actually lots of antibodies that stick out. She calls them her “…antibody spies. When they find the enemy, they stick themselves to it and tag it, which is like waving a flag and shouting Hey! Here’s one of those enemies. Come and eat it! And the Munch Bunch will happily come and gobble it up”
In subsequent chapters you get introduced to The Snot Lot and the Poo Crew. And the Glue Crew. And a few more!
Lastly, she introduces the friendly bacterial Superheroes in our gut microbiome with names like the Lactobac family, the Bifido family, the Fecali family and a few others.
The connection with what we eat
Akinyemi’s second stroke of genius was to marry the health of our superheroes with our diets. She does that by telling a story of how one child’s poor diet leads to their sickness because it is not feeding the superheroes properly.
For instance, when you eat a lot of sugar, “Mac thinks the sugar is vitamin C which supercharges him. So he eats it but sugar makes him sleepy for seven hours! If your superheroes are dozing, they won’t be able to fight very well”
Kind of like what happens to Superman when he encounters kryptonite.
When the child starts eating properly the superheroes recover and his health gradually returns.
The book goes into way more detail than I can possibly share with you in this short review. And it does it in a very readable, easily understood language with a host of great illustrations of all the Superheroes.
After you read it, you’ll know a lot more about how your body fights infections and how you can help it do that!
While the book is aimed at a younger audience, I think it is an excellent primer for anyone who is interested in learning about their immune system and microbiome.
B4E gives it 5 out of 5 stars!
A conversation with the author, Carolyn Akinyemi
After I read the book I found I was curious about it. How did she come up with the idea to write it? We had a few email conversations and here’s what I found out.
(I have edited Akinyemi’s responses for brevity and clarity)
B4E: Why did you write this book and not some other one?
CA: I believe the best writing comes from your heart. If you feel it deeply, it will come across in your writing. Seeing my kids suffer in their health and not knowing how to help them touched my heart in a big way.
My lioness mother’s instinct kicked in and I started to fight back by researching. When you combine that with over 20 years of experience of voluntary work in various kids ministries, it just seemed the most natural thing to combine my health knowledge with my desire to help kids. And also other mums who are in that place of desperation wanting to help their kids and not knowing how to.
B4E: How did you learn about the immune system?
CA: I read a LOT of books, listened to huge numbers of podcasts and interviews from various medics and studied online courses with Futurelearn, Coursera, Michigan University and Open University.
They have some excellent degree module courses in immunology, nutrition, genetics, anatomy, microbiology etc that you can study for free.
I also researched lots of my own questions and theories using PubMed documents to find scientific evidence for the ideas and plans that were formulating in my mind.
B4E: How did you come up with the idea to represent the cells of the immune system as superheroes?
CA: Ha Ha! I was trying to figure out how I could communicate the importance of what I’ve learnt to my kids in terms they’d understand. I wanted them to WANT to eat healthily not just do it begrudgingly because I’m forcing them to.
One day I was telling my 8-year-old son how exciting Macrophages are and some of the things they do. Obviously I’m telling him in language fit for his age and I realized it sounded like a superhero vs villain type story.
So I figured that’s a great idea! Superheroes NEVER go out of fashion. And these would be great superhero stories as it really is like there’s a whole world inside us with different characters and plots. It was one of those AHA moments where the light bulb switches on.
And it was amazing!
After telling my kids these stories they started to ask me at snack times which foods they should eat to feed Mac and their Superheroes?
I felt like punching the air and shouting “Yes! This is working!”
B4E: Did you like to read comic books or go to movies featuring superheroes? Who are your favourite superheroes?
CA: I wasn’t really into comic books. I’ve always preferred a good novel.
My favourite superhero was the original Wonder Woman series on TV. My mum made a Wonder Woman costume to fit my Cindy doll so she became my Superhero toy.
My favourite reading books were the Famous Five series by Enid Blyton, still on those lines of mystery, adventure and good prevailing over evil.
B4E: A story in the book showcases a child who gets very sick by eating poorly. Did that happen to any of your own children or children you know?
CA: The child in this story is really an amalgamation of some of my kids’ health issues. I found out that overexposure to antibiotics in infancy damaged their gut microbiome (and contributed to their loss of health).
(It was) further complicated by eating the standard westernized diet that’s typically high in refined carbs (and) intensively farmed animal products, and low in plant foods.
I had to deal with joint pains, a thyroid goitre in a 9-year-old, inability to focus and concentrate on schoolwork, anxiety, chronic eczema, asthma symptoms, and multiple food allergies.
B4E: Did eating better help them get better?
CA: Yes, indeed it did. By studying I was able to identify not just the issues with the microbiome but also identify food allergy triggers before they were even allergy tested. Changing their diets and taking action to repair from the inside means we no longer have eczema, goitre, joint pains, inability to write neatly or focus or asthmatic symptoms. I’ve managed to reduce my household allergies from around 18 between my kids to now I believe only 5. So we are definitely on the right track here.
B4E: Your book features a “normal” person’s immune system. What about people who are immunocompromised either by age, genetic mutations, or chronic infections such as HIV?
CA: I’m covering DNA and some genetic mutations in my next Superheroes book. To be honest, when you study immunology and microbiology and you see the VAST diversity within the body it makes you question if there is such a thing as a ‘normal’ person.
There are so many variations between individuals, whether they be physical, emotional, or even spiritual. For example, if we look just at the variations between bacterial metabolic pathways in individuals, the implications for health are enormous!
Those pathways affect how we synthesize proteins, carbohydrates, lipids, vitamins, drugs, and even vaccines. And that’s before you’ve even started talking about genetic variations, chronic viral infections or the effects of stress and outlooks in life.
This is also why I steer clear of recommending a one-diet or one-solution-fits-all approach to my readers. Rather my goal is to encourage readers to think outside of the box, that there is more to be considered with regards to disease than just a diagnosis and a pharmaceutical band-aid and to consider investing in functional medicine type investigations to find the root cause of the problem.
Then a solution (can) be tailor-made to the specifics of their problem.
B4E: What are your plans for future books? Are they also going to be about nutrition and health?
CA: My second book is already underway which is specifically dealing with Eczema, but I’ll also be talking about allergies and the ‘Allergic March’. Obviously that’s been a big part of my family’s health history.
I’m writing this book for adults who are dealing with eczema in themselves or their kids but also for GPs who want to more effectively help their patients who are suffering.
I will also be writing the second Superhero storybook along the same topic lines. I felt like I should write a type of basic introduction to immunology for families, you know, to set the foundation before I delve into specific topics.
That’s why I wrote the first Superheroes Inside Me as an intro to the immune system and microbiome.
Now I can build on that foundation in future books. I really enjoy research and I particularly like looking for answers to things that are considered chronic or incurable.
So I’m open to investigating other health issues to include in future stories too. It’s a great way to bring information to people who need to hear it, but in a way that engages their imagination and doesn’t put them to sleep like a textbook might.
B4E: What is your great passion?
CA: My (spiritual) faith, my family and helping people recover their health.
So here’s what I love about this book.
No prior knowledge of your immune system is needed, just read it and share it with your children and friends. You won’t be sorry and you’ll learn a lot!
I have an advanced biology degree and even so, I learned a lot, especially new knowledge that wasn’t available when I studied the immune system many years ago!
If you’d like more information, here’s Akinyemi’s Facebook site where you can find out about this and other books in the pipeline.
Disclaimer: There are no affiliate links in this article and I have no financial links with the author.
Until next time,