In response to an influx in bowel and gastrointestinal disease, some doctors are suggesting organ transplants. Sound drastic? Well I should specify that this “transplant” is actually an enema and the “organ” is actually human feces. This process of Fecal Transplantation, however off-putting, could be the excremental solution to a detrimental problem.
I call it colonic karma: if you are unkind to your insides, they will pay you back three-fold. In truth, our digestive tract bears the brunt of our lifestyle decisions, including poor food choices, excessive alcohol or caffeine intake, lack of sleep, and inadequate water consumption. The effects of these intestinal indiscretions, often coupled with genetic predisposition, may collectively contribute to one of the many bowel diseases and conditions that plague our society.
Nearly 20% of the population suffers from Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS), while a staggering 1.4 million Americans are diagnosed with Inflammatory Bowel Disease (IBD), including Crohn's disease and ulcerative colitis. With IBD in particular, the body’s immune system mistakenly wages war against food and good bacteria in the intestines, causing inflammation in the crossfire. This inflammation inevitably leads to comorbid ailments such as stomach pain, constipation and diarrhea . . . all of which can be devastating to one’s health and quality of life.
With any rampant condition, Big Pharma is quick to develop an arsenal of medicinal coping mechanisms to quell the symptoms. But more often than not, the causal issue remains. For this reason, medical researchers began investigating alternative approaches to treating this condition, and found that one of their most promises methods lies in . . . the toilet?
The process of Fecal Macrobiota Transplantation (FMT) involves introducing healthy bacterial flora in the colon by infusing the patient with the healthy stool of a human donor. The infusion is generally done through a rectal enema or via a nasogastric tube. In essence, it’s just like any organ transplant, except less invasive and with the “organs” readily available at every bowel movement.
Even if the procedure seems appalling at best, the underlying concept is sound. The “good” bacteria in the healthy feces have shown to displace the harmful pathogenic organisms that once plagued the gastrointestinal tract, creating the initial condition. The infusion restores balance in the gut and effectively staves off the regrowth of the harmful bacteria. This effect is similar to that of a powerful probiotic, which has also been shown to restore beneficial intestinal flora; but, while probiotic therapy is useful, this one-time transplantation is ultimately far less expensive and more effective than a consistent dose of the capsulated probiotic. What’s more, it’s far more successful in helping the body recover from an antibiotic regimen, which indiscriminately kills off both the good and the bad bacteria in the intestines. In a society that is exceptionally superfluous with its antibiotic use, this function is becoming increasingly important, if not necessary.
In addition to IBD, FMT is becoming an increasingly accepted therapy for patients with a specific condition called Clostridium difficile infection, or C.diff, which produces a gamut of ailments from diarrhea to pseudomembranous colitis. This is one of the more harmful conditions that infects 250,000 Americans each year and took over 20,000 lives from 1999 to 2004. According to the Journal of Clinical Gastroenterology, almost 100 percent of C.diff patients who underwent the transplantation were completely eradicated of their condition, and remained so even four years after the initial procedure. What’s more, in over 370 published reports, there were no incidences of infection being transmitted in the process.
Despite its effectiveness, Fecal Transplantation is a concept that doesn’t sit well with many; and for several reasons. For one, we seem to have a cultural aversion for all things bathroom-related; nearly every substance we excrete has a stigma attached to it, and those stigmas are shared by doctors and patients alike. In a column called “The Science of Health” in Scientific American, journalist Maryn McKenna laments, “Fecal transplants remain a niche therapy, practiced only by gastroenterologists who work for broad-minded institutions and who have overcome the ick factor.” As with many such alternative therapies, most medical insurers are reluctant to reimburse the procedure, making it less accessible to struggling patients.
Another reason for our hesitation: we are reluctant to consider “poop” as an organ. For so long, it has been regarded as a trivial by-product, the quality of which we rarely consider unless it causes us distress. But many medical researchers are providing evidence that our feces, and intestinal microflora in particular, are essential components in maintaining bodily homeostasis. According to an article by the European Molecular Biology Organization, aptly titled “Gut Flora as a Forgotten Organ,” “The structure and composition of the gut flora reflects natural selection at both the microbial and host levels, which promotes mutual cooperation within and functional stability of this complex ecosystem.” In essence, our poo determines our health, for better or for worse; and if our own is lacking, then we could do well to turn to another’s.
Still, if your intestinal condition is not dire enough to turn to such a therapy, there are other steps you can take to improve the health of your GI tract. To some extent, oral and food-based probiotics will build up your beneficial bacteria. Fermented foods like yogurt, kefir, and cultured teas all contain a healthy dose of probiotics; or you can purchase a refrigerated probiotic with a high concentration of live organisms. You might also enhance your diet with whole foods that are rich in vitamins, minerals, fiber, and fructo-oligosaccharides, which are made from plant sugars. These nutrients feed the healthy bacteria and ensure that they flourish throughout the intestines.
For those battling more serious conditions, Fecal Macrobiota Transplantation could be the most effective solution, putting them on the fast track to a healthy tract. And with more successful cases, the medical community may finally come to accept and endorse the healing power of feces. Imagine a self-sustaining system in which we actually produce our own medicine! We could be on the cusp of a Poop Revolution . . . or, as I like to call it, a Bowel Movement.