Every time I walk my dog he drools-over and gobbles-up every pile of animal excrement he can find. So I think to myself, "shelter mutts are the smartest!" By savoring other dog's poop, he accomplishes something highly desirable—enriching his intestinal flora.
Probiotics: Good for Life
Each of us harbors more bacteria within our own body than human cells (roughly 90 trillion vs. 10 trillion of our own making)—most of them inhabiting the warm and cozy insides of our intestines. Given the numbers, it's obvious who really runs the show.
Probiotics, our term for the good bacterial citizens of our gut, have many important functions:
- they aid us digest food and manufacture vitamins, such as vitamin K2 (important for our bones) or biotin (important for our skin, hair, and nails)
- they manufacture antibiotics and anti-fungal substances that kill other, more dangerous bacteria and yeast
- they protect and nurture the lining of our intestines (maintaining its barrier function),
- they help us to be regular - their pro-kinetic substances help our bowels to move
- they communicate to and regulate our immune system
- and, as if that weren't enough, they also influence intestinal production of many of the same neurotransmitters our brain makes, such as serotonin, dopamine and GABA (possibly affecting your mood, drive, energy, and overall mental health)
Human Ignorance: Less Probiotics
Because as humans, we tend to be largely ignorant, we continue to bruise our little helpers through the use of (often unnecessary) antibiotics as well as unhealthy diets—and then even more antibiotics (as 90% of antibiotics in the U.S. are used in the production of the meat we eat). Moreover, we deprive our babies the opportunity to be inoculated by mom's probiotics—from the birth canal during natural childbirth—when one third of U.S. babies are born by (also often unnecessary) C section. After birth, breastfeeding is also very important to establish healthy intestinal flora in babies.
We suspect that many diseases are either caused or worsened by imbalances in our intestinal flora: Crohn' s disease; ulcerative colitis; irritable bowel syndrome; many skin conditions such as rosacea, psoriasis, eczema; autoimmune diseases such as rheumatoid arthritis; chronic fatigue; some cases of Parkinson's disease; and many more.
Healthy Foods: More Probiotics
Throughout our life we support healthy bacteria in our gut by eating fiber as well as foods that naturally contain probiotics such as yogurt, kefir, sauerkraut, kimchi, and miso. But as much as yogurt is advertised as a cure for nearly everything, it is not quite that easy. A cup of yogurt may contain around 1.8 billion beneficial bacteria, which may sound like a lot, but that's only a drop in the ocean. Plus, an average yogurt may contain only 4-5 types (or strains) of probiotics. Many over-the-counter probiotics, however, feature between 5 and 50 billion units. One popular heavy-duty probiotic called VSL#3 offers over 450 billion units (equivalent to 250 yogurt servings) in one packet.
But... these options still only consists of a few strains of beneficial bacteria. Our intestines are inhabited by as many as 1,000 different probiotic strains (many of which have even yet to be cataloged). The ultimate probiotic, thus, is a fecal transplant.
The Scoop on Poop
A fecal transplant is just that, a small dose of stool (200-300 grams) donated by a healthy donor, and infused into your bowels via an enema, sigmoidoscopy, or colonoscopy.
I know it sounds gross, but if you're suffering from Clostridium difficile colitis (C. diff)—the diarrhea to end all diarrhea—a fecal transplant can literally save your life. C. diff is a not an uncommon complication caused by over treatment with antibiotics, especially within hospitals and nursing homes. C. diff plagues close to 147,000 people per year in the U.S. alone—killing about 14,000 of them. C. diff is the most common reason inside the U.S. for a fecal transplant. The treatment cures over 90% of those afflicted.
More recently, fecal transplants are being explored to address other conditions—from autoimmune diseases to Parkinson's disease and even obesity. Outside the U.S., fecal transplants have cured people with ulcerative colitis. The attempt to replicate this within the U.S. has not been as successful. This suggests that not every donor's fecal matter is equal. Somebody out there possesses stool worth millions of dollars. (I hope it's me!)
For those who don't like the idea of scopes inserted in their body orifices, fecal transplants may soon be available in an enteric-coated capsule. It may be a tough pill to swallow, but it may be the best one yet.
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