It’s the Shit

I get asked a lot of questions about gut bacteria these days, and for good reason; over the last decade, research on the importance of the intestinal microbiome for fitness and overall health has exploded.

Take, for example, one particularly persuasive study, which took fecal bacteria samples from pairs of identical twins in which one twin was lean and one was obese, and transplanted the samples into the intestines of germ-free mice. Lo and behold, the mice with transplanted microbiota from the lean twins stayed lean themselves, while the mice with obese twin microbiota quickly piled on weight.

Similar microbiota transplants between humans are already being used very successfully to fight deadly infections like C. difficile colitis, and are being researched for conditions ranging from multiple sclerosis to Parkinson’s disease.

Which leads to the obvious question: will poop transplants for weight loss be the next big fitness craze?

In short, I hope not. While I strongly suspect that managing our microbiome will be an important part of health in the decades to come, at the moment, we just don’t really know what we’re talking about. Clinical data is still scarce, and possible complications are immense. Even if getting microbiota from your skinniest friend did turn out to be a great diet plan, we still have no idea about all of the other effects of that same bacteria down the line.

And, based on historical record, there’s good reason to be concerned. In the 1950’s, for example, doctors began prescribing transplanted Human Growth Hormone to smaller children deficient in HGH. While the treatment proved effective for spurring growth, it wasn’t until decades later that hundreds of cases of the rare and fatal neurodegenerative Creutzfeldt–Jakob disease (colloquially “mad cow disease”) began to crop up in those HGH recipients. Scientists quickly discovered that prions (the cause of CJD) had inadvertently come along for the ride with the transplanted hormone.

So, in short, the microbiome is something we should be keeping an eye on.

And it probably would be wise to start doing the common-sense things that research has begun to show as likely to help your microbiome: eat a whole food diet, and include some pre-biotic (raw garlic, onions, etc.) and pro-biotic (pickled stuff, yogurt, etc.) foods; avoid unnecessary antibiotics; get a dog (seriously!); exercise; manage your stress.

But when it comes to more invasive ideas – whether fecal transplant or even just probiotic supplements (which are currently a bit of a wild west), I’d hold off for now. Whatever the short-term upsides, from my perspective, at least, the long-term unknown risks are just too great.

July 18, 2017