You have an organ that is essential for your health. The cells of that organ have none of your DNA. I’m speaking, of course, about your gut microbiome—the ecosystem of over 500 species of bacteria that live in your large intestine.
Your gut microbiome is essential for more than processing food. It’s essential for neurological function as well as for immune function. Scientists continue to discover how the human microbiome affects disease states, including its role in arthritis, diabetes (both type 1 and type 2), Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s, and cancer.
An important link between gut ecology and disease is the actual distribution of bacterial species. Imbalance in that distribution leads to ill health because those 500-odd species keep tabs on one another. This problem has received a great deal of attention in the natural health literature.
Conventional medicine is catching up—in its way.
In natural health, the tendency is to correct microbiome imbalance through environmental change, which includes nutritional therapies—after all, what you eat creates a significant part of your microbiome’s environment. In conventional medicine, a physical intervention is getting increasing attention. Formally, it’s called fecal bacteriotherapy, less formally fecal transplant, and mischievously transpoosion.
As these names suggest, the treatment consists of transplanting a sample from a healthy microbiome into an out-of-balance microbiome through means that I’m sure it’s easy for you to imagine. The theory is that balance can be restored to a person’s gut by introducing the full complement of bacterial species.
When first discussed, transpoosion was ridiculed—as its proponents say, very much as Barry Marshall was ridiculed for proposing that the bacteria Helicobacter pylori causes ulcers. Transpoosion is now on the verge of respectability, with a large research literature, promotional and support organizations, and media attention.
As you would expect, there are some remarkable stories. For example, a man who suffered from multiple sclerosis for 20 years, 10 of which he spent in a wheelchair, is now touring the world on his motorcycle after fecal bacteriotherapy.
You might wonder why the small sample of a balanced microbiome introduced into an out-of-balance gut ecosystem isn’t simply overwhelmed. I’m sure that in some cases it is. But just as introducing micronutrients missing from your diet can have dramatic health effects, introducing missing micro-species of bacteria can have the same kind of effect. Unfortunately, those micro-species can’t be cultured outside the gut.
I have two thoughts.
One concerns the promotion of probiotics, particularly in the natural health literature. Although use of probiotics has been shown to improve health is some cases, probiotics consist of only a few of the dominant microbiome species. Missing are the micro-species that are the equivalent of micro-nutrients.
My other thought is that a new procedure, however effective, does not solve the environmental trauma that caused the microbiome imbalance in the first place. In some cases, the rebalance might stick because the original environmental trauma doesn’t recur. But in most cases, the environment is still there ready to do its damage.
I’m sure you’re painfully aware of the horrors created by industrial agriculture—for example, the torment of animals in so-called Confined Animal Feeding Operations. I’m also sure that you’re aware of the risks posed by GMO crops. In a recent Counterpunch article, Katherine Paul of the Organic Consumers Association argues that feeding animals GMO feed in Confined Animal Feeding Operations amounts to torture all on its own.
GMO crops are bred to survive treatment with pesticides and herbicides supposedly to increase crop yields. Glyphosate is the most widely used GMO herbicide. Roundup is the most widely used glyphosate product. It turns out that glyphosate chews up micronutrients such as manganese and cobalt, causing, for example, developmental problems in young animals—problems that I won’t recount here so that I don’t put those images in your head.
In addition to developmental problems, glyphosate exposures disrupt the gut microbiome of livestock. Again, I will not put any images in your head, but take my word that the effects are awful.
I had this thought (as I’m sure you did, too): if GMO crops have devastating effects on a cow’s or calf’s microbiome and consequently on their health, what effect is it having on your or your child’s microbiome and health? This is a thought shared by many.
I also had this thought: will fecal bacteriotherapy save us from that microbiome havoc?