Pooh Power

January 22, 2013 in fiber, General, Immune System, Mediterranean by Joyce Bunderson

Last week I read one of the most interesting research-based articles that I’ve read in a long time. It is interesting on many levels, the unexpected; the science; wondrous nature; and even the anticipation for a reservoir of humor, awaiting exposure.

It all began with a study published in The New England Journal of Medicine reporting on an innovative way to manage a life-threatening problem with Clostridium difficile (C. diff). C. diff kills about 14,000 people a year in the United States, alone; and also has a role in an estimated 100,000 deaths a year. Not only is C. diff a really bad bug, it is evolving into increasingly toxic strains during the past decade. You can read reports of the study that was conducted in the Netherlands, by Josbert J. Keller, M.D., Ph.D., et al.; two good ones are: The L.A. Times by Monte Morin and The New York Times by Denise Grady.

In essence, the researchers transfused by enema a saline and feces dilution from a healthy person into the gut of a very sick person suffering from C. diff. Before you get too involved with the ‘grody factor’ of pooh, let’s try to bring it into perspective by saying that this procedure is saving lives and health, where conventional antibiotics are failing.  In my own family, Flagyl was prescribed on merely the possibility of C.diff and led to a life-threatening situation. It was prescribed because C.diff is so dangerous. The L.A. Times reports that C. diff affects nearly 1% of hospitalized patients in the U.S. and plays a role in an estimated 100,000 deaths a year. The new procedure had a 94% cure rate, which was three times greater than for those who took only Vancomycin, the traditional antibiotic treatment for C. diff. It’s actually quite remarkable; the transfusion cured 15 of 16 persons, compared with only 3 of 13, or 4 or 13 in the comparison groups.

Certainly, the peculiar remedy sounds like something out of the dark ages, or a jungle far away, but you can’t argue with success. Moreover, it fits with the growing recognition that natural things, like whole foods and now the microbiome, have evolved over millennia along with the human body; while the use of unnatural foods and drugs, which have never been encountered by the body, can have severe effects.  Life-saving antibiotics also kill good gut bacteria, leaving C. diff an opening to take over. Strong drugs used to counterattack when this happens, including Flagyl and Vancomycin did not evolve with the body. They assault its balance; in this case, they assault the microbiome. The results of the transfusion of a natural colony from a healthy person were so amazing that the study had to be stopped, because it seemed unethical to keep the patients on the traditional Vancomycin treatment.

Last year Mary Ireland wrote three articles titled The Importance of Little Things on June 15, 2012; More on the Microbiome on June 22, 2012; and A Few More Thoughts on the Microbiome on June 29, 2012. These articles may further your understanding on the diversity and balance of the gut flora (microorganisms that live in the digestive tract); and their importance to human health.

In addition, about two and a half years ago, on July 16, 2010, I published a blog called: Probiotics: The Good Belly Bugs. C. Diff was mentioned in that article as a “bad, bad bug.” Generally we get C. diff when we’re in a hospital after antibiotic treatment kills our good gut bugs. The overuse of antibiotics is coming back to bite us; and it’s taking a genuinely large bite. We are doing many things that are impacting our microbiome, including not breastfeeding; doing colonic cleanses and frequently going on antibiotics. We have shared these blog posts with you over the years, and now it is fitting that our message of whole, natural foods is paired with a whole, natural treatment for medical drug-induced microbiome imbalance.

At this time, the scientists do not know which of the bacteria found in the feces are responsible for curing the disease. It seems likely that it is not one single type, but a certain balance in the gut of a healthy person. There are thousands of different bacteria in a healthy gut; so it’s pretty difficult to know what is really responsible for the ‘healing.’

When I was studying in my very first biology class, I remember the sheer awe that I felt as I learned the introductory lessons of biology. Physiology, anatomy, and lots of chemistry followed. I’ve never forgotten that feeling of awe. It’s remarkable to me how the human body regulates nutrients (usually by regulating elimination and/or absorption); how all the systems work together using prostaglandins, hormones and the DNA in cells. I know that I studied about the importance of the balance of the gut flora; but I don’t think that I ever learned that the number just in the colon and small intestine is about 100 trillion.

Certainly the active comic-oriented mind can be ‘off and running’ with this subject. Think of the analogue to blood banks. Who will donate? Who will manage the diluting? Two of the comments from the NY Times that I most enjoyed are:

  1. How can I volunteer to donate stool? Seriously: I have the heartiest digestive system I know (resists anything I ingest!), and the bonus of being slim despite eating everything I want (also related to gut bacteria). My stool is good stuff, and should not continue to go to waste! (Camila)
  2. Nothing makes me happy like an innovative, drug free treatment for a serious disease. (Levi)

The take away lesson? 

I hope that, like me, you are gaining a new respect to the complexity of our intestine – our absorption and elimination system. As I’ve written many times, including July 5, 2011, in Roughage Restored to Its Place on the Plate, we can contribute to a healthy environment for our intestinal flora by eating a diet high in fiber that is found naturally in whole grains, vegetables, legumes, nuts and fruit. Also, foods like live culture yogurt are naturally a source of healthy bacteria too.

Think twice or maybe more, before easily turning to antibiotics. If you have any sway with others, encourage them to make healthy choices, like breast-feeding and eating a high fiber, Mediterranean-style diet. Will we ever look at pooh again with the same disdain?