Wednesday, 25 September 2013

Beneficial Bacteria – The Biome in Your Belly

Most people think of bacteria as something to be avoided. We steer clear of shaking hands with a sick co-worker, we filter and treat our water, and some of us even carry around little bottles of hand sanitizer. The war on microbes is both ubiquitous and illusory.  You can certainly take measures to avoid harmful germs but you will never be able to completely rid yourself of bacteria, nor would you want to.




Mary Roach said it best in her newest page-turner Gulp:Adventures on the Alimentary Canal, “Like people, bacteria are good or bad not so much by nature as by circumstance.” You have loads of bacteria in your ears, mouth, nose, throat, and gut and each of them either serves a useful function or doesn’t cause you any harm at all. That is unless you put them somewhere they aren’t supposed to be. For example, take a few Streptococcus bacteria from your throat (where the worst they will cause is a sore throat) and put them in your bloodstream and you will swiftly find yourself dying from necrotizing fasciitis, AKA flesh eating disease.




One place where bacteria seem to be the body’s greatest ally is in your colon. They aid in digestion, produce vital nutrients, and even help kill invader bacteria. Scientists are only now really beginning to appreciate the full-fledged ecosystem that exists inside your large intestine. And when I say “your” I mean it. Each person is host to their own custom mix of bacteria. It’s easy to think of them as parasites living off of your digestive tract, but in a very real sense they help make you, you.




Unfortunately, being you is not always a thrill. Even those of us with strong stomachs will get laid up with gas, bloating, or diarrhea at some point, no matter how careful we are about our health. In the worst cases, we can open the gate to evil bacteria that can produce chronic problems by overpowering your custom-built intestinal police force and hijacking your innards to cause you harm.

One of the worst examples is the bacterial infection C. difficile. This bacteria, which is most prevalent in hospitals, can set up shop in your colon and cause you all kinds of problems. The most embarrassing and life altering can be a persistent inability to… how can I put this?… trust a fart. The standard treatment is a course of anti-biotics, but for every course of treatment that doesn’t completely wipe them out, your chance of relapse doubles.




When all else fails there is one treatment that is almost guaranteed to work. The problem is, it is equal parts captivating and disgusting. The idea is to take the bacterial ecosystem from someone else’s colon and grow a replica in the infected person. It all sounds very scientific until you realize that it is called fecal bacteriotherapy and you find out how it is achieved…




First, the patient is given a run of powerful antibiotics to kill pretty much every bacterium in their colon. Next, a donor (anyone with a healthy gut) is asked to (I am trying to choose my words carefully here) collect a sample of their own detritus. The sample is then blended (yes, with a blender) and administered into the sick person’s large intestine. It may sound gross (once you figure out what I’m talking about) but in 93% of cases it works. The bacteria from the healthy person colonize the troublesome colon and health is restored in a matter of hours. A welcome relief for a person who may have previously been unable to leave their own home for fear of an embarrassing intestinal event.




Your body is an amazing partnership of organs and organisms. Finding and maintaining a healthy balance is the key to living a long and enjoyable life. But even if you’re not preoccupied with increasing longevity or running a marathon, you have one powerful incentive to try and maintain a fit digestive tract: Nobody wants a poop transplant.



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