How Poop Transplants Could Help You Lose Weight
Are freeze-dried fecal matter pills the future of dieting?
Cartoons often represent the inner workings of the body as a workplace comedy, with tiny people in hardhats representing red blood cells or whatever and the more we research the human microbiome—all the bacteria living on you doing essential work in the stomach, colon, and vagina—the more realistic this depiction seems. Inside your tum-tum are millions of good bacteria breaking down food, keeping bad pathogens in check, and generally turning to camera and saying "It's a living," with a shrug.
More and more research is showing that some people's intestinal workforce is more efficient than others, and this could be one cause of obesity. Scientists have found that the gut flora of obese people and animals vary significantly from the flora of the lean members of their species. Furthermore, there is evidence that altering gut flora via fecal microbiota transplant (FMT) may be able to affect change in both weight and insulin resistance.
In 2008, scientists introduced the microbiota of obese mice to formerly lean mice. These mice saw a significant weight gain. Then in 2011, a woman who received a FMT from her overweight daughter gained over 30 pounds after the procedure. "People who are overweight have different microbiota," says Dr. Sahil Khanna of the Mayo Clinic. "But we don't yet know what are the bacteria that are deficient in people who are obese."
In a study beginning this year, Dr. Elaine Yu is putting this poop theory to the test. Obese participants will be given freeze-dried fecal matter pills. These pills will either have young healthy vibrant go-getter poop or a placebo. Yu will then measure any changes in their "insulin sensitivity and body composition," according to the official government registry of the study. "Fecal samples will also be collected for intestinal microbiome analysis."
At this point you may be saying to yourself, "OK, but why poop, though? Can't I just eat a yogurt or something?" No, you adorably naive little dullard. FMT is the most reliable way to introduce new bacteria to the gut. FMTs have been done successfully since the 1950's to treat c. diff, a bacterial infection of the colon that can result in death. C. diff infections usually occur after heavy antibiotic use, when the body is out of good bacteria to keep microbiome in check. Until recently, the only reliable means of transfer was a 'fresh donation' (meaning: someone would have to drop kids off in the science pool that day) given as a suppository or enema. Doctors are now beginning to freeze and thaw donations, while others have come up with a capsule treatment, which contains freeze-dried fecal matter.
We're still a long way from poop pills sitting next to the melatonin at Whole Foods. The study of the human microbiome is in its relative infancy. Scientists have seen a correlation between an animal's microbiota and its weight but, as Dr. Khanna says, "It's a chicken-or-the-egg problem. Which came first? Did the microbiota cause the weight, or is the bacteria a result of habits and diet?" To answer that question, he says, "you need to do a study where you take stool samples from birth. There are some people who are doing studies like that, but no results have been produced."
Studies like Dr. Yu's are the first step in identifying which bacteria contribute to weight loss. When the hard work of science is done, we may all be eating poop. But until then, it will remain simply a weird sex thing, like the founding fathers intended.
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