DEAR DOCTORS: It seems like the news about the gut microbiome is getting weirder and weirder. I just read that a doctor said that the new trend would be for each of us to store our own poo for the future. What would be the benefit of doing that? And why is the gut microbiota so often in the headlines?
DEAR READER: We agree with you about the endless surprises regarding the role of the gut microbiome in our physical and mental health.
With such a cascade of new information, it seems like we’ve been talking about this topic forever. And in some ways, we did. The earliest known descriptions of microorganisms in our gut date back to the 1670s. But it wasn’t until the modern era of genetic sequencing, with the human genome project as the crown jewel, that scientists had the tools to uncover the secrets of the gut microbiome.
We are now learning how these trillions of bacteria, fungi, and viruses affect virtually every aspect of our health and well-being. They are found throughout the body – even our navels have their own microbiome. But the majority of microbes inhabit the large and small intestines, and they appear to be integral to immune function. This opened up new avenues of research and led to a flood of new information.
We now know that each person’s gut microbiota is unique. We are also learning that modern life has a negative effect on the composition and diversity of these networks of microorganisms. And that brings us to the news that surprised you. It comes from scientists at Harvard Medical School, who recently published an opinion piece in a scientific journal called Trends in Molecular Medicine. They argue that due to changes in our gut microbiomes as we age, we should start storing stool samples when we are young adults and still healthy. These would be for possible future use in a stool transplant. It is the process of infusing healthy fecal bacteria into the large intestine of a sick person. Today, it is often used successfully to treat a life-threatening infection known as Clostridium difficile or C. diff.
Stool banking may sound strange, but it is akin to the practice of cord blood banking. This is when the parents save blood from the umbilical cord and placenta, which contains a certain type of stem cell. It can be used to help treat a child’s possible future medical needs, such as metabolic diseases, blood disorders, immune deficiencies and certain cancers.
In their opinion piece, the Harvard scientists cite the link between changes in the gut microbiome and a corresponding increase in certain health conditions. These include allergies, digestive disorders, type 2 diabetes and obesity. They proposed that stool samples stored when a person is young and healthy could be used to combat these health problems. At this time, it’s unclear how, or even if, the saddle bank would work. But with this bold idea now in the mainstream, it’s likely to lead to more research — and even more news.
Eve Glazier, MD, MBA, is an internist and associate professor of medicine at UCLA Health. Elizabeth Ko, MD, is an internist and assistant professor of medicine at UCLA Health. Send your questions to [email protected], or write to: Ask the Doctors, c/o UCLA Health Sciences Media Relations, 10960 Wilshire Blvd., Suite 1955, Los Angeles, CA, 90024.