The more we learn about the millions of micro-organisms living inside us, the more important they come to seem.
Just as our immune systems build up antibodies over a lifetime of exposure to various challenges, so our gut ‘biome’ grows and evolves , becoming more sophisticated over time. A newborn baby’s gut is sterile, but it doesn’t stay that way for long; if it did, the baby would be barely able to digest solid foods when they were introduced.
And that’s because we now know it’s not just about our digestive enzymes. Our gut bacteria between them have a wide range of actions to break down food, extract what’s useful and get it ready for absorption through the walls of the small intestine. Without them, our digestion is pretty much disabled. Normally, the bacteria are self-replicating, but there are two main ways in which we can lose them. One is through loose bowels, either because of infection or inflammation, and the other – much more efficient – is through taking antibiotics. A course or two now and then doesn’t matter too much, but repeated use sets us up for digestive troubles.
It seems pretty certain that disturbance of the gut biome plays a part in everything from irritable bowel to ulcerative colitis, but it goes much further than that. Researchers have found unusual bacterial ‘profiles’ in several auto-immune conditions, and even in some studies of autism and depression. Could changing the gut flora help these conditions? We just don’t know, yet.
It’s a twofold problem. The ‘good’ bacteria are depleted, so things don’t work so well. But that makes room for ‘bad’ bacteria to run riot, giving rise to the symptoms of infection, and sometimes damaging the gut wall in the process. Clostridium difficile is the one most talked about these days, and it’s not just found in hospitals. At best it causes a debilitating illness, and at worst it can be fatal.
One thing we do know is that changing gut flora can dramatically help sufferers from C.difficile. 70-80% are much improved, or even cured, with the help of faecal transplants. That’s right: the introduction of bacteria from healthy stools. Eating probiotics is all very well, but they only contain a few species of bacteria, and most of those are destroyed in your stomach. Once we get over the ‘yuk factor’, recolonising from a healthy human source seems an obvious way to go.
And it may turn out to be helpful for a host of other complaints, too. Certainly, when I see patients with chronic digestive problems, and the herbs help but don’t put things completely right, I’d consider this as the next course of action. At the moment, it’s only available as a hospital procedure, but enteric-coated pills (that don’t dissolve until they reach your small intestine) would make it available on a much wider scale.