Stinky Science: Upgrade the Quality of Your Poop to Avoid Getting Sick
On super caca, disease resistance, and hacking of your mental health.
While the world has been fighting the coronavirus pandemic, bringing people to worry about possible food shortages in its initial phase, the previous years have been all about: Low-carb? Low-fat? Gluten-free? Lactose-free? Vegan? Keto? Paleo? Or intermittent fasting?
People living in an oversaturated society have the luxury to be picky about what they eat, and yet, despite all the choices we have, we have been eating the same stuff over and over again.
According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, the globalization gave rise to uniformity in eating habits:
"Although about 7 000 species of plants have been used as human food in the past, urbanization and marketing have now reduced them. Only 150 crops are now commercially important, with RICE, WHEAT, and MAIZE accounting for 60 percent of the world’s food supply."
Why is this a problem at all?
The less varied your long-term diet, the less diverse your gut microbiota – the population of microorganisms living in your intestines and protecting you against disease.
NOT YOUR BODY
It may come as a surprise that your body is not entirely your own. According to recent estimates, bacteria that live in and on you total around 40 trillion, compared to roughly 30 trillion of human cells.
"Beyond just dealing with their presence, our body actually developed a mutually beneficial relationship with our microbes, what is known in biology as symbiosis — a term that describes any type of close biological interaction between two different species that live together."
When we were babies, our mothers were trying to keep us clean at all times, and as we grew, we were told to wash our hands and bathe regularly to stay fit. And yet, since the moment of our birth, we have been colonized by trillions of microscopic guests who play a crucial role in both our physical and mental wellbeing.
Who are they exactly? And why cannot we do without these little invaders?
The human microbiota is made up of mostly:
- BACTERIA (unicellular organisms that can exist either independently or as parasites)
- VIRUSES (tiny parasites that multiply only inside infected cells)
- FUNGI (multicellular organisms feeding on organic matter)
and other single-celled organisms.
The biggest populations of microorganisms reside in your gut, followed by your skin, mouth, and genitals. The higher the diversity of bacterial species, the more efficient your immune system is in protecting you against disease. On the other hand, decreased microbial diversity is associated with chronic health conditions and diseases such as obesity, allergies, eczema, asthma, inflammation, diabetes, or cancer.
As mentioned above, the specific composition and diversity of your gut microbiota depend largely on your diet variety, together with the environment you live in, your lifestyle, or your genetics. Not only do we keep eating more or less the same things every day, we also consume too many processed, packaged, poor-quality foods, which are enhanced with artificial flavorings and chemical additives. The overuse of antibiotics comes at a price, as well, since they operate in a non-targeted manner; They kill both the bad and the good guys, thus reducing the diversity of your microbiota even further. Likewise, psychological stress or environmental pollution can lead to changes in microbial composition.
YOUR SECOND BRAIN
Many scientists call the gut microbiota a separate organ due to its importance in influencing our body's health and homeostasis, that is, its ability to maintain a stable internal environment:
- It helps extract, absorb, and utilize nutrients from the food we eat.
- It protects us against pathogens.
- It regulates the response of our immune system.
- It produces neurotransmitters, such as dopamine and serotonin.
While there are 80 to 100 billion neurons in your first brain – the one inside your skull – your second brain – the one in your gut – contains more than 500 million. The nervous system of the gastrointestinal tract,or enteric nervous system, is capable of functioning independently of the central nervous system or in collaboration with it. They are connected extensively and communicate with each other via a gut-brain axis, a bidirectional superhighway of neurons, hormones, and chemicals.
Besides handling the process of digestion, the bacteria residing in our gut produce chemicals that influence brain function. Some of the most popular drugs prescribed for treating depression (e.g., Prozac, Zoloft) regulate the levels of serotonin. And about 90% of serotonin, the "happy molecule" that influences your mood, is produced in the gut.
Furthermore, animal research has shown that germ-free mice (=free of microbes) displayed an elevated response to stress. Such studies suggest that the absence or altered composition of microorganisms in our bodies can cause grave damage to our health, including our mental health.
A promising, innovative method to treat not only gastrointestinal but also neurological and psychiatric disorders (such as Parkinson’s, Alzheimer's, multiple sclerosis, autism, depression, or anxiety) is fecal microbiota transplantation, a procedure where fecal bacteria of a healthy donor is transferred into the colon of the patient.
"Though new to the Western medical world, fecal microbiota transplantation has been described 1700 years ago. It was an ancient Chinese researcher of the fourth century, by the name of Ge Hong, who first used what he called ‘yellow soup’ to treat his patients with severe diarrhea."
The success of such therapy, administered via colonoscopy or oral capsules, depends, however, on the identification of so-called "super donors", whose super poop shows rich microbial diversity and composition.
Could you become one of them, that is, a person whose stool is of such high quality that - should they get a chance - other people would love for you to share it with them, in order to radically upgrade the state of their own minds and bodies?
Truth be told, improving the quality of your microbiota is nothing unattainable if you follow a few basic rules:
- Eat lots of fiber - gut bacteria thrive on it!
- Increase the variety of fiber you eat – diversify your shopping choices and include all kinds of vegetables, fruits, salads, and herbs into your meals.
- Eat fermented foods containing live bacteria - such as sauerkraut, kombucha, kimchi, fermented oats, or kefir.
- Reduce sugar – including liquid sugar in the form of sodas, juices, and alcoholic drinks – as well as artificial sweeteners, such as aspartame (goodbye, Coke Zero), since they negatively alter the microbial composition.
When researchers tested FDA-approved artificial sweeteners (aspartame, sucralose, saccharine, neotame, advantame, and acesulfame potassium-k) and sport supplements, they found out that "the bacteria found in the digestive system became toxic when exposed to concentrations of only one mg./ml. of the artificial sweeteners".
- Spend more time in contact with nature - people living in rural areas are known to have more diverse microbiota than those living in cities.
The Hadza people of Tanzania, a hunter-gatherer tribe whose diet consists of around 600 species of wild foods (plants and animals) have a gut diversity which is one of the richest on the planet. When Tim Spector, Professor of Genetic Epidemiology at King's College London, spent only three days living and eating with the Hadza, his gut diversity increased by fantastic 20%.
- Don't overdo it with hygiene - it's a known fact that taking a shower or bath every day is not so great for your immunity. Which doesn't mean that you should not stay clean and wash your hands, just don't spray yourself and everything you touch with sanitizers or disinfectants all the time (unless you're at risk because of COVID, naturally).
- Filter your tap water - studies suggest drinking chlorinated water can negatively impact your gut bacteria.
The very word "bacteria" carries a negative connotation for most people, and yet their absence can be linked to grave chronic diseases. To give one example, people with Crohn's disease have proved to show decreased levels of a bacterium called Faecalibacterium prausnitzii. And science is just getting started on that.
Isn't it worth it, then, to seriously consider introducing more high-fiber plants into our dietary regimes? For once, not to lose weight, to fight for animal rights, or to feel moderately better, but to fundamentally shift the physical and mental reality of our lives?