The gut is home to an ongoing war between good and bad bacteria, and sometimes the bad bacteria win. Your stomach is overrun by a particularly nasty bug called Clostridium difficile, and not even antibiotics can clear up the problem properly. You’ve got a recurrent C. diff infection–a serious problem that kills 14,000 Americans a year.
To correct the bacterial balance, growing numbers of people have turned to a disgusting alternative: poop transplants. They’ve taken feces from another person–poop that retains the right combination of bacteria–and reintroduced it to their bodies, either through a tube through the nose, or as an enema. The results have been promising, to say the least. A clinical study last year, published in the New England Journal of Medicine, showed transplants could be more effective than the normal last-resort treatment–powerful “full-spectrum” antibiotics. And, several clinics have reported positive reactions after trialling the procedure.
The problem is this: while poop transplants are still experimental, many doctors aren’t happy administering them, however badly patients are feeling. The Food and Drug Administration has dropped some onerous requirements. But it has yet to offer any real clarity, so doctors know where they stand.
Hence, some patients have started doing for themselves what physicians refuse to do. They’ve gone D.I.Y. The BBC recently spoke to several people who’ve taken the plunge. For example, Catherine Duff, an Indiana resident, received a blend of her husband’s feces:
Duff lay on her back with her legs in the air, trying to hold the foreign material in her body. She lasted four hours before needing to go to the toilet. They started the process at 16:00 in the afternoon. By 22:00 that night she felt almost completely better. “And I had been literally dying the day before,” she says. “I was going into renal failure–I was dying.”
Duff has since set up a foundation to push for more fecal transplant research. Meanwhile, another patient, Edward Bondurant, gives himself a treatment whenever drugs fail to deal with his ulcerative colitis:
Bondurant’s first attempt at fecal transplant was a messy disaster but he is now something of a pro, able to do his job as a financial adviser while adopting the best positions needed for the fecal matter to slip into his colon. “I have actually had long conversations, doing large business deals for large sums of money, while hanging upside down,” he says.
Although Bondurant still takes drugs when his colitis flares up, he does regular fecal transplants to keep the disease at bay–he has now done more than 100. He can adapt his schedule to his donor’s body clock. He only lives five blocks away, so Bondurant either swings by his house, or his donor, letting himself into Bondurant’s house with his own key, drops off his droppings, leaving them in Tupperware in his fridge.
Sites like The Power of Poop offer full instructions to people considering transplants (“Pour FMT slurry into enema bag using kitchen strainer & funnel”) and they’re not for the squeamish. But you can see why they go through with it: When all else fails, you’re bound to try anything.
In the future, there may be alternatives that do a similar job. Researchers are working on poop pills and even synthetic poop. But approved treatments are still years away. In the meantime, C. diff sufferers either have to find one of the few doctors willing to do the procedure (Duff lists some on her website), or they have to take matters into their own hands.