Finally, a Safe Diet Pill?

A new year has begun and t’is the season of new year’s resolutions. More often than not, the most common resolution pertains to weight loss. Whether it is a stated resolution to exercise more, eat less or eat better, this is the time of year when a large percentage of the nation begins paving the road with good intentions. Health clubs are packed, yoga studios are jammed and those who exercise regularly throughout the year look forward to February when the majority of the new year’s resolution people will be gone, having fallen back into their old habitual lifestyle.

The fact of the matter is, most people have a really difficult time mustering the discipline to maintain a healthy diet and regular exercise regimen. More often than not, they would prefer to simply take a pill and have the weight magically fall off. They would do just about anything to lose the weight. How far would you go? Would you eat another person’s feces to lose weight? What?!?!?!?! Sound crazy? A recent study out of Washington University in St. Louis has some extremely compelling evidence that ingesting the feces of thin people might just do the trick.

The role of bacteria in diet and various disease states has long been an area of interest. So researchers at Washington University led by Jeffrey Gordon, M.D. devised a study in which they located sets of twins, one obese and one thin. They then transferred the gut bacteria from the twins to mice that had been raised in a sterile environment and therefore had no bacteria of their own. Mice who were colonized by the thin twin’s bacteria remained thin and the mice colonized by the obese twin’s bacteria became obese. Truly amazing! This occurred despite the fact the mice were given the same diet.

The question many people are asking themselves is, “Can I really be overweight simply because my gut has the wrong bacteria?” Quite possibly, yes. But let us look further at the research from Dr. Gordon and his team. The researchers then decided to see what happened when they took three different groups of mice and put them together. They combined the thin mice with the thin twin bacteria, the obese mice with the obese twin bacteria and “sterile” mice not colonized by either of the twins’ bacteria in an environment together. Mice housed together consume one another’s fecal material and, therefore, all of the mice from the different groups would be colonized with both the thin and the obese twins’ bacteria.

Their findings were nothing short of incredible. All three populations of mice gastrointestinal tracts were taken over by the thin twin’s bacteria. The thin mice stayed thin, the sterile mice stayed thin and the obese mice became thin and stopped showing the negative metabolic effects of obesity. Fantastic!!! So now, all one has to do is colonize yourself with the gut bacteria of thin people and overweight people can become thin, too, correct? Not so fast. There has to be some accountability somewhere, right?

The researchers took the study one step further. The mice diets in the original study were very low in fat. So they decided to run a similar experiment where by they placed the fat mice with the thin mice and fed them a low fat diet very high in fruits and vegetables and in the other group they placed the fat and thin mice together and fed them an unhealthy diet high in fat and low in fruits and vegetables. The obese mice which were fed the unhealthy diet remained colonized with the obese twin’s bacteria and remained obese. The obese mice were only colonized by the thin twin’s bacteria when they consumed the healthy diet, high in fruits and vegetables. So it appears that even in this incredible case, it remains encumbent upon those wishing to lose weight that they choose their diet responsibly.

This research is extremely exciting and holds great promise. Consuming the fecal material of others sounds crazy but it is not without precedent in the field of medicine. There exists an awful type of bacterial infection which occurs in patients who have been on multiple antibiotics and or antibiotics for a prolonged period. These patients can become infected with a bacterium named Clostridium difficle. Although there is an antibiotic which can treat this infection, patients with difficult C. difficle infections improved more rapidly when given feces from healthy individuals.

Researchers caution that there is still much to learn and that their preference would be to find the by-products of the bacteria responsible for these changes and, perhaps, give those to patients rather than feces or the bacteria from the feces themselves; having said that, the possibilities are very exciting. Perhaps, some day, soon those who struggle with obesity, may be able to couple a pill with a diet high in fruits and vegetables and become thin. This would allow them to live happier and healthier lives and potentially save billions of dollars in a healthcare system strained by the destructive pathology of obesity associated illness. In the meantime, this doctor, still recommends regular exercise and a responsible diet. Happy New Year!