Integrative Medicine: Sounds icky, but treatment's promising

03/28/2013 12:00 AM

03/27/2013 1:01 PM

In the "strange but true" category: A recent study shows transferring fecal matter from one person to another works better than current medical therapies to eradicate bacteria from the serious bowel infection Clostridium dificile colitis.

The New England Journal of Medicine reported that Dutch researchers who performed a randomized trial in which 13 of 16 patients with C. dificile colitis infection of the colon improved after the fecal transplant. This was compared to less than one-third of patients who improved with conventional antibiotic treatment.

While this may seem to be an icky and isolated medical factoid, it brings to light the fact that the specific bacteria that humans normally carry in their bodies are helpful in creating health. The fecal transplant in the study worked because the specific bacteria in the healthy gut introduced a large volume of "good" bacteria into the infected gut, which helped fight off and crowd out the "bad" bacterial infection.

Probiotics are the "good" bacteria that help maintain the natural balance of organisms (microflora) in the gut. The normal human digestive tract carries an estimated 100 trillion microorganisms making up more than 500 different species of bacteria. By toddler years, microbial populations have generally stabilized and remain stable throughout adulthood.

Changes in individual probiotic makeup can occur with changes in diet, environment and host genetics, and a shift in the makeup can lead to a predisposition to certain bowel conditions.

Probiotics have been shown to be helpful in maintaining health by restoring normal flora and supporting immune system function, especially when a person is taking antibiotics, which can wipe out intestinal bacteria indiscriminately.

Probiotics have also been shown in some studies to be an effective treatment for diarrhea, lactose intolerance, irritable bowel syndrome, vaginal yeast infections, oral thrush, Crohn's disease and ulcerative colitis.

The good news is that we don't all have to stand in line for a fecal transplant to have a healthy gut bacteria blend. Probiotics are available in foods and dietary supplements. Some of these options include probiotic yogurts from cow's milk, goat's milk, sheep's milk and soy, which normally contain Lactobacillus.

Kefir contains several major strains of "good" bacteria, such as Lactobacillus Caucasus, Leuconostoc, Acetobacter species, and Streptococcus species, and some beneficial yeasts that aren't usually found in yogurt.

There's probiotic cheese: yogurt-cultured and Kefir-cultured cheeses, which can contain the bacteria Lactobacillus acidophilus, L. bulgaricus, L. casei, Streptococcus thermophilus and Bifidobacterium lactis.

There's probiotic kombucha, which is a fermented tea drink in which tea, water and sugar are combined together and heated, with starter cultures added to create the end product, exactly as is done with yogurt or kefir.

And there are probiotic "nutraceuticals" and supplements in pill and liquid form.

We recommend a natural approach to probiotic supplementation, getting a variety of probiotics with diverse natural food products, and supplementing as needed, especially after taking a round of antibiotics.

Drs. Kay Judge and Maxine Barish-Wreden are medical directors of Sutter Downtown Integrative Medicine program. Have a question related to alternative medicine? Email

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