Then vs. Now: The Promising History of Fecal Transplants

These poop-derived treatments are making a serious comeback.

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A fecal transplant—or more specifically a fecal microbiota transplant (FMT)—is exactly how it sounds: It’s a procedure where poop from a healthy person is transplanted into a sick person. It’s a method that dates back to 4th century China, and even though it was considered a “forgotten treatment” for some time, it’s regaining serious popularity today.

OK, you might be thinking: Wait, with all the technological advancements and groundbreaking medicines available today, we’re using poop? Seriously?

A fecal transplant may sound disgusting, but the reason it’s making a comeback is because it works. And the way it’s used today is far less appalling than how it was used 1,700 years ago … but more on that later.

Currently, FMTs are used to treat recurrent Clostridium difficile (C. diff) infection, which is complication of antibiotic therapy that can cause diarrhea, abdominal cramping, and sometimes fever.

Using this case as an example, here’s how an FMT works: If someone has been infected with C. diff, which is a type of bacteria, their doctor may give them antibiotics to fight it. Antibiotics, however, kill any type of bacteria—whether they’re harmful or not. This can upset the ecosystem in the gut, killing “good” protective bacteria, which can allow the “bad” bacteria, such as C. diff, to prevail.

An FMT is a method of repopulating the colon with healthy bacteria to fight the not-so-healthy bacteria. A healthy person’s poop is chock-full of protective bacteria. So, if a person’s C. diff infection isn’t budging, doctors may consider using an FMT to restore the harmonious balance of the digestive system.

Research has shown that for the treatment of recurrent C. diff, FMTs are very effective. According to one review of 36 studies, out of 583 patients with a C. diff  infection who were treated with an FMT, more than 90 percent were cured.

The potential of FMTs is undoubtedly promising, but the research is still slim. That’s because even though its use was documented thousands of years ago, after that there was no record of a fecal transplant being used until the Renaissance era—a more than 1,000-year mysterious gap.

The Rise, Fall, and Rise of the “Forgotten” Poop Treatment

According to the Handbook of Emergency Medicine, the first use of feces for treatment was in 4th century China by Chinese physician and alchemist, Ge Hong. Brace yourself: It was taken by mouth.

His fecal concoction was called “yellow soup”—which unfortunately is also exactly how it sounds. It was a poop-derived, soup-like liquid used to treat severe food poisoning symptoms, such as diarrhea.

Despite its unsavory administration method (which may have led to its demise), Hong’s theory was on point: The bacteria from the stool in the “yellow soup” was intended to inhabit the gut of the sick person, and bring about a cure.

After the “yellow soup” period began the long absence of poop treatments—which lasted until the Renaissance era (between the 14th and 17th centuries). In the 1500s, Italian anatomist and surgeon Acquapendente coined  “transfaunation,” which was the transfer of gastrointestinal content from a healthy animal to a sick animal. This concept used in veterinary medicine was said to be administered orally and rectally.

Hundreds of years later in Europe in the 18th and 19th centuries and during World War II (1939-1945), it was said that German soldiers used camel poop to treat bacterial dysentery.

Later, an FMT was first published in English in 1958 by a team of American surgeons when a case of antibiotic-associated diarrhea was treated with a fecal enema (introducing feces through the rectum). Still, the treatment wasn’t well recognized until 1978, when researchers learned more about C. diff and how FMTs can help.

FMTs are now being studied to treat an array of conditions, such as Crohn’s disease, ulcerative colitis, IBS, autoimmune diseases, and psychiatric disorders.

Curious to know if an FMT is right for you? That’s something you’ll have to take up with your doctor. He or she can give you the scoop on how you may benefit from treatments that use poop.

Here are more ways your poop can give you clues about your health:

Check out what the color of your poop says about your health and learn more about what your poop shape is trying to tell you.