The Right Germs: Gut Bacteria and Diabetes

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Type 2 diabetes tends to run in families: If parents have it, children are likely to get it too. But is that because of having similar genes, or similar behaviors? Maybe it’s neither. Maybe it’s having the same kind of bacteria in their guts.

This is an exciting idea, because if we find a way to change gut bacteria, we might be able to cure diabetes. The right germs have cured several other diseases, so why not diabetes?

What’s the evidence for a bacteria/diabetes connection? A Swedish study of 145 women found that the genes in intestinal bacteria predict diabetes more accurately than waist-to-hip ratio or body-mass index (a measure of weight relative to height).

A Chinese study of 345 people published last year found the same thing. The authors wrote,

Analysis showed that patients with Type 2 diabetes were characterized by…a decrease in some…butyrate-producing bacteria and an increase in various opportunistic pathogens.

According to scientists at the University of Aberdeen, “Butyrate plays a key role in maintaining human gut health, as the major source of energy to the colonic mucosa.” Butyrate also seems to prevent inflammation and cell death.

Our resident bacteria are called our microbiome. The combination of our own genes and those of our resident bacterial is called our metagenome. A disordered metagenome has been linked to obesity as well as diabetes. A study of female twins from Missouri showed that obese women had different bacteria in their guts than leaner women. They had a “lower proportion of Bacteroidetes and a higher proportion of Actinobacteria.”

I don’t know what that means, except that Bacteroidetes are normal and needed in the large gut. Actinobacteria are normal, too, but they cause a number of diseases. It seems that having more of the right bacteria and less of the bad ones may be as important to health as genes or diet.

Curing diseases with germs
Germs are being used or studied for curing diseases including cancer, ulcerative colitis, constipation, and multiple sclerosis, among others.

You may have heard of the very hard to cure toenail fungus called tinea. It’s basically athlete’s foot fungus that gets under the nail where creams and sprays can’t reach it. The oral drugs given for it are toxic to the liver and work less than half the time. People wind up never showing their feet in public again.

But according to some alternative practitioners, another fungus, Pythium oligandrum — sometimes called the Vampire Fungus — usually eats the tinea up, and then dies off. You put Vampire Fungus spores in your socks for a couple of days and your feet are free!

I admit I’m prejudiced. I like germs. As I’ve written about several times, the bacteria in our large intestine digest fiber and provide energy in the form of short-chain fatty acids, or SCFAs. SCFAs have lots of beneficial effects against diabetes and perhaps other diseases. Fiber is good because it feeds the good bacteria, producing more SCFAs.

How to get the right bacteria? Some foods might promote good germs. In an article about probiotics, our nutritionist Amy Campbell provided a list of the relatively few foods that provide good bacteria. These include sauerkraut and kimchi (fermented cabbage and spices), tempeh, aged cheeses (Gouda, Cheddar, Emmental, blue cheese), and yogurt with “live cultures.”

Those are good, but the acid in our stomachs may kill the germs before they get to the large intestine. And they may not be the best kind of germs anyway. There is another way.

Warning: This gets icky

Instead of eating good germs, you can have them inserted directly into your colon with an enema, a process called fecal microbiota transplant, or FMT. The Web site Power of Poo is devoted to people who recovered from severe ulcerative colitis with FMT. This “incurable” disease is usually treated ineffectively with steroids or with surgical removal of the colon. But apparently it can usually be cured with the right germs.

FMT seems to be an almost certain cure for infection with the nasty bacterium Clostridium difficile (C. diff). C. diff kills thousands of people each year. Antibiotics don’t work well against it, because antibiotics cause it. They kill all the good germs and let the C. diff run wild. But if you put good bacteria back in, they take care of the C. diff in a matter of days.

FMT frequently cures constipation. Very exciting to me is one constipation study that enrolled among its 15 subjects three patients with multiple sclerosis (MS). Each of the three not only recovered normal bowel function, but got out of their wheelchairs and, in at least one of the cases, is still walking unaided 15 years later.

I may have to try this, but there are some downsides. Obviously, it’s icky. It’s hard to find someone to do it for you, and it’s not covered by insurance, so you may have to do it yourself. This means finding the right donor and dealing with a lot of ick. Still, it might be worth it.

Can fecal transplant treat Type 2 diabetes? I wouldn’t be surprised. It’s being studied in China. In another study, FMT was found to reduce insulin resistance in 18 Dutch women studied.

Unfortunately, the FMT industry doesn’t have the resources of the drug industry. Actually, there is no FMT industry. So we’ll see if more research is done. If you are interested, you can find out more here. Or at least consider eating some probiotics.

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