Gut Hack: Number Two is Number One
I hope you think the title is funny
You probably never talk about your poop with anyone. You never had to know what the bristol stool scale is or figure out which word to describe poop suits you best. Is it feces? Shit? Stool? Number Two?
It doesn't matter how many times I am interviewed or asked about my poop it doesn't get less awkward. It's not something I can just dismiss either. The Verge wrote a huge article about it back when The Verge was cool. The New York Times documentary Gut Hack made by Mario Furloni and Kate McLean was played at SXSW, SF Film Festival and many others which I had to attend and answer questions about my poop to hundreds of people. It’s a weird huge part of my life that will always be weird. How do you just drop into the conversation that the New York Times made a documentary about you eating poop? (I literally just chortled writing that)
When I had the idea to do a microbiome transplant it wasn't such a big deal. It was an Art project I brainstormed with Heather Dewey-Hagborg and I had no plans to have press or a documentary film crew follow me around for the experiment. I paid for the nearly $5000 in metagenomic sequencing out of pocket and wasn't supported by any Art grants or funding agencies. I just wanted to see what would happen. I had a shitty gut.
Gut problems are pretty prevalent in the world and generally not much is known about the causes. Autoimmune maybe. Inflammation based. Could be genetic. Could be environmental. Could be the microbiome. Could be all of the above. I don't know what caused my gut issues. Medical doctors tell you that it is linked to stress and to be less stressed out but like, come on. My gut issues were pretty bad but I've definitely seen worse. Besides general gastrointestinal distress I had blood in my stool and sometimes had to take a shit 10 times a day. I definitely took days off work because I was stuck on the shitter.
In 2015, the Irritable Bowel Disease/Syndrome (IBx) and bacterial microbiome communities weren't very well acquainted. People knew that the bacteria in and on our bodies were important but studies were extremely lacking. It was obvious though that some people have healthy gut bacteria and some don’t. So why not try to transplant the healthy to the unhealthy? Unfortunately, the only way to get healthy bacteria from someone's gut is poop. Even the CDC hasn't created a swab that long yet. So…… poop pills. Fecal transplants were and still are only approved to treat antibiotic resistant Clostridium difficile infections so DIY fecal transplant are a thing.(http://thepowerofpoop.com , I promise, this website is where alot of people went) The problem was most people had little idea what they were doing and had no objective way to measure or understand if these experiments were doing anything. I wanted to change that and see if I could help myself at the same time. I decided to do a microbiome transplant and sequence as many samples of the bacteria in and on and around my body as I could to see the effects. The science was the easy part. The hard part was finding someone healthy and willing to donate their poop to me.
Ok, so you have some close friends who are seemingly healthy, athletic and attractive and in monogamous relationships and you want to sleep with them. What do you do? Whatever it is, it's alot easier than asking them for their poop so you can transplant it into your body.
I wish you could see me writing this story. Basically, after every sentence I can't help but laugh and cringe at how ridiculous this all sounds but it's ALL true.
This is a fictional conversation but basically how the first few conversations went when I asked people for their poop.
Me: Hey, how's it going?
Me: I like to eat healthy. But still my gastrointestinal issues suck. Do you eat healthy and/or have gastrointestinal issues?
Them: I eat pretty healthy and besides the rare stomach ache I'm good.
Me: Mental health issues suck. I wish we had better mental healthcare right? Do you have any experience with that?
Then: No, not really.
Me: how often do you work out?
Them: 3-5 times a week
*Me getting giddy*
Me: Would you let me have some of your poop?
I'ma be honest here. It was weird. I got rejected a few times. I was feeling ugly. But eventually I found someone. Never give up. Here is the actual conversation.
Meeting someone for a poop handoff like it is a drug deal is strange. Seriously though, what about this story isn’t strange? Fun fact, poop is actually regulated by the FDA! FUN! Is there anything about our bodies that isn’t regulated by the government? Sadly, probably not. Blinking maybe? I should go off on a rant here about how important body autonomy from our government is but I'm gonna assume y'already believe that. Because it's the foundation of what it means to be a free individual.
Despite all the attention this got I never planned to have the media involved. Some people think I’ma media hound. The truth is lots of the media attention I have gotten was on accident. This was just happenstance. A friend of mine, Arielle Duhaime-ross was a science reporter at The Verge. We were having a conversation about shit going on in my life and I mentioned this project and she told her editor and they thought it was the shiiiiit. This was the first major article about me and my work. There were a few articles about The Chromochord before this but they were low key. So this was my first time really interacting with a journalist and I'ma be honest, it didn't go well. No one gives you a playbook for these things. Even if they did it is different for every person. I think with news media you kinda hafta fail to get it right. I had no idea what was going on. I know better now. The world of news media is different. To most journalists you’re just a story, not a person. No shit, right? But that's alot harder to realize in the moment when someone is actively trying to gain your trust and get you to open up. You want to trust the person. I'm still a sucker and trust journalists more than I should. I'm just alot more selective on which ones I will talk to.
The whole situation was a clusterfuck though. The film crew, scientists, friends, everyone, was afraid I would die or end up in the hospital. I didn’t know what to think. I did plenty of research and talked to some of the leading microbiome experts in the world but when the people around you all think you might die it makes you question your own reality. You wonder if you are sane. That's not a good place to be. It's really jarring. It’s dark. You really are starring into the abyss and hoping that you haven’t gone so far that there is no coming back. And then you have a camera crew, journalist and photographer all up in your grill. I just wanted to do Art. That’s kind of the story of my life though.
If you are wondering if I died. I didn't. I didn’t end up in the hospital either. But the experiment was much harder on my body than I expected. The only way to be sure that my microbiome was gone was to nuke it from orbit. I took antibiotics to wipe out the bacteria in my body before transplantation and it was harsh. Since then, if a medical doctor offers me antibiotics I refuse them unless I absolutely need them. I believe with all this excessive antibiotic use we are fucking up our microbiomes. I lost over 10 lbs(~4.5 kg) over a single month. My appetite and BMs were fucked up. Surprisingly, the easiest part of this whole thing is the only thing people remember, eating the poop pills. I had to take a pill of the poop to transplant the healthy bacteria into my gut. It definitely took a lil bit to get over that idea. It wasn't like I was tasting the poop though, it was in a pill. To be honest, some of the pills actually leaked a little and I did get the faintest hint. It tasted bitter. Isn’t that poetic? The whole experience was kind of a bitter pill. That’s even what Arielle named her piece.
Over the course of the experiment I took 77 microbiological samples. A time series of Skin, nose, poop, up my butt and around the corner, my bed and even my cats. I sent them to Argonne National Lab to have the DNA of the bacteria in the samples purified and sequenced. Metagenomic sequencing they call it. This gave me information on how the populations of bacteria in and on my body and in my environment changed over the course of the experiment. The data showed that my gut microbiome changed pretty drastically and became very close to the donor. Honestly, I didn't expect such definitive results. It was pretty amazing. I love when science works out like that. If you want you can read a more scientific write-up of the experiment with data here.
Microbiome transplants don’t work for everyone. If your diet and lifestyle is shitty I don’t think a transplant can treat you in a significant way. Generally no one knows the cause of gastrointestinal distress so a fecal transplant can be kind of a crap shoot. After the experiment I tried to have a more healthy and holistic approach to my gut health and I haven't had blood in my stool since. I picked up sweet cravings which weirded me out because I was never into sweets before. The donor was. Cue spooky music. And people now know me as the person who ate poop.
To this day one of the greatest accomplishments of my life is that I'm NOT most well known for eating poop. I’m pretty proud of that one actually. It’s probably what inspired me to do so many other interesting things. Still, That doesn’t mean people don’t ask me how my poops are doing. And when they do I just smile awkwardly and talk about lack of blood in my stool. Gross, I know, but they asked for it.
After the experiment this one Korean documentary filmed me for a show about the microbiome and they filmed me eating for like 20 minutes. I think secretly they were making a mukbang. Oh well, at least I got paid for that.