The latest treatment for skin cancer might come from a surprising — I mean really surprising — place: the bathroom. No, you don’t have to lock yourself into a windowless water closet for this treatment. (Though you might actually prefer that to what I’m about to tell you.) This treatment involves poop.
Promise – there’s no topical application involved. And while this treatment might be off-putting, it’s a lot better than succumbing to melanoma. Let me explain what this treatment involves and why researchers are excited about it.
You probably know that your immune system and your gut health are closely related. When your gut isn’t healthy, you can end up with systemic inflammation throughout your body. An overgrowth of bad bacteria can lead to intestinal permeability, or “leaky gut.” Tiny gaps in the intestinal wall allow the contents of the intestines to seep out of the intestines and into the blood stream.
The immune system mounts a response. This response involves inflammation throughout the body, including the skin. This is certainly a problem if you want your skin to look its best. But it’s also a problem as we often need our immune system to focus on other issues. And skin cancer is definitely a big issue for your immune system.
Melanoma is the most deadly form of skin cancer. And it often doesn’t respond to our usual cancer treatments. Chemotherapy tends to be only minimally effective. So researchers are looking for different options.
One of the most promising avenues is immunotherapy. This treatment stimulates our own immune system. It helps tell the body to take out the cancer cells. And it often works more efficiently and better than chemotherapy. But the success rate is still only about 50/50.
That’s not great. So medical researchers from London’s Lawson Health Research Institute are trying to figure out how to improve this rate. And they think poop just might be the answer.
Why Poop Stops Skin Cancer
Of course, one of the most obvious ways to figure out why a treatment works for some people and not others is to compare the two groups. The researchers did just that. And they noticed that people who responded well tended to have something the others didn’t: healthy guts. Specifically, they had healthier microbiomes, meaning they had more and a greater variety of healthy gut bacteria. This is one of the best ways to avoid inflammatory leaky gut syndrome.
The researchers want to know if improving gut health can improve response to immunotherapy. It’s absolutely possible to build a healthier gut microbiome over time through a combination of a fiber-rich diet and probiotics. But melanoma patients don’t have the luxury of time. So the researchers want to know if a shortcut will help.
In this case, the shortcut comes in the form of a fecal transplant from donors with healthy guts. The researchers want to know if introducing a heavy concentration of healthy bacteria will be enough to support the immune system through the immunotherapy process.
Patients will have to take the donor feces orally. But the researchers will clean, concentrate, and carefully encapsulate them. And the researchers have very high standards for their donors. In fact, they’ve been accepting only about 2% of applicants.
Obviously, donors need to be in good health themselves and free from bowel parasites. But the researchers are even investigating their family health history. The researchers don’t want to take any chances of making things more difficult for their patients by introducing other health concerns.
Treats More Than Skin Cancer
And, of course, the researchers hope that if successful, this treatment could help more than just melanoma patients. Other researchers in London have used fecal transplants to help patients suffering from C. difficile infections. This bacteria, once it lodges in the intestines, is notoriously difficult to eliminate.
This study and its implications for the skin intrigue me, especially because there’s a long history of connection between intestinal disorders and other issues. For example, in Traditional Chinese Medicine, the large intestine and the lungs are intimately connected. Now we know that people with asthma are likely to have bowel disorders too. In fact, having asthma increases your risk of irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) by 50%.
Having IBS or inflammatory bowel disease (IBD), in turn, can increase your risk of skin disorders. Research suggests that an overactive immune system is a key link between IBD and skin disease. And skin disease can even be an indicator that the intestines are irritated, even if IBS or IBD hasn’t shown up yet.
The two main types of IBD are ulcerative colitis (UC) and Crohn’s disease (CD). While the name IBD suggests these diseases are limited to the bowel, up to 40% of people with IBD experience effects on other organ systems, including the skin.
Some of these skin issues can be a result of nutritional deficiencies. People with UC or CD often can't absorb nutrients well. That tells you how important proper nutrition is to optimal skin for those of us who don't have absorption issues. Your body can't absorb the nutrients if you don't consume them. IBD also can lead to psoriasis, which studies have linked to inflammation as well.
Other Tips to Help the Gut – and Your Skin
Traditional Chinese Medicine also believes that the bowel directly influences the skin, and it seems that it’s right about this. If you want healthy skin, you must have healthy digestion. For example, there’s almost always a connection between breakouts on the chin and a digestive issue or insufficient hydration. Make sure you stay hydrated throughout the day. Keeping a water bottle with you during the day can help you remember to drink water throughout the day. If you find yourself thirsty – you are most likely already dehydrated.
If you suspect you have digestive issues, one of the best ways to correct them is with either digestive enzymes or botanicals and a probiotic. You can either eat probiotic-rich foods, such as yogurt or fermented vegetables, or try a supplemental probiotic or both. Supplemental enzymes can work wonders.
If your digestive issues are severe and you suspect you may have a form of IBD, take action now. You'll need to find a doctor who can help you find the cause and work to fix the problem. IBD can affect every aspect of your health, not just your skin.
If you believe your digestion is healthy, but you still want to help your skin look its best, make sure you're eating a wide variety of fruits and vegetables. They're full of the vitamins you'll need to maintain a healthy glow that radiates from the inside out.
Plus, if the melanoma researchers are right, having a healthy gut will be particularly important if you ever receive a melanoma diagnosis. I hope you have healthy skin habits these days. But many of us weren’t as careful as we should have been when we were young. If that’s you, one of the best things you can do to protect yourself from melanoma now is to develop a healthy gut microbiome.
A probiotic and digestive enzymes are good places to start. But if you want to maximize the benefits to your skin, you need to eat a wide variety of fruits and vegetables every day. This will help you easily reach the fiber target of 25 grams per day for women and 38 for men. Fiber provides the food those healthy bacteria you’re getting from your probiotic need to grow and thrive.
Yes, you could take supplemental fiber products. Some people do benefit from these. But I recommend starting with plants. Fill your plate with antioxidant-rich fruits and vegetables. Plants are full of compounds beyond fiber that help skin glow – and support your immune system.
Of course, if you do have a digestive disorder, you’ll want to work closely with your doctor to find the right balance of fiber and other nutrients. You certainly don’t want to regularly consume foods that are irritating your intestines. Whole-grain breads that contain gluten, for example, might not be a good idea for you. But there are plenty of nutrient-rich foods that you can enjoy.
If you suffer from digestive issues, keep a close eye on your skin. And unexplained skin woes might just be linked to your gut.
I hope you don’t ever have to find out if your immune system is strong enough to fight melanoma. But it’s certainly a good idea to be prepared. Maintaining a healthy gut environment is a great place to start.