Intestinal autointoxication: a medical leitmotif

J Clin Gastroenterol. 1989 Aug;11(4):434-41. doi: 10.1097/00004836-198908000-00017.

Abstract

The idea that putrefaction of the stools causes disease, i.e., intestinal autointoxication, originated with physicians in ancient Egypt. They believed that a putrefactive principle associated with feces was absorbed in to the general circulation, where it acted to produce fever and pus. This description of the materia peccans represented the earliest forerunner of our present notion of endotoxin and its effect. The ancient Greeks extended the concept of putrefaction to involve not only the residues of food, but also those of bile, phlegm, and blood, incorporating it into their humoral theory of disease. During the 19th century, the early biochemical and bacteriologic studies lent credence to the idea of ptomaine poisoning--that degradation of protein in the colon by anerobic bacteria generated toxic amines. Among the leading proponents of autointoxication was Metchnikoff, who hypothesized that intestinal toxins shortened lifespan. The toxic process, however, was reversed by the consumption of lactic acid-producing bacteria that changed the colonic microflora and prevented proteolysis. The next logical step in treatment followed in the early 20th century when surgeons, chief among them Sir W. Arbuthnot Lane, performed colectomy to cure intestinal autointoxication. By the 1920s, the medical doctrine fell into disrepute as scientific advanced failed to give support. However, the idea persists in the public mind, probably as an extension of the childhood habit of toilet training.

Publication types

  • Biography
  • Historical Article
  • Portrait

MeSH terms

  • Egypt
  • Feces*
  • Greece
  • History, 18th Century
  • History, 19th Century
  • History, 20th Century
  • History, Ancient
  • Humans
  • Intestinal Absorption*
  • Toxins, Biological / poisoning*

Substances

  • Toxins, Biological