There are plenty of wonderful things about nature like that distinct whiff of fragrance you get every time you cross a jasmine bush in full bloom. There are also some things about nature that can make you sick to the stomach – such as the smell of poop.
But it’s really the bizarre ways of nature that leaves us completely stumped. For instance, discovering that the same compound that gives the jasmine flower its irresistibly charming odor is also responsible for making your poop smell so unbearably repugnant. Well if that wasn’t strange enough, it may also be just the elixir of good health we’ve all been waiting for!
Mind you, as counterintuitive as this piece of information may seem – it isn’t one of those old wives’ tales. In fact, it comes with some really solid scientific backing. But before we get to that, here’s a little bit about the star compound in question – indole.
What Exactly Is Indole?
Indole is an organic compound that is made by the bacteria in our gut. To give you an idea of what an indole molecule looks like, picture two rings of carbon glued together with little spikes of hydrogen attached to the circumference of each ring. There’s also one nitrogen molecule that’s added for some extra spice.
In small concentrations, indole has a pleasant, flowery odor. In larger concentrations, however, most people will agree it smells like poop. The concentration of indole in poop is especially high if you’ve eaten foods like milk or turkey, which contain tryptophan – an amino acid that gets converted into indole and indoxyl sulfate in your digestive system.
Indole and its chemical relatives can be found in plants, especially vegetables such as broccoli and kale.
What Makes Indole Foul And Fragrant At The Same Time?
The answer to this question has very little to do with indole and has more to do with our sense of smell.
When a scent hits your nostrils in very large concentrations, it binds itself to a much wider range of smell receptors that are associated with bad scents. In smaller traces, the receptors involved are a lot fewer in number and are associated with more acceptable smells.1 2 This ought to explain why every time you come across someone who has marinated himself in perfume, you feel not only overwhelmed but also sick.
But this is not just all. According to some researchers, too much indole doesn’t really smell like feces, and too little doesn’t smell like flowers either. In fact, both have a rich animal odor – fresh and green. It’s really a strange combination of dirty and pleasant – similar to what most “green” odors would smell like.
Indole May Make You Healthier
Details Of The Study
A team of U.S. researchers from Atlanta’s Emory University wanted to figure out a way to make elderly animals healthy.
So they studied a few mice, fruit flies, and worms and fed them bacterium that produces indole molecules.3
The focus of this study was not to increase the overall lifespan of these animals but instead on how to make them more fit and improve the quality of their health in their old age (also known as healthspan).
In the tests that followed, mice that were fed indoles displayed increased strength, mobility, and heat resistance as compared to those who weren’t. The indoles also more than doubled the reproductive span of these worms, allowing them to remain fertile up to 12 days – which was a huge jump from the usual limit of 5 days.4
Improved mobility and heat resistance were also seen in the fruit flies and mice that ingested indoles. The old mice (aged 28 months) who ingested indoles were also able to maintain their weight and activity levels. Moreover, when the researchers tested the effects of indole molecules on younger mice, they found the compound extended the survival of these mice after exposure
What Does This Mean?
The study indicates that indole molecules may help old animals live healthier, but not necessarily longer. This is important because, with numerous advances in the field of medical care, one may certainly end up living longer but that may not be a blessing if those extra years are spent feeling sick, frail, and infirm. In such circumstances, one can’t be expected to enjoy those additional years of life.
Researchers aren’t too sure as to how the indole molecules were able to
The physiology of animals is not too different from that of humans. Worms, for instance, share approximately a third of their genes with us humans, and like us, they also interact with bacteria. Plus, indole helps steer plant growth and is basically a language that bacteria and plants use to communicate with each other. These facts, along with indoles keeping proper homeostasis with our immune system intact, further testify the compound’s potential in maintaining human vitality and improving the quality of our life as we age.
While researchers are still unclear as to how to administer indoles to human beings in a way that’s both safe and efficacious, the study certainly brings us one step closer to improving human longevity.
Of course, the road to proving that indole molecules may indeed positively affect human healthspan is a long one. However, it will certainly make us think about wanting to live healthier for longer.
|↑1||Odorant Receptors and Olfactory Coding. National Center for Biotechnology Information.|
|↑2||Olfactory Perception in Humans. National Center for Biotechnology Information.|
|↑3, ↑4, ↑5||Sonowal, Robert, Alyson Swimm, Anusmita Sahoo, Liping Luo, Yohei Matsunaga, Ziqi Wu, Jui A. Bhingarde et al. “Indoles from commensal bacteria extend healthspan.” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (2017): 201706464.|
|↑6||Berstad, Arnold, Jan Raa, and Jørgen Valeur. “Indole–the scent of a healthy ‘inner soil’.” Microbial ecology in health and disease 26, no. 1 (2015): 27997.|