microbiome

Some people can eat red meat without negative health consequences, which may be due to variability between people's gut microbes.

(Photo by Sander Dalhuisen on Unsplash)


In different countries' national dietary guidelines, red meats (beef, pork, and lamb) are often confined to a very small corner. Swedish officials, for example, advise the population to "eat less red and processed meat". Experts in Greece recommend consuming no more than four servings of red meat — not per week, but per month.

"Humans 100% rely on the microbes to digest this food."

Yet somehow, the matter is far from settled. Quibbles over the scientific evidence emerge on a regular basis — as in a recent BMJ article titled, "No need to cut red meat, say new guidelines." News headlines lately have declared that limiting red meat may be "bad advice," while carnivore diet enthusiasts boast about the weight loss and good health they've achieved on an all-meat diet. The wildly successful plant-based burgers? To them, a gimmick. The burger wars are on.

Nutrition science would seem the best place to look for answers on the health effects of specific foods. And on one hand, the science is rather clear: in large populations, people who eat more red meat tend to have more health problems, including cardiovascular disease, colorectal cancer, and other conditions. But this sort of correlational evidence fails to settle the matter once and for all; many who look closely at these studies cite methodological shortcomings and a low certainty of evidence.

Some scientists, meanwhile, are trying to cut through the noise by increasing their focus on the mechanisms: exactly how red meat is digested and the step-by-step of how this affects human health. And curiously, as these lines of evidence emerge, several of them center around gut microbes as active participants in red meat's ultimate effects on human health.

Dr. Stanley Hazen, researcher and medical director of preventive cardiology at Cleveland Clinic, was one of the first to zero in on gut microorganisms as possible contributors to the health effects of red meat. In looking for chemical compounds in the blood that could predict the future development of cardiovascular disease, his lab identified a molecule called trimethylamine-N-oxide (TMAO). Little by little, he and his colleagues began to gather both human and animal evidence that TMAO played a role in causing heart disease.

Naturally, they tried to figure out where the TMAO came from. Hazen says, "We found that animal products, and especially red meat, were a dietary source that, [along with] gut microbes, would generate this product that leads to heart disease development." They observed that the gut microbes were essential for making TMAO out of dietary compounds (like red meat) that contained its precursor, trimethylamine (TMA).

So in linking red meat to cardiovascular disease through TMAO, the surprising conclusion, says Hazen, was that, "Without a doubt, [the microbes] are the most important aspect of the whole pathway."

"I think it's just a matter of time [before] we will have therapeutic interventions that actually target our gut microbes, just like the way we take drugs that lower cholesterol levels."

Other researchers have taken an interest in different red-meat-associated health problems, like colorectal cancer and the inflammation that accompanies it. This was the mechanistic link tackled by the lab of professor Karsten Zengler of the UC San Diego Departments of Pediatrics and Bioengineering—and it also led straight back to the gut microbes.

Zengler and colleagues recently published a paper in Nature Microbiology that focused on the effects of a red meat carbohydrate (or sugar) called Neu5Gc.

He explains, "If you eat animal proteins in your diet… the bound sugars in your diet are cleaved off in your gut and they get recycled. Your own cells will not recognize between the foreign sugars and your own sugars, because they look almost identical." The unsuspecting human cells then take up these foreign sugars — spurring antibody production and creating inflammation.

Zengler showed, however, that gut bacteria use enzymes to cleave off the sugar during digestion, stopping the inflammation and rendering the sugar harmless. "There's no enzyme in the human body that can cleave this [sugar] off. Humans 100% rely on the microbes to digest this food," he says.

Both researchers are quick to caution that the health effects of diet are complex. Other work indicates, for example, that while intake of red meat can affect TMAO levels, so can intake of fish and seafood. But these new lines of evidence could help explain why some people, ironically, seem to be in perfect health despite eating a lot of red meat: their ideal frequency of meat consumption may depend on their existing community of gut microbes.

"It helps explain what accounts for inter-person variability," Hazen says.

These emerging mechanisms reinforce overall why it's prudent to limit red meat, just as the nutritional guidelines advised in the first place. But both Hazen and Zengler predict that interventions to buffer the effects of too many ribeyes may be just around the corner.

Zengler says, "Our idea is that you basically can help your own digestive system detoxify these inflammatory compounds in meat, if you continue eating red meat or you want to eat a high amount of red meat." A possibly strategy, he says, is to use specific pre- or probiotics to cultivate an inflammation-reducing gut microbial community.

Hazen foresees the emergence of drugs that act not on the human, but on the human's gut microorganisms. "I think it's just a matter of time [before] we will have therapeutic interventions that actually target our gut microbes, just like the way we take drugs that lower cholesterol levels."

He adds, "It's a matter of 'stay tuned', I think."

Kristina Campbell
Kristina Campbell is a Canadian writer who covers microbiome science for digital and print media around the world. She is author of The Well-Fed Microbiome Cookbook (Rockridge Press, 2016) and co-author of an academic textbook for health professionals, Gut Microbiota: Interactive Effects on Nutrition and Health (Elsevier, 2018).

A woman suffers from a debilitating headache during a hangover.

(© Barbara Pheby/Adobe)


Probiotics seem to be everywhere these days. They are marketed for numerous health issues, from irritable bowel syndrome and vaginal yeast infections to life-threatening disorders like the bacterial infection Clostridium difficile.

The new probiotic drink is made of genetically engineered bacteria meant to help people feel better the day after drinking.

While the probiotic gummies that you'll find in supermarkets may not do much for you, good clinical evidence does support the C. difficile treatment, known as a fecal transplant, despite a recent setback, and there are always new probiotic regimens entering the scene. One emerging such treatment targets the hangover.

The Lowdown

You read that right – although "hangover" is a loaded term, according to ZBiotics, the company that's developing the product. The popular understanding of a hangover implies a collection of symptoms like a headache and fatigue, many of which result simply from dehydration and low-quality sleep. But those aren't the problems that the new product, a genetically engineered form of a common bacterial species, was developed to confront.

"Dehydration and poor sleep have actually always been pretty simple to deal with by having a good breakfast and some caffeine," notes ZBiotics founder and microbiologist Zack Abbott. Instead, the product targets acetaldehyde, a chemical that accumulates in the body if more than small amounts of alcohol are consumed.

Normally, body cells produce an enzyme that converts acetaldehyde into harmless acetic acid. But the enzyme becomes overwhelmed if you drink more than a little alcohol, or if you have a certain genetic deficiency.

A new probiotic drink aims to neutralize a chemical that builds up in the body after drinking alcohol.

(Zbiotics)

"I started ZBiotics with the hypothesis that if we used edible probiotic bacteria to make enzymes, and chose applications in which the enzymes these microbes make would be useful directly in the gut after you eat them, we could create all sorts of beneficial products," says Abbott. "I started with alcohol with the idea that we can augment the body's natural ability to digest its nasty byproduct, acetaldehyde, helping people feel better the day after drinking."

Next Steps

Based on the premise that the engineered bacteria augments a natural body function, ZBiotics had the product "sampled by thousands of beta-testers," including ZBiotics personnel, with "almost unanimously positive feedback," says Abbott.

"We are working on future scientifically controlled testing for publication."

ZBiotics is to set to launch on the market next week as a probiotic supplement, a category that does not require FDA approval. But some observers are troubled over whether the new product is attempting to serve a medical function without going through the standard drug testing process.

"I am skeptical of any new alternative product that is not FDA approved, has not undergone rigorous double-blind placebo control testing and adverse effects evaluation, and cites anecdotes as evidence of its efficacy," warns Heather Berlin, a cognitive neuroscientist and assistant professor of psychiatry at Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai, in New York.

Abbott acknowledges that his product still needs to undergo rigorous study. "We are working on future scientifically controlled testing for publication," he says, noting that the company was "founded and [is] run by people with backgrounds in academic research."

Open Questions

Moving beyond the need for proper testing, Berlin has an additional concern: will a "hangover"-blocking substance cause people to drink more alcohol, or mask important physiological sensations like thirst?

"If that negative feeling is obscured, they may not [rehydrate], which can cause numerous adverse effects," Berlin says.

As for excessive drinking, there is a treatment on the market that does the opposite of Zbiotics. Disulfiram, commonly given to alcohol abusers, inhibits the very enzyme that ZBiotics supplements, causing acetaldehyde to accumulate especially fast. This makes drinking a pretty miserable experience.

But Abbott says his product would not interfere with disulfiram.

"[Zbiotics] is about enjoying the special moments in life where alcohol happens to be involved, but isn't the main focus."

"Disulfiram globally inhibits the enzyme throughout the entire body, including the liver, creating a massive amount of acetaldehyde at once, making the person ill immediately and forcing them to stop drinking right away," Abbott explains, whereas his product exerts its effects in the gut, and is really only helpful the next day. Thus, timing is everything; the probiotic would not change the experience at the moment of drinking.

"ZBiotics isn't about going out and ripping shots all night," Abbott says. "It's about enjoying the special moments in life where alcohol happens to be involved, but isn't the main focus. Weddings, celebrations, weekends with friends. And wanting to do that enjoyably while being safe and responsible at the same time."

David Warmflash
David Warmflash is an astrobiologist and science writer. He received his M.D. from Tel Aviv University Sackler School of Medicine, and has done post doctoral work at Brandeis University, the University of Pennsylvania, and the NASA Johnson Space Center, where he was part of the NASA's first cohort of astrobiology training fellows. He has written numerous articles covering a range of science topics, from the search for extraterrestrial life and space exploration to the origins of life, genetics, neuroscience, biotechnology, and the history of science. David’s articles have appeared in various publications, including Wired UK, Discover, Scientific American, Genetic Literacy Project, and Cricket Media. Throughout 2018, he did a blog post series on the emergence of ancient science for Vision Learning, covering thinkers from history. Many of these ancient pioneers of science also make an appearance in David's new book, "Moon: An Illustrated History: From Ancient Myths to the Colonies of Tomorrow."
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Which foods are actually healthy for your individual gut microbiome? Several companies are offering personalized dietary guidance based on your test results, but their answers in one experiment turned up with some conflicting advice.

(© Yaruniv-Studio/Fotolia)


I recently got on the scale to weigh myself, thinking I've got to eat better. With so many trendy diets today claiming to improve health, from Keto to Paleo to Whole30, it can be confusing to figure out what we should and shouldn't eat for optimal nutrition.

A number of companies are now selling the concept of "personalized" nutrition based on the genetic makeup of your individual gut bugs.

My next thought was: I've got to lose a few pounds.

Consider a weird factoid: In addition to my fat, skin, bone and muscle, I'm carrying around two or three pounds of straight-up bacteria. Like you, I am the host to trillions of micro-organisms that live in my gut and are collectively known as my microbiome. An explosion of research has occurred in the last decade to try to understand exactly how these microbial populations, which are unique to each of us, may influence our overall health and potentially even our brains and behavior.

Lots of mysteries still remain, but it is established that these "bugs" are crucial to keeping our body running smoothly, performing functions like stimulating the immune system, synthesizing important vitamins, and aiding digestion. The field of microbiome science is evolving rapidly, and a number of companies are now selling the concept of "personalized" nutrition based on the genetic makeup of your individual gut bugs. The two leading players are Viome and DayTwo, but the landscape includes the newly launched startup Onegevity Health and others like Thryve, which offers customized probiotic supplements in addition to dietary recommendations.

The idea has immediate appeal – if science could tell you exactly what to make for lunch and what to avoid, you could forget about the fad diets and go with your own bespoke food pyramid. Wondering if the promise might be too good to be true, I decided to perform my own experiment.

Last fall, I sent the identical fecal sample to both Viome (I paid $425, but the price has since dropped to $299) and DayTwo ($349). A couple of months later, both reports finally arrived, and I eagerly opened each app to compare their recommendations.

First, I examined my results from Viome, which was founded in 2016 in Cupertino, Calif., and declares without irony on its website that "conflicting food advice is now obsolete."

I learned I have "average" metabolic fitness and "average" inflammatory activity in my gut, which are scores that the company defines based on a proprietary algorithm. But I have "low" microbial richness, with only 62 active species of bacteria identified in my sample, compared with the mean of 157 in their test population. I also received a list of the specific species in my gut, with names like Lactococcus and Romboutsia.

But none of it meant anything to me without actionable food advice, so I clicked through to the Recommendations page and found a list of My Superfoods (cranberry, garlic, kale, salmon, turmeric, watermelon, and bone broth) and My Foods to Avoid (chickpeas, kombucha, lentils, and rice noodles). There was also a searchable database of many foods that had been categorized for me, like "bell pepper; minimize" and "beef; enjoy."

"I just don't think sufficient data is yet available to make reliable personalized dietary recommendations based on one's microbiome."

Next, I looked at my results from DayTwo, which was founded in 2015 from research out of the Weizmann Institute of Science in Israel, and whose pitch to consumers is, "Blood sugar made easy. The algorithm diet personalized to you."

This app had some notable differences. There was no result about my metabolic fitness, microbial richness, or list of the species in my sample. There was also no list of superfoods or foods to avoid. Instead, the app encouraged me to build a meal by searching for foods in their database and combining them in beneficial ways for my blood sugar. Two slices of whole wheat bread received a score of 2.7 out of 10 ("Avoid"), but if combined with one cup of large curd cottage cheese, the score improved to 6.8 ("Limit"), and if I added two hard-boiled eggs, the score went up to 7.5 ("Good").

Perusing my list of foods with "Excellent" scores, I noticed some troubling conflicts with the other app. Lentils, which had been a no-no according to Viome, received high marks from DayTwo. Ditto for Kombucha. My purported superfood of cranberry received low marks. Almonds got an almost perfect score (9.7) while Viome told me to minimize them. I found similarly contradictory advice for foods I regularly eat, including navel oranges, peanuts, pork, and beets.

Contradictory dietary guidance that Kira Peikoff received from Viome (left) and DayTwo from an identical sample.

To be sure, there was some overlap. Both apps agreed on rice noodles (bad), chickpeas (bad), honey (bad), carrots (good), and avocado (good), among other foods.

But still, I was left scratching my head. Which set of recommendations should I trust, if either? And what did my results mean for the accuracy of this nascent field?

I called a couple of experts to find out.

"I have worked on the microbiome and nutrition for the last 20 years and I would be absolutely incapable of finding you evidence in the scientific literature that lentils have a detrimental effect based on the microbiome," said Dr. Jens Walter, an Associate Professor and chair for Nutrition, Microbes, and Gastrointestinal Health at the University of Alberta. "I just don't think sufficient data is yet available to make reliable personalized dietary recommendations based on one's microbiome. And even if they would have proprietary algorithms, at least one of them is not doing it right."

There is definite potential for personalized nutrition based on the microbiome, he said, but first, predictive models must be built and standardized, then linked to clinical endpoints, and tested in a large sample of healthy volunteers in order to enable extrapolations for the general population.

"It is mindboggling what you would need to do to make this work," he observed. "There are probably hundreds of relevant dietary compounds, then the microbiome has at least a hundred relevant species with a hundred or more relevant genes each, then you'd have to put all this together with relevant clinical outcomes. And there's a hundred-fold variation in that information between individuals."

However, Walter did acknowledge that the companies might be basing their algorithms on proprietary data that could potentially connect all the dots. I reached out to them to find out.

Amir Golan, the Chief Commercial Officer of DayTwo, told me, "It's important to emphasize this is a prediction, as the microbiome field is in a very early stage of research." But he added, "I believe we are the only company that has very solid science published in top journals and we can bring very actionable evidence and benefit to our uses."

He was referring to pioneering work out of the Weizmann Institute that was published in 2015 in the journal Cell, which logged the glycemic responses of 800 people in response to nearly 50,000 meals; adding information about the subjects' microbiomes enabled more accurate glycemic response predictions. Since then, Golan said, additional trials have been conducted, most recently with the Mayo Clinic, to duplicate the results, and other studies are ongoing whose results have not yet been published.

He also pointed out that the microbiome was merely one component that goes into building a client's profile, in addition to medical records, including blood glucose levels. (I provided my HbA1c levels, a measure of average blood sugar over the previous several months.)

"We are not saying we want to improve your gut microbiome. We provide a dynamic tool to help guide what you should eat to control your blood sugar and think about combinations," he said. "If you eat one thing, or with another, it will affect you in a different way."

Viome acknowledged that the two companies are taking very different approaches.

"DayTwo is primarily focused on the glycemic response," Naveen Jain, the CEO, told me. "If you can only eat butter for rest of your life, you will have no glycemic response but will probably die of a heart attack." He laughed. "Whereas we came from very different angle – what is happening inside the gut at a microbial level? When you eat food like spinach, how will that be metabolized in the gut? Will it produce the nutrients you need or cause inflammation?"

He said his team studied 1000 people who were on continuous glucose monitoring and fed them 45,000 meals, then built a proprietary data prediction model, looking at which microbes existed and how they actively broke down the food.

Jain pointed out that DayTwo sequences the DNA of the microbes, while Viome sequences the RNA – the active expression of DNA. That difference, in his opinion, is key to making accurate predictions.

"DNA is extremely stable, so when you eat any food and measure the DNA [in a fecal sample], you get all these false positives--you get DNA from plant food and meat, and you have no idea if those organisms are dead and simply transient, or actually exist. With RNA, you see what is actually alive in the gut."

More contradictory food advice from Viome (left) and DayTwo.

Note that controversy exists over how it is possible with a fecal sample to effectively measure RNA, which degrades within minutes, though Jain said that his company has the technology to keep RNA stable for fourteen days.

Viome's approach, Jain maintains, is 90 percent accurate, based on as-yet unpublished data; a patent was filed just last week. DayTwo's approach is 66 percent accurate according to the latest published research.

Natasha Haskey, a registered dietician and doctoral student conducting research in the field of microbiome science and nutrition, is skeptical of both companies. "We can make broad statements, like eat more fruits and vegetables and fiber, but when it comes to specific foods, the science is just not there yet," she said. "I think there is a future, and we will be doing that someday, but not yet. Maybe we will be closer in ten years."

Professor Walter wholeheartedly agrees with Haskey, and suggested that if people want to eat a gut-healthy diet, they should focus on beneficial oils, fruits and vegetables, fish, a variety of whole grains, poultry and beans, and limit red meat and cheese, as well as avoid processed meats.

"These services are far over the tips of their science skis," Arthur Caplan, the founding head of New York University's Division of Medical Ethics, said in an email. "We simply don't know enough about the gut microbiome, its fluctuations and variability from person to person to support general [direct-to-consumer] testing. This is simply premature. We need standards for accuracy, specificity, and sensitivity, plus mandatory competent counseling for all such testing. They don't exist. Neither should DTC testing—yet."

Meanwhile, it's time for lunch. I close out my Viome and DayTwo apps and head to the kitchen to prepare a peanut butter sandwich. My gut tells me I'll be just fine.

Kira Peikoff
Kira Peikoff is the editor-in-chief of Leaps.org. As a journalist, her work has appeared in The New York Times, Newsweek, Nautilus, Popular Mechanics, The New York Academy of Sciences, and other outlets. She is also the author of four suspense novels that explore controversial issues arising from scientific innovation: Living Proof, No Time to Die, Die Again Tomorrow, and Mother Knows Best. Peikoff holds a B.A. in Journalism from New York University and an M.S. in Bioethics from Columbia University. She lives in New Jersey with her husband and son.

People eating pizza; are they being influenced by their gut microbiome?

(© Stephen Coburn/Fotolia)


See a hot pizza sitting on a table. Count the missing pieces: three. They tasted delicious and yes, you've eaten enough—but you're still eyeing a fourth piece. Do you reach out and take it, or not?

"The difficulty comes in translating the animal data into the human situation."

Your behavior in that next moment is anything but simple: as far as scientists can tell, it comes down to a complex confluence of circumstances, genes, and personality characteristics. And the latest proposed addition to this list is the gut microbiome—the community of microorganisms, including bacteria, archaea, fungi, and viruses—that are full-time residents of your digestive tract.

It is entirely plausible that your gut microbiome might influence your behavior, scientists say: a well-known communication channel, called the gut-brain axis, runs both ways between your brain and your digestive tract. Gut bugs, which are close to the action, could amplify or dampen the messages, thereby shaping how you act. Messages about food-related behaviors could be particularly susceptible to interception by these microorganisms.

Perhaps it's convenient to imagine your resident microbes sitting greedily in your gut, crying for more pizza and tricking your brain into getting them what they want. The problem is, there's a distinct lack of scientific support for this actually happening in humans.

John Bienenstock, professor of pathology and molecular medicine at McMaster University (Canada), has worked on the gut microbiome-behavior connection for several decades. "There's a lot of evidence now in animals—particularly in mice," he says.

Indeed, his group and others have shown that, by eliminating or altering gut bugs, they can make mice exhibit different social behaviors or respond more coolly to stress; they can even make a shy mouse turn brave. But Bienenstock cautions: "The difficulty comes in translating the animal data into the human situation."

Animal behaviors are worlds apart from what we do on a daily basis—from brushing our teeth to navigating complex social situations.

Not that it's an easy task to figure out which aspects of animal research are relevant to people in everyday life. Animal behaviors are worlds apart from what we do on a daily basis—from brushing our teeth to navigating complex social situations.

Elaine Hsiao, assistant professor of integrative biology and physiology at UCLA, has also looked closely at the microbiome-gut-brain axis in mice and pondered how to translate the results into humans. She says, "Both the microbiome and behavior vary substantially [from person to person] and can be strongly influenced by environmental factors—which makes it difficult to run a well-controlled study on effects of the microbiome on human behavior."

She adds, "Human behaviors are very complex and the metrics used to quantify behavior are often not precise enough to derive clear interpretations." So the challenge is not only to figure out what people actually do, but also to give those actions numerical codes that allow them to be compared against other actions.

Hsiao and colleagues are nevertheless attempting to make connections: building on some animal research, their recent study found a three-way association in humans between molecules produced by their gut bacteria (that is, indole metabolites), the connectedness of different brain regions as measured through functional magnetic resonance imaging, and measures of behavior: questionnaires assessing food addiction and anxiety.

Meanwhile, other studies have found it may be possible to change a person's behavior through either probiotics or gut-localized antibiotics. Several probiotics even show promise for altering behavior in clinical conditions like depression. Yet how these phenomena occur is still unknown and, overall, scientists lack solid evidence on how bugs control behavior.

Bienenstock, however, is one of many continuing to investigate. He says, "Some of these observations are very striking. They're so striking that clearly something's up."

He says that after identifying a behavior-changing bug, or set of bugs, in mice: "The obvious next thing is: How [is it] occurring? Why is it occurring? What are the molecules involved?" Bienenstock favors the approach of nailing down a mechanism in animal models before starting to investigate its relevance to humans.

He explains, "[This preclinical work] should allow us to identify either target molecules or target pathways, which then can be translated."

Bienenstock also acknowledges the 'hype' that appears to surround this particular field of study. Despite the decidedly slow emergence of data linking the microbiome to human behavior, scientific reviews have appeared in brain-related scientific journals—for instance, Trends in Cognitive Sciences; CNS Drugs—with remarkable frequency. Not only this, but popular books and media articles have given the idea wings.

It might be compelling to blame our microbiomes for behaviors we don't prefer or can't explain—like reaching for another slice of pizza. But until the scientific observations yield stronger results, we still lack proof that we're doing what we do—or eating what we eat—exclusively at the behest of our resident microorganisms.

Kristina Campbell
Kristina Campbell is a Canadian writer who covers microbiome science for digital and print media around the world. She is author of The Well-Fed Microbiome Cookbook (Rockridge Press, 2016) and co-author of an academic textbook for health professionals, Gut Microbiota: Interactive Effects on Nutrition and Health (Elsevier, 2018).

A spread of colorful pills.

(© mehmet/Fotolia)


Mindy D. had suffered from constipation for years when her gastroenterologist advised her, at 38, to take a popular over-the-counter probiotic. Over the next two years, she experimented with different dosages, sometimes taking it three times a day. But she kept getting sicker—sometimes so ill she couldn't work.

"We shouldn't just presume probiotics are safe."

Her symptoms improved only after she traveled from Long Island to Georgia to see Satish S. C. Rao, a gastroenterologist at Augusta University. "The key thing was taking her off probiotics and treating her with antibiotics," he says.

That solution sounds bizarre, if, like many, you believe that antibiotics are bad and probiotics good. Millions of Americans take probiotics—live bacteria deemed useful—assuming there can be only positive effects. The truth is that you really don't know how any probiotic will affect you. To quote the American Gastroenterological Association Center for Gut Microbiome Research and Education, "It remains unclear what strains of bacteria at what dose by what route of administration are safe and effective for which patients."

"We shouldn't just presume probiotics are safe," says Purna Kashyap, a gastroenterologist from the Mayo Clinic, in Rochester, Minnesota, and a member of the Center's scientific advisory board. Neither the U.S. Food and Drug Administration or the European Food Safety Authority have approved probiotics as a medical treatment. Things can go very wrong in the ill: Among patients with severe acute pancreatitis, one study found that a dose of probiotics increased the chance of death. Even randomized controlled trials of probiotics rarely report harms adequately and the effect over the long-term has not been studied.

Many people pick up a product at a drug store or health store without ever telling a doctor. Doctors are fans, too: in a 2017 survey of healthcare providers at Stanford, more than 60 percent of the respondents said they prescribed probiotics. Many did so inconsistently, leaving the choice of which probiotic up to the patient. Healthy people take them for a range of unproven benefits, including protection from infections or heart disease or to sharpen their brains.

It's fine—unless it isn't. "Probiotics are capable of altering the microbiome in unpredictable ways," explains Leo Galland, an internist in New York who specializes in difficult digestions. "I've had patients who got gas and bloating, constipation or diarrhea from probiotics."

Your Microbiome Is Unique

The booming probiotic market has fed on excitement about the new science of the microbiome, the genetic material of all the microbes that live in our bodies and on our skin. Microbes make up 1 to 3 percent of every human being's body mass—you carry trillions of them, including more than a hundred species and thousands of strains. To identify a microbe, you need to know the genus, species and strain. For example, in Lactobacillus rhamnosus GG, the ingredient in the OTC probiotic Culturelle, Lactobacillus is the genus, rhamnosus is the species and GG is the strain designation.

Variations in your microbiome could help explain why you put on weight or suffer from Crohn's or depression. Each of us has our own unique mix.

A decade ago, the U.S. National Institute of Health (NIH) launched the Microbiome Project to establish a baseline description of health. Scientists sequenced the DNA in more than 2,200 strains, still a small fraction of the whole.

Within a couple of years, we had evidence that our microbiomes are distinctive. Another team used the NIH data set to look into the idea of microbial "fingerprints." A classic computer science algorithm allowed it to assign individuals "codes" defined by DNA sequences of their microbes—no human DNA required. Using information solely from the guts, "Eighty percent of individuals could still be uniquely identified up to a year later," they wrote.

That distinctiveness makes a difference when we try to change our mix by swallowing bacteria considered "pro." Even in healthy people, the reactions to probiotics vary widely, according to a study in Cell in September. The team examined the intestines of healthy volunteers who had taken a cocktail of eleven strains of probiotics for the experiment. Which took up residence in the intestinal lining? The answer depended on the person. Led by Eran Segal and colleagues at the Weizmann Institute of Science, in Rehovot, Israel, the authors concluded that effective supplements would have to be personalized.

Patients with "brain fog" improved dramatically when they were taken off their probiotics and given antibiotics as well.

To truly customize a probiotic, however, we'd have to know the state of an individual's gut microbiome, identify danger signs and link them to symptoms, isolate relevant strains of probiotics that might be needed, and get them into the gut lining effectively. Commercial tests are still at step one. Several companies claim to assess your microbiome based on a stool sample—but the Weizmann team has also shown that the differences between our gut linings aren't apparent from our stool. Galland has explored testing his patients looking for ways to help. "I've concluded that uBiome, American Gut Project, and others don't yield useful information," he observes.

Can A Probiotic Make Your Brain Foggy?

Besides taking her probiotic, Mindy D. had cut out gluten and upped her vegetables and fruits. But soon after she ate her seemingly healthy meals, she would begin to feel dizzy and sometimes even slurred her words, as if she were drunk. "It was such an intense feeling," she said.

A slender 5 ft. 2 inches, she dropped 20 pounds, becoming unhealthily thin. She traveled to see specialists in Minnesota and Connecticut and took two month-long medical leaves before she found Rao in Georgia.

In June, Rao created a stir when he and his coauthors reported that a cluster of his patients with "brain fog"—the "intense feeling" Mindy D. described—improved dramatically when they were taken off their probiotics and given antibiotics as well.

His idea was that lactobacilli and other bacteria colonized their small intestines, rather than making it to the colon as intended—a condition known as "small intestinal bacteria overgrowth" (SIB0) that some gastroenterologists treat with antibiotics. In this group, he argues, the small intestine produced the brain fog symptoms as a consequence of D-lactic acidosis, a phenomenon usually associated with damaged intestines. "If you have brain fogginess along with gas and bloating, please don't take probiotics," Rao says.

The paper prompted a rebuttal at the end of September from Eamonn Quigley, a gastroenterologist at Houston Methodist, who criticized the methodology in detail. Kashyap, of the Mayo Clinic, is skeptical as well. "People were picked for their brain fogginess and they were taking probiotics. Probiotics could be an innocent bystander," he says.

"It's hard for me to imagine the mechanism of say, Culturelle, causing SIB0," says Shira Doron, a specialist in infectious diseases and associate professor at Tufts University School of Medicine who studies probiotics. "The vast majority of people will never suffer a side effect from a probiotic. But probiotics are a live organism so they have a unique set of potential risks that other supplements don't have. They can give you a severe infection in very rare circumstances."

The larger point is that probiotics should be used under a doctor's care. In April, a panel of 14 experts on behalf of the European Society for Primary Care Gastroenterology concluded that "specific probiotics are beneficial in certain lower GI problems." That does not mean any over-the-counter probiotic is likely to help you because it helped your cousin.

"Even your doctor may be going by anecdotal experience, rather than hard science."

Both Galland and Rao use probiotics in their practice, but carefully. "We advise caution against excessive and indiscriminate use of probiotics especially without a well-defined medical indication, and particularly in patients with gastrointestinal dysmotility," when the muscles of the digestive system don't work normally, Rao's team wrote.

"Because there are so many studies out there that are poorly done, that aren't looking at side effects, the science is murky. Even your doctor may be going by anecdotal experience, rather than hard science," Doron adds. Your doctor may tell you that many of his patients report a great experience with probiotics. As Doron points out, however, with disorders like irritable bowel syndrome, the most common gastrointestinal diagnosis, the placebo effect is very strong. Many patients could "respond to anything if they believe it works," she says.

Temma Ehrenfeld
Temma Ehrenfeld writes about health and psychology. In a previous life, she was a reporter and editor at Newsweek and Fortune. You can see more of her work at her writing portfolio (https://temmaehrenfeld.contently.com) and contact her through her Psychology Today blog.