This is an update on our previous postAre Probiotics Gut Bacteria Good or Bad For Multiple Sclerosis Or Other Autoimmune Diseases?”  [1] which sounded a note of caution about the blind  use, or shotgun approach, of probiotics against autoimmune diseases. Probiotics are assisting the beneficial bacteria in your gut.  That post was published on Oct 30, 2011. We followed up with an update on the tussle between the FDA and the food industry on the topic of “new ingredients” and probiotics. [2]

What prompted this update was the post in NutraIngredients [3] about a warning by Dr Pieter Cohen that the New Dietary Ingredients (NDI) draft does not go far enough in ensuring the public that they are safe and true to claim. Although Dr Cohen’s article is about supplements in general, probiotics bacteria are seen as a subset of the “supplements.” [4]

So the controversy about the benefits or risks of the use of probiotics, particularly in a subset of the population at risk for autoimmmune diseases like MS, is still in full bloom.

Consider the alarms raised in [1] and [5,6]: Essentially,  studies have shown that the combination of what is called “commensal bacteria” and some of the immune system’s policing bodies (T-Cells, etc) can deliver a one, two punch to the normal balance of the immune system and throws it in to a self destructive attack on the myelin, i.e. Multiple Sclerosis.

Note: Commensal bacteria are bacteria that live in your gut without normally bothering you…

Clear? Well, no. Because, previous studies attributed a positive, healing role to probiotic bacteria! See [7-8]. Quoting from [8]’s link:

“…We tested the potential of various strains of lactobacilli for suppression of experimental autoimmune encephalomyelitis (EAE), an animal model of MS…. Our findings indicate a therapeutic potential of oral administration of a combination of probiotics.”  OK, so it is only on an animal model, but still…

What gives?

The culprit is probably the confusing shotgun approach, where all probiotics are assumed to work in unison to the same beneficial, nay, therapeutic, goal.

The “bad” commensal bacteria of study [1] is not well identified, quoting the Max Planck Institute: “...Precisely which bacteria are involved in the emergence of multiple sclerosis remains unclear. Possible candidates are clostridiums, which can have direct contact with the intestinal wall… ” Another study published in the National Academy of Science [6] showed that Segmented Filament Bacteria  would also be implicated in triggering Experimental Autoimmune Encephalomyelitis (EAE) in mice. EAE is an MS like disease used as a research model.

On the other hand , the “good” bacteria of study [8] is “a mixture of three lactobacilli strains.”

A Dutch study on the effects of probiotics on EAE [8] confirms the need for specificity  “…We suggest that conclusions on probiotics are limited to specific strains and models and not generalised…”

Keep in mind also that the industry’s record on precise identification of which bacteria are in the probiotic product has been shown to be less than perfect by a study [9] published in the International Journal of Food Microbiology.

Quoting [9]: “…Five products were mislabeled with respect to the numbers and three with respect to species of lactobacilli. In four cases, the specified strains were not detected. Four fermented milks sold under three trademarks contained the same strain, which was named differently on each label. As safety and functionality of probiotics are strain dependent, these results demonstrated the need to control lactobacilli present in commercially probiotic human food products, not only at the species but also at the strain level, to ensure their quality and protect the consumer…”

Another study published in Gut Microbes [11] presents a list of substantial risks of using probiotics with scant known properties:

  • Infectivity or in situ toxin production.
  • Genetic stability of the probiotic over time,
  • Deleterious metabolic activities,
  • Potential for pathogenicity or toxicogenicity
  • Immunological effects must be considered, especially for  certain populations vulnerable to autoimmune disease or even allergies.
  • All of the above “…must be assessed depending on the characteristics of the genus and species of the microbe being used…”

Keep in mind that probiotics recommendation for Multiple Sclerosis food supplementation are already out, and not just in “far out” blogs, but posted on the respectable University of Maryland Complementary Medicine site [12].

Quoting the U. of Maryland : “…Probiotic supplement (containing Lactobacillus Acidophilus), 5 – 10 billion CFUs (colony forming units) a day, for maintenance of gastrointestinal and immune health…”

They were probably relying on the Swedish work we mentioned in [8]. The only problem is that if you dig more into [8], you find that they used a cocktail of three specific strains of Lactobacillus: L. paracasei DSM 13434, L. plantarum DSM 15312 and DSM 15313. Even more the study also showed that: “…each monostrain probiotic failed to be therapeutic in diseased mice, while a mixture of the three lactobacilli strains suppressed the progression and reversed the clinical and histological signs of EAE...”

Leaving the MS issue, but staying  in the immune system impact of probiotics, some studies have targeted the use of probiotics to alleviate allergies [13]. Here too the conclusion is that “…the probiotic performance of strains differs; each probiotic strain is a unique organism itself with specific properties that cannot be extrapolated from other, even closely related, strains…”

So much for broad, simple  advice?

Coming back to the consumption of probiotics and their effect on commensal bacteria, the assumption that all commensal bacteria are good for all individuals without regard to the genetic make up and disease susceptibilities of the consumer is probably too simplistic. Then again, how far does the consumer self knowledge have to go so that he can buy off the shelf shotgun probiotics without anxiety?

A start to this answer is that the consumer has to back the FDA in their insistence for a pedigree of the species and strain of the probiotics on the open market.

Of course, this is an expensive proposition and the food industry vehemently opposes it…

I am not usually a fan of stifling regulations and red tape, but here, a cautionary slowing down of putting new probiotic bacteria on the market might be in order.

Hope this helps,

Talk to your Health Provider




What do we know about probiotics live cultures?

  1. MediNewsDigest ; “Are Probiotics Gut Bacteria Good or Bad For Multiple Sclerosis Or Other Autoimmune Diseases?”; Oct 30, 2011
  2. MediNewsDigest ; “Food industry and the FDA are Involved in a Tussle Over the Safety of new Probiotic Bacteria” ; Dec 17, 2011
  3. NutraIngredients ; “Harvard Professor: NDI Draft Guidance Does Not Go Far Enough” ; Jan 27, 2012
  4. New England Journal Of Medicine’s Perspectives ; “Assessing Supplement Safety — The FDA’s Controversial Proposal
  5.  ScienceNews ; “Gut Bacteria Linked to MS ” ; Dec 3rd, 2011
  6. Proceeding of the National Academy of Science USA ; “Proinflammatory T-Cell Responses to Gut Microbiota Promote Experimental Autoimmune Encephalomyelitis.” March 15 2011
  7.  MediNewsDigest ; “Multiple Sclerosis: Unusual Probiotics Alternative Therapy” ; April 15, 2011
  8.  MediNewsDigest ; “Study Shows Probiotics Show Promise Against Multiple Sclerosis” ; Oct 5, 2010
  9. Vaccine ; “Strain-Dependent Effects of Probiotic Lactobacilli on EAE Autoimmunity.” ; April 16, 2008
  10.  International Journal of Food Microbiology ; “Numbers and Strains of Lactobacilli in Some Probiotic Products.” ; Dec 15, 2004
  11.  Gut Microbes ; “Safety Assessment of Probiotics for Human Use” ; May-June 2010
  12. Univ. Maryland Medical Center ; Complementary Medicine : Multiple Sclerosis
  13.  Journal of Clinical Gastroenterology ; “Probiotics: Use in Allergic Disorders: a Nutrition, Allergy, Mucosal Immunology, and Intestinal Microbiota (NAMI) Research Group Report. ” ; July 2008


4 Comments for this entry

  • emma rljas says:

    You have a lot of useful information. As a person with an autoimmune disease, your iinfo. is very pertinent to me.
    Will you be taking on the FDA or food industry?
    Just want to know…

  • Virginia says:

    I was interested to know if probiotics would help or hinder MS. Being as my Avonex injections help to lower the immune system,( so it does not attack itself). Wouldn’t the probiotics fight against that, being as they raise the immune system?

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