One of the blessings of having access to as much health information as we have today is also its curse. On the one hand, you’re able to take charge of your health and well-being like never before. On the other, without an in-depth, big-picture understanding, you can wind up making things worse.

Case in point? Probiotics.

lactobacillusProbiotic foods and supplements are routinely touted as a great way to support good digestive, immune, and brain health, introducing healthy bacteria to the gut. So you load up on the sauerkraut, kimchi, yogurt, kefir, kombucha, and other fermented foods. You take probiotic supplements.

But it really is possible that you can get too much of a good thing.

Consider the recent study which looked at whether D-lactic acidosis might be the cause of brain fog and unexplained gas and bloating in patients with an intact gut. Its authors found that all those who were experiencing symptoms such as confusion and difficulty concentrating had one thing in common: They were “all taking probiotics, some several varieties.”

When investigators looked further, they found large colonies of bacteria breeding in the patients’ small intestines, and high levels of D-lactic acid being produced by the bacteria lactobacillus’ fermentation of sugars in their food, says Dr. Satish S.C. Rao, director of neurogastroenterology/motility and the Digestive Health Clinical Research Center at the Medical College of Georgia at Augusta University.

D-lactic acid is known to be temporarily toxic to brain cells, interfering with cognition, thinking and sense of time. They found some patients had two to three times the normal amount of D-lactic acid in their blood. Some said their brain fogginess – which lasted from a half hour to many hours after eating – was so severe that they had to quit their jobs.

Symptoms improved after a course of antibiotics and an end to probiotic use.

Yet another recent study

suggests that probiotics can evolve in the host gut after administration, becoming less effective and perhaps even harmful. In this study, researchers analyzed the evolution of probiotic organisms under different stressors in laboratory mice. They found that probiotics can evolve antibiotic resistance.

They also demonstrated that these microorganisms can adapt to grow on a larger number of available sugars, which, in turn, allows them to stay in the gut longer and grow unchecked.

Most recently, research presented at the American Association for Cancer Research’s annual meeting earlier this spring suggests that use of probiotic supplements may interfere with cancer immunotherapy.

Taking over-the-counter probiotic supplements correlated with a 70 percent lower chance of responding to checkpoint inhibitor immunotherapy. Almost half (42 percent) of the participants reported taking such supplements.

The researchers also noticed a relationship between probiotics and lower gut microbiome diversity. Scientists had already seen this in people with cancers that respond poorly to immunotherapy.

“The general perception is [that probiotics] make your gut microbiome healthier,” says first study author Christine Spencer, a research scientist at the Parker Institute. “While more research is needed, our data suggest that may not be the case for cancer patients.”

Something similar can be said from the perspective of biological medicine, as well, with respect to a wide range of chronic illnesses, not just cancer.

So many of our sickest patients come in with a probiotics habit, often part of a regimen they’ve devised for themselves in hopes of spurring healing. Yet that can’t happen until balance has been restored to their biological terrain. This generally involves correcting the acid-base balance by eliminating excess animal protein and sugars from the diet.

Where acid-base balance is lacking, excessive probiotics may act almost as a contaminant to the existing microbiome and can damage the delicate mucosal tissues that line the intestines. The greater defense system may become so overtaxed that it can no longer regulate the toxic waste products released from the gut flora.

bacteria iconThe result is a toxic surge that the patient can’t totally excrete via the organs of elimination.

Meanwhile, the normally benign, symbiotic microbes can come together and develop into larger, harmful forms within their life cycle, as German microbiologist Günther Enderlein showed back in the early 20th century. The flora becomes more hostile to the host, creating an ever more acidic terrain and attacking the host’s tissues, causing all kinds of disease symptoms.

Hyperacidity in the red blood cells also binds iron in the blood so that cellular respiration becomes increasingly compromised. This may explain why, for instance, cancer patients often lose weight and waste away, despite the size of their tumors being relatively small. Hungry microbes are wreaking havoc in the blood cells.

Add to that the fact that conventional therapies – chemo, antibiotics, synthetic drugs – often kill helpful microbes as well as harmful ones, again contributing to imbalance in the terrain. The problems just keep compounding.

These kinds of harmful, unintended consequences are why we advise that any natural healing regimen be done under the guidance of a skilled and knowledgeable naturopathic or integrative doctor. This is especially the case if you’re contending with chronic illness. Probiotics may play a role in your healing plan – or not. You’ve got to look at the individual case, individual challenges, and individual needs.

As ever, one size does not fit all.

Lactobacillus image by Bob Blaylock, via Wikimedia Commons

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