Your gut holds the clues.
For many years, experts considered gut microbes vital for one thing. But the past 10 years have shown that the gut does more than digest food. It plays an integral role in the immune system.
There are two kinds of gut microbes. Those that are pro anti-inflammatory and those that provoke the immune system, causing inflammation.
When the bacteria are out of balance, it can “lead to excessive activation of the immune system, which leads to disease,” Dr. Stephanie Tankou, a research fellow at Harvard Medical School, told Healthline.
Tankou and her Harvard associates just published a small study showing that probiotics can make a difference in the health of people living with multiple sclerosis (MS).
Previous studies have shown the connection between gut bacteria and MS disease severity. Tankou and another team in an earlier study were able to in people with MS.
When compared with a healthy gut, MS guts show a difference.
While the gut will have beneficial bacteria, it may also have an excess of pro-inflammatory bacteria. Specifically, an MS gut may have increases in Methanobrevibacter and Akkermansia as well as decreases in Butyricimonas.
Can probiotics help?
The Harvard team wanted to know specifically, “Can we cure or help MS by fixing an imbalance in the gut by administering probiotics, which we know are good for us,” Tankou explained.
This study was sponsored by Teva Neuroscience Inc. and the Ann Romney Center for Neurologic Diseases.
The small pilot study looked to answer two questions.
First, is it possible to change an MS gut by simply giving it a probiotic?
And if successful, would the team see any changes in the immune system?
There’s a need for safe ways to manage MS. One way to manage MS is to manipulate the immune response in the body, thus triggering an anti-inflammatory reaction.
This research shows that at the immune level, taking the probiotic VSL3 orally induced an anti-inflammatory reaction.
The team chose Visbiome, a brand name of VSL3, for the study. Visbiome is a high potency probiotic that has been around for more than a decade. It includes eight strains of bacteria and is produced in the United States.
The basic formula is available over the counter for $50 for a one-month supply. An extra-strength version is available by prescription. Prescription strength was used for this study.
Visbiome has been used on animals and humans for a variety of conditions, such as irritable bowel syndrome, ulcerative colitis, and diabetes.
“It has a ,” Tankou told Healthline, and it “is the most studied of probiotics.”
What the study revealed
The pilot study included 13 healthy control volunteers and 9 MS patients.
The study required three hospital visits where neurological exams and blood and stool samples were taken. After an initial visit, the participants then took Visbiome for two months, then another round of tests was performed. The participants stopped taking the probiotics, and after three months, another round of tests was conducted.
The team isolated the participants’ DNA, then sent it off for sequencing.
The researchers said that as the probiotics were consumed, the guts changed to look more like the healthy controls.
“It is possible to change the composition of the microbes of an MS patient,” Tankou told Healthline. “Thereby suggesting that it is possible to change the gut.”
The probiotics were taken orally. Although the pills can be destroyed by stomach acid, they were effective, and the team was “pleasantly surprised” to see the shift from an MS gut to a healthier one.
The study begged a further question: What happens to the immune system in the periphery? Specifically, what’s happening in the brain?
Upon administering this probiotic, the immune profile compared to the original showed less activation. This means that Visbiome has anti-inflammatory properties outside the gut.
Tankou said the results were “very exciting news.”
“Individuals with high level of Lactobacillus in the gut had fewer pro-inflammatory cells in the blood,” she explained.
MS guts have a tendency for abundance of pro-inflammatory bacteria. This study showed a reduction in this abundance.
The next steps
“This could have a synergistic affect with other MS therapies,” Tankou said, “but a larger study is needed. One that will focus on clinical aspects and look at efficacy.”
“We’ve shown that it’s possible to change by administering this probiotic, and outside the gut, then next step is to do a real clinical trial, and improve disease outcome,” she added.
Tankou recommends that a study be done for patients with progressive MS, who have less options than other patients at this point.
Probiotics are also being tested for a variety of conditions, including HIV and traumatic brain injuries (TBI).
One showed how probiotics can positively affect those with TBIs. Mice fed probiotics developed less severe trauma in their spinal cord. Again, probiotics offered protection outside of the gut.
Editor’s note: Caroline Craven is a patient expert living with MS. Her award-winning blog is , and she can be found on .