Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Overselling the microbiome award: Stephen Barrie on pre and probiotics at the Huffington Post

Yes, I think the microbes that live in and on people are important, interesting, cool, and worthy of lots and lots of attention. However, I am getting sicker and sicker of the ways in which the effects of these microbes are, well oversold. So today I am starting a new series here on the Tree of Life - the "Overselling the Microbiome and Probiotics Award."

And, we have a winner today. The winner is Stephen Barrie who has posted something at the paragon of high quality science - the Huffington Post (for more on the dubious science at Huffington Post, a good place to look is Bora's Blog Around the Clock). Well, Barrie really takes the cake on this one

Stephen Barrie, ND: The Keys to Maintaining a Healthy Gut

He starts off OK - referring to the number of microbes in the human ecosystem and even quoting Jeroen Raes, who does some great work.

Then he mentions how
"These bacteria have a profound influence on human physiology, your immune system, your nutrition, and are crucial for human life."
OK I can go with this -- maybe an exaggeration but still within reasonable confines. Then the woppers begin
"The health of your body and mind is largely tied to the health of your gut".
Wow- that is one serious jump - from these microbes have a profound influence to the gut driving health of body and MIND.

Then he goes back to some OK territory again, discussing some functions known for gut microbes, like vitamin production, preventing infection, etc. But just after this he switches to the woppers again claiming that out of balance microbes can cause allergies, inflammatory bowel disease, eczema, arthritis, irritable bowel disease, obesity, autism and personality changes including paranoia, hostility, aggression and so on. Completely ludicrous actually. What we know about these issues is that researchers have found that microbial populations may be altered in people with these maladies. But that does not mean the alteration in the microbes caused these maladies. It could be that other factors cause both the malady and the microbial alteration or the malady itself could lead to altered microbial populations.

But wait, it gets a bit better. Now that he has established that microbes cause all these problems, he tells us how to
"avoid one of the emerging causes of both obesity and food allergies? Lower your risk of inflammatory bowel disease, irritable bowel disease, eczema, colon cancer (15) strengthen your immune system? All this while reducing any levels of paranoia or hostility (and retaining your Jon Stewart sense of humor)."
The recipe for prevention is as follows:
  • Eat a low fat diet rich in vegetables, fruits and complex carbohydrates
  • Limit consumption of animal protein
  • Reduce sugar consumption
  • Increase pre-biotic and probiotic intake
  • Consume enough soluble and insoluble fiber to maintain a daily bowel movement. A slow bowel transit time leads to increased exposure of your body to toxic bowel contents.
  • Reduce dietary sulfate consumption.
Again, I am all for more research into the microbiome.  And I think microbes that live with us must have all sorts of positive and negative effects on our health.  And yes, I understand why "probiotics" and "prebiotics" are getting lots of hype.  But because Barrie has gone from what must be a gut feeling (sorry) to making medical claims without evidence and prescribing treatments to cure ailments that probably don't exist, he is the recipient of my first "Overselling the microbiome award".


  1. Thank you for addressing this topic! The last year we have seen an increasing number of studies relating the human microbiome and a series of health conditions. As a microbiologist i don't doubt the large "syntrophic" effect there must be between us the hoasts and our co- inhabitants. But i have yet to see a study which finds no correlation between the microbiome and a specific condition (to my knowledge at least), which worries me.
    It would be sad to see such an interesting field become a "gost town" if initial hype scares researchers away.
    Perhaps we should address the fundamental questions, "like how many bacteria are in the gut anyway" -

  2. Jonathan,
    Thanks for your interesting review of my recent blog on the Huffington Post. I understand some of your questions about information not often discussed.
    I can assure you that all the information presented in the blog is backed up by main stream peer reviewed scientific literature.
    The initial posting of my blog did not contain the actual endnotes (that all those numbers in the article refer to). That was of course corrected and now the references are listed.
    The mention of a microbe-obesity connection is referenced at number 9 by a recent article in Nature magazine - Turnbaugh P, Gordon J. An obesity-associated gut microbiome. Nature 444; Dec 2006.
    Glad you enjoyed the post!

  3. Steven

    Thanks for the response. I note, I guessed that those numbers were citations that did not get added at the end of your post. But since I know the field pretty well, I figured that m sot if not all of those citations would at best refer to one of the following:

    1. papers that showed that in some human (or animal) condition the microbial population is different than in healthy people


    2. Papers that showed that one could change an animal condition in limited cases by altering the microbes (e.g. More recent papers on obesity by Gordon and others)

    in either case it is a big stretch to then say that microbial dysbiosis CAUSES human ailments such as ose you listed. The issue here really is correlation vs. causation. In addition, even in the very few cases where it has been shown that changes in microbies can cause some human phenotypic change, these are very limited studies and it is not reasonable to extend these to the whole human population.

    finally, even being extremely generous and assuming we know that changes in microbes CAUSE all of these ailments in the whole population, your suggestions for treatment are as far as I know, without any evidence that they will effect major changes or prevent the occurrence of any of these ailments.

    So, as I said, though I think it is possible microbes cause these and other health issues, and though I think at some point we may know how to alter microbial populations in the right way, you have in my opinion gone way too far.

    And thus the award ...
    I would hazard to

  4. It seems obvious to me that something you ate is causing all this paranoia and/or hostility. Keep up the vigilance.


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