For more than a decade, 51-year-old management consultant Steve Gallagher has been managing his rheumatoid arthritis — and chronic pain — via diet and exercise. The North Fork, LI, resident stuck to a strict regimen despite being bombarded with quack suggestions.
“When you have a disease like this, everyone says they have the cure — your mom clips something out of Reader’s Digest to send to you,” he said. Still, when his physician, Dr. Qingping Yao at Stony Brook University, asked if he wanted to join the beta trial of an intriguing new probiotic pill, he figured it couldn’t hurt. “‘Everything is worth a try,’” he added, of his thought process at the time.
Within weeks of starting it, he said he could increase the time he spent working out by 10%. Now, a year into his regimen, Gallagher’s workouts are 40% longer and significantly more intense. He is also down 7 pounds, even though his weight has rarely fluctuated in the past. “I’m a believer,” he said.
What he’s come to believe in, specifically, isn’t just any old gut health vitamin. Gallagher was part of a trial for a pill, which is being marketed under the name Nella, that contains bacteria harvested from the poop of high-performing athletes.
“We’re looking for what’s in the eco-system of super-healthy people,” said Dr. Jonathan Scheiman, the inventor of Nella and the CEO of its parents company Fitbiomics, by way of explanation. He believes the answer to true sporting prowess isn’t just a great trainer or a strict diet. Superstar athletes have something in common, and the way he found it out was via their poop.
Over the last decade or so, it’s become increasingly accepted that the microbiome — the bacteria in your gut — directly impacts our overall health, both mental and physical. Per the American Psychological Association, 95% of the body’s serotonin is produced by gut bacteria, and 70% of our immune system is found in the intestines, too. The idea behind Fitbiomics is to hijack an average Joe’s GI system and bio-hack it with bacteria until it resembles that of a pro-athlete. Once you’re digesting at Olympic levels, Scheiman believes the health benefits could be great.
Scheiman himself was a sporty kid, but the 6’2″ New Yorker and basketball nut didn’t get drafted by the NBA when he graduated from St John’s. Instead, he ended up studying biomedicine, fascinated by how superstar sportsmen and women stood out from their peers. His gut instincts told him to follow the microbiome. By 2015, while a research fellow at Harvard, he had an inkling he could find out by digging around a little. “I rented a Zipcar every day for two weeks, and for eight hours a day, I was driving around Boston with some dry ice in the back seat,” Scheiman said, recalling his research methods. “And I was picking up stool samples non-stop.”
The stools samples came from 15 elite runners training for the Boston Marathon, plus a control group of ordinary folks he’d recruited. Once he got back to his lab, Scheiman started sifting through the poo looking for a common link — and he struck on something exciting.
In the runners, levels of the bacterium Veillonella atypica were consistently high. That microbe is one that spikes in the wake of exertion and loves to feed on lactic acid. That’s the same molecule, of course, that causes soreness in muscles after exercise.
“It was a lightbulb moment,” Scheiman said. “That metabolite is associated with fatigue, and this organism converts it into something beneficial.”
So, Scheiman and his team set about testing what that might mean. They dosed up some lab mice with this lactic acid-munching bacteria and set them on a treadmill until exhausted, alongside a control group. The Veillonella-assisted group ran for 13% longer than the control. The microbe appeared to be an all-natural endurance-booster.
Scheiman went on to found Fitbiomics in April 2018 to capitalize on his findings. A swath of super-performers have signed on to endorse it, including basketball great Chris Mullin, triathlete Angela Naeth and soccer vet Tim Parker.
But, not everyone is convinced. Dr. William Li, the author of “Eat to Beat Disease,” has researched gut and microbiome health in depth, and he’s skeptical of Scheiman’s findings.
“We know many diseases are associated with imbalances in the gut microbiome ecosystem, which is called dysbiosis, including depression and Alzheimer’s,” he said. “There is much less known about the gut microbiome and physical performance. The science has developed a popular following and many clever entrepreneurs have developed products like probiotic supplements that claim to produce results that are not well-studied or outstrip the evidence from science.”
There’s no risk, but also no guaranteed reward, Dr. Li emphasizes. “Most are safe to take, and many people report feeling better with fewer intestinal symptoms after taking them,” he told The Post. “But, for the most part, improving overall health with probiotics is a marketing statement still waiting for research to support it.”
Fitbiomic’s Nella, is currently available via a monthly subscription for $59, but the company is still seeking regulatory approval for similar supplements that have long been in the works.
In the meantime, Gallagher and others are enjoying results they attribute to Nella. Nick Vendikos, a 52-year-old fundraiser from Brooklyn, had long struggled with chronic pain as the result of an accident, along with IBS and difficulty maintaining an ideal weight.
He decided to try Nella and has been surprised by how much better he feels.
“I’m a skeptic, but my stomach started feeling better. All my issues have gone away, and I lost about 20 pounds,” he said. “I don’t know if it is or it isn’t Nella, but something’s working.”