The Aging Gut: Do Probiotics and Supplemental Fiber Help Us Live Longer?

Friday Oct 24 | BY |
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Aging Gut

One thing we know for certain, a healthy gut prevents disease and promotes longevity.

As we age, all parts of our body get old with us, including the gut.

We’ve come to learn how important our gut is to health, but have overlooked the role it plays in aging. The gut may well turn out to be one of the modifiable factors for longevity.

From Beginning to End

We start life with a sterile gut, but as the infant’s head passes through the birth canal, the baby ingests bacteria that begin to instantly colonize the gut. When first put to the breast to nurse, the baby consumes unique strains of bacteria that only inhabit the area around the mother’s nipple. These provide a cocktail of breast milk and friendly bacteria that foster strong immunity. As the infant thrives, intestinal flora colonies multiply quickly, and levels climb high.

If antibiotics are indiscriminately used, however—as when treating minor ailments like seasonal colds or earaches—bacterial levels decline dramatically. This drop off can result in early-age immune disruption that may affect adult health.

Over a lifetime, the bacteria we harbored as infants decline and some disappear; new ones appear, and as we age many of the best ones are gone. These changes not only affect the health of our digestive system, but also how well we absorb nutrients from food, and how well the immune system protects us from routine viruses like the common cold to serious illnesses like cancer.

Gut BacteriaSource: Tomotari Mitsuoka. Intestinal Flora and Diet.

The Gut, Your Immunity, and Aging

Researchers have found that as we age, imbalances in gut bacteria produce an environment conducive to dybiosis, a term signifying ecological disruption in the gut. Your gut is like a forest. Everything depends on something else, and all things depend on the overall health of the trees. Dysbiosis leads to unhealthy tissue changes of the gut lining, causing increased inflammation, which is associated with weakened immunity.

Older people grow more toxic bacteria and harbor fewer beneficial ones. Researchers found that seniors have more gram-negative bacteria like Enterobacter and other potentially pathogenic ones like Clostridium difficile in their large intestines. Gram-negative bacteria release more endotoxins that cause inflammation, and are linked to urinary and respiratory infections, and obesity.

In addition, older people have less beneficial bacteria like lactobacilli and bifidobacteria species. There is less diversity of bacterial groups, and bacterial overgrowth of the wrong types in the small intestine is more common in older people.

Throughout life, continual exposure to an ever-changing environment, dietary abuses, infections, overuse of antibiotics, and many other activities either support microorganism evolution of the intestinal microbiota or disrupt its ecology and function. Body changes in the aging intestine can have profound and noticeable effects on the microbial composition, and many of these can be measured by a digestive analysis from a stool test.

Probiotics, Prebiotics, and Symbiotics

Probiotics are live microorganism supplements. To be effective, enough have to reach the intestine in an active state. You have to take amounts in the billions of units, and you need ones that are alive and active.

Most health food market places offer many probiotic products found in the refrigerated section, including ones containing Lactobacillus rhamnosus, Lactobacillus reuteri, bifidobacteria species, strains of Lactobacillus casei, and Lactobacillus acidophilus.

A prebiotic is a natural ingredient that helps change the composition and activity of the microflora environment to benefit wellbeing and health. The most common prebiotics are inulin-type fructans, including fermentable chicory fructans. Synergistic combinations of probiotics and prebiotics are called synbiotics.

Several research reviews have summarized the benefits associated with probiotic supplements for older adults. Typical benefits include increased levels of bifidobacteria, improved bowel function with less constipation, enhanced innate immunity, and reduced inflammation.

How Probiotics and Prebiotics Benefit the Body

  • Improve digestive health
  • Improve nutrient absorption
  • Enhance immunity
  • Help prevent cancer
  • Increase calcium absorption
  • Improve detoxification
  • Lower inflammation

Lactobacillus delbrueckii subspecies bulgaricus (L. bulgaricus) OLL1073R-1 is a strain shown to have immunomodulatory properties in the lab. In one study, giving yogurt fermented by this strain to older people of an average age of 74.5 years significantly reduced the incidence and severity of winter colds and upper respiratory symptoms.

Probiotics can reduce diarrhea caused by antibiotic use. Some strains can significantly reduce the incidence of Clostridium difficile-associated colitis. Saccharomyces boulardii, a strain of yeast, can be remarkably effective in treating recurrent Clostridium infection.

The Need for Fiber

Fiber in food provides health benefits, but not all commercial fiber products are the same. Few functional fiber preparations are both effective and palatable. Some may cause irritation to the gut lining, and some people are allergic to psyllium, the most commonly used fiber supplement and the least expensive.

For those sensitive to fructans, avoid fiber products and prebiotic supplements that contain inulin or other fructans.

For the weakened and sensitive intestinal tracks of older people, I recommend a novel fiber supplement called PolyGlycopleX (PGX). This viscous fiber is easy on the digestive tract, and also helps reduce spikes in blood sugar after eating, and the subsequent plunge of glucose that results in hypoglycemia.

A healthy person needs at least 25-35 grams of fiber daily, with an upper limit of about 55 grams. Women’s fiber requirements are somewhat less than for men. Fiber supplements are best taken in amounts varying from 2.5 to 7.5 grams three times daily with meals.

A Plant-Based Diet Promotes Gut Health

Taking probiotic supplements and eating yogurt doesn’t guarantee your colonies of friendly bacteria will bloom. Some strains are better than others. Prebiotics help, but diet plays an essential role in gut health.

All plants contain fiber, which aid digestion and elimination, and also support healthy colonies of beneficial bacteria. Fermented foods like sauerkraut provide additional friendly microbial support for the gut. Polyphenols like blueberries, and those found in red wine, support Bifidobacterium species.

I haven’t yet found the ideal probiotic supplement. Instead, I match up the patient’s microbiome needs based on their condition, constitution, and results of comprehensive stool analysis. I expect soon we’ll be able to do a genetic profile of gut bacteria from a single swab. For now, eat a healthy plant-based diet, including fermented foods and yogurt if you’re not sensitive to dairy, and take a probiotic supplement.

Probiotic science is a relatively new field, but one that is proving beneficial for health and longevity. One thing we know for certain: a healthy gut prevents disease and promotes longevity.

Dr. J. E. Williams

J. E. WILLIAMS, OMD, FAAIM

Dr. Williams is a pioneer in integrative and functional medicine, the author of six books, and a practicing clinician with over 100,000 patient visits. His areas of interest include longevity and viral immunity. Formerly from San Diego, he now resides in Sarasota, Florida and practices at the Florida Integrative Medical Center. He teaches at NOVA Southeastern University and Emperor’s College of Oriental Medicine.

Visit Dr. Williams’ Website: https://drjewilliams.com/

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