The Benefits from Probiotics: Healthy Aging, Better Living
The overall benefits from probiotics have been clearly documented in research and in popular articles. Their contribution to good gut health can be easily seen in research and in clinical use. And the necessity of maintaining a healthy gut has likewise been well researched.
The connection between the gut microbiome and the proper function of nearly every other organ in the body is being investigated rigorously on a daily basis. These connections are so important that the gut system has been called a “second brain” due to its influences.
A huge benefit from probiotics is their ability to populate the gut system with beneficial bacteria and to help keep this major body system in balance. With the seeming reliance on antibiotics coming from physicians, keeping probiotics in your body is a necessity. Antibiotics, while wonderful for killing harmful bacteria, also kill beneficial bacteria in your gut. Replacing lost gut bacteria with probiotics replenishes your store of healthful bacteria and keeps your digestive system working well.
In addition to maintaining good digestion, another benefit of probiotics is boosting your immune system. Most of your immune functioning takes place in the digestive system, your gut. Healthy bacteria there help keep your immune system working as it should.
Maintaining healthy digestion and keeping your immune system strong are especially important as you age.
Benefits from Probiotics in Aging
In order to fully grasp the benefits from probiotics in aging, we must first look at the number of Americans falling into the category of “older” in the U.S The Administration on Aging reported the number of adults 65 years of age or older in 2014 to be 46.2 million. This is the latest year this data was available. That number represents 14.5% of the total population. By 2040, the percentage of adults 65 or older is projected to increase to 21.7% of the population. By 2060, the number of older adults in the U.S. will be approximately 98 million, over two times the number in 2014.
These numbers only tell part of the story. Older Americans struggle with chronic illnesses and conditions more often than younger people. Research has indicated at least 60% of older adults were inflicted with two or more chronic health conditions. Conditions such as heart disease, cancer, chronic bronchitis, and Alzheimer’s disease. One-third of adults over 65 take five or more medications.
Many of these chronic conditions can be traced back to the devastating influence of inflammation. One of the detrimental health conditions resulting from both an unhealthy gut microbiome and Adrenal Fatigue Syndrome (AFS) is increased inflammation. Probiotics have been shown to have a beneficial effect in fighting inflammation.
A number of studies have shown connections between aging, the chronic health conditions that often accompany aging, and diet and lifestyle choices. From research and clinical practice, it appears consuming a healthy diet, making better lifestyle choices, and dietary supplementation with the benefits from probiotics will allow you to have a longer life with fewer complicating health conditions that plague so many older adults today.
In addition to fighting the detrimental effects of inflammation, another one of the benefits from probiotics is their antioxidant properties. Research has shown a dramatic increase of free radicals in the body due to the toxic effects of poor diet, environmental toxins, and stress. Decreasing the numbers of these free radicals and alleviating the effects they have on the body is vital to fighting aging and the chronic health problems that come with it. Probiotics are effective antioxidants.
Some studies have shown the probiotic strains Bifidobacterium and Lactobacillus to improve the synthesis of polyamines. Polyamines aid in the synthesis of RNA, protein, and DNA leading to normal growth and functioning of cells. Better synthesis of polyamines is likely to improve cell growth and function in older adults, fighting the ravages of aging.
Polyamines are also potent antioxidants and boost the function of essential enzymes. Significant, ongoing research is being conducted into the effects of certain enzymes on aging and some of the conditions associated with it, especially mental health conditions. Probiotic strains that aid in polyamine synthesis lead to better functioning of enzymes such as MAO-A and can have a beneficial effect on mental health in the older population.
Probiotics and Mental Health
While the benefits from probiotics improve the mental health of older adults indirectly, the jury is still out on any direct effect.
Some early research has investigated how probiotics may decrease the signals from the gut to the brain in conditions of fear or anxiety. The long-term goal of this research is to determine whether taking probiotics can affect emotional response to stress and other less positive stimuli. This research is still very preliminary, but it does suggest some kind of interaction between gut bacteria, brain responses, and emotion.
Researchers have coined the term “psychobiotics” to describe the strains of probiotics that appear to have promise in remediating some mental health conditions. Preclinical studies have suggested a connection between depression and changes in the microbiota of the gut. These “psychobiotics” are healthy bacteria that can modify the gut microbiota in a positive way and may thus have some beneficial impact on depression.
One study gave human subjects Lactobacillus helveticus R0052 and Bifidobacterium longum for 30 days. They reported significantly lower stress levels compared to placebo and had lower levels of free cortisol in their urine. Cortisol is the stress-fighting hormone secreted by your adrenals. Low levels are suggestive of low stress. Researchers reported these probiotic strains to produce substances such as gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA) and serotonin. Both of these act on the gut-brain axis.
In another study, patients with chronic fatigue syndrome were given L casei three times a day. They reported lower anxiety compared with those who were given a placebo. This appears to suggest probiotics may have some efficacy as psychotropic substances.
At this point in the study of “psychobiotics”, however, caution is advised. Further studies with appropriate controls and large-scale use of human subjects are needed before definitive statements can be made.
This area of research is valuable because patients who suffer from mental health problems can benefit from alternative methods of alleviating those problems. This apparent link between gut bacteria and emotions is one potential pathway in which “psychobiotics” might have an effect. This pathway may be through cytokines acting directly on the brain. There is also the suggestion that antidepressants may be influenced by the anti-inflammation benefits from probiotics.
Research with the Lactobacillus strain rhamnosus showed it had a significant effect on GABA levels. GABA is a neurotransmitter that affects both physiological and psychological processes in the brain. This lactobacillus strain also lowered cortisol levels resulting in lower anxiety and depression.
One possible reason dietary approaches can be helpful in alleviating mental health problems is that there are a significant number of neurons in your gut system as well as in your brain. Thus, the potential benefits from probiotics in reducing symptoms of depression and anxiety in older adults. Serotonin, the neurotransmitter involved in both depression and anxiety, is in a high concentration in your gut system. Benefits from probiotics have been shown to positively affect levels of serotonin.
A significant body of research has accumulated indicating colonies of bacteria in your gut exert an influence on the development of behavioral and emotional problems. This research has shown clearly a connection between the gut and the brain and significant involvement of intestinal flora in neurological diseases. With these findings, it is easy to understand how gut bacteria, in both a balanced and unbalanced state, have an influence on behavior and emotions.
In a study involving 40 mentally healthy adults, half took three strains of probiotics (Bifidobacterium, Lactobacillus, and Lactococcus) that have been shown to have positive effects on anxiety and depression, while the other half took a placebo. Those who consumed the probiotics reported less reaction to sad moods and had fewer depressive thoughts following bouts of sadness.
From all this research and other ongoing studies, there appears to be some promise for the use of probiotics in mental health issues. Much more research is needed before anyone should think about abandoning prescription medications for the benefits from probiotics. Certainly, this research should continue since mental health problems are one of the three most important issues in aging.
Probiotics and the Effects of MTHFR
Methylenetetrahydrofolate reductase (MTHFR) is a cofactor resulting from a genetic mutation that converts folic acid to methylfolate, or active folate. Methylfolate is important in the process of creating and breaking down the neurotransmitters serotonin, dopamine, and norepinephrine. All of these neurotransmitters are involved in your emotional responses. If you have MTHFR in your system, you probably have an imbalance of neurotransmitter chemicals and variations in mood, especially when you’re under stress.
If this is the case, you should avoid folic acid and take methylfolate instead. But it’s important to know whether you have some other SNPs that affect mood before you go this route. Take care of those other SNPs first.
This cofactor is required for re-methylation of several substances, including glutathione, which is important in the production of some important neurotransmitters, in healthy hormone production, and in liver detoxification, among other functions. If the steps involved in MTHFR converting folic acid into methionine, among other substances, aren’t completed, you’re at increased risk of developing arteriosclerotic vascular disease, anemia, coronary artery disease, and even cancer. Methionine also helps with depression and inflammation. It can also be converted into s-adenosylmethionine, or SAM-e, a proven anti-inflammatory. SAM-e also helps boost the immune system and helps in the production of serotonin, melatonin, and dopamine.
Research suggests nearly half of the population may have some form of MTHFR mutation. Deficiencies in this cofactor leave you open to increased risk of developmental disorders like autism, dementia, fibromyalgia, and schizophrenia. Nothing can be done about genetic mutations, but you can improve the working of your gene through good nutrition, proper supplementation, and improved detoxification.
Probiotics may be a significant part of both good nutrition and appropriate supplementation. One of the benefits of probiotics is their important role in fighting the effects of inflammation and stress.
Probiotics and COMT
Catechol-O-methyltransferase (COMT) is an enzyme that breaks down catecholamines such as epinephrine and norepinephrine (adrenaline). Under stress, levels of adrenaline rise. If you have COMT mutations, you won’t be able to rid your body of the excess adrenaline, leading to symptoms of racing heart, increased blood pressure, anxiety, and panic.
Dopamine is another catecholamine broken down by COMT. It has been implicated in depression and other mental health problems. If dopamine increases because it is not being broken down, the result can be mood changes, reduced ability to focus, and difficulty concentrating.
Changing your diet to include fewer potatoes, green tea, and coffee could help. Supplementation with magnesium bisglycinate and vitamin B6 also helps. A benefit of high-quality probiotics is their ability to assist in the methylation process and help decrease the mental health problems brought on by mutations in COMT.
Probiotics and Monoamine Oxidases
Monoamine oxidases remove amines from monoamines, like serotonin, melatonin, dopamine, and adrenaline. This leads to production of ammonia and aldehydes. If these are not detoxified, you may experience fatigue, brain fog, and pain. The same kinds of symptoms are found in AFS. MAO mutations can lead to increased or decreased neurotransmitters and increased toxins in your body from metabolites. These mutations also can lead to depression, anxiety, and other mood changes.
Changing your diet and adding supplementation with probiotics can improve your health in spite of MAO mutations.
Probiotics and Xenobiotic Detoxification
The last of the important issues involved in aging and probiotics is xenobiotic detoxification. In short, this is a metabolic pathway that prepares unwanted chemicals in your body for elimination. A series of enzymes work on these chemicals to neutralize them and make them soluble. Then, they are transported to the body organs responsible for eliminating them from your body. This process also readies unneeded chemicals produced in the body for excretion.
Unnecessary hormones, vitamins, and inflammatory molecules, among others, are eliminated by the same mechanism that excretes environmental toxins and heavy metals from your body. These enzymatic reactions are important for keeping you safe from environmental contaminants and for keeping your body in homeostatic balance.
It’s important to rid the body of these toxins and toxicants because they can lead to mutations and act as carcinogens. Some of them can interrupt the functioning of specific pathways your body uses in its metabolic efforts.
One family of enzymes that serves to detox the body of these substances is the cytochrome P450s (CYPs). These enzymes are mostly nonspecific, that is, they can recognize and modify several types of toxins. They work slowly compared to other enzymes.
Some strains of probiotics have the benefit of containing and metabolizing xenobiotics and heavy metals. Thus, consuming probiotics of the right kind can help with detoxifying your body of these xenobiotics.
Adrenal Fatigue Syndrome
Many of the chronic conditions that naturally come with age are the same conditions that result from Adrenal Fatigue Syndrome (AFS). The benefits from probiotics can help.
Stress, the primary cause of AFS, is an everyday event for all of us. When stress occurs, no matter the source, a pathway called the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis is activated. The end organ in this pathway is the adrenal glands. Their purpose is to secrete several hormones. Cortisol is the one that fights the effects of stress. As stress continues, more and more cortisol is secreted to fight it. At some point, with continuing stress, the adrenal glands reach the point of fatigue, and sufficient cortisol can’t be secreted to counteract the effects of stress.
When this happens, a number of symptoms become more evident. Some experience the tendency to gain weight around the middle of the body. With a lowered immune effectiveness, there is more risk of getting the flu and other illnesses. These infections may last longer than usual. Many wake up more tired than when they went to sleep. There is an increase in inflammation throughout the body due to the imbalance of bacteria in the gut microbiota and leaky gut.
And one of the more serious characteristics of stress and its effects is that they tend to accumulate over time. As we age, we’re exposed more and more to stress, leading its effects to be more prevalent in older people.
The NeuroEndoMetabolic (NEM) Model
Conventionally-trained physicians typically handle the symptoms of AFS in a manner that is less than comprehensive. They approach issues one organ or symptom at a time without considering how one symptom or organ can affect others in the body.
A more comprehensive approach is the NeuroEndoMetabolic (NEM) Stress Response model, in which systems of the body act in interrelationship with one another. What occurs in the metabolic system, for example, affects the inflammatory system and sets up symptoms there. These symptoms then affect the hormonal response system and start symptoms there.
This interrelationship continues as long as stress continues. Alleviating the effects of stress must take into consideration how these systems interact.
As we age, we become more susceptible to symptoms in one or more of these body systems. The dysregulation that occurs with stress in the metabolic system can allow leakage of unhealthy bacteria into the rest of the body. This results in an increase in inflammation throughout the body, which is the foundation of all chronic disease conditions. Continuing stress also causes hormones to be secreted that can eventually result in an imbalance, leading to more chronic illnesses.
With all of these problems, the flood of unhealthy bacteria, and the excess of hormones, the detox system becomes overloaded, leading to increased toxins in the body. Somewhere in the middle of this storm, the neuroaffective response is stimulated, leading to mental health issues.
Probiotic Benefits in Alleviating Chronic Diseases
We all grow older; that can’t be helped. And many who age develop a variety of chronic diseases. One of the benefits of probiotics is their ability to make changes in the gut microbiota that help to alleviate these chronic conditions. The benefits from probiotics can be added to your diet through foods and supplements.
Probiotic Foods and Supplements
When adding the benefits from probiotics to your diet through foods, be sure to consider the CFUs, the colony forming units, in the foods. This is a measure of the density of bacteria available for your nutritional needs. In the past, we were able to get all the beneficial bacteria we needed from foods grown in nutrient-rich soil. Now, with the depletion of nutrients from the soil and the addition of antibiotics to so many products, from meat to vegetables, we must supplement our diets to improve gut health.
In addition to consuming more beneficial probiotic foods, it is also important to avoid foods that increase the bad bacteria in your gut or inadvertently kill good bacteria. Some foods to avoid are sugars, processed foods, GMO food, grains, chlorinated tap water, and foods that you know contain antibiotics.
Sour Foods and Fermented, Cultured Dairy
One of the first things to add to your diet is more sour foods. Apple cider vinegar and fermented vegetables can bring many of the benefits from probiotics. These foods also contain healthy acids that encourage a pH in your body that supports the growth of probiotics
Other foods rich in probiotics also help to gain or regain health. Good quality fermented dairy like goat milk yogurt and kefir are probiotic-rich and help improve gut health. At least one serving of these foods helps you access the benefits from probiotics.
Kefir is a fermented milk product from Russia and Turkey originally. It’s usable by people who are lactose intolerant because the yeasts in kefir breakdown the lactose in milk.
Goat’s milk, sheep’s milk, and A2 aged cheeses are full of probiotics such as thermophilus, bifidus, bulgaricus, and acidophilus. Raw and not pasteurized ingredients provide the best benefits from probiotics.
Yogurt is probably the most popular source of benefits from probiotics. It is excellent if it’s made from milk from grass-fed animals. Organic milk is best.
Fermented and Fermentable Foods
Fermented foods are made with cultures of good bacteria and can add healthy bacteria to your gut.
Sauerkraut is rich in Lactobacillus. It also contains organic acids that support good bacteria growth. It’s high in vitamin C and in digestive enzymes.
Kimchi is the Korean cousin to sauerkraut. It’s made with Chinese cabbage and a number of other foods and spices, then aged for several days.
Natto is a Japanese dish of fermented soybeans high in Bacillus subtilis. This bacteria boosts the immune system, supports cardiovascular health, and helps digest vitamin K2.
Kvass is a common beverage in Eastern Europe made from fermented barley or rye and sometimes vegetables like carrots. It contains Lactobacilli probiotics.
Miso is a major component of Japanese medicine. It is a paste made from fermented soybeans, rice, or barley. Traditionally it is used to stimulate digestion and increase energy.
Kombucha is black tea fermented using a symbiotic colony of bacteria and yeast. It is sometimes used to support digestion, increase energy, and aid liver detox.
Additionally, probiotics are living organisms and thus need food to survive. This is why adding high-quality, fermentable fiber to your diet is another good way to feed your probiotics.
Chia seeds and flax seeds are good sources of fermentable fiber. Organic fruits and vegetables, sweet potatoes, and regular potatoes are also good sources.
It’s also possible to take supplements with probiotics to reap the benefits from probiotics. However, some cautions are in order.
If you plan to take probiotic supplements, do not be mislead into thinking the more the better in terms of probiotic count. In AFS in particular, excessive probiotics can be problematic. Also, the benefits from probiotics are only good when they can be reconstituted. Having a high count of unavailable probiotics does not serve the body well. Instead, it can add to the overall toxic reactive metabolite load unnecessarily.
Beneficial Strains of Probiotics
There are many different strains to achieve the benefits from probiotics:
- Bifidobacterium bifidum – supports the immune system and inhibits harmful bacteria
- Bifidobacterium longum – reduces inflammation, removes lead, and heavy metals
- Bifidobacterium breve – helps remove bad bacteria
- Bifidobacterium infantis – aids in relieving symptoms of irritable bowel syndrome
- Lactobacillus casei – supports the immune system, helps fight infection
- Lactobacillus acidophilus – aids in lactose intolerance, lowers cholesterol levels
- Lactobacillus bulgaricus – neutralizes toxins, fights harmful bacteria
- Lactobacillus brevis – boosts cellular immunity, enhances natural killer T cells
- Lactobacillus rhamnosus – supports balanced bacteria, reduces anxiety
- Bacillus subtilis – builds immune response, inhibits growth of bad bacteria
- Bacillus coagulans – improves nutrient absorption, reduces inflammation
- Saccharomyces boulardii – improves intestinal cell growth, has antitoxin and antimicrobial qualities
While there are many excellent strains of probiotics, this last deserves special mention.
This strain of probiotic comes from the skin of plants such as lychee and mangosteen fruit. It’s similar in form to baker’s yeast, but it differs in some metabolic properties. It has been used in alternative medicine applications for a number of years.
One of the most potent benefits of this probiotic is that it isn’t affected by antibiotics since it is a yeast. This quality makes it effective in stopping infections such as candida when antibiotics have destroyed other beneficial bacteria, but have left some pathogens in your gut system.
It has been used to remediate many gastrointestinal conditions including Crohn’s disease, diarrhea, irritable bowel syndrome, and ulcerative colitis. It has also been used to fight yeast infections. Research published in the World Journal of Gastroenterology in 2010 reported Saccharomyces boulardii to possibly be effective in dealing with the above health conditions. The report said more research is needed before the probiotic can be said to be fully effective in these efforts.
It has also been shown to potentially be effective in handling C. difficile infections, to help boost production of Immunoglobulin-A, and to have anti-inflammatory properties that help prevent damage to cells. In addition, it appears to aid in increasing levels of enzymes that help with digestion.
Some possible cautions need to be kept in mind. Not enough research has been conducted with this probiotic to be certain of its long-term effects. Regular use by mouth by adults appears to have relatively few side effects. Gas, constipation, and bloating appear to be the most common side effects. Fungemia, a condition of fungi in the blood, is a possible concern with the use of Saccharomyces boulardii. Older adults, infants, and those with suppressed immune systems need to avoid its use or at least consult with their healthcare providers. Patients with colitis, cancer, and central venous catheters should avoid this probiotic.
Side Effects of Probiotics
Overall, the benefits from probiotics have few side effects. There may be some stomach upset initially, but it’s minor and temporary. It is possible for probiotics to lead to infections. If these occur, they will typically be in infants, the elderly, and those who have compromised immune systems.
It’s possible for the body to mistake probiotics for infectious agents invading the body. In this case, the immune system will respond just as if there really is an infectious agent there. An elevated white blood cell count will be seen, along with fatigue and possibly fever.
Unusual changes in metabolism can also occur. These may result in more or less frequent bowel movements. Weight gain, weight loss, or a decrease in absorption of nutrients may also occur.
One factor to consider is that the Food and Drug Administration does not oversee probiotics. To obtain benefits from probiotics, it’s important to get them from a good source. Because they’re considered foods and not medications, however, claims made by manufacturers may not always be accurate. You must be diligent in checking these claims.
Keep in mind also that probiotics may not work the same way for you as they work for someone else. Some trial and error may be in order to get the most benefit from probiotics for your body.
Also, don’t stop taking a medication from your doctor because of switching to probiotics. Consult with your healthcare professional first.
Everyone ages; that is a given. How well you age is up to you in large part. You can fall into the category of older adults that experience complications from chronic illnesses, or you can make healthy choices now to alleviate some of them. While you may not be able to stave off all chronic illnesses as you age, you can keep some of them away and make others less serious. To do this, take advantage of the health benefits of probiotics by including them in your diet today.
© Copyright 2017 Michael Lam, M.D. All Rights Reserved.
Dr. Lam’s Key Question
What is the main benefit of probiotics in aging?
One of the more difficult aspects of aging is the emergence of chronic health problems. On average, older Americans have at least two chronic illnesses for the rest of their lives. The main benefit of probiotics is to ease, and sometimes eliminate, these chronic illnesses, improving quality of life.