No one wants to grow old but time is always against us. The outward signs of aging are bad enough, but what happens on the inside is even more frustrating. As the years pass by, a number of changes happen including a weakened immune system and the onset of what is known as inflammaging. This phenomenon can contribute to a number of chronic diseases including arthritis, osteoporosis, cardiovascular troubles, cancer, and even Alzheimer's disease.
The trouble with inflammaging is how hard it can be to detect. It's a long-term condition in which the entire immune system is working at a heightened level to get rid of any potential threats to health. For younger people, this is actually a good thing; the response to infections and other toxins is faster and leads to a more efficient recovery. But in the elderly, the opposite effect happens. The immune system can turn on a person and begin to harm the very cells needed for life. The overall effect is a greater risk for disease as the damage accumulates.
Detecting the condition may be hard but figuring out how to control the problem appears to be an even greater puzzle. Reducing inflammation is not easy and isn't going to be resolved simply by taking pharmaceutical anti-inflammatory medications. A more systemic answer needs to be found although the options are limited.
One of the more popular directions in controlling inflammation involves targeting not human cells but microbial ones. The trillions of bacteria in the intestines are known to play a role in inflammation particularly in the elderly. The key to optimal health is a strong diversity of species yet as people age the variety tends to drop. In people over seventy-five, the effects are more pronounced. If a person makes it to 100, the number of bacteria working to control inflammation is quite lower. This leads to a higher risk for inflammaging and the resulting consequences.
When it comes to solving issues with gut diversity, one proposed option for resolution is probiotics. This class of bacteria is known to provide a host of benefits including controlling inflammation. The means by which this happens is through the production of a number of molecules known as short-chain fatty acids. One of them, butyrate, appears to have a universal effect on inflammation, helping to keep the entire immune system balanced. In the elderly, this molecule appears to be reduced and may play a role in inflammaging. To combat this, the addition of probiotics to increase butyrate levels appears to be a viable option.
Last week, an American team of researchers decided to test whether probiotics can help control the problem of inflammaging. They used one particular probiotic species, Lactobacillus rhamnosus GG, and tested whether this bacterium alone could help to reduce inflammation and improve elderly health. What they found offered hope for a possible natural treatment in the future.
The team recruited 12 individuals between the ages of 65 and 80 and provided them with two daily doses of 10 billion bacteria for 28 days. Fecal samples were taken from the individuals at day zero, and also at days 28 and 56, representing four weeks after the probiotic supplementation was stopped. The samples were then processed to identify the bacteria contained within and the various activities conducted by the population. Some of these processes are known to have an effect on human systems, particularly immunity. As a result, the group could look for any potential links to inflammaging.
What they found was fascinating. The actual diversity of the species didn't change in a uniform manner. The populations did not shift significantly in one way or another and each individual continued to have similar microbial profiles. This suggested L. rhamnosus did not play a role in deciding which bacteria stayed and which ones had to go. But when the focus changed from the nature of the bacteria to what they did, a different story emerged.
At the metabolic level, addition of the probiotic led to an increase in the activity of a number of different species known to produce butyrate. Some of these bacteria also aid in the absorption of the short-chain fatty acid by the intestines. Although the team did not look at the immune status of the individuals, the increased levels of butyrate during the intervention suggested there may be an anti-inflammatory effect.
There was one further observation made by the team. At day 56, a month after the probiotic treatment was over, the benefits were essentially gone. The gut microbiota had returned to its original state. The results showed the effects of the bacterium were short-lived and required continued supplementation to keep them going. This result challenges some suggestions probiotics can change the diversity of the gut bacteria. While a lasting change in the gut microbiota has been seen in the elderly previously, no such modification was seen in this study.
The results of the study suggest there may be a natural way to treat inflammaging using continued supplementation of probiotics. Although the authors only tested 12 people, the study opens the door to larger clinical trials and possibly even longer times for L. rhamnosus administration. The observations also reveal why probiotics need to be taken regularly. Many are transient and only offer benefit for a short period of time. When they are present, life is good but when they make an exit, everything returns to way it was, regardless of how bad it may be.MORE ON HUFFPOST:
Each of us has more than 1,000 different types of bacteria that live in our digestive tracts, helping us to break down food and absorb nutrients. But when we take antibiotics -- medicine that is designed to kill destructive, illness-causing bacteria -- the drugs can also kill the healthy intestinal flora that helps us digest. About 30 percent of the patients who take antibiotics report suffering from diarrhea or some other form of gastrointestinal distress, according to the recent JAMA study on probiotics and antibiotic-associated diarrhea. As a result, doctors commonly prescribe taking probiotics to "repopulate" the digestive tract with healthful bacteria. The study found that it was a viable solution for many. But probiotics can also help with other types of digestive issues. Research has shown that probiotics can be helpful for people with irritable bowel syndrome, or IBS -- a hard-to-treat condition that can have a range of intestinal symptoms, such as abdominal pain, cramps, bloating, diarrhea and constipation. In one study, female IBS patients experienced some alleviation of symptoms like abdominal pain and irregularity when they were given a supplement of the bacterial strain, Bifidobacterium infantis. Even for those without an urgent problem, probiotics can help with overall digestive management. Challa argues in his book, Probiotics For Dummies, that good bacteria help "crowd out" bad bacteria. That's because the intestine is lined with adherence sites where bacteria latches on. If the sites are populated with good-for-you microbes, there's no place for a harmful bacterium to latch on.
Probiotics make a nice compliment to antibiotics among people who suffer from urinary tract infections, according to the research. What's more, there's emerging evidence that regular probiotics can help prevent bad bacteria from invading the urinary tract by maintaining a population of healthy bacteria on the tract's adherence sites. Infections of the urinary tract are extremely common, especially in women. Most infections disappear with antibiotics, but about 30 to 40 percent might return, according to literature from the University of Maryland Medical Center.
Allergy research is still preliminary, but at least one large, high quality study found a relationship between women taking probiotics during pregnancy and a 30 percent reduction in the instance of childhood eczema (an early sign of allergies) in their infants. Researchers selected women who had a history of seasonal allergies -- or whose partners had histories of allergies. The infants who received probiotics in-vitro also had 50 percent higher levels of tissue inflammation, which is thought to trigger the immune system and reduce allergy incidence.
Just like the digestive tract, the vagina relies on a precarious balance of good and bad bacteria. When that balance is off, it can result in one of two very common, though thoroughly uncomfortable infections: bacterial vaginosis and yeast infections. In fact, bacterial vaginosis can actually lead to a yeast infection. Some small studies have found that L. acidophilius can help prevent infection, manage an already active one or support antibiotics as a treatment, though it's worth noting that the probiotics were taken as vaginal suppositories, rather than orally in food. Probiotics may also have a special role in maternal health, as pregnant women are particularly susceptible to vaginal infections. And bacterial vaginosis has been indicated as a contributing factor to pre-term labor, making probiotics a potential boon for fetal health.
Surprisingly, one of the main functions of healthful bacteria is to stimulate immune response. By eating probiotic-rich foods and maintaining good intestinal flora, a person can also help to maintain a healthy immune system. And that has real world effects: for example, in one small study of students, those who were given a fermented dairy drink (instead of milk) displayed increased production from lymphocytes -- a marker of immune response.
In 2006, Stanford University researchers found that obese people had different gut bacteria than normal-weighted people -- a first indication that gut flora plays a role in overall weight. Some preliminary research shows that probiotics can help obese people who have received weight loss surgery to maintain weight loss. And in a study of post-partum women who were trying to lose abdomnial fat, the addition of lactobacillus and bifidobacterium capsules helped reduce waist circumference. It's still unclear how probiotics play a role in weight loss -- and there is some controversy about how significant the probiotics-associated weight loss is. But as long as the probiotics source is low-calorie and healthful, itself, it is an innocuous method to attempt.
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