A leading expert at UCC says to age well we need to focus on maintaining bacterial diversity, and not on over-the-counter probiotics, says Margaret Jennings.
WANT to age healthily? Then look after your gut.
But if you are relying on cartons of yoghurt, or probiotic supplements from your health food shop to do the job, it’s a waste of money, according to one of the leading researchers in the field.
Link between the state of the bacteria in your gut and how you age is a growing research area, pointing to one of the main reasons older people’s immune system gets compromised.
But professor of psychiatry at UCC, Ted Dinan, who is one of the principal investigators in the Alimentary Pharmabiotic Centre (APC) at the college, says the claims most probiotic producers make about improving the gut are “nonsense”.
“I’m not averse to probiotics — there are some out there that do have science behind them — but I would certainly say the overwhelming majority do absolutely nothing,” he says.
“I think there is an enormous industry built up around probiotics and most of those that are being sold in health food stores have no science behind them whatsoever.
"Though they will do you no harm, it’s questionable whether they even get beyond the acid in your stomach.”
And the organic natural yoghurt on your shop shelf that looks so creamy and healthy?
“It could be beneficial, but not necessarily because there are probiotic bacteria in it, but because of the other nutritional components.”
Prof Dinan should know — he has been at the cutting edge of research in gut health, which has really taken off over the past decade. UCC’s APC microbiome institute, which is funded by Science Foundation Ireland, is one of the international leaders in the field.
But is the state of our gut just one more item to add to our health anxiety list as we age, and what can we do about it anyway?
“From what we know the most important thing with older people is maintaining diversity within the gut — that’s the key to healthy ageing. Research shows that when the diversity of microbes narrows, frailty emerges,” he says.
“The microbes that have been studied in a significant way in older people are bacteria, so maintaining a wide range of bacteria is essential for healthy ageing.”
Because we can’t test those bacteria during a routine GP visit, then how do we go about achieving this healthy bacterial balance?
“Right now the only factors we know that are relevant, are a diverse diet – if your diet isn’t diverse the microbes aren’t.
"If you have adequate amount of roughage in your diet and include fish oils, these can increase the diversity of microbes.
“The other thing is getting sufficient amount of exercise. It’s another plus.”
However, as we get older we are more prone to infection, taking too many antibiotics can have a nasty effect on the microbes, he points out.
“If it’s a once-off course of antibiotics that you take for an infection, then generally speaking, the microbes in our intestine will grow back in five or six weeks, to what they were before the course.
"However, there can be scenarios where there may be multiple courses of antibiotics and that sets up a cycle of imbalance.”
We need the healthy microbes to help fight infection — they are part of our immune system, so maintenance of that bacterial balance is the best prevention.
In addition the bacteria manufacture chemicals that our brains and other parts of our body require, so they get nutrition from us and in return they produce chemicals that we can’t produce otherwise .
“They help provide essential compounds such as serotonin which is produced from the amino acid tryptophan, which regulates mood.
"If our brains do not store amounts of the chemicals that we need, our mood and mental health is affected,” says Prof Dinan.
Good bacteria also deter inflammation – or inflammageing, as it is called, because ageing is seen as an inflammatory process.
“There’s no doubt that some bacteria in the intestine can have an anti-inflammatory reaction or anti-inflammatory process,” he says.
If these good bacteria, which produce molecules that are good for healthy ageing, could be re- branded as ‘pro-ageing’ — to borrow from the cosmetic industry — it might well encourage people to sit up and listen more.
Primetastic! 50 Tips for Life When You’re Over 50 by Dianne Bown-Wilson and Richard Ciechan €10.79
The co-author of this book, Dr Dianne Bown-Wilson is described as a specialist in age management, and an inspirational coach and speaker on what it means to be ‘older’ today.
Though the 50 tips for older people may not exactly be new to some readers, the purpose of the book seems to be a motivational one — to focus and inspire.
Clear and easy to read, its themes range from practical diet advice, to focusing on what you want in the years ahead.
The space left at the end of each section encourages the reader to put thoughts and goals down so that they can redefine their own expectations of themselves.
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