The Fountain of Youth May Be Microscopic

Do you feel like your body is older than you are? Do you have trouble keeping your weight down even though you don’t eat ‘junk’ and you exercise regularly? Do you consistently experience brain fogginess, lack of energy, irritability or skin issues? Have you ever suspected your immunity was compromised somewhere along the way and didn’t quite recover? Yeah, me too. But I think I found out why… and more importantly how to change it.

With a 20+ year career as an engineer and research scientist I sometimes have difficulty accepting vague and/or ineffective answers to problems – especially when it comes to my own health. I began paying closer attention years ago but just recently have become completely enamored with the research of late concerning the seemingly endless connections of the gut to our overall physical and psychological health. For a long time I’ve suspected that my immunity was slowly but surely deteriorating and that the symptoms I was experiencing were not just an aspect of getting older. Having changed my diet in a number of ways over the years, I knew diet wasn’t the only knob that needed turning to fix me… In my search for answers I came across Dr. David Perlmutter’s book Brain Maker and it all began to make sense. From that moment I haven’t stopped reading everything I could find on the subject of the human microbiome and its effects on our health.

Since I began this ongoing and likely never ending pursuit of ‘intestinal perspective’, more recently I decided to start using a broad spectrum probiotic and some other supplements to heal my gut and bring my own microbiome into better balance. It didn’t take long to see that I was on to something. Within 5 days my cravings for certain things (sugar and alcohol to name just a couple) diminished dramatically. I felt more calm and tolerant than I had felt in quite a while. Within a couple of weeks I noticed I was losing weight around my mid-section even though nothing else about my routine had changed; if anything, I was less active over that period of time. Also within that first couple of weeks there were a number of days where I felt so good and my attitude was so positive that I thought I must be experiencing some kind of euphoric episode. (It wasn’t long after that I read about a study which demonstrated probiotics being as effective as anti-depressants for treating depression). These are just a few of the less personal changes I experienced but once my wife followed suit, she experienced a very similar progression (just took a little longer to see the profound results I saw).

Of all of the nutritional supplements I have tried over my lifetime, the combination of supplements I will discuss in more detail below has had a more dramatic effect on my life than all of them put together – and it keeps getting better!

Probiotics

If you are new to the idea that gut bacteria arguably play the most important role in the human immunity story, then read this first… Live probiotic supplements are essentially a collection of ‘known-to-be-good’ gut bacteria strains in an easily ingestible form, such as a capsule, liquid, etc..  Now, it would be wonderful if that was all there is to it; just take a pill full of billions of tiny elite superheroes that drop in and kill off all the bad guys in a matter of days… If only our guts were created in Hollywood, eh? Most probiotic supplements consist of 5 to 7 strains that have been researched enough to know that they are beneficial for specific issues that most people want help with, such as IBS symptoms, lactose intolerance, diarrhea, etc.. However, because everyone is very different when it comes to the diversity of bacteria that make up our guts and how we have treated our gastrointestinal systems over the years with the foods, beverages, chemicals and medications, etc. we’ve consumed, not to mention the amount of sleep and exercise we get as well as the amount of chronic stress we endure each day, one specific probiotic combination is not likely to be the best fit for everyone.

Fortunately there are many probiotic strain combinations to choose from and as researchers continue to discover new beneficial strains, new combinations will continue to enter the market. Since most of us don’t know which specific strains are going to be the most beneficial for our respective situations, I chose a broad spectrum probiotic, the broadest I could find from a reputable manufacturer with 32 different strains included in the formulation. My understanding of how optimal immunity works is that the greater the diversity of beneficial bacteria in the microbiome the better. Having mostly subscribed to the typical American diet over my lifetime I figured I was more than likely missing some ‘friendlies’, however I couldn’t pick them out from the sea of Latin inscriptions on the labels of these products… Fortunately for me Dr. Perlmutter has an articleHERE… that identifies 5 core probiotic species to look for in a probiotic supplement and why. The broad spectrum supplement I chose has all 5 of these, so I figured it was a good start.

I also chose a supplement that has a large overall number of “colony forming units” (CFUs). I’ve read a number of opinions on what percentage of the probiotic supplements actually reach the specific part of the intestine they are supposed to take up residency in before succumbing to the stomach acids or other more acidic areas along their journey. My logic is that if the number is high enough, a good amount are getting to where they need to go even at the low estimates of 10% or so. There are products that claim higher success rates of reaching as far as the colon by using special coatings, etc., but including the right combination of species diversity, quality and quantity is harder to find.

The other potential complication with making sure your new friends are doing good work is that they require a hospitable environment. This means creating the right pH balance in the intestines and feeding the good guys the right kinds of fuel to proliferate and out-number the bad guys. The research on ‘best pH’ for a healthy microbiome is relatively new and ongoing but it seems that a normal body pH between 6.0 and 7.2 is an acceptable environment with particular species preferring more specific values in the regions of the intestines they tend to inhabit. It is convenient however that if you are feeding them appropriately, namely with prebiotic foods and/or supplements such as inulin and polyhenols from essential oils (more on that below), they are thriving and creating the pH environment that is right for themselves and your intestinal health… So, with this in mind I take an inulin supplement along with my probiotic supplement to make sure they stick around once they make it to a nice cozy place to hole-up. There are several websites out there that do a great job of collecting information on the latest research regarding specific probiotic strains – Probiotics.org is a good example.

Essential Oils

While essential oils are intrinsic to the plant, they constantly changing their chemical composition, helping the plant to adapt to the ever-changing internal and external environment. Recent scientific research has shown that plants produce exudates and other chemical compounds for a variety of purposes including to protect the plant from pathogenic bacteria and fungi and to serve as defense compounds against insects and other animals, among other purposes… What is key to this discussion is their flavonoids, a.k.a. polyphenol content.

Polyphenols are naturally occurring compounds found in many plants and foods such as: fruits, vegetables, seasonings, cereals and beverages. They are secondary metabolites of plants and are generally involved in defense against ultraviolet radiation or aggression by pathogens. As part of a very complex biochemical conversation between the plant and friendly bacterial agents in the soil, exudates that include flavonoids/polyphenols are dispensed through the plant’s root system to encourage friendly microbes to overwhelm bad ones. Fruits like grapes, apple, pear, cherries and berries contains up to 200–300 mg polyphenols per 100 grams fresh weight. The products manufactured from these plants and fruits, also contain polyphenols in significant amounts. Typically a glass of red wine or a cup of tea or coffee contains about 100 mg polyphenols. Towards the end of the twentieth century epidemiological studies and associated meta-analyses strongly suggest that long term consumption of diets rich in plant polyphenols offer protection against development of cancers, cardiovascular diseases, diabetes, osteoporosis and neurodegenerative diseases.

In 2010 the European Journal of Clinical Nutrition published a list of the top 100 richest dietary sources of polyphenols. Some of the more well-known essential oils top this list, including #1 Clove and #2 Peppermint, which have more than 50 times the phenolic content of the foods mentioned above!

This is the thing… the beneficial bacteria in your gut love polyphenols! Several recent studies have demonstrated striking effects of polyphenols on positive changes to beneficial gut bacteria, including pronounced decreases in bacterial species that have been identified as harmful. Basically, polyphenols feed good bacteria and as these good colonies increase in size they choke out the bad bacteria.

Omega-3 Oils

Yes, we all know omega-3 fatty acids have a number of health benefits that range from cardiovascular to psychological in nature. Omega-3 oils have been studied extensively for their anti-inflammatory effects and in 2013, the Cardiovascular Healthy Study found that people with the highest omega-3 (e.g. EPA and DHA) levels in their blood had the lowest overall mortality rates. In short, the more omega-3 fats you consume, the less chance you have of dying from absolutely any cause. However, several recent studies have demonstrated the direct beneficial effects of omega-3 oils on gut bacteria. One such study examined the effects of omega-3 and -6 PUFAs in mice infected with GI bacteria that causes colitis. Those fed omega-6 PUFA (corn oil) diets had higher intestinal damage, immune cell damage and production of harmful bacteria. In contrast, diets high in EPA and DHA (omega-3 fatty acids) increased anti-inflammatory microbes, which reduced immune cell damage and inflammation as well as protected against the damage of colitis. Another more recent study combined fish oil with probiotics in the same capsule and observed not only reduced inflammation in the subject and greater longevity of the probiotics themselves, but also a measurable increase in immunity – by as much as 20%!

So there you have it – a veritable trifecta of microbiome support: probiotics, essential oils and omega-3 oils.

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