As we age, our bodies go through natural changes including hormonal shifts, digestion slowing down and more. While these adjustments come with the territory of aging, there are certain lifestyle practices that can help to minimize symptoms associated with these changes.
One particular practice that is gaining recognition among health professionals worldwide is the importance of focusing on your gut health as you age.
What Happens to your Gut as You Age?
It's no secret that we get slower as we age. Our bones get weaker, our skin gets wrinkles, and our energy is reduced on a significant level. Similarly, aging affects our gut too, and since the gut plays an important role in keeping us functioning and healthy, it is only fair that we pay extra attention to our gut as we grow older.
Here's what happens to our gut as we age:
Less Digestive Enzymes
As we grow older, the amount of digestive enzymes that our gut produces decreases significantly. This can be attributed to various factors, such as decreased overall activity levels and changes in dietary habits. The lack of these crucial enzymes can lead to various digestive issues, from bloating and abdominal discomfort to malnutrition due to poor absorption of nutrients from food.
Taking digestive enzyme supplements is one way to help support your body's natural digestion processes and ensure adequate nutrition intake even as you age.
Change in the Microbiome Balance
As humans age, they experience a profound change in the balance of their microbiome. By age 60, our microbiota become increasingly dominated by fewer and more diverse bacterial species such as Enterobacteria, C. perfringens, and C. difficile, opportunistic bacteria, whereas Bifidobacterium and Lactobacillus lose ground  . This shift results in greater stability of the gut environment and an increased ability to fight off disease-causing bacteria.
Some beneficial bacteria in older individuals have also been linked to improved immune function, digestion, weight management, and overall health. On the other hand, too many certain types of bacteria can also lead to inflammation, digestive issues, and poor immunity.
One of the most significant changes in our aging body is slower gut motility or digestion. This can occur due to diseases such as autonomic neuropathy from long-standing diabetes, Parkinson's, certain medications, and other age-related conditions .
A slower digestive system means it takes longer for food to move through your body. As a result, you may experience symptoms such as bloating, constipation, abdominal discomfort, nausea, and reduced appetite. You may also find that foods that used to agree with your stomach no longer do so because they are moving through too slowly.
As we age, the efficiency of our gut to absorb nutrients from food decreases. This is because, with aging, our digestive organs and enzymes become weaker. As a result, fewer vitamins, minerals, and other essential nutrients are absorbed into the bloodstream. Inadequate absorption can lead to nutritional deficiencies and health problems such as anemia, fatigue, weak bones, or poor immune system function.
To combat this issue, it is important to increase nutrient intake by eating foods high in Vitamin A, B12, and Omega-3s, which will help improve absorption in the gut. Additionally, regular probiotics can help restore balance within the gut environment, aiding in better absorption of key vitamins and minerals .
Taking supplements may also benefit elderly individuals as they are easy to digest and provide good sources of essential vitamins and minerals.
Weakened Immune system
Various studies suggest that up to 70% of the immune cells are in your gut. It means that your gut is responsible for more than just your nutrition. With age, our gut slows down, which also affects our immunity indirectly.
Weakened immunity on top of microbiome imbalance, as explained above, you become prone to various gut issues.
How to Keep Your Gut Healthy as You Get Older?
Eat Plenty of Fiber
A fiber-rich diet can help maintain this balance and keep your digestive system running smoothly. Fiber helps to promote good bacteria in the gut and aids digestion by adding bulk to stool. It also helps slow down digestion, which can help regulate blood sugar levels and reduce cholesterol.
Sources of fiber include whole grains, legumes, fruits, vegetables, nuts, and seeds. Eating various foods daily will help improve your overall gut health as you age.
Unfortunately, many people don't realize that staying hydrated is one of the most important steps to preserving and improving their gut health. Water helps your digestive system break down food into nutrients and flush out toxins, so it's essential for proper digestion.
Not drinking enough water can cause constipation and other gastrointestinal problems. Additionally, water helps to regulate your body temperature and keep cells functioning optimally.
Staying active helps you keep fit, but it also helps maintain your gut health as you age by promoting regular bowel movements, reducing inflammation, and helping with weight control. It can also improve appetite, reduce feeling fatigue, and help keep your body in balance.
It is important to choose activities that you enjoy doing and fit into your lifestyle. This could be anything from a walk around the block or an intensive workout at the gym.
Keep the Stress Away
Stress can have a negative impact on our gut microbiome and can lead to digestive upset, inflammation, and other issues. Ways to manage stress levels include:
- Exercising regularly
- Spending time in nature
- Practicing yoga or meditation
- Getting enough sleep
- Engaging in activities that help you relax and unwind, such as journaling or painting.
- Talking with friends and family about your worries or concerns.
- Seeking professional help if needed.
Eating the correct foods provides us with the vitamins and minerals that our bodies need to stay healthy, especially those associated with digestion, like fiber, probiotics, and prebiotics. Additionally, adding more colorful fruits and vegetables to your diet can help balance intestinal bacteria and may even reduce inflammation.
Some of the best foods you can include in a rainbow diet are dark leafy greens such as
- Brightly colored peppers
- Tomatoes and other red fruits or vegetables
- Yellow squash
- Citrus fruits
- Purple eggplant
- Grapes or berries
- Beans and legumes like chickpeas, lentils, and black beans.
To sum it up, focusing on your gut health is important as you age since changes in the microbiome balance can negatively affect digestion, lead to weakened immune system, and reduced absorption. Eating a balanced diet that includes plenty of fiber and following some useful tips such as staying active, avoiding stress, staying hydrated, and maybe implementing a colorful rainbow diet including green leafy vegetables and other nutrient-rich foods are some of the steps that can help maintain your gut health. Aging is inevitable so why not do it gracefully?
- Odamaki T, Kato K, Sugahara H, Hashikura N, Takahashi S, Xiao J-Z, et al. Age-related changes in gut microbiota composition from newborn to centenarian: a cross-sectional study. BMC Microbiol 2016;16:90.
- Arboleya S, Watkins C, Stanton C, Ross RP. Gut Bifidobacteria Populations in Human Health and Aging. Front Microbiol 2016;7:1204.
- Dumic I, Nordin T, Jecmenica M, Stojkovic Lalosevic M, Milosavljevic T, Milovanovic T. Gastrointestinal Tract Disorders in Older Age. Can J Gastroenterol Hepatol 2019;2019:6757524.
- Rémond D, Shahar DR, Gille D, Pinto P, Kachal J, Peyron M-A, et al. Understanding the gastrointestinal tract of the elderly to develop dietary solutions that prevent malnutrition. Oncotarget 2015;6:13858–98.