The gut has been referred to as the human body’s “second brain” thanks to the instrumental role it plays in our overall health and wellbeing. Its primary purposes are to digest food, absorb nutrients, and expel waste. But did you know that the health of your gut can directly influence your health as you age in a number of ways?
The connection between gut health and aging is a topic of growing interest among researchers, and there is increasingly compelling evidence to suggest that gut health is a vital component of living a long and active life.
What Is Your Gut Microbiome?
Every person’s gut houses trillions of microorganisms including bacteria, viruses, fungi, and other microscopic living things. This complex ecosystem is known as the gut microbiome, and houses microorganisms that are helpful to your health as well as some that can be harmful. The composition and diversity of this microbiome can impact your health in more ways than you might think.
Gut Health and Aging: The Intricate Relationship
In this section, we will look at just a few of the ways that your gut health can impact your overall wellbeing as you age.
Inflammation and Aging
Chronic inflammation is a known risk factor for many age-related illnesses including heart disease, Alzheimer’s disease, and some cancers.
An unhealthy gut lining can allow toxins such as bacteria and partially digested food to enter the bloodstream. This is colloquially called a “leaky gut”, though this term is not currently a recognized medical diagnosis in itself. A leaky gut can cause inflammation and other changes that can cause problems within the digestive system and beyond, and may even play a role in the development of chronic diseases.
As we age, our body's efficiency at absorbing nutrients can decrease. This means that we may no longer be able to use the nutrients from food as efficiently as we did in our younger years.
At any age, though, a healthy gut ensures optimal absorption of essential vitamins and minerals from the food you consume. These nutrients are crucial for numerous bodily functions and for overall health. Over time, poor absorption can lead to nutrient deficiencies, which can cause unpleasant symptoms and in some cases may be very serious.
About 70% of your body’s immune cells reside in your gut, according to David Heber, MD, PhD, a Professor Emeritus of medicine at UCLA Health. This means that a healthy gut microbiome aids in regulating your body’s immune response, fighting off disease and keeping you healthy as you age.
One of the best ways to ensure good functioning of these cells and a robust immune system is to ensure you are eating a healthy diet rich in plant-based foods and high in fiber.
Brain Health and Mood Regulation
Your gut and your brain are inextricably linked and can have a profound impact upon one another. Think about the last time you felt a strong emotion such as anger, sadness, fear, or joy. Chances are, you experienced physical symptoms, many of which may have been located in your stomach area.
This connection also works in reverse. In other words, gut issues can directly impact your mood and cause problems such as stress, depression, or anxiety. Some studies have even shown that gut bacteria may play a role in cognitive decline in the long term.
Your metabolism is the process through which your body converts the food and drink you consume into energy.
Your metabolism naturally slows down with age. However, a well-functioning gut is crucial for maintaining healthy metabolic functions throughout life. Problems with gut bacteria have been linked to obesity, diabetes, and other metabolic disorders.
How to Maintain Good Gut Health for Better Aging
Now that you understand the links between your gut health and your overall wellbeing as you age, you might be wondering how to look after your gut to ensure good health in later life. Let’s finish with six of our top tips that will help you:
Eat a Balanced Diet
A varied diet rich in whole foods, fruits, vegetables, and fiber promotes a diverse gut microbiome. Fermented foods like yogurt, sauerkraut, and kimchi also introduce beneficial probiotics (“good bacteria”) to the gut.
Limit Processed Foods and Sugars
Processed foods, artificial sweeteners, and a high sugar intake can disrupt the balance of your gut microbiome.
Drinking plenty of water helps to protect the lining of your intestines, promoting the growth of beneficial gut bacteria.
Use Prebiotics and Probiotics
Probiotics introduce beneficial bacteria to your gut, and prebiotics provide the necessary food for those good bacteria to thrive. Foods like garlic, onions, and bananas are excellent prebiotic sources. Supplements can also be beneficial (but consult with a healthcare professional first.)
Limit Use of Antibiotics
An overuse of antibiotics can reduce the numbers of beneficial bacteria in the gut. This is why many medical professionals are now more reluctant to prescribe them than they used to be. These medicines should be taken only when absolutely necessary.
Take Regular Exercise
Physical activity has been shown to promote a healthy gut microbiome (as well as having numerous other benefits to your health as you age!) A routine that combines cardiovascular exercises with strength training is best.