Aging’s impacts on digestive health are numerous. Muscles in the digestive tract may become stiffer and weaker, making it harder to digest foods. As you age, the actual tissue lining in the gut can become damaged resulting in decreased absorption of nutrients.
Medications may cause such structural and physiological changes, especially if or as seniors increase the medications they take. Ultimately, changes in the tract and gut may cause heartburn and indigestion, constipation and diarrhea, gas and bloat, and even fatigue and headache.
On top of these changes in digestion, aging can directly impact the gut microbiome and gut health which can have a direct impact on overall health. Read on to discover the ins and outs of the gut microbiome and how aging can impact gut health.
What Is the Gut Microbiome?
Harvard Health suggests the gut microbiome is considered the trillions of gut microbes of thousands of different species that live mainly in your digestive tract. A healthy gut microbiome consists of various microbes in the intestines that influence many other parts of the body including digestive health.
Eating a varied diet high in fiber and low in refined sugar is one way to help promote a diverse and healthy gut microbiome.
The gut microbiome plays an important role in immune function and fighting off illnesses. If there is an imbalance in gut bacteria, the consequences can be seen in altered digestion or lowered immunity.
Many factors can impact the gut microbiome including the environment, medication use, exercise, and diet. Research is ongoing to further understand how these factors can influence gut health and in turn other aspects of health throughout aging.
Gut Microbiota and Aging
Aging can be associated with chronic low-grade inflammation. This gradual increase in inflammation through adult years can lead to an increased risk of heart disease, type 2 diabetes, dementia, and other chronic diseases.
The gut microbiome (or microbiota) plays a direct role in the balance of pro and anti-inflammatory levels in the body. Having a healthy microbiome can translate into fighting inflammation associated with aging which not only improves gut health but can help lower the risk for several diseases.
10 Ways to Strengthen Gut Health with Aging
The following are specific ways to help strengthen gut health to support proper digestion and keep a healthy microbiome throughout aging. Keep in mind no single aspect may be the sole reason for gut health but rather all factors together can fully support gut health with aging.
1. Drink Enough Water
Seniors are already at risk of dehydration related to a reduced thirst mechanism or the memory to keep hydrated. Water helps with digestion, further combatting against constipation in conjunction with adequate fiber. Unless noted by a healthcare provider, individuals should consume at least eight 8-ounce glasses of water per day.
2. Eat Healthy Fats
Eating healthy fats can provide anti-inflammatory benefits which help benefit gut health. Examples of healthy fat sources include olive oil, nuts, seeds, avocados, and fatty fish.
A high intake of fat, especially saturated and trans fats, should be limited. Compared to carbohydrate and protein, fat takes longer to digest and may cause seniors to have discomfort if it is consumed in large volumes.
3. Increase Fiber
Fiber can help keep bowel regularity, as it offers bulk and lessens the risk of constipation. Increasing fruits and vegetables along with whole grains, legumes, nuts, and seeds can help provide more fiber in the diet.
Various forms of fiber may be beneficial to gut health related to their role as a prebiotic, which is described below.
4. Eat Pre and Probiotic Foods
Consuming pre- and probiotics can help nourish healthy gut and intestinal microbiota. Simply put, prebiotics are foods that are not easily digested by the body and comes in the forms of fibers and starches that can be fermented by the gut. Many fruits and vegetables act as prebiotics for food for healthy gut bacteria.
Probiotics are live cultures that need prebiotics to grow and are known for their presence in foods like yogurt, kefir, sauerkraut, and other fermented vegetables. Probiotics can also be in supplements, but consult your doctor for more information on individual recommendations for supplements.
5. Consider Taking Digestive Enzymes
Simply put, digestive enzymes are the catalysts that assist in the body digesting foods. For instance, lactase is the enzyme responsible for digesting lactose, the natural sugar found in milk and dairy products, and may be helpful for those with lactose intolerance.
Older adults may have compromised production of various digestive enzymes and may profit from such supplements. Check with your primary care provider to help identify and establish if digestive enzymes are right for you.
6. Eat Spicy and Fatty Foods in Moderation
Especially if you suffer from poor digestion or heartburn, it is important to limit foods that give your digestive tract a hard time. For instance, fatty foods can cause slow digestion and discomfort while spicy items may cause heartburn for some people.
7. Stay Active
Aside from nutritional recommendations, staying active is one of the best habits for healthy digestion and keeping the gut healthy with aging. Regular aerobic exercise can keep you regular and prevent heart disease by improving circulation. Aerobic exercises include walking, hiking, biking, and swimming.
A 2017 review on exercise and gut microbiota suggests exercise can increase the number and diversity of beneficial gut microbial species.
8. Check Medications
In addition to moderating problematic food intake, it is important to moderate and check medications for potential side effects, as they may actually cause gastrointestinal (GI) disturbances. Chronically taking antibiotics with aging can also upset gut health by causing an imbalance in gut bacteria.
If unsure regarding potential medication interactions, consult with your primary care provider.
9. Maintain Weight and Health
Ultimately, the importance of managing weight and health drives the reduced risk of chronic diseases, including hypertension and diabetes. Keeping such conditions at a low risk can ultimately lessen the need of medications, and the fewer the medications prescribed, the lower the opportunity for GI side effects to occur.
Carrying extra fat mass can increase inflammation in the body which can negatively impact the gut microbiome. Maintaining a healthy weight and the impact on gut microbiome is tied to eating a healthy, high fiber diet and getting adequate physical activity.
10. Practice Good Oral Hygiene
Oral hygiene plays a role in gut health, as good practices can lessen the likelihood of dentures and toothaches that may impede on good nutritional intake. Brushing and flossing daily, along with scheduling regular dental appointments, can help promote a healthy mouth and digestive processes by maintaining adequate chewing practices encouraged for proper digestion.
Gut Health and Aging Recap
The gut microbiome is a delicate balance of various microbes mainly in the digestive tract. These microbes can impact the immune system and fight inflammation in the body. Maintaining gut health through aging can help fight inflammation associated with many chronic diseases.
On top of considering the gut microbiome, digestion can shift with age. Digestive enzyme production can go down as well as muscle tone along the digestive tract. Medications may increase with age and come with side effects that interfere with healthy digestion.
Eating a diet high in fiber, getting pre and probiotic foods, getting the right kinds of fat, and drinking enough water can all help regulate digestive health with aging.
Additionally, exercise and maintaining a healthy weight has been shown to have an important role in maintaining a healthy gut microbiome.
Bektas A, Schurman SH, Sen R, Ferrucci L. Aging, inflammation and the environment. Experimental Gerontology. Published December 21, 2017. https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S0531556517307799.
Berman R. Gut bacteria and inflammation: The role of Diet. Medical News Today. Published April 22, 2021. https://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/how-diet-influences-gut-bacteria-and-inflammation.
The microbiome. The Nutrition Source. Published May 1, 2020. https://www.hsph.harvard.edu/nutritionsource/microbiome/.
Monda V, Villano I, Messina A, et al. Exercise modifies the gut microbiota with positive health effects. Oxidative Medicine and Cellular Longevity. Published March 5, 2017. https://www.hindawi.com/journals/omcl/2017/3831972/.