Gut Changes and Aging: Here's Everything You Need to Know
Your gut's overarching health and microbiome change as you age—which means the way you treat your digestive health should change right along with it. Diet, lifestyle, and certain medical conditions can all influence the way your digestive tract functions, and these factors fluctuate over time. To help you manage these changes, we spoke with two dietitians who explain why it is critical to keep you gut health in check at every phase of life.
Gut Health and the Microbiome
A healthy gut, says registered dietitian Sergio A. Torres, MS, RDN, comes down to "good digestion and absorption of food, lack of intestinal illness, and a healthy microbiome," he explains. "We are still learning a lot about this microbiome, but what we do know is that it is essential to a healthy gut." The term "microbiome" refers to all of the healthy bacteria that live on the surface of your body—however, when mentioned in the context of the gut, we're talking about the bacteria that live and thrive in our intestines, specifies Torres: "These bacteria are a good thing. They help us digest our food by breaking it down in ways our body's cells cannot—and making that digested food available for our body to absorb."
The Time Factor
At the start of our lives, we have a much different gut microbiome, explains Alicia Galvin, a resident dietitian at Sovereign Laboratories. "The types of flora present is dependent on whether or not a baby was born vaginally or via C-section," she explains. "The first 1,000 days, or roughly the first two to three years of a person's life, are critical for the establishment of a healthy microbiome—they will heavily influence the health of the adult gut microbiome." Once you enter adulthood, you can expect those changes to continue, this time in the amount and variety of the bacteria present. "As humans age, we understand that our intestines have a harder time digesting and absorbing certain nutrients," Torres says. "For example, our body may produce fewer digestive secretions and enzymes that are responsible for breaking down foods." There is not a specific age when these changes set in—but Torres says that a healthy lifestyle, with a focus on a healthy diet and physical and mental activity, is the best way to stay ahead of any digestive decline.
Keeping your gut healthy at any age
The best way to keep your gut healthy? Eat right—which involves including plenty of fruits and vegetables and an appropriate amount of meat, fats, and sweets into your diet, notes Torres. "Fruits and vegetables have a lot of dietary fibers which is something your gut bacteria love to eat. These are 'pre-biotic,' meaning they are good for keeping the bacteria in your intestines healthy, versus a 'pro-biotic,' which is usually a supplement that is supposed to introduce more bacteria into your intestine if needed," he says. "Your gut microbiome is at its healthiest when you eat your healthiest."
With this in mind, Galvin adds that your gut may need some extra help if you have been on several rounds of antibiotics, taken steroids or NSAIDs consistently, experienced an injury to your head or a concussion, or suffer from inflammatory gastrointestinal conditions, like Crohn's disease, ulcerative colitis, or celiac disease.