While there’s nothing enjoyable about feeling sluggish or having an upset stomach, most Baby Boomers are aware that gut problems can point to bigger health issues around the body. While these problems may seem inconvenient and even embarrassing to some, they’re actually something many people over the age of 60 experience.
Speaking to Starts at 60, Dr Rajaraman Eri, Head of Biomedical Sciences at the University of Tasmania, explained that 40 per cent of people over the age of 60 experience one or more age-related digestive symptoms each year. These include everything from problems with the mouth and oesophagus to diarrhoea, constipation and IBD, as well as gastrointestinal reflux and irritable bowel syndrome.
Other symptoms associated with gut disease can include heartburn, a loss of appetite and a build-up of gas. Worryingly, these symptoms are often associated with other age-related diseases, which is why it’s important to never overlook warning signs. Managing gut health not only has the potential to prevent these conditions and symptoms but can also become a driver for overall health.
“Living inside of our gut are 1,000 to 1,500 different kinds of bacteria containing nearly two million genes,” Eri explained. “Paired with other tiny organisms like viruses and fungi, they make what’s known as the microbiota, or the microbiome. These bacteria live throughout your body, but the ones in your gut may have the biggest impact on your well-being.”
These bacteria line the entire digestive system and most live in the colon. They are important because they provide the energy required to keep the intestine healthy and active. Furthermore, they affect everything from mood to metabolism and even the immune system.
“These bacteria release certain useful chemicals such as short-chain fatty acids that can act on the intestine but also travel to other parts of the body to maintain general health,” Eri said.
While bacteria can sound like a harmful or dirty word, it’s important to know that the gut contains good and bad bacteria, some of that is established in the gut from the moment of birth. The purpose of beneficial bacteria is to maintain gut health, which further impacts general health.
“These good bacteria feed on vegetable fibre and live happily in our guts,” Eri said. “When we modify the content of these good bacteria by eating too much junk and the excessive use of antibiotics, the ratio of good bacteria will go down and is slowly overtaken by harmful bacteria causing digestive problems.”
Thankfully, simple diet and lifestyle changes are often a fast and effective way of managing good gut health in many people. Probiotics refer to live beneficial bacteria, while prebiotics is the food bacteria eat.
“Fermentation not only creates a wide range of tangy, funky foods, but it also results in a natural source of probiotics,” Eri explained. “Prebiotics, on the other hand, are fibres that we don’t digest ourselves, so they are consumed by the good bacteria in our gut. Taken together, prebiotics and probiotics can turn into a healthier, happier gut.”
As is the case with many health conditions, eating more vegetables can do wonders for the gut. They provide the body with the nutrients it needs each day to maintain general health.
“A major message coming out of research is that a balanced diet enriched in fibres is the prescription for a healthy gut,” Eri said. “The beneficial bugs in the gut love fibre. When you keep those guys happy, they help produce good stuff for your gut.”
If you’re not entirely sure about how to start your healthy gut journey, Eri’s advice is to focus on fibre.
Eat plenty of prebiotic-rich foods (such as garlic, onions, leeks and asparagus) and increase your intake of probiotic-rich foods (such as yoghurt, pickles and sauerkraut). He also cautioned people to be wary of probiotics and prebiotics available from chemists and supermarkets.
“Many of the products are untested and just report health benefits without proper clinical studies,” Eri noted. “Please consult your doctor about which product would be suitable for you.”
Just as diet is important, physical activity can also benefit gut health.
“A large body of scientific evidence supports the fact that physical exercise is good for cardiovascular and brain health,” Eri explained. “In particular, exercise increases short-chain fatty acid production by gut microbes and thereby improves your gut health.”
It’s always important to discuss any changes in gut health with a GP or health professional and to talk about the best diet and exercise plan to suit your individual needs.
This article was originally published on February 14 2019 and has been updated on April 21 2023.
IMPORTANT LEGAL INFO This article is of a general nature and FYI only, because it doesn’t take into account your personal health requirements or existing medical conditions. That means it’s not personalised health advice and shouldn’t be relied upon as if it is. Before making a health-related decision, you should work out if the info is appropriate for your situation and get professional medical advice.