Bugs and Bowels: Healthy Gut

As we add years to our lives, we cannot eat as we used to. We do not tolerate fried foods and large meals as we once did. The digestive tract, although a very resilient system, changes as we age causing some distress. Both a gradual slowing of the system and a decrease in the secretion of saliva and enzymes necessary for digestion occur. As a result, problems with indigestion, elimination and absorption of nutrients can happen. Seniors often experience constipation, heartburn, gas, bloating and cramps.

The human digestive tract contains trillions of bacteria that are key to a healthy system. A study conducted at the Weizmann Institute of Science in Israel and the Hospital for Sick Children in Toronto proved that the number of bacteria in the human body is about 39 trillion. Scientific research shows that these bacteria influence the body’s health. Usually the gut bacteria benefit digestion and nutrient absorption, contribute to the immune system function, and keep harmful pathogens from overgrowing.

Because the effects of aging on the digestive system can greatly affect one’s life, eating well can diminish and prevent many of the negative health issues from occurring. Maintaining a healthy digestive system requires some changes in the diet. Medical experts suggest eating foods containing fibre, probiotics (live bacteria naturally created by the fermentation process) and prebiotics (non-digestible carbohydrates that feed beneficial bacteria, including probiotics) to maintain good gut health.

Fibre regulates the rate at which food moves through the intestines, so it is essential for alleviating constipation. Probiotics found in fermented foods are beneficial microorganisms and need prebiotics to thrive. Probiotics play a very important role in regulating proper intestinal function and digestion by balancing intestinal microflora. These good bacteria are “live microorganisms, which, when administered in adequate amounts, confer a health benefit on the host,” according to the World Health Organization.

Apparently, the adage that “you are what you eat” is true as food plays a major role in the bacteria type inhabiting your gut. Eating the correct foods as opposed to taking a supplement is best. Gerard E. Mullin MD, a gastroenterologist and professor at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine in Baltimore says, “Depending on what you eat – and what you don’t – you can proactively lower your risk for disease and maximize your chance for a long, healthy life.”

Your body requires a certain number of bacteria to function properly. Probiotics, the “good” bacteria, aid in the digestion of complex carbs, support your liver functions by eliminating toxins, and help care for your immune system. Probiotics guard against infectious bacteria that cause food poisoning and stomach viruses.

The diet we feed our gut bugs determines how we feel physically and emotionally. Adding whole foods such as fruits and veggies, grains and non-dairy fermented products to our diet makes a real difference and is simple to do. Probiotics found in fermented foods such as pickles and sauerkraut are excellent sources of essential nutrients especially vitamin K2, which is important to prevent arterial plaque buildup and heart disease. The beneficial bacteria in fermented foods contain powerful detoxifiers.

Adding prebiotic rich foods such as artichokes, asparagus, bananas, garlic, onions, lentils, chickpeas, brown rice, oats and popcorn is another step to increase the good gut flora.

According to a study published in the Journal of Food Science and Technology, some health risks are associated with milk-based probiotic foods. These include lactose intolerance, allergy to milk proteins, high fat and high cholesterol content. To alleviate the disadvantages of dairy-based fermented foods, several non-dairy-based fermented foods have been developed. Fruit and vegetable-based drinks using beets, bananas, tomatoes and coconuts are good choices. Fermented cranberry, pineapple and orange juices provide probiotics and necessary vitamins. Kombucha, a fermented sweet tea, has been around for over 2,000 years and is packed with vitamin B, antioxidants and probiotics (be warned, it’s an acquired taste). Non-fermented soy and cereal-based products including oat and rice are suitable selections. Probiotic-fortified products are also available, such as chocolates and flour.

Dietary changes such as adding probiotics and eating well-balanced meals that include fibre prove beneficial. Remember that fibre works with fluids, so an adequate fluid intake is vital. Women need 25 grams of fibre per day and men need 38 grams of fibre per day according to Health Canada. Most Canadians are only getting about half that much. Legumes such as chickpeas, lentils, navy beans and white beans provide almost half of the required fibre intake in just one cup. All whole grains like bran, barley and bulgur are generally good sources of fibre as are fruits like raspberries and blackberries. Nuts and seeds provide fibre and are great snacks or can be added to salads.

You are what you eat, so eat healthy and enjoy not only a rich quality of life but a longer one too. Aging can be enjoyed if you are aware of possible future health issues and understand ways to prevent them. Your healthy gut bugs depend upon you!


Note: This article is informational only. If you have concerns about your health, visit your healthcare provider.

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