People of every age experience digestive issues, but, as we age, the occasional annoyances that occur in the gut become increasingly common. Aspects of our physical health do change naturally with age, but, when combined with poor diet, reduced digestive enzymes, and imbalanced gastrointestinal flora, that combination can wreak havoc on our digestive system—which affects an alarming number of bodily functions.
How does the gastrointestinal system affect people as a whole?
Many are familiar of the concept of “going with your gut” or the feeling of “butterflies in your stomach”—responses that come from what is sometimes referred to as “the second brain.” Hidden in the walls of the digestive system, your gut, otherwise known as the enteric nervous system (ENS), holds a powerful link between digestion, mood, and overall health.
Unlike the brain, your ENS lacks the ability to help you compose a song or perform activities. What it can do, however, is communicate with the brain in powerful ways.
“The ENS may trigger big emotional shifts experienced by people coping with irritable bowel syndrome and functional bowel problems such as constipation, diarrhea, bloating, pain, and stomach upset,” note the experts at Hopkins Medical Center. “For decades, researchers and doctors thought that anxiety and depression contributed to these problems. But our studies show that it may be the other way around.”
These new findings could be the key to understanding why a higher-than-normal percentage of people with IBS and functional bowel problems develop anxiety and depression. This opens up new avenues for treating IBS as well as treating anxiety and depression.
Potential Connection to Parkinson’s
Other research performed by Rush University Medical Center’s Jeffrey Kordower suggests that debilitating diseases such as Parkinson’s “may originate in the gut.”
“PD may be a disease that spreads from elsewhere in the body to the brain and then throughout the brain,” Kordower writes.
Understanding this, he continues, has provided even more opportunities for research into the ways that the gut affects overall health. Though there is still so much more to learn, he writes, “This theory has changed the way people think about therapeutics. It’s the most exciting hypothesis.”
It should be noted, however, that gut health can impact mood and mental health in a positive manner. The type of foods we eat can have a huge positive effect on the functions of the brain, and when the so called “second brain” is happier, individuals tend to be much healthier.
The average American’s diet is hardly ideal for optimal gut and mental health, experts note. “However, with the diet of the average American, filled with processed, sugary, and fatty foods, the gut becomes damaged over time and, therefore, less functional,” writes one expert at the NAVA Center. “Diets that are filled with simple carbohydrates and gluten are damaging to the brain, as they allow bad bacteria in the gut to grow exponentially. This type of gut-damaging diet has been linked to mental health issues ranging from headaches and ADHD to depression and dementia.”
Why is gut health so important for seniors?
As a healthy adult, the bacterial ecosystem unique to your gut is well established. But as antibiotics are prescribed and your dietary needs change, so does the probiotic makeup of your gut. As you age, your gut bears little resemblance to the one of your youth.
Although researchers have yet to determine how aging changes your intestinal tract, it’s clear that your diet and your overall health are connected in more ways than previously imagined. Given the amount of diseases that are prevalent in seniors, it’s clear that a focus on gut health is necessary to keep your minds and bodies healthy.
What can be done to prioritize good gut health?
Through testing, nutritional changes, and supplements, it’s possible to reverse and repair damage that has been done to your gut over years of unhealthy diets or chemical imbalances. Through help from a certified nutritionist, individuals can utilize the “4 R’s” of gastrointestinal and digestive health: Remove, Repair, Restore, and Replace.
This can be done by reducing intake of sugar and processed foods, increasing your intake of Omega-3 fats, and using elimination diets as a means of finding what feels best moving forward.
Other doctors may suggest prescribing certain antidepressants, the experts at Hopkins Medical Center say, because “psychological interventions like [cognitive behavioral therapy and treatment] may also help to improve communications between the brain and the brain in our gut.”
Though research on the subject is still light, it’s important that seniors and their caregivers recognize the serious implications that diet and gut health have on the entire person.
Danika McClure is a musician and writer from the Northwest who is passionate about social justice and education.