Our Personal Ecosystems Age as We Do
Did you know that your body is actually a living ecosystem that support trillions of lives! That’s right. Each of us host trillions of microbes inside as well as on the surface of our body that not only live off us, but also contribute to our well- being. What’s more, our personal ecosystem or microbiome is unique to us very much like our fingerprints.
The study of the human microbiome is gaining huge momentum. Researchers are particularly interested in the microbes within the gut or stomach. These little organisms that live in the lining of our stomachs and intestinal tract have a very important job to do in keeping us healthy, as they are essential to digestion. Research shows that they:
- Produce vitamins K, B7 (biotin), and B12
- Help regulate appetite
- Help control inflammation
- Help control cholesterol
- Stimulate the immune system
- Are involved in production of 90% of your serotonin, the feel-good neurotransmitter
An imbalance in the mix of bacteria living in the intestinal tract or a shortfall of certain microbes has been linked to obesity, depression, and chronic diseases, from heart disease to diabetes.
Studies show that the ecosystem we support ages as we do!
By the time you were three years old, your digestive tract, especially your colon, was home to a community of diverse bacteria. Some of those microbes got there from your mother as you passed through her birth canal. If you were breastfed, you accumulated even more. And you picked up some bugs from your environment as you played with other kids, petted the cat and made mud pies in the dirt. Research has shown that keeping clean is important. However, keeping your environment overly sanitized might actually work against you.
As a healthy adult, the bacterial ecosystem that is unique to you is well established and fairly stable. However, those bugs can take a beating when you take antibiotics to treat an infection or eat a high-sugar, low-fiber diet of processed foods. The chemicals in the packaged food we eat, is harmful to us and the microbes in our gut.
By the time your hair turns gray and your joints begin to stiffen, your microbiome has changed considerably. In your senior years, your microbiome bears little resemblance to the one of your youth.
Although researchers haven’t pinpointed exactly how aging changes your intestinal flora, they do know that certain factors can be damaging:
- Your intestinal tract has its own nervous system with as many nerve cells as your spinal cord. It’s not clear how the gut and the bacteria within it interact with the brain, but scientists know that chronic stress disrupts neural communication. Experts suspect an unhealthy mix of gut bacteria could also contribute to depression.
- A high-fat, high-sugar diet that is low in natural fiber does not support bacteria in the colon. These bacteria need fiber (got from fruit and vegetables) to create inflammation-fighting fatty acids. A poor dietary mix causes many of these bacteria to be depleted and is the reason for many of the diseases of aging.
- A diverse mix of healthy bacteria requires a diverse diet. We tend to buy and eat the few standard fruit and vegetables available at supermarkets which reduce the number of types of bacteria present in our digestion system.
- Gastrointestinal conditions that often occur in seniors such as diverticulitis, decreased saliva production, and tooth loss which also impact gut bacteria.
How do we keep our ecosystem or microbiome healthy as we age?
Here’s what you can do to boost the number and type of healthy bacteria in your tummy:
- Eat different types of foods that are low in fat and sugar, and high in fiber diet. Eat as many season fruit and vegetables as you can and if possible eat home grown or organic produce.
- Make small portions of fermented foods part of your daily diet. These foods help replenish your gut bacteria. These include curd, yogurt, cheese, pickles and acharus.
- Practice stress relief — whatever technique is comfortable for you. Try meditation, or listening to soft, instrumental music.
- Exercise daily. It not only helps relieve stress but also contributes to a robust population of gut bacteria.
- Brush and floss regularly. Keeping your gums healthy and holding on to your teeth as you age allows you to eat a chewy and diverse, fiber-rich diet.
- Don’t take antibiotics unnecessarily. And, if you do, replenish your gut bacteria with fermented foods and possibly a probiotic supplement. Clinical trials show that taking a probiotic with the antibiotic reduces the risk of antibiotic-associated diarrhea.