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How Your Gut Microbiome Changes Over Time and How It Affects Aging Itself

Gut Microbiome

Your gut is a busy place! Inside the lining of your large intestines are trillions of bacteria that collectively make up your gut microbiome. Most of these bacteria are friendly, but some can cause disease, and it’s important to keep the harmful ones in check.

Hopefully, your gut microbiome is home to a diverse array of bacteria, since studies link greater gut microbiome diversity with better health. The gut microbiome plays a role in many vital functions, including digestion, immune function, metabolism, and brain function.

The composition of your gut microbiome impacts factors that affect aging, like inflammation. Plus, aging itself affects your gut microbiome. It’s a two-way street, showing how adaptable gut bacteria are. The composition of your gut microbiome doesn’t stay static throughout life. The bacteria that live there shift in response to what you eat, how active you are, the medications you take, and your lifestyle habits.

Just as aging affects cells and tissues, it also alters your gut microbiome. Researchers are keenly interested in how the gut microbiome shifts with age and what significance this shift has on aging itself.

The Gut Microbiome and Inflammation

Research shows that with age, the number of bacteria and other microbial species that produce inflammatory substances increase in your gut, leading to over-activation of the immune system. Although inflammation is beneficial if you’re exposed to a pathogen, an overactive immune system in the absence of a threat harms cells and tissues. So, it’s not a stretch to say that low-grade inflammation contributes to aging. Some scientists believe if we can control inflammation, we could control aging and lower the risk of many chronic health problems.

Scientists also know that low-grade inflammation goes up with age, and this partially explains why people become more insulin resistant and their risk of cardiovascular disease and type 2 diabetes rises with age. This low-grade and silent form of inflammation is a driver of health problems and aging, but it’s unclear if the rise in inflammation is all due to changes in the gut microbiome.

A Changing Gut Microbiome May Be Healthier

With so many unanswered questions about the gut microbiome, you might wonder what defines a healthy gut. Studies link a more diverse microbiome to better health. Now a study shows you wouldn’t want your gut microbiome to stay static as you travel through life. Change may be better for your health and longevity and there’s science to support this.

Researchers looked at the health outcomes of 9,000 adults of all ages and compared it to their sequenced gut microbiome. What they found was adults with more unique patterns of change to their gut microbiome were healthier and had longer lifespans. They also had favorable health markers, such as lower LDL-cholesterol and higher levels of gut metabolites that reduce inflammation. A more diverse and changing gut microbiome was also linked with reduced frailty and a faster walking speed.

About 30% of your gut microbiome is “conserved,” meaning this portion is similar between different people. This leaves 70% of your microbiome that can be widely different from someone else’s. Research shows people’s microbiome start to diversify most during middle age and people who have the greatest change in their gut microbiome composition over time tend to be healthier and live longer.

How to Keep Your Own Gut Microbiome Healthy

How can you enjoy the benefits of a more diverse and flexible gut microbiome as you age? Based on current science, your best bet is to eat in a way that fosters microbiome diversity. One way to do that is to add more plant-based foods to your diet. These foods are rich in fiber, a dietary component that gut bacteria love. Certain types of fiber, called prebiotic fiber, are the best for fostering a healthy gut. Foods high in prebiotic fiber include:

  • Jerusalem artichokes
  • Bananas
  • Shiitake mushrooms
  • Plantains
  • Asparagus
  • Raw garlic
  • Onions
  • Oats
  • Chicory root

Eating fermented foods, like yogurt with active cultures, kefir, and fermented vegetables, also supply your gut with a wealth of beneficial bacterial species. Ultra-processed foods, however, lack fiber and contain additives that may harm beneficial gut bacteria. For example, some research suggests that emulsifiers and artificial sweeteners in processed foods may harm gut bacteria.

Avoid taking antibiotics unless there’s a medical indication. Some people want an antibiotic prescription every time they have the sniffles. One course of antibiotics can disrupt the gut microbiome for up to a year, and some scientists wonder if the gut ever fully recovers. Sleep and stress management can also disrupt microbiome health, and this could be one reason stress and lack of sleep age people faster.

Stay physically active too. A 2017 study showed that exercise increases the diversity of the gut microbiome, along with its other health benefits. It’s possible that some of the health and longevity perks of exercise are related to shifts in the gut microbiome.

The Bottom Line

There’s growing evidence that building and a diverse community of gut microorganisms through healthy eating, stress management, and exercise contribute to health and aging. Fortunately, you have some control over the diet you eat and your lifestyle habits. Skip the junk food and make more fiber-rich, plant-based food choices. Your gut microbiome is counting on you to make the right lifestyle choices. Don’t let your gut bacteria down.

References:

  • NIH.gov. “Unique gut microbiome patterns linked to healthy aging, increased longevity”
  • Lozupone CA, Stombaugh JI, Gordon JI, Jansson JK, Knight R. Diversity, stability and resilience of the human gut microbiota. Nature. 2012 Sep 13;489(7415):220-30. doi: 10.1038/nature11550. PMID: 22972295; PMCID: PMC3577372.”
  • Microbiome Diversity: The Secret to a Healthy Gut | Viome.” 13 Jun. 2018, viome.com/blog/secret-healthy-gut-microbiome-diversity-diversity-diversity.
  • “Why Does Gut Diversity Matter? | Gut Health and … – Bimuno.” 23 Jun. 2020, bimuno.com/news/why-does-gut-diversity-matter/.
  • “Frontiers | Gut Microbiota Diversity and Human Diseases ….” frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/fmicb.2016.00455/full.
  • Wilson AS, Koller KR, Ramaboli MC, Nesengani LT, Ocvirk S, Chen C, Flanagan CA, Sapp FR, Merritt ZT, Bhatti F, Thomas TK, O’Keefe SJD. Diet and the Human Gut Microbiome: An International Review. Dig Dis Sci. 2020 Mar;65(3):723-740. doi: 10.1007/s10620-020-06112-w. PMID: 32060812; PMCID: PMC7117800.
  • “A fermented-food diet increases microbiome diversity and ….” 12 Jul. 2021, //med.stanford.edu/news/all-news/2021/07/fermented-food-diet-increases-microbiome-diversity-lowers-inflammation.
  • Monda V, Villano I, Messina A, Valenzano A, Esposito T, Moscatelli F, Viggiano A, Cibelli G, Chieffi S, Monda M, Messina G. Exercise Modifies the Gut Microbiota with Positive Health Effects. Oxid Med Cell Longev. 2017;2017:3831972. doi: 10.1155/2017/3831972. Epub 2017 Mar 5. PMID: 28357027; PMCID: PMC5357536.

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