Dr. Rand McClain wrote this piece for 50Plus Life magazine.
The bacteria in our gut help with our body’s digestion. Seemingly so, gut bacteria also influence the health of everything from your brain and joints to your skin and heart health.
In recent years, researchers have dug deeper to find out just how many ways gut bacteria influence other areas of your health.
Now, two published studies are adding to this body of knowledge. These studies show a strong link between gut bacteria and the effects they may have on the aging process and heart health.
Trillions of microbes exist inside your body. What are these microbes? They consist of bacteria, viruses, fungi, and other tiny organisms. These mainly live on your skin and in a pocket of your large intestine. Together, the microbes that live in your large intestine are known as the gut microbiome.
Bacteria automatically seems negative, as it is often linked with negative health conditions. But have no fear, there are “good” species of bacteria. This is the type of bacteria found in your gut and it helps many of your body’s systems run smoothly.
Two characteristics of a healthy microbiome are:
The bacteria in your gut play a huge role in your health. Scientists are continuously discovering new ways that your gut bacteria affect other systems in your body.
Additionally, the previously mentioned 2020 studies show two possible additional areas where your gut health influences your overall health. While these are both epidemiological studies, have some weaknesses in their design, and do not show clear cause and effect, the evidence appears to show that gut bacteria affect:
How fast your body ages. Gut microbiome diversity (or lack thereof) has been linked to rapid signs of frailty and aging.
Your risk of heart conditions. An unbalanced gut microbiome may contribute to heart health problems by producing a chemical called trimethylamine N-oxide (TMAO).
Just like the rest of your body, your gut microbiome changes progressively as you age. Changes like these may be caused by weakened immunity, medications, environment, lifestyle, or diet.
After age 60, the microbiome may decrease in diversity; lose beneficial microbes, like Lactobacillus and Bifidobacterium; and increase in “bad” populations, like enterobacteria.
Rapid signs of frailty, weight loss, cognitive decline, and aging in older people have been linked to these changes.
You may be thinking, if changes in the microbiome can cause markers of aging, is there anything you can do to reverse it? One recent study says “yes.” Published in the journal Gut, a study found that diet may reconfigure gut bacteria in a way that promotes healthy aging.
Specifically, the study looked at the Mediterranean Diet (MedDiet). This diet highlights vegetables, fruits, whole grains, olive oil, fish, and nuts. Also, it utilizes less red meat and dairy than a typical American diet.
Furthermore, researchers found that subjects who stick to this diet for 12 months were able to change the makeup of their microbiome positively. These microbiome changes led to markers of lower frailty, supported cognitive health, and other benefits.
While the study specifically looked at the MedDiet, it has broader implications: Changing your diet may change your gut microbiome. Plus changing your gut microbiome may help promote healthier aging.
The next study was published in The Journal of the American College of Cardiology. It looked at a specific gut substance called trimethylamine N-oxide (TMAO).TMAO is produced in the gut when certain bacteria digest red meat.
Previously, a strong short-term association was found between high levels of TMAO and heart health problems.
This new research was able to use data from a large longitudinal study to show how TMAO and cardiovascular health are linked in the long term. Using collected data from over 10 years, the study found an apparent link between increased TMAO levels and heart health issues.
It also found the inverse: decreasing levels of TMAO may contribute to a reduced risk of heart conditions. And it is possible to decrease your body’s TMAO by altering your diet.
Both of these studies agree on one thing. Altering your diet can affect your gut’s microbiome, which in turn may positively affect aging and heart health.
There are many routes you can take.
Again, both of these recent studies agree that there is a connection between your diet and your gut bacteria. How you eat can directly affect the strains of bacteria in your gut, and eating a diverse diet may lead to a diverse microbiome.
Experiment with the types of foods you eat, because your gut will thank you. However, this doesn’t mean to eat carelessly. Make sure you’re getting plenty of whole, natural foods like fruits and vegetables. Unhealthy, processed foods can really take a toll on your gut microbiome and have the reverse effect of what you’re looking for.
While your body can’t actually digest fiber, it can be digested by the millions of strains of bacteria in your gut that feed your microbiome.
So, focus on high-fiber foods, such as:
Did you know naturally fermented foods contain live microorganisms that may help strengthen your gut’s microbiome? Some of these to try and add to your diet are: plain yogurt, kombucha, kefir, miso, tempeh, sauerkraut, and kimchi.
Some artificial sweeteners may encourage the growth of unhealthy bacteria, changing the composition or balance of your microbiome. If you intend to use an artificial sweetener, limited use of erythritol and stevia appear to have no negative impact on your gut microbiome or overall health.
Prebiotic foods feed the healthy bacteria in your gut. A few ideas you can try adding are: dandelion greens, chicory root, garlic, onions, asparagus, cocoa, and flaxseeds.
Additionally, Another thing that can change the composition of your microbiome are probiotics. Probiotics are live microorganisms. You can get probiotics from your diet, such as fermented foods. Another, more popular option, are supplements.
Supplements can introduce important species of healthy bacteria, like Lactobacillus or Bifidobacterium.
Be sure to consult your doctor if you plan to change your diet or add supplements to your routine. Certain bacteria can affect your gut microbiome differently from others. Your healthcare provider can help give you specific recommendations.