Healthy Gut

The Sneaky Reason Why Getting Older Can Lead to Digestive Problems—And What To Do About It

Emily Laurence

Photo: Getty Images/ ljubaphoto
There are some changes that happen as we age that people talk pretty openly about, like surprise hot flashes or a new dependence on that collagen-boosting wrinkle cream in your bathroom cabinet... all likely to come up in a casual conversation with friends.

But there's something else that's subject to age-related changes (but not necessarily the subject of polite conversation): your digestive system. If you've noticed that you're experiencing more stomach troubles than you used to, you're not alone. In his new book, The New Rules of Aging Well ($22), leading functional medicine doctor Frank Lipman, MD, says that having a "bad stomach" is a common side effect of aging. But just because it's common doesn't mean it should be tolerated.

The key to problem-solving is learning what exactly is happening in the body that's causing the digestive system to weaken and what you can do to strengthen it. The solutions are actually easier to put into practice than you may think.

How does aging affect digestion?

Before diving straight into the solutions, it helps to know what exactly is going on in the body. "As you age—usually starting in your 60s—digestive enzymes decrease, particularly one called hydrochloric acid," Dr. Lipman says. He explains that digestive enzymes are important for breaking down food; a decrease in the number of these enzymes makes it harder for the body to properly digest what you eat.

Dr. Lipman says the decrease in digestive enzymes can cause an imbalance in the gut. This can manifest in a variety of ways including frequent constipation, diarrhea, or heartburn. (Fun, right?) In more extreme cases, poorly digested food particles can "leak through" the gut lining and filter into the bloodstream, which can trigger inflammation. (This is often referred to as leaky gut.)

Having a healthy amount of beneficial gut bacteria, Dr. Lipman says, is key for preventing leaky gut and supporting an aging digestive system, as these microorganisms also break down food and keep the digestive system running properly. That means eating lots of foods rich in prebiotics (like garlic, radishes, and asparagus) and probiotics as well as minimizing anything known to kill good gut bacteria (like sugar).

Watch the video below for more tips on eating for optimal gut health:

Natural ways to improve digestion problems related to aging

Besides this general advice for improving gut health, Dr. Lipman says there are more specific steps he suggests to people in their 60s or older who are experiencing digestive distress to help stimulate the body's digestive enzymes. One is to take digestive bitters or apple cider vinegar before eating to help kickstart digestion. "In Europe, it's common to have an aperitif before a meal that does exactly this," he says. He explains that mixing bitters or ACV into a glass of water and drinking it before a meal helps trigger the production of hydrochloric acid, which will help with the digestive process. "This can often help prevent heartburn too," Dr. Lipman says.

Dr. Lipman says there are some supplements that could help, too. One he often recommends is oregano oil. "If there is an overgrowth of bad bacteria or yeast in the small intestine, oregano oil can help with that," he says, thanks to its natural antimicrobial properties. "If you experience gas or bloating on a regular basis, that's a sign there could be [too much] bad bacteria or yeast, and oregano oil could potentially help," Dr. Lipman says. Some other supplements that work similarly are olive leaf extract, berberine, and grapefruit seed extract. (Just be sure to confirm with your doctor that these supplements are safe for you to take and don't interfere with any pre-existing health conditions or medications you take.)

Besides adding more gut-healthy foods, bitters, and supplements into your life, Dr. Lipman says it's also important to let the digestive system relax and rest. "You shouldn't be eating on the run; your digestive system works best when you're relaxed," he says. It also needs time to not work so hard breaking down food all the time, which is where rest comes in. Generally, he says he tells his patients to let the body rest for at least 12 hours after dinner before eating again the next day.

If you try these tips and don't notice a difference, it's likely time to enlist the help of a gastroenterologist to see if there's another underlying problem that could be contributing to your digestive woes or to see if taking another course of action is the way to go.

Getting to the bottom of digestive issues isn't always easy, but Dr. Lipman says putting in the effort to solve them is absolutely worth it. "So many people live with stomach problems and just accept them as normal when they don't have to," he says. "Additionally, because gut health is connected to immunity, brain health, and, truly, the body as a whole, it's important to look after your gut." In other words: if your gut health is off, it will likely manifest in ways beyond digestion.

Not all the bodily consequences of aging are reversible; your mile time may never get to where it was in your 20s. But stomach problems related to aging is something that absolutely can be addressed. Why live in any way less than feeling your best?

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