What is the relationship between the food we eat, the microbes in our gut, and overall health and longevity?
Science has shown that by maintaining a healthy gut environment, chronic conditions can be kept to a minimum while increasing longevity.
Gut Microbes 101
The “gut microbiome” refers to the trillions of bacteria, viruses, fungi, and other microorganisms that normally inhabit our gastrointestinal tract. The beneficial organisms or “microbes” in your gut are crucial for digestive function and overall health. Your body depends on these bacteria and yeast to help break down food, absorb and transport vitamins and minerals, balance immune function, and lower your food or chemical allergy chances.1
“Microbiota” is the collective term for the microbes found in a healthy body, and a healthy population is integral to good digestion. Microbiota also impacts numerous other areas of health. The human microbiome undergoes the most prominent changes during infancy and in old age. Interestingly, our immune health is also changing a lot during these two critical stages of life. Researchers suggest this may indicate that our microbiota and our overall health develop and change in a relationship together. Continued studies on the interactions between the microbiota and the body are critical to understanding the microbiome’s expanded role in health and aging.2
Aging and the Microbiome
What is aging, and how does it affect your health? Does your gut microbiome’s health affect the aging process, or does aging affect the health of the microbiome? Scientists are working to better understand these relationships, and preliminary findings are intriguing.
Science has shown the primary conditions that lead to aging are: Collagen breakdown, oxidation, and free radical damage, inflammation, glycation, and repeated exposure to UV light. These may also be risk factors for increased predisposition to various chronic conditions, including cardiovascular disorders, arthritis, cataracts, osteoporosis, diabetes, hypertension, and obesity.3
Older people tend to have a different gut microbiota profile compared to healthy younger adults. This difference could be attributed to aging factors such as changed lifestyle and diet, decreased mobility, weakened immune strength, reduced intestinal functionality, altered gut physiology, recurrent infections, hospitalizations, and use of medications.3
So how does the gut microbiome relate to chronic, age-related conditions? Dr. Hilde Groot carried out one recent study from the department of cardiology at the University Medical Centre Groningen, the Netherlands. Instead of conducting measurements of the microbiome itself, she postulated that human genetic variants might be used to reveal human gut microbiome composition and its influences on sickness and health.
The study included 422,417 unrelated individuals who had undergone genotyping to identify their genetic make-up. The average age of participants was 57 years, and 54 percent of them were female. In any group of apparently healthy individuals, significant variability in their microbiome exists. Using genetic material from these individuals’ microbiome, this variation in their gut microbes was avoided.4
The researchers found that higher levels of 11 different bacteria were associated with 28 health outcomes.These included chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, high blood pressure, and high blood lipids. The strongest associations were observed with conditions related to the circulatory system, respiratory system, and skin.4
Dr. Groot said: "Considering that the results were observed in one cohort, this cautiously supports the notion that microbiota and the metabolites they produce provide links between numerous diseases and conditions.” However, she commented that many challenges remain in establishing these relationships, especially using the genetic approach.4
Stress is known to cause microbiota imbalances, often resulting in problems with digestion. Stress can induce muscle spasms and gas in the bowel, which can be painful and interfere with the absorption of nutrients into the body. Stress not only increases the risk of numerous disorders in the cardiovascular and digestive systems but may also cause neuropsychiatric problems.5
The microbiome must stay in balance to function correctly in the digestion and absorption of nutrients from the food we eat. Diet and extrinsic stressors, like environmental factors, antibiotics, sleep disturbances, and psychological stresses, can also lead to “dysbiosis,” an imbalance in the gastrointestinal tract that includes both the stomach and intestines.6
We indeed are what we eat. Consuming a healthy diet, including plenty of foods containing probiotics as well as fermented foods, can significantly affect the health of the microbiome.
Probiotics are living microorganisms found naturally in foods such as yogurt, kimchi, sauerkraut, miso, and kefir. They are known as “friendly bacteria” since they compete for space and food against harmful bacteria, thus preventing them from settling in the gut.
Most fermented foods are made from whole foods like vegetables, fruits, grains, and dairy. While these foods are nutritious in their original form, through fermentation, they offer additional health benefits.
Studies have also shown that other routines like practicing good sleep habits, exercising daily, and managing stress can go a long way towards healthy aging. People often feel better after exercising. It now appears a new benefit might be the maintaining of proper gut microbiome diversity through exercise, thus contributing to a healthy body. One of the leading ideas in the field of exercise’s influence on the microbiome is that working out boosts the levels of gut microbes that produce butyrate, a short-chain fatty acid that has a whole host of health benefits in humans.7
As the world becomes more complex, the environment more challenging, and the inevitability of growing old more natural, it’s never been more important—or easier—to support a healthy aging process, naturally.
(1) Deans, E., 2020. Microbiome And Mental Health In The Modern Environment. https://jphysiolanthropol.biomedcentral.com/articles/10.1186/s40101-016-0101-y#Abs1
(2) Nagpal, Ravinder et al. ‘Gut Microbiome and Aging: Physiological and Mechanistic Insights’. 1 Jan. 2018: 267 – 285.Nutrition and Healthy Aging, vol. 4, no. 4, pp. 267-285, 2018 DOI:10.3233/NHA-170030
(3) Lopez-Otin C, Blasco MA, Partridge L, Serrano M, Kroemer G . The hallmarks of aging. Cell. 2013;153(6):1194–217.
(4) Groot, H.E., van de Vegte, Y.J., Verweij, N. et al. Human genetic determinants of the gut microbiome and their associations with health and disease: a phenome-wide association study. Sci Rep 10,14771 (2020).https://doi.org/10.1038/s41598-020-70724-5
(5) Ning Zhan, MD, et al; Probiotic supplements for relieving stress in healthy participants. Medicine (Baltimore) 2019 May; 98(20): e154 DOI:10.1097/MD.0000000000015416
(7)Exercise alone alters our gut microbiota. Medical News Today. Published December 5, 2017. Accessed April 6, 2021. https://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/320264