EP 5: The Aging Gut – Why Our Digestion Gets Worse The Older We Get (Part 1)

In This Episode, We Discuss:

  • Common digestive disorders(2:40)
  • First key; oral microbiome(4:11)
  • Second key; HCL(hydrochloric acid problems) (8:56)
  • Third key; Gut microbiome changes with age(12:55)

Hi, this is Dr. Jenny Sechler. Welcome to The Art and Science of Defying Aging. Today’s episode is going to be about what happens to the gut as you age. This is going to be a two-part series, and today we’re going to do part one. 

So first, gut issues plague millions of people today, young and old. Now I’m thinking if we don’t know how to have a healthy gut when we’re younger, what are we setting yourselves up for as we age? The numbers I’m reading are staggering. 60 to 70 million people are affected by digestive disorders, accounting for over 36 million visits to the primary care doctor every year. 

Now bad digestion is the root of all evil, said Hippocrates, the ancient Greek physician who is considered to be the father of modern medicine. He was born back in 460 B.C., but these words still ring true today. Now I don’t think that we understand our digestive system very well and how it functions, and basically how to take care of our gut. 

Now I’m saying this, because I’ve had clients that come in to see me after they’ve seen everybody else in conventional medicine and gastro specialists and tell me stories like this. My last client told me, “My primary care sent me to see the gastro, who then proceeded to do a scope, and told me that I have a couple polyps and was told, well, most people have five or more.” She said, “Well, what do I do?” He said, “Nothing. Just come back in five years for another scope.” Now, that is not an answer. Another one said, “Well, I don’t see anything, I just see a lot of inflammation,” and the client said, “Well, what do I do about that?” “Nothing you can do about it, just come back in a few years.” 

These are not answers, and these are from gastroenterologists. I just shake my head. There’s another MD I worked with during one of my clinicals, and she stopped sending her clients to gastros and started doing her own functional medicine digestive panels to identify the root causes herself, and she was very successful in helping her clients. 

So over the years, I learned a great deal from my mentors, seminars, and my own clients. So, I’ve broken this down into six issues or keys that can go astray in the gut as we age and how to address them. So, what if your gut is at the root of either sabotaging you or could actually be supporting you to age well? Let’s get started and start dissecting the gut. 

(2:40) I read a recent article about the 10 most common digestive disorders. I’m just going to mention a few, because I was really surprised by the numbers of people that are struggling with gut issues. One of the first ones is hemorrhoids. Now not a topic we often talk about at the coffee table or over a beer, but the numbers said that 75% of people older than 45 struggle with hemorrhoids.

That accounts for over 266,000 hospitalizations. Inflammatory bowel disease, Crohn’s disease, and ulcerative colitis, irritable bowel, all of these problems, unfortunately, are growing in numbers year after year. 

Reflux disease. Reflux symptoms who express issues account for 20% of the population, and for 4.7 million visits to the hospital and 64.6 million prescriptions every year. You’ve got liver disease, pancreatitis, peptic ulcer disease accounts for about 358,000 hospitalizations every year. 

I just find these numbers absolutely staggering. So with all of these numbers, we already know that so many people are struggling with gut issues from early on. I think, well, what’s going to happen as we age? Many people I talked to, “Oh, well, I’ve always had this.” 

We already know so many people who are struggling with some kind of gut issues from early on, I think it becomes commonplace. “Oh, I’ve always had it.” They just accept it as being normal, but it’s really not. So, let’s talk about the first key in the gut that changes as we age, and it’s your oral microbiome. Now, it’s not something that we commonly talk about, we’re really into the gut microbiome. It’s got all the fame and the glory and deservingly so. However, I think we need to move back up north to the mouth, because that’s where the problems can actually begin many times. 

(4:11) So, what is the oral microbiome? Well, it’s the world of bacteria that’s in your mouth, in your ears, your nose, your throat, in your nasal passages. There’s reported to be nearly 800 unique microorganisms in the mouth, and they’re intimately involved with our downstream counterparts in the gut. So, our saliva within the oral microbiome plays an important role. So, research is finding direct links between our oral microbiome and things like cardiovascular disease, diabetes, and Alzheimer’s, just to mention a few. 

I don’t think we can brush off our own microbiome as a bystander to our health. We need to stop and pay attention as to what’s going on here, because our mouth really is the first line of defense. It’s like the gateway to everything else in the body and our saliva is the frontline immune system. It’s got an interesting makeup, it has proteins of all kinds, including enzymes that break down our food. So, digestion really starts in the mouth. 

Our saliva is also our primary defense against all our pathogens that might come into our mouth, so they don’t go into the circulatory system, they don’t reach the gut and travel around creating chaos. So, we need to have a good amount of saliva in our mouth every day. 

Researchers are finding that we create almost two soda cans of saliva every day. So, what can go wrong here? Well, with age, our saliva production does go down and it puts us at a risk for decreasing our digestive process. Because it always goes back to our food choices, our carbs, our sugars, our drinks, because that increases our acidity levels. The average American diet is very acidic. These pathogens, these silent microbes that we have living in the mouth, if our oral microbiome goes off balance and our saliva decreases, they start traveling to other parts of our bodies causing problems. 

The last part of the saliva issue is medications, because one of the most common side effects to medications is it creates a dry mouth. So we have medications, we’ve got an acidic diet and silent pathogens, so you automatically have some challenges. So we have meds, we’ve got an acidic diet and silent pathogens, and we’re aging, so we automatically decrease our saliva production. It sounds somewhat dismal, so what can you do? 

Well, one of the easiest things to do is just increase alkalinity of foods to your diet, particularly in the ways of green foods. Drink more water, you can do oil pulling, which has been around for hundreds of years. It’s an easy thing to do, its simply taking coconut oil and just swishing it around in your mouth. I read anywhere from five to 15 to 20 minutes. Now I cannot do it for that long, I’m usually more of a five minute person. I do it maybe once or twice a week, but that helps to pull toxins and pathogens out of the oral microbiome. 

Lastly, if there is a side effect to a medication of a dry mouth, or you’re just decreasing your production of saliva as you age, there are saliva replacements and one’s called XyliMelts. They’re like strips and you put them in your mouth and it makes more saliva. So if you want to hear more about the oral microbiome, I’ve done on a recent podcast on that and you can get some more details. 

Additionally as we age, our senses tend to decrease, taste and smell. But a lot of times I think we write this off too fast. “Oh, I’m just getting old. I can’t really smell or taste as well.” But sometimes it could be as easy as a nutrient deficiency, particularly in zinc. Now obviously that can be remedied, but that affects our interest in food and often decreases our eating, which then increases our nutrient deficiencies even more, decreases our energy and our mitochondria performance ,and results in poor sleep. It’s like a domino effect. 

An old way to test for zinc, we used to call it the zinc tally test. You’d swish some of this liquid around in your mouth and spit it out. If you didn’t taste anything, that meant you needed zinc. But today there’s more advanced lab testing to check for nutrient deficiencies. So when I work with clients, I often use some of these specialized lab testing to identify these types of issues, and then we restore deficiencies to enhance balance and digestion. 

(8:56) The second key we’re going to talk about is that we tend to experience a decrease in hydrochloric acid in the stomach. Why is that important? Because hydrochloric acid has some vital functions. It helps to break down proteins in our food, it stimulates pancreatic enzyme production, it helps the gallbladder to retract to release bile to help us digest our fats. It helps to prevent pathogens like H. pylori, which is the most common bacteria in the body to cause problems. 

The interesting thing that we’ve been seeing in our clinic, and I know my colleagues are also seeing is that younger people are also experiencing a decreased production of hydrochloric acid. Typically we’re finding it due to stressful lives, poor sleep habits, which is resulting in more gut infections. So sometimes we think, oh, it’s just age, but it’s really not. So it’s possible and likely if you’ve never addressed hydrochloric acid, it’s low. You also might be having decrease absorption of your foods resulting in poor energy and potentially an infection such as H. pylori. 

Well, there’s no lab test for this, and hydrochloric acid is often missed and poorly misunderstood, so how do you know if you have enough? If you’re low in hydrochloric acid, you can experience things like feeling full after eating, indigestion or heartburn like acid reflux, bloating, food allergies, and intolerances, nausea and bad breath. I think it’s somewhat of an oxymoron. If you have indigestion, you get acid blockers and your symptoms can be improved, but the issue is really what is that acid blocker doing? It’s shutting down your hydrochloric acid. We just went through why that is so important for you. 

So, those acid blockers should be used short-term until the underlying root problem can be identified and then addressed. So, commonly these issues can be found in many other areas. So, the interesting tip here is that these issues I just mentioned can overlap and H. pylori can actually produce some of these same symptoms. The low stomach acid can result from a nutrient deficiency like thiamine or B12 and can contribute to low iron levels and anemia, and we need that stomach acid to extract B12 and iron from our protein containing foods. 

This just leads to a vicious cycle. Now it can result in hair loss, fatigue and food sensitivities, just to name a few. So many people have been able to improve their levels of ferritin and B12 through improving their stomach acid and vice versa. So, one of the easiest things to do is to take a supplement called betaine with pepsin. You take that with protein containing meals that can help you to get your energy back, because it helps you to break down and absorb your food. 

Now, H. pylori can be tested through a breath test and through a poop test, but hydrochloric acid is not, and typically is done with a trial and error test. I think one of the easiest ways to test to see if you need hydrochloric acid is to take the apple cider vinegar test. So, what you do is you drink two tablespoons of apple cider vinegar with a meal. If you don’t experience burning, then you challenge yourself and you take one capsule of hydrochloric acid or betaine with pepsin. 

If there’s no burning, then that means your body needs hydrochloric acid and you keep taking it with your meals. If there is burning with the hydrochloric acid and the betaine capsule, then go back and just drink the apple cider vinegar with your meals. Now some people still experience some burning, which tells me there’s a possibility that there could be an H. pylori or other gut-related infection, or lastly, there can also be a thinning of the stomach lining, which can be healed with other nutrients. If this is the case, some more investigating needs to be done to identify where to begin the healing process. 

(12:55) Now, the third key we’re going to talk about is the decline in the microbiome diversity in the gut that occurs with age, which can be one of the biggest issues. I think young people and people as we age, we kind of get into these habits and we tend to eat some of the same foods. I think I just read recently that the average person tends to eat about eight to ten foods, we just don’t really try a lot of different foods after a while, and so we take probiotics. I hear many people, I hear them in the store and I kind of laugh to myself, because, “Oh, this one’s got 10 billion, this one’s got 20 billion probiotics.” They think that more is better. 

But it’s not so much how much that you’re taking in the probiotic, it’s more about the diversity, which is typically a consequence of aging and our lifestyle choices. So it’s been documented that by the time a person reaches 60, their gut microbiome is no longer the same. It’s less diverse and the beneficial guys like lactobacillus and bifida lose ground. Now there’s an increase in things like enterobacteria or bacterias that we call opportunistic, and these can cause problems and other infections. 

So some suggestions are expand the number of foods that you eat, try one or two new foods every week. Eating a rainbow diet, try to eat more colorful foods. It is a challenge, but it’s really well worth it to support the diversity within the gut and the probiotics too. I know I’ve heard some people say, “Oh, I just love this probiotic,” and they take it for years. But what we’re finding is that even rotating probiotics can be beneficial, because they do contain almost like a different garden of good bacterias. So you can take lactobacillus-based, you can take plant-based, like a MegaSpore probiotic. So, it’s just about rotating and increasing your diversity. 

So, those are the first three keys I wanted to mention about the digestive system as we age. All right, so stay tuned and join me for part two of my next podcast. 

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