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The Importance of Gut Health and Microbiome Diets for Older People

In my role as Head of Nutrition and Hydration at Sunrise Senior Living UK, I’ve seen the growing awareness and popularity of microbiome diets amongst older people. Whilst there is something to learn about the value of such a diet for everyone, it is particularly interesting to note the way good gut health can help the older generation to thrive and live well.

The gut is a term to describe the digestive system, beginning with the mouth, down through the oesophagus to the stomach and the intestines, ultimately reaching the anus to expel unwanted waste. Unsurprisingly, it plays a crucial role in protecting the body as a first line of defence against pathogenic material. The gut is lined with a mucus layer and bacteria, as well as cells which are a component of the immune system which also need to be kept as healthy as possible. Unfortunately, due to environmental factors and poor food choices they can be compromised.

When we talk about the microbiome, we are referring to vast army of microorganisms (life forms) on and within the body – these include parasites, fungi and viruses, but are mostly bacteria. There is far more microbiota than human cells in our bodies (as much as nine times more), so creating an environment to manage the levels of beneficial bacteria whilst limiting pathogenic bacteria, (those that have the potential to cause diseases), is crucial. These microorganisms can have huge impacts upon health and disease.

Gut microbiota is of particular interest to nutritional therapists, as the gut is one of the main areas of the body, along with the skin and lungs that harbours microbiota that comes into contact with the outside world. Within the gut, there are thought to be approximately 1,000 different species of bacteria, which can be subdivided into categories. This is a complex area of research but essentially, bacteria affects the way the body functions. It is thought that up to 90% of diseases can be traced back to the gut! It also breaks down dietary fibre and many starchy molecules in order to produce fatty acids which the gut uses as fuel. Each person needs to actively manage their gut microbiota to help their body function optimally.

So, how can you do just that? Consuming foods with microbial diversity is key, which range from a wide variety of vegetables to raw state foods. However, foods with ‘live’ microorganisms, such as bio live yoghurts, also need to be taken in the right quantities to offer a health benefit, meaning that nutritionists can sometimes be hesitant to use the term ‘probiotic’ for these kinds of foods. Not all live yoghurts can be considered to be probiotic, as they may not survive the gut. Your lifestyle can also impact your body’s microbiota and the impact of foods, with factors including birthing and infant feeding methods for new mothers, stress, medication, geography and lifestyle stages– particularly for older people for whom changes can be particularly stressful. With everything working together, there cannot be one size fits all approach to gut-friendly diets and lifestyles – but knowing your body and which foods can help you is vital. As an interface with the outside world, your gut health, whether it impacts health issues such as your immune system, bowels, constipation or energy levels, needs to be as protected as possible. There is also a relationship between the gut and the brain – for older people, healthiness of the mind is particularly important once you consider links to memory, carrying out basic daily tasks and navigating the world around them. For older people, complying with a microbiome diet does not need to be difficult as long as they, and those that may care for them, are equipped with the knowledge they need. A diet rich in fibre, known as prebiotics, can help good bacteria to thrive, whilst fermented foods have already produced the kind of bacteria needed for a healthy gut. Fibre rich foods are readily available in supermarkets, (popular foods such as pasta, wholegrain cereals, fruits such as berries, pears and oranges, pulses and vegetables such as broccoli, carrots and sweetcorn all contain fibre), and can easily be incorporated into meals at home or within a care home setting. No matter your age, it can be a good idea to try new things, too – fermented foods such as kombucha, kefir, sauerkraut and kimchi are all rising in popularity and are even increasing their presence within major supermarkets, with the content of these foods having been found to improve digestion and reduce inflammation. In Japan, the country where people live the longest on average, fermented foods are a diet staple.

Of course, the older people get the harder it can sometimes be to try a new, diverse diet. The body can also often reach more of an inflammatory state as it ages, making it more difficult for anti-inflammatory foods to have a transformational impact, and those who are taking antibiotics for illnesses that are common amongst older people may be impacted by the ‘killing off’ of good bacteria. However, all of us, no matter our age, should be mindful of the impact the foods we do eat can have. For example, it is also crucial to understand that foods high in sugar can make pathogenic bacteria grow so should be eaten in moderation (for a wide range of other reasons too!). For older people, lots of good foods are easily digestible – one nursing home recently ran a trial where residents were given a yoghurt with a bacteria strain every day, finding positive effects on general health. Nutritionists are hopeful this will lead to a double blind, randomised controlled study but for now, yoghurt is an easily consumable and digestible food to incorporate into an older person’s diet. These types of trials contribute to positive health claims (meaning food suppliers can state it will help the gut)

Bacteria affects us all from the very moment we are born. When we consider its relationship with our gut health, we can all realise just how much our immune system and digestion can benefit, as well as the potential a healthy, microbiome diet has to prevent and treat conditions like obesity, heart disease and inflammation. Crucially, it is never too late to do something, and older people can benefit by eating right for their microbes. When considering what to eat and what new foods to incorporate into a microbiome diet, you can never go wrong if you focus on your gut.