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Your gut as you age: Why you can't digest foods you once could

by Joyce Haddad - July 13, 2017

Once upon a time, you were probably able to climb a tree, run a marathon, or party until the sunshine. However, you may not be able to do those things anymore, and that's because many bodily functions slow down as you age.  Your organs may become less efficient and may not work as well as they once used to, including your digestive tract, or your gut. The muscles that make up your gut become stiffer, weaker and less efficient, and your body doesn't form new cells as quickly as they once could.  These factors lead to higher risks of a damaged gut wall, which may result in digestive disorder, such as:

  • Heartburn

  • Peptic ulcers

  • Irritable bowel syndrome

  • Diarrhoea

  • Constipation

  • Haemorrhoids

  • Excess gas

  • Stomach pain

  • Diverticulitis

  • Faecal incontinence

  • Gastro-oesophageal reflux disease (GORD)

First and foremost, it is very important that you to seek help from your trusted practitioner for any digestive discomforts you may feel. But for the purpose of this post, let's dig deeper to find out some reasons why and how your gut changes as you age.

Lifestyle Changes:

  • Exercise and activity: Ageing sometimes comes with the lower ability to move as much as you once could. Therefore, moving less results in less efficient blood flow throughout the body (and thus to the bowels), which lowers the ability of the bowel to work and digest as well as it once did.

  • Any gut-traumatising event: There is mounting evidence that digestion in the bowel changes after a “gut-traumatising event” has happened, such as dysentery (infection of the intestines), food poisoning, intestinal flu, abdominal surgery, or even pregnancy. Let’s not forget about stress as well. There is a big link between the brain and the gut, and those who have experienced severe stressful situations will know that their gut suffered from it too. Even after physical recovery from any of these traumatic events, the nerves within the gut retain a "memory" of the trauma experienced, and remain hyper-sensitive to further stimulation, as well as prone to subsequent over-reaction. 

Gut Microbiota:

As you age, your bacterial population will become a lot less compared to what it was in your younger years. Furthermore, the populations of bacteria growing inside elderly people are less diverse than what’s seen in younger people. These changes in the gut are also linked to events that take place as you grow older, such as a lengthening of the time it takes food to pass through your gut, reduced saliva production, more wind production, and so on.

Numerous studies have indicated a link between the microbiota that live in the human gut and health, including obesity and perhaps even brain health. But more recent studies have noted that gut microbiota varied depending on where the participants lived and also with their health. For instance, people living independently in the community had more varied flora and were the healthiest. However, people living in long-term, assisted-living situations had less diverse flora and tended to be frailer.

This area of science needs a lot more research, however, we are seeing consistent results that those with less bacterial diversity and population are usually those who suffer from gastrointestinal (and other) problems. 

Medical Conditions:

Another reason why the digestive tract is affected with aging, is actually from other health conditions that may be present, along with the medication that deal with those conditions:

  • Artery blockages. Blockages in arteries can affect blood flow to the bowels (i.e. intestinal ischemia) where, similar to a heart attack, the blood flow to the bowel reduces. Therefore, without sufficient blood flow, our bowels can’t churn food as efficiently, resulting in unpleasant symptoms like bloating, nausea, or constipation/diarrhoea.

  • Arthritis and hypertension. Many older people also take a variety of medications to manage chronic conditions like arthritis and high blood pressure, and the drugs used to treat both of those conditions can have digestive tract side effects. Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) increase risks of peptic ulcers – and this is often overlooked. Moreover, older women, in particular, are more susceptible to developing an inflammation of the stomach called gastritis, which can result from frequent use of NSAIDs.

  • Diabetes and gastro-paresis: Diabetes often comes from ageing, and this can cause a lot of bowel movement problems. Uncontrolled diabetes can also lead to gastroparesis — which means that food takes a longer time to clear the stomach, resulting in many unpleasant symptoms. Gastroparesis tends to be more common in women, and causes frequent bloating and nausea.

Digestion is Worthy of Protection

Your digestive tract doesn't have to become a victim of age. Like the rest of your body, it can often be protected with a healthy lifestyle. If you want to keep your digestive tract in good shape and keep uncomfortable symptoms at bay, try these tips that can make your gut a little bit happier:

  • Stay hydrated by drinking a lot of water.

  • Maintain a healthy body weight.

  • Stick to healthy portion sizes and avoid overeating (and chew slowly!).

  • Eat smaller, more frequent meals throughout the day, instead of big meals.

  • Reduce intake of irritant foods like: spices, fried and fatty foods.

  • Get regular exercise.

  • Drink peppermint tea to ease symptoms.

  • If symptoms are severe… consult your health care professional. They will either treat your condition, or refer you to our Dietitian – Joyce Haddad, who can help you pinpoint the food you are not able to tolerate anymore.

Your gut is a very important organ, and it is also very important for making important decisions (ever listened to your gut before?) … so make sure you keep it happy and healthy, otherwise it will stop helping you make the right decisions! 


Joyce Haddad

Joyce Haddad is a Qualified Dietitian/Nutritionist and Master Personal Trainer with a passion for health and wellbeing. Her aim as a health professional is to help the public make informed and REALISTIC nutritional choices and ensure everyone has a healthy relationship with their body and with food.