Microbiome Longevity: Using Your Gut To Slow Aging
Here’s a surprising fact: microbial cells from bacteria and other microorganisms outnumber human cells in your body. Most of these microbes reside in your digestive system, creating what we call the gut microbiome.
From digestion to immunity, scientists continue to uncover vital ways in which this microbial community supports our health. Recent research even points to a thriving microbiome as a foundation for healthy aging.
Let’s review what you need to know about gut bacteria and aging and the latest strategies you can use to nurture the microbiome longevity connection.
Understanding The Gut Microbiome
Your gut microbiome consists of trillions of microorganisms, most of which are concentrated in your lower intestinal tract. While bacteria dominate this space with thousands of different strains, fungi, viruses, and yeast also inhabit this complex ecosystem.
Interestingly, no two microbiomes are the same. The exact makeup of your microbiome is unique to you, like a fingerprint.
Over years of evolution, we’ve developed a collaborative relationship with these organisms, known as “symbiosis,” wherein we support each other's health. When we thrive, they thrive in return.
In fact, our microbiome plays such a significant role in our biology that scientists now consider it another organ. But just like other body parts, your microbiome can be affected by diet and lifestyle factors, which compound over time.
The capacity of your microbiome to help or hurt longevity hinges on your ability to maintain a balanced microbial community.
How The Gut Microbiome Impacts Health and Aging
A common analogy for a balanced gut microbiome is a rainforest, where many species live harmoniously to create a lush, flourishing environment.
Achieving this balance supports your health in ways that can help extend your health span and avert common age-related health challenges. Specifically, a healthy gut microbiome can:
- Inhibit the spread of pathogens. Healthy bacteria crowd out pathogens as they compete for space and nourishment. They also strengthen the intestinal barrier, which tends to weaken with age, preventing harmful organisms from entering the bloodstream.
- Reduce inflammation. Inflammation is a root cause of most chronic health conditions, and increasing inflammation is a hallmark of aging. Beneficial gut bacteria produce metabolites and enzymes that help reduce inflammation.
- Boost immune function. About 70% of your immune system resides in your gut-associated lymphoid tissue (GALT). Here your microbiome helps train immune cells and regulate immune system activities.
- Improve nutrient absorption. Gut bacteria enhance nutrient absorption from food by digesting components the human system might miss. They also synthesize essential vitamins like B12. About 20% of older adults are deficient in B12, which impacts bone and cognitive health.
- Protect cardiovascular health. Your risk of heart disease increases with age. Certain bacteria feed on the extra fiber in our diet through fermentation, producing Short Chain Fatty Acids (SCFAs) as a byproduct. SCFAs can protect blood vessels and heart health.
- Support cognitive function. Research suggests that the gut microbiome and the central nervous system engage in cross-talk that influences cognitive function, behavior, and mood.
Conversely, when your gut microbiome is out of balance, termed “dysbiosis,” it can trigger a series of adverse health effects. Picture the same rainforest where an invasive weed has overrun the native inhabitants, causing the ecosystem to deteriorate.
Gut dysbiosis increases your risks for infections, neurodegenerative conditions, metabolic disorders, and gastrointestinal dysfunction.
So how can you avoid dysbiosis and promote gut microbiome longevity? First, understanding what a healthy gut microbiome during aging looks like is essential.
Characteristics Of A Healthy Gut Microbiome During Aging
Some intriguing patterns emerge when exploring the relationship between gut bacteria and longevity. While every person's microbiome is distinct, cultivating a highly diverse microbial environment later in life is associated with healthy aging.
Throughout most of adulthood, the composition of your microbiome remains relatively consistent. However, in late adulthood, the balance of bacteria begins to shift.
It's thought that these shifts represent beneficial adaptations, where the microbiome adjusts to meet the changing metabolic and health requirements of aging.
Supporting this, a recent study analyzed the microbiome sequences of over 900 older individuals, comparing them with various health metrics and survival rates.
The findings revealed that those who developed higher microbial diversity later in life enjoyed longer and healthier lives than their peers whose microbiomes did not change as much.
Delving deeper, specific changes linked gut microbiota and extreme longevity. Adults living beyond 100 years had fewer Bacteroides strains – a predominant microbe in younger guts – and a more diverse set of bacteria linked to positive immune and physical function.
Other studies have also linked low gut microbiome diversity with frailty – a predictor of cognitive decline and mortality.
Although no direct ties were found between specific diets and microbiome changes in these studies, other research has shown that Western diets – rich in simple sugars and low in fiber – negatively impact gut microbiome diversity.
How To Maintain A Diverse and Healthy Microbiome
This research tells us that enhancing our microbiome's diversity and uniqueness is essential for longevity and slowing aging. Diet and lifestyle modifications are the most effective ways to achieve this.
Here are the top strategies to begin making a difference:
- Boost fiber intake. Certain fibers, known as prebiotics, nourish and promote healthy gut bacteria. Foods like onions, asparagus, apples, lentils, and oats are rich in these fibers. Aim for a daily fiber intake of 30 to 35 grams to optimize benefits.
- Break a sweat. Regular physical activity can increase the diversity of beneficial bacteria species, enhancing overall gut health. Aim for at least 150 minutes of an activity that helps you break a light sweat, like walking.
- Incorporate fermented foods. Yogurt, sauerkraut, kimchi, kefir, and kombucha are all examples of fermented foods that contain live strains of beneficial bacteria called probiotics. Eating them can help populate your gut with health-promoting microbes.
- Reduce sugar intake. High-sugar diets can cause an imbalance in the gut bacteria, favoring harmful species. By reducing sugar intake, you can help healthier microbes flourish, promoting an overall better microbiome balance.
- Catch some Zs. Healthy sleep habits enhance microbiome diversity. Getting enough, good quality rest can help maintain a healthy gut balance.
- Manage stress. Chronic stress can wreak havoc on your gut microbiome. Stress management techniques like meditation, breathing exercises, and journaling can help you avoid these damaging effects.
- Increase polyphenol-rich foods. Polyphenols are antioxidants in foods like berries, green tea, and red wine. Similar to prebiotics, polyphenols like resveratrol can inhibit harmful bacteria while promoting the growth of beneficial microbes.
- Limit alcohol. Excessive alcohol consumption can disrupt the gut microbiome. If you do consume alcohol, do so in moderation.
- Quit smoking. Smoking has detrimental effects on the balance and diversity of the gut microbiome. Quitting can lead to improvements in the composition of your gut bacteria, enhancing overall health.
Can Supplements Improve Microbiome Health?
Your first line of defense should always be dietary and lifestyle modifications; however, sometimes supplements can help fill gaps and provide reassurances that nutrient needs are met.
In this case, a few supplements may help support gut health. These include:
- Probiotics. These contain live bacteria strains to help populate your gut with friendly microbes. They can be particularly beneficial for restoring gut health after antibiotic use. Talk with your doctor about the best strains and look for options with at least 25 billion CFUs per serving.
- Prebiotic Fibers. If you struggle to meet fiber intake recommendations, prebiotic supplements in powder or capsule form can help you close the gap and nourish your beneficial gut bacteria.
- Polyphenol Supplements. Boosting your intake of antioxidants, like resveratrol, may help cultivate a healthy gut.
Due to the individualized nature of your gut health, you’ll want to speak with your doctor before starting any gut health supplementation plan.
How Long Does It Take To Improve Microbiome Health?
Improving gut health is one of those rare instances where positive change can occur rapidly. Studies cite that changes happen in as little as 48 hours.
The adaptability of our microbiome means it can respond quickly to the alterations we make in our diets. So, your choices today can impact your gut health by the end of the week!
Should You Test Your Gut Microbiome?
Knowing that your gut microbiome can dramatically impact your health makes it tempting to want a peek at your personal microbial profile.
Various companies offer this opportunity through convenient at-home test kits, ranging in price from $50 to several hundred dollars.
You send a fecal sample by mail, and within weeks, they provide an analysis and personalized microbiome health advice. But are these kits legit? Experts caution that the information these tests provide is an oversell.
Firstly, there is no standardized method to analyze fecal microbiomes, leading to inconsistent results across companies. Additionally, current research is too early to support precise health recommendations based on individual microbiome profiles.
While research tells us a diverse microbiome is health-beneficial, the science has not advanced enough to convert that knowledge into tailored health advice. These companies are unlikely to be able to provide you with recommendations beyond what is described above.
This is not to say this won’t be possible in the future. Microbiome screening is expected to become a standard clinical practice soon; it just may not be worth your money for the time being.
A growing body of evidence has the gut microbiome implicated in healthy aging and longevity.
The trillions of microorganisms residing within us play a fundamental role in our day-to-day well-being and are also pivotal players in the trajectory of our aging process. Knowing that we can make choices that optimize this ecosystem is empowering.
Promoting gut microbiome longevity involves adopting dietary and lifestyle habits such as increasing fiber intake, incorporating fermented foods, reducing sugar and alcohol consumption, getting healthy sleep, and engaging in regular physical activity.
Supplements like probiotics, prebiotic fibers, and polyphenols may complement these efforts.
As we continue to unearth the complexities of the gut and its impact on longevity, one message rings clear: nurturing our microbiome is vital to creating a healthier, vibrant future.
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