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How to take care of your internal plumbing as you age

By Ginger Bailey, RDN CD

My kids get very upset when we use the “O” word. According to them, the word “old” is a dirty word and adults are not allowed to refer to themselves as such – especially not their grandparents!

No one likes to think about getting older or to even admit that they are aging. Unfortunately, “Time” cannot be denied and our bodies change as we age. The good news is that if we understand how our body changes and what we can do to support it, we can make age a state of mind more than a state of body. In essence, we can become wiser rather than simply older. (Shh, don’t tell my kids I said the “O” word!)

One of the best ways to keep our bodies fit and active as we age is to take care of our “internal plumbing.”  I’m referring, of course, to our digestive system.

As we age, our gut becomes a little less efficient at extracting nutrients from the food we eat. Every vitamin and mineral we eat goes through a complex pathway to convert from food to a form the body can absorb. Some of these pathways are more complex than others. Generally speaking, the more complex the pathway, the sooner we tend to lose the ability to adequately absorb the nutrients we need. So, let’s talk about a few of these nutrients, as well as some things you can do to slow down the aging process and take good care of your internal plumbing.

Vitamin B12

Let’s start with Vitamin B12. This nutrient is an important powerhouse. It’s critical for your body to be able to convert the food you eat into energy. It also has one of the most complex absorption pathways. A low level of B12 is one of the most commonly-found deficiencies in seniors, and can lead to a condition called pernicious anemia. Pernicious anemia can cause significant fatigue, headaches, and paleness.

As people age, they often start feeling more fatigued and just chalk it up to “old age”. In some cases, it may be a nutrient deficiency that can be corrected. This is not the only deficiency that can cause fatigue, but it is one of the more common ones because B12 is difficult to absorb in any case. People that have had bariatric surgery or any surgery involving the stomach or small intestines are at high risk of being B12 deficient.

Fortunately, vitamin B12 levels can be checked. If you are experiencing any of the above symptoms, or are concerned, you can work with your doctor to have your blood levels analyzed and decide on the best support options for your body.

Trace Minerals

Trace minerals include calcium, magnesium, iron, zinc, selenium, copper, phosphorus, potassium, manganese, and a few others. These minerals are responsible for many things, including but not limited to: bone health, nerve conduction, and immune health. Most of these nutrients are absorbed in the first part of your small intestine, but many compete for the same absorption pathways. That can make it difficult for your body to digest all of them equally. For anyone who has had a surgery that altered the anatomy of their GI tract – and this is the case for many people – this can be an issue.

Also, as time goes on, it is common for our bodies to produce fewer digestive enzymes. Digestive enzymes help our bodies break down food and easily absorb nutrients, so this process can become less effective as we age.

There is a very simple solution to this problem. Eat slower!  You see, chewing your food more can help with this. The more work your teeth do, the less your stomach has to do. There are also enzymes in your mouth that start breaking down food. So, if you chew your food more thoroughly, there is a higher likelihood that you are going to get more nutrients out of it. If your teeth are not in good condition, or chewing is difficult for some reason, then blending or pureeing food can also be helpful.

Fiber

Most Americans don’t get adequate fiber in their diets. This causes a myriad of problems. Consequences of inadequate fiber intake include:

  • Higher risk of cancers
  • More issues with constipation and diarrhea
  • Poor immune function
  • Higher cholesterol levels
  • More GI disturbances
  • Higher inflammation
  • Poor blood sugar control

The best sources of fiber are whole grains, vegetables, fruits, and legumes. If you aren’t getting enough fiber in your food, adding a fiber supplement can be helpful.

Age and Appetite

Many people find that their appetite decreases as they get older, often because of a reduced sense of taste. It can be harder to get those appropriate nutrients we just talked about when your appetite decreases and your sense of taste fades. So, what do you do then?  Most people resort to dumping extra salt on their food so they can taste it. While that theoretically can work, it is not the best solution for your overall health. Instead, let’s talk about how to spice things up a bit!

(If you are thinking, “um…my digestive tract can’t party like I’m in my twenties anymore,” worry not. There are seasonings and spices that are both safe and healthy for your gut.)

Garlic is a very versatile flavor that is potent and has positive health benefits. Now, garlic can be an issue for some people with severe irritable bowel syndrome. For most people though, garlic is a great way to add a depth of flavor to food and make it more exciting to eat. Garlic pairs nicely with other flavors. It can also help decrease inflammation and support immune function.

Basil is another powerful herb that packs a lot of punch with flavor. It is very gentle on the digestive tract, but strong enough to add flavor to many types of foods. There are many varieties of basil. It is generally easy to grow even year-round inside your home. You can add a little or a lot depending on how much you like.

Rosemary is another one of my flavor rock stars. It tastes great with pork and many vegetables. It can really elevate a dish from “fine” to “delicious.”  This one is also gentle on your insides, while allowing your taste buds to dance a bit.

There is one flavor source that requires a bit of caution. Anything containing capsaicin (the source of the heat you feel when you eat a spicy pepper) can be irritating to the digestive tract. While many people enjoy the heat, capsaicin has a higher tendency to cause digestive discomfort. Spices that contain capsaicin include, but are not limited to:

  • Red pepper flakes
  • Cajun seasoning
  • Some taco seasonings
  • Chipotle/jalapeno peppers

It doesn’t mean you can’t ever use these flavors, but you may want to use them in smaller quantities since they are potent and have the potential to irritate your gut.

Here’s another tip: Eat your food hot!  Warmer foods tend to be more aromatic. Much of our sense of tastes comes from our sense of smell. Foods that have a stronger smell are also usually easier to taste. If you find that tasting your foods is a problem, keeping your sinuses clear will help. Eating a hot sandwich might be easier to taste than if you ate it cold, for example. Or having cooked vegetables rather than raw.

Hopefully a few of these little tricks will help you enjoy your food longer and keep your body working at top notch for as long as possible. And maybe help you avoid feeling the “O” word for as long as possible. Happy eating!

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