With the passage of time, changes to organs and tissues can lead to age-related diseases such as heart disease, cancer and Alzheimer’s. Dozens of medical teams around the world are investigating how this process could be stopped or reversed.
Now research suggests that slowing down the process of aging—and maybe even stopping it all together—begins in one recently discovered organ.
The research shows that if this organ remained a picture of health so would our bodies.
What is it? This brand-new organ is your gut microbiome…
Your gastrointestinal tract contains a microbiome that performs so many functions necessary for our survival that many scientists view it as its very own organ. For instance, your gut microbiome holds over 100 trillion microorganisms—so many that it weighs more than four pounds!
Studies show that your gut microbiome not only impacts digestion, but can affect your immune system function, your heart function, your memory function and even your levels of physical pain.
Research published in the journal Nature Metabolism in February demonstrated that starting in mid-to-late adulthood every person’s gut microbiome becomes increasingly unique, and the more it changes, the better your health.
Microbiome Changes For a Longer, Healthier Life
An analysis of 9,000 participants aged 18 to 101, found that the microbiome showed distinct changes at around age 40. Strains of bacteria that were dominant at younger ages declined while less common bacterial strains became more evident.
“This uniqueness,” the authors wrote, “was positively associated with known microbial metabolic markers previously implicated in immune regulation, inflammation, aging and longevity.”
Some of these metabolites – indoles and phenylacetylglutamine, for example – were raised in the blood.
Indoles reduce inflammation, protect the gut lining, and, in mice, maintain youthfulness and resistance to disease. For instance, phenylacetylglutamine is believed to promote longevity because it’s found at high levels in centenarians living in northern Italy.
Those seeing the greatest changes in their gut microbiomes enjoyed better physical health, lower levels of unhealthy blood fats, higher levels of vitamin D, and they lived longer. The opposite applied to those whose microbiome didn’t change appreciably.
One of the study authors, Sean Gibbons, a microbiome specialist, said, “A lot of aging research is obsessed with returning people to a younger state or turning back the clock. But here the conclusion is very different.
“Maybe a microbiome that’s healthy for a 20-year-old is not at all healthy for an 80-year-old. It seems that it’s good to have a changing microbiome when you’re old. It means that the bugs that are in your system are adjusting appropriately to an aging body.”
Too Many Bacteroides is Bad News in Old Age
The researchers found that “…a decline in the core genus Bacteroides emerged as a major characteristic of healthy aging.” Four studies of centenarian populations around the world also reported low levels of this type of bacteria in the gut.
The opposite also applied: “…we identified a significant positive association between relative Bacteroides abundance and increased risk of all-cause mortality…”
Bacteroides, of which there are various strains, are passed on during vaginal birth and so become part of the gut flora from the earliest stages of life. They perform positive roles within the immune system and are needed to break down complex polysaccharides. Western processed diets contain a greater abundance of them.
Dr. Gibbons said they like to “munch on mucus,” including the protective mucus layer that lines the gut. “Maybe that’s good when you’re 20 or 30 and producing a lot of mucus in your gut,” he said. “But as we get older, our mucus layer thins, and maybe we may need to suppress these bugs.”
The risk is that the Bacteroides will chew through the barrier, triggering an immune response that will cause chronic inflammation and a wide range of age-related ailments.
What Can You Do?
Dr. Gibbons advises us to eat more fibrous foods such as fresh fruits and vegetables which “have all the complex carbohydrates that our microbes like to eat.” He also recommends keeping physically active as this also benefits the gut microbiome.
Dr. Gibbons’ study is just one of many that reveal the importance of a healthy, balanced gut microbiome to aging well. His findings provide more motivation for adopting a healthy diet and lifestyle and sticking with it.