Digestive Changes As We Age - Ask a Nutritionist

May 18, 2023

Have you ever wondered why you can't eat the same way you did when you were a kid? Is it just because you're getting older? There's a handful of different things it could be. Tune in to this week's episode of Ask a Nutritionist with Leah to learn all about how and why our digestive systems change as we get older.

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Welcome to the “Ask a Nutritionist” podcast, brought to you by Nutritional Weight and Wellness. We are thrilled to have you join us today as we discuss the connection between what you eat and how you feel, and share practical real life solutions for healthier living through balanced nutrition. Now let's get started.

LEAH: Hello and welcome to Dishing Up Nutrition's midweek segment called “Ask a Nutritionist”. My name is Leah Kleinschrodt. I'm a Registered and Licensed Dietitian with Nutritional Weight and Wellness. On today's show, I will be answering a nutrition question about one particular topic we've received from our Dishing Up Nutrition listeners.

So this week's question is, “Can you explain how and why the body changes digestively with age?” This person goes on to say, “I've noticed more sensitivity to foods with age, and why would that be?” I really love this question actually. This is a very natural question to ask, I think is what is it about getting older that makes us more sensitive to things or not tolerate things the way that we used to?

There are some aspects to that that we will talk about and address, but I also want to maybe flip that around a little bit and say, all right, is it that process of getting older or is it that just the longer we're alive on planet earth, the higher the chance that we accumulate a certain amount of exposures or even damage or trauma in our digestive tract and also other areas of the body? Which then in turn causes that digestive tract not to function as well as it used to, and then we start to get symptoms, or then we start not to be able to tolerate certain foods the way that we used to.

The body produces less stomach acid as we age

I think coming at it from both sides is going to be interesting and truly I think it's a mix of both of these aspects. So we're going to do a little exploring into some of these factors. Let's ask that question: What happens to the digestive tract as we age? A couple of things happen. One big one that I think about is as we age, we tend to produce less stomach acid than we did when we were younger, and stomach acid does a lot of really helpful and crucial things for our body. One big one is that acid, that acidic environment helps us to break down our proteins.

So think meat, fish, eggs, dairy products and things like that. That acid is really crucial for breaking down proteins, and it also helps to kill bacteria or bad bugs that might otherwise get further down into the digestive tract. All right, so it kind of acts like a, a gatekeeper in a way down to the intestinal tract. With less stomach acid, we may be more prone to heartburn or acid reflux, which I know it seems counterintuitive or like how does that work?

And I, I know we've talked about this on a couple other shows before, but what happens is that we need that stomach acid and we need that acidity in the stomach to close the flap between the esophagus, so kind of that food pipe and our stomach. So we need enough acid in the stomach to close that, that flap so that acid can't get up into the esophagus or up where it shouldn't be and start to cause those symptoms of pain or burning or regurgitation. So when we get low in stomach acid, that flap might stay open just a little bit more than it should, and then stuff starts to come back up the other direction.

Stomach acid draws out certain nutrients from food

Then the other really big important thing that stomach acid does for us is it liberates or just kind of, it draws out certain nutrients from our food, so it allows us to draw out things or liberate things like iron, B12, and zinc. So mostly our minerals, like a couple of vitamins also. So we need to be able to liberate these nutrients out of those protein foods especially, and then they get down further into the intestinal tract and then we're able to absorb them at that point.

So if we don't have enough stomach acid, we may not be getting and absorbing some of these crucial nutrients from our food. Again, this is things like iron. This is like B12, zinc, magnesium and, and things like that. And zinc specifically is really important for a well-functioning immune system. So not that all food sensitivities are caused by a zinc deficiency, but it can definitely be playing a role. If we're not getting the zinc that we need, we can see that start to show up in an immune system that starts to not respond appropriately. So as we age, we get less stomach acid. That's one factor.

Peristalsis can slow down as we age

Another factor is that as we age, what can happen are is the muscular contractions that move food through the digestive tract. That's called peristalsis. The, those contractions that move food through can start to decrease or they're less intense than they used to be or they get less coordinated or things just slow down in general. So when that happens, you may feel fuller quicker. You may feel like food just sits in your stomach longer than it used to or things just don't move through efficiently. And then you also may be more prone to something like constipation.

So when we don't move food through the digestive tract as efficiently as we used to, just like with less stomach acid, this can also set up an environment in our gut for some harmful gut bugs to take hold. And what also happens is the digestive tract is one way that we eliminate toxins from the body. So if we are moving those toxins out slower than we used to, or that these toxins are sticking around longer than they should be, then that also means like that can be an assault on our immune system or that can be a burden on the body when we're not eliminating these things really well.

So those are a couple like biochemical things or anatomical types of things that can happen. Maybe physiological is the right term for that. These are some things that can happen just naturally as we age.

Antibiotics and medications can take a toll on gut health

But then again, let's look at the flip side of that coin and think about what happens… Just the longer we are around on planet earth, the more life that we have to live. One thing that happens is the longer we live, the more likely we've needed antibiotics for something, you know, for some kind of infection or as a prevention for something or maybe for acne. There's a whole host of reasons why we use antibiotics and need antibiotics and they save, they absolutely save lives. But antibiotics do take a toll on the gut and some people only need antibiotics a handful of times in their life and some people bounce back really quickly and really easily from antibiotics.

While other people may have needed a lot of antibiotics, even as babies and as and as kids or even as teenagers, or there's some areas in their life where they've needed a lot of antibiotics. And or there are definitely people out there after going through a round of antibiotics, their gut is maybe it's never the same again. Or maybe it, it takes a long time for that gut to heal or to kind of come around to that normal function again. So that's one thing that we might get exposed to as we move through life.

Kind of along those same lines, medications oftentimes will have either known or unknown or unintended digestive consequences should we say? You know, if one medication can do that, sometimes we know we have some data on what that medication does to the digestive tract, but then if we start also adding in two or three or five or even eight different medications that we're taking on a regular basis, now it can be anybody's guess as to how it's truly affecting the digestive tract.

Illnesses, infections & other diseases can wreak havoc on gut health

Also, kind of along those same lines, different illnesses that we can get exposed to. And where my brain goes is food poisoning At some point, most of us have probably had food poisoning from a picnic or a restaurant or something that we prepared at home that just didn't sit well. We can get infections in the gut. I also think that this is a common question I'll ask clients if they've traveled, and that could be even here within the United States, but usually internationally we get exposed to different pathogens or different kinds of infectious agents when we do more traveling. So that can be another thing that will wreak havoc on the gut.

And then some people also may develop very specific digestive diseases like maybe an autoimmune disease like celiac disease or ulcerative colitis. IBS, so irritable bowel syndrome, that's a common thing that I'll see in clinic. So again, with these digestive disorders or these illnesses, even though it may not be caused by food necessarily, what happens is now there's damage to that gut or that gut is inflamed. You may not be absorbing nutrients as well as you would've been, or maybe as well as you did even five years ago; something along those lines. So again, now we, we've got some nutrient deficiencies or now we've got this inflammation in the gut that is manifesting in symptoms and now we, we really feel it on a day-to-day basis.

So those are just a couple of things to think about. Again, some things do just naturally happen as we age, but other things it kind of depends on what your lifestyle is like or some of the things that your body and your gut and your brain have kind of come up against as you've moved through life.

What can contribute to food sensitivities as we age?

And if we tie this back to that question of like, I noticed that I have more food sensitivities or sensitivities to certain foods as I age, let's just talk and remember that most of our immune system lives in the digestive tract. And so specifically mostly in the small and large intestine, like there's more bacteria there. That is where most of our immune system lives. So when we think about things that disturb the gut, things like low stomach acid, slow motility, different medications, antibiotics and different illnesses, these can all affect the immune system because they all affect the gut.

So an immune system that is imbalanced, or if it's an immune system that always feels like it's under attack, it is more likely to respond in an inappropriate way and then it may start reacting to certain foods that it didn't before, or even certain food groups or certain components in these foods that it didn't before. Even if it wasn't the foods that caused the inflammation to begin with, it can sometimes be that flip side of like, now we've got a lot of inflammation. And the nice thing is, is that, you know, nice thing or the challenging thing depending on how you look at it, is that we can use food and food eliminations and reintroductions and testing foods to see what if we eliminate it? What can help start to calm down that inflammation to calm that immune system down?

And then in the long term, the goal would be as that inflammation and immune system kind of get a bit more under control and they calm down, that you would be able to reintroduce those foods or reintroduce some components of those foods or food groups going forward. So I, again, I love that question. I love gut health. And gut health has so many far-reaching effects in the body, including the immune system. So hopefully that gives you some food for thought, pun intended on what happens. Like what are the, some of those factors playing a role, not just age, but what can cause us to have more sensitivities or just react to foods differently than we did when we were younger?

So I want to thank you all for listening to Dishing Up Nutrition’s “Ask a Nutritionist” segment. And if you have a nutrition question you would like us to answer, we invite you to join our Dishing Up Nutrition Facebook community by searching Dishing Up Nutrition on Facebook.

Join Our Dishing Up Nutrition Facebook Group!

This is a private group and it's moderated by Nutritional Weight and Wellness nutritionists and nutrition educators, and it provides Dishing Up Nutrition listeners with a safe and supportive community to ask questions, share ideas, and just get inspired. Once you're a member of our community, we invite you to join the conversation and share your questions with us. Please don't be shy. If you have a question, let us know and we look forward to hearing from you.

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