Many of the aches, pains and conditions older adults accept as a normal consequence of aging may be no more than a gut reaction. Staying healthy and fighting off diseases are largely controlled by a part of the body many take for granted -- the digestive system.
"It's the centerpiece of the immune system," says Dr. Gerard Mullin, director of integrative gastroenterology nutrition services at Johns Hopkins School of Medicine in Maryland. The gastrointestinal tract is home to trillions of gut flora bacteria, some helpful and some potentially harmful. As we age, the ratio of good vs. bad bacteria can get out of balance. "If you look at the gut flora, and you map it out over a period of years, it shifts with age," Mullin says. The years and our lifestyle can take a toll on the good bacteria, leaving the body prone to diseases and conditions caused by harmful bacteria, or what Mullin terms "the unfriendly invaders."
"It's because of the accumulation of antibiotics and infections and everything else that happens to us over a period of years," says Mullin, who before going to Johns Hopkins in 2005 was chief of gastroenterology at North Shore University Hospital in Manhasset.
In his book "The Inside Tract: Your Good Gut Guide to Great Digestive Health" (Rodale Books, $20) and on his website (thefoodmd.com), Mullin is a big advocate for foods that are loaded with helpful bacteria, also known as probiotics.
A diet loaded with lots of processed foods can mean the bad bacteria will overwhelm the good. Among the foods with a potent punch of probiotics are cultured dairy products such as yogurt and buttermilk. Fermented foods are also an excellent way to replenish the good bacteria in your gut and boost your health.
"We live in a society that is out of balance in terms of nutrition," Mullin says. "Food is medicine. Whether it's pickles, sauerkraut, miso soup, kimchee, there's a lot of ways you can get fermented foods in your diet."
As for probiotic supplements, Mullin is not against taking them, but he does have some caveats. "There's studies showing that a lot of probiotics on the market are not what they say they are on the label," he says.
And eating well is just one part of being well. "You need to have a good diet, fresh air, sunshine, relaxation, exercise," Mullin says. "These are all important, particularly as you age."