Essential to healthy living, our digestive system tends to slow down as we age. Margaret Jennings looks at how to keep it in tip-top condition.
We may think about it only in some vague way when it starts growling, or when, oops, we release some gas, but our digestive system is a key player in all those lifestyle warnings we get about ageing healthily.
Whether or not we follow that advice, about diet, exercise and stress reduction, our digestive tract keeps track, so to speak. And how familiar are you with it? Do you know for example, that the small intestine is actually the biggest — at 7m, with our large intestine measuring a mere 1.5m?
Or did you ever stop to think about the miracle of packing such a long sausage-like organ into our compact bodies?
And here’s another fact: on average we produce about two litres of saliva a day, to help us break down our food and send it squeezing through the oesophagus – a 25cm tube connecting our mouths to our stomachs.
Alas, our wonderful digestive system, which ensures we take in nutrients and eliminate waste, slows down as we age and can contribute to other health issues if not given some TLC.
Here are some experts’ tips to give it some love:
Something to chew on: Digestion begins in the mouth, but our saliva, which helps moisten food and to break down starches with an enzyme called amylase, declines as we age, says Dr Martina Hayes, senior lecturer at Cork University Dental School and Hospital.
This can be compounded by medications which can cause dry mouth. People with reduced levels of saliva often struggle to eat certain foods. If you do notice that your mouth is uncomfortably dry, speak to your doctor, dentist or pharmacist about saliva substitutes, she says.
Watch those teeth: Our teeth play an important role in breaking down food to prepare it for digestion.
In particular, our large back teeth — the molars — are designed to grind food into a suitable texture for swallowing, says Martina.
These teeth work in pairs, upper and lower, and it is generally accepted that we need a minimum of 10 pairs of teeth to function effectively.
Losing back teeth puts increased pressure on our front teeth, which are not the best shape for chewing. Replacing some strategic back teeth with implants or bridges can help to improve our chewing function, she advises.
Get moving: When you move your body everything else moves too. Exercise improves the motility of the bowels by stimulating the natural contraction of the muscles in the intestine. This helps food move through the intestines promoting healthier digestion, says Sylvia Farrell, a chartered physiotherapist at the Evidence Based Therapy Centre, in Galway.
The benefits of regular exercise will also bring with it other lifestyle changes such as improved sleep quality, weight control and reduced stress levels which in turn all improve bowel health and function.
And don’t forget to hydrate which is also vital for healthy bowel habits, she points out. Aim to drink 1.5-2l of fluids per day. Good fluid intake helps to soften stools, limiting the risk of constipation.
Regular physical activity has been shown to reduce the risk of colon cancer by 30-40%, reduce the risk of diverticular disease and improve constipation, says Sylvia.
It’s a gut feeling: Widespread research is pointing to how the state of our digestive system affects our immune health, mood and overall wellbeing, says Paula Mee, consultant dietician and co-author of Gut Feeling: Soothe the Symptoms of a Sensitive Gut.
Common symptoms of poor gut health as we age, are loose, unformed stools, or constipation, or feeling gassy or foggy headed and unfocused, she says.
Paula’s dietary advice? Eat more vegetables; focus on fibre; get plenty of prebiotic-rich and probiotic food; drink alcohol wisely and reduce junk food intake.
Take it slowly: Yoga specifically affects digestion when practiced slowly and mindfully, because it stimulates the parasympathetic nervous system (PNS), says West Cork based yoga teacher, Claire Osborne. The PNS connects to ‘rest and digest’, so when it is active, our digestive system is activated.
By activating it during yoga practice, we can then learn when we need to, and how to do so in our daily life. It becomes a learned skill, she says.
Some digestive issues are ‘hyper’ – there is inflammation, excessive heat, and digestion may be too fast. These conditions can be treated with calming and cooling yoga practices such as slow breathing, restorative yoga and meditation, says Claire.
Other conditions may be ‘hypo’ - slow, sluggish digestion and stagnation. These can be relieved by practices that involve heating the body and moving the belly directly, for example, through forward bends and twists.
Experienced yoga therapists will know what techniques will support your condition, and which are best avoided, she says.
However, the sympathetic nervous system (SNS) is exacerbated by unhealthy stress; when our system does not get a chance to rest. Many digestive disorders are linked to stress (IBS, for example) and relieved by relaxation.
So with those tips — em, digested — let’s hope we all give a little bit more thought to how we treat our gut, as we age.