Is Your Digestive System Aging Too Fast?

Odds are you look and feel younger than your mother did at the same age. But you could probably be doing even better. Here are tips on keeping your digestive tract in great working order

by Meryl Davids Landau and Norine Dworkin-McDaniel
digestive system image

1) Does your mouth feel like it has:

A. Plenty of saliva

B. Less than the optimum amount; it often feels dry

We tend to produce less saliva as we grow older, says Michael Rafael Moreno, MD, author of The 17 Day Plan to Stop Aging. But sufficient saliva is important because it is the first step in digesting—or breaking down—food. So our digestion becomes less efficient as we age.

2) Immediately after eating a small meal, do you feel:

A. Satisfied

B. Overly full

Stomach acids such as hydrochloric acid (HCL) help break down proteins and certain minerals. Levels can dip as we age, which hampers digestion and causes belching and bloating even after small meals, says Elizabeth Boham, MD, a physician and registered dietitian in Lenox, Mass.

3)  Do you regularly take non-steroidal anti-inflammatory medicines (NSAIDs) like aspirin or ibuprofen?

A. No

B. Yes

Regularly tossing back high levels of NSAIDs (every once in a while is fine) puts you at risk for ulcers—a treatable condition you and your doctor should be on the alert for.

4) Do you get recurring welts on your calves or arms?

A. No

B. Yes

These are stealth symptoms for Crohn’s, an inflammatory bowel disease that has a second peak (after young adulthood) in midlife. While sufferers are typically clued in by gastrointestinal problems, “some people will develop telltale welts on their skin months or years beforehand,” says Arun Swaminath, MD, a gastroenterologist at NewYork-Presbyterian Hospital in Manhattan.

TOTAL Bs: _____

If you checked one or more B’s, keep reading for slow-down-the-clock strategies.


“As you get older, there’s wear and tear in the digestive organs, and that affects your ability to absorb nutrients and eliminate wastes,” says Moreno. “Still, you have a lot of control over how well your system works. You can make the changes that come with age much less impactful.” Chief strategies: Be physically active everyday, which helps make digested food move at the right pace through your digestive tract and is especially important for preventing constipation; eat 20 to 35 grams of fiber each day, to maintain soft stools; and stay hydrated, which will make your mouth less dry and can help prevent hard stools.

    Other solutions:

Take probiotics.

These are filled with “friendly” bacteria that can crowd out trouble-making bugs in your large intestine. You can use the over-the-counter pills (such as Align, Culturelle or Pearls) daily to promote a smooth-functioning gut or as needed to treat garden-variety bloating, diarrhea and constipation, says Duke gastroenterologist Melissa Garrett, MD, an assistant professor of medicine at Duke University School of Medicine. “Probiotics, when consumed according to the package directions, can work miracles, and there’s little they can’t do when it comes to digestive health,” Moreno says. There are no head-to-head studies to show that a particular brand works better. “But they’re all very good,” Garrett says.

Don’t overuse antacids.

These acid-neutralizing meds are great when you have indigestion. But taking them frequently can change the way your gut digests food and often causes diarrhea. “Stomach acid is there for a reason—it’s the first step in digestion,” Garrett says. If you’re taking antacids more than twice a week, check in with your doctor and get a definitive work-up for your symptoms. You may find you have another condition entirely, one that renders antacids unnecessary.

Stock up on apple cider vinegar.

If you’re having trouble digesting food and suspect you’re low on stomach acid (after eating, you experience bloating, belching and gas, and you feel full after even small meals), sip one teaspoon of apple cider vinegar in a cup of water during meals, or add the vinegar to your salad dressing, says nutritionist and physician Elizabeth Boham. Or swallow a 350- to 750 mg capsule of the supplement Betaine HCL/pepsin, available in natural health shops, while you’re eating.

Next: Diets That Prevent Disease

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First Published Wed, 2012-11-14 13:14

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