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Olwen Anderson's Blog

Tips for improved digestion as you age

Sunday, May 27, 2012

It’s a paradoxical problem for us all. As you age, your need for vital nutrients like protein increases; but your body becomes less efficient at extracting those nutrients from your food. With a reduced appetite, and less energy to create real meals (particularly if you live alone) you can see how the nutritional status of an older person can erode.

Your poorly performing stomach is the main problem. This part of your digestion is where the tough molecules of protein are broken apart, and vitamin B12 (important for brain health) is cleaved from your food. As you age, your production of protein digesting enzymes diminishes. This can result in a feeling that protein-rich food is ‘just sitting’ in your stomach; and it is - as the speed of your digestion is too slow. Many people start to avoid protein-rich foods as they age, to try to relieve this problem; but this actually makes it worse. That’s because the enzyme-producing cells which line your stomach are stimulated to produce more enzymes by the presence of protein.

To make the problem worse, your body’s need for protein increases with your age; in old age, by a factor of three. This is partly because your body isn’t as effective in using that protein. So having a healthy stomach is vital for good digestion. Some people use herbal bitters to stimulate their digestion, or supplement with digestive enzyme capsules.

Further on in your digestion, some sensitive biochemical reactions are taking place. For some minerals and vitamins, being able to move across your bowel wall into your bloodstream requires the assistance of carrier molecules. Many of these reactions will only occur within a narrow pH range. In practice, this means that if the contents of your stomach aren’t acidic enough (due to insufficient enzymes, or medication), many of the vitamins and minerals in your food won’t be absorbed.

The final thing to consider (although it’s the first part of your digestion) is your dental health. If you can’t chew, you’re more likely to avoid protein-rich foods like meat, and raw foods like salads and fruit that provide vitamin C (the same vitamin that helps improve your gum health).

It’s easy to see how people can drift into eating just carbohydrate-rich foods, because they’re so easy for your body to digest. Unfortunately, they’re not rich sources of nutrients compared to protein-rich foods. You can help your digestion by making sure you include some animal protein with each meal; it doesn’t have to be a huge portion; even a small amount will make a difference.

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