As we age, our gastrointestinal tract does too. That means that it is important to monitor the foods you eat not only to maintain a healthy weight, but also to ensure that you are taking the best care of your digestive system. Here are five ways that your digestion can change as you age and tips for taking the best care of yourself and your health.
As you age, chewing food can become more difficult, especially if you have dentures or poor dentition. You may not think of chewing as part of the digestive process, but it is in fact the first and most important step in taking care of your digestive system. When you chew, you are breaking down the food so that the stomach acid and intestinal enzymes can later break it apart into nutrients to be absorbed into your intestines.
In order to avoid choking on your food or slowing down your digestion, make sure to chew your food as thoroughly as possible or to cut up your food into smaller pieces. Also, it is important to continue visiting the dentist on a regular basis, about twice a year to make sure that your mouth is healthy and ready to chew. Taking calcium and vitamin D supplements or getting them through your diet can also help to your digestion and other aspects of your internal health. Women ages 50-70 should get about 1,200 mg of calcium and 600 IUs of vitamin D and men of the same age should get 1,000 mg of calcium and 600 IUs of vitamin D daily.
After chewing, the next most important aspect of your digestion is swallowing your food properly. As you age, your esophagus, or the pipe that connects your mouth with your stomach, does not contract like it used to, making it more difficult to swallow larger pieces of food. Indeed, when individuals over 50 need to swallow large pieces of food, it can take 50 to 100 percent longer for the food to make its way to you stomach because your esophagus muscles are out of shape.
One of the most common conditions among aging individuals is called gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD), which can cause pain or a burning sensation in your chest when you digest and even the narrowing of your esophagus. Although there is not cure for a narrowing esophagus, one way to prevent this condition and to maximize your digestion with age is to chew your food slowly and in small pieces and to exercise and maintain a healthy weight. Avoid foods high in fat or sodium, which can worsen the feeling of heart burn or reflux, and if the symptoms still do not subside, it is recommended to visit your doctor for medical treatment.
3. Your Stomach
At the end of your esophagus lies the entry into your stomach called the lower esophageal sphincter. As you age, this ring-like muscle at the opening of the stomach gets weaker, once again contributing to heartburn and acid reflux. The muscle fails to relax properly, which allows acid and sometimes other stomach contents to make their way back up the esophagus pipe.
It is important that if you have suffered from heartburn or indigestion in the past to take note of the foods that may make you feel that way. Spicy and highly acidic foods are some of the major triggers for this condition, along with citrus fruits and high-fat foods. It helps to eat smaller meals that are low in acid and sodium because this can dramatically decrease your chances for heartburn.
Another common condition to watch out for in your stomach is called H. Pylori, or a bacteria on your stomach lining that can cause ulcers or sores in the morning or when your stomach is empty. The infection can be detected through blood tests and endoscopy, a small tube inserted in your mouth that extends down to your stomach. If you discover that you have H. Pylori there is no need to worry because the condition can be treated with a combination of antibiotics and acid-suppressing medications.
With age, your intestines start to get lazy when it comes to absorbing key nutrients like calcium, vitamins A, B-12, K and D. This is because the muscle movements get slower and the colon function also changes. As a result, adults from ages 50 and up may experience more constipation and have a greater risk of developing colon cancer or diverticulitis, a condition in which small pouches in the colon become infected.
As mentioned above, it is recommended to make up for these missing vitamins either in your diet or with supplements. You can relieve your constipation by increasing your daily fiber intake and decreasing your intake of fatty and high-cholesterol foods. In order to naturally increase your fiber intake, eat more whole grains and try to have a fruit or vegetable with every meal. Here are some great ways to naturally increase your daily fiber intake.
5. Your Liver
You may not know that people ages 60 and over have a greater risk of developing gallstones, or hard crystals that form in the gallbladder when your liver is unable to process the cholesterol and other parts of its bile. Bile is a substance you need to digest fat, which is made by the liver, but is stored in the gallbladder. Your risk for gallstones increases with age because the because the bile duct at the opening of your intestine narrows, forcing the bile to stay in the gallbladder for longer periods of time, which causes it to harden.
In order to help prevent the formation of gallstones, which can be painful and often require removal surgeries, it is recommended to strictly control your fat intake so as not to overwhelm your gallbladder. Unfortunately, if you have gallstones you most likely won't experience symptoms, and if you do it is usually a mild pain in the pit of your stomach or the upper right part of your belly. The pain can even spread to your right upper back and shoulder blade. If you experience or have experienced any of these symptoms, it is important to immediately contact your doctor.
Lastly, make sure that you remain in constant consultation with your doctor about your digestive health, and ask for extra blood or breath tests the next time you have a check-up.